Saturday, January 3, 2015


“Know Hunger and Act” is a collective responsibility and Hindu Dharma

(Compilation for a discourse at Ganesha Temple, Nashville by N. R. Srinivasan, Jan. 2014)

Annato praanam | Praanato parakramam—food brings life and life brings valor; “Annam na Nindyaat” --Don’t blaspheme food; “Annam na parichaksheeta”—Don’t discard or reject food, annam bahu kurveeta”—make flood in plenty (Grow more food);   “na kanchana vasatau pratichaksheeta”—Do not turn away anyone who has come for food and shelter are the well-known sayings in Vedas and Hindu scriptures.    Auvaiyar a saint poetess taught Tamil alphabets to children with moral values and ethics and in that process taught   Tamil vowels EE and AI with the two sayings “Eavadu Vilagel” (EE)and “Aiyamittu un” (AI)  meaning: “don’t discard the act of giving food”  and “Give first food to the needy and then eat”. Having started learning “A” for Apple in USA or even in India we have forgotten those vernacular Tamil sayings and also the associated Hindu values. A for apple has made us realize the Joy of Food  bringing family and friends together and we feel Food is more than survival. For long we have made friends with food, courted lovers and counted our blessings.

When I was young I have seen my mother used to cook rice and when my father finished his daily worship of the lord offered that food to Lord as “Mahanaivedyam” with a spoon of Ghee (melted butter) to make it palatable. Our sense organs take delight in the various objects in creation. Freshly cooked food creates joy. All that gives us joy, all that is beneficial in creation, must be first offered to the Lord notionally before being partaken by us.  That is Hindu Dharma. We therefore just place food before him and then partake of it ourselves. This is what I learnt from my orthodox parents which I gradually forgot and gave up completely migrating to USA and forgot to teach my children too. My thoughts on the subject was clear, the Lord himself does not eat what is offered to him, why then this drama or farce?

Now I realize how mistaken I was and how my parents were right for I did not understand the meaning of the word “Naivedyam” then.   I now realize “Naivedyam” means I am making it known to you which comes from the Sanskrit verb “nivedanam” the act of making it known.  Naivedyam means “I am making it known to you” and not “I am feeding you”. Now I know what I mean by Naivedyam. It means: “Oh Lord, in your compassion you have brought me to this land and given me plenty of food, thank you for the same”. Saying this I take my food. This is the object behind Praanaahuti Mantra which every human being is supposed to recite before taking food which we don’t say even while we are taking blessed food (prasaadam) in the temples in USA.  I wonder why we cannot display Pranaahuti mantras in the Prasaadam hall when we call the hall so, for the spiritual benefit of the devotees who enjoy prasaadam in the hall? You know now how important it is to know the meaning of our mantras used in worship about which I have talked a lot and worked on it too. This is true for all of us wherever we are settled. Lord must be worshiped in every home and not by running to the temple alone. He must be invoked and we must realize that we are getting the benefit   from whatever he has made over as a gift to us, particularly food. In developing such habits   we will in due course develop good qualities in us. His compassion for us we will turn to compassion for others. We then realize the value of sharing and giving most importantly food.

Tiruvalluvar a great Tamil poet had a simple formula for all those who lived in villages or living in community settlements.  His formula was: “Every morning a handful of rice (uncooked) and dal (pulse) must be set apart for the poor. All families must do this without fail every day. The rice thus kept be collected from house to house, from quarter to quarter, cooked, offered to the deity of the local temple as naivedya and then distributed among the poor. With the handful of rice set apart for the poor, keep just one paisa also he advised.  The paisa (Diem) collected from each family would be sufficient to buy salt, pepper powder, ginger, oil etc., to mix with the rice to make it more palatable Kichadi or mixed rice called Pongal. It would also serve to buy the fuel needed to cook food. To do such a service is to do a great service to the poor”. See the wisdom behind this thought. He said also “Virundodu un” meaning enjoy food while sharing and did not call it a charity (daana) like the American Thanksgiving dinner to the needy in public sharing.  Hindu Dharma says that donor of food should not take pride in his charity and at the same time the one who receives charity should not be saddened by his helplessness. It should be a routine act of giving at the giving end and customary act of thanks at the receiving end. Indian history often mentions righteous kings were engaged always in digging of wells or excavating ponds for slaking the thirst of cattle and providing drinking and cooking   water to people.  Today all these social acts are done with much fanfare and publicity. In the past the needy were served regularly and naturally, without making any noise as an act of Dharma known as Poorta Dharma which includes digging wells and ponds for the public, installing water tubs for quenching the thirst of cattle and feeding the poor besides many other things.

The dark fortnight of Aswayuja (September-October) is known as Mahaalaya Paksha and is the fortnight especially sacred for offering oblations to the departed ancestors. Charity in the form of food is important during this observance.  Puraanas say the renowned hero of Mahabharata War, Karna, known for his charitable disposition had not done any food charity while alive.  He saw in heaven all wealth and richness, silver and gold but no food. So he was sent back to this earth to make up for this deficiency. For these fourteen days he fed the poor and offered water oblations to make up for the deficiency. On his return to the higher regions he found food in plenty. Offerings made during this period benefit all the departed souls whether they are connected to us or not and hence considered very auspicious period for food charity and sacred food offerings to departed souls. The gift of food is the greatest gift. Mahaalya Paksha only reminds us that we should give food in plenty to the deserving all through the year. All remember the Tamil festival during Makara Sankranti named after food called Pongal. Pongal means the food that boils over indicating abundance of food by the grace of God. It is a day for sharing food with others with joy.  The cooking of rice with milk in the pot is done in open kitchens and when the milk in the pot in which the rice is cooked boils over, the ladies and the children get around the pot and shout “Pongalo pongal” with great joy and devotion. They then gather the household together along with the farmers and their families who harvested the crops for them and eat in the open air of love and festivity. This is their day of family reunion and day of celebration enjoying food with all. On the same day young girls prepare various special dishes—sweet rice, tamarind rice, coconut rice etc. and take them to river bank or tank bund to feed the cattle, fish and bird. They don’t even forget to feed the animals that day with rich festival dishes.   Of course Bhoota Yajna, feeding the animals is the assigned ritual for every individual in Hindu acts of Daily Dharma. “Share with all what you have” is the motto of this important Day. It is somewhat akin to Thanksgiving Dinner of giving as well as sharing. Ingeniously Hindu astrology prohibits travel on the day of Pongal and the next day as inauspicious days to travel to prevent us from going away from home on those important days of food sharing and food charity.

On the next day of Pongal women visit their parent's house as a means of touching base with their roots.   That is why this day is called Kaanum pongal, meaning a Pongal day for visiting or seeing others. Kaanum got corrupted to Kanu in usage. Young girls and women prepare various colored rice and head to the river banks or water tanks.  Rice balls are made and laid out on banana leaves with broken coconuts and bananas.  Cooked rice is fed to the fish and other creatures.  Birds appear and feed on the food that is set out in the open.  Crows appear in large numbers and part-take the food.  It is very interesting to note that before the crows eat, they call their mates to part-take the food that they are about to eat.  Valuable lessons can be learnt here, to share what one has with his near and dear and friends.  This bird spirit is reflected in celebrating Pongal festival.

The sharing of food has always been part of the human story even in Western culture like Mahalaya Paksha of Hindus.  From Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv comes evidence of the ancient meals prepared at a 300,000 year old hearth, the oldest ever found, where diners gathered to eat together. A circular loaf of bread with scoring marks, baked to be divided, retrieved from the ashes of Vesuvius shows how sharing of food  was considered important.   Consider the Samhain Druid Culture that leave delicacies graveside to let the departed to know they are not forgotten. Hindus leave food morsels after paying obeisance to the departed calling crows to help them in carrying the food to the departed souls.indus leacve the food on roof tops Hindus  And even when times are tough, the urge to celebrate endures. In the Antarctic in 1902, during Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition, the men prepared a fancy meal for Midwinter Day, the shortest day and longest night of the year (similar to Hindu Makara Sankranti day--the Suns’ travel towards northern solstice).  Hefty provisions had been brought on board.  The cold, the darkness and the isolation were forgotten for a while. “With such dinner we agreed that life in Antarctic Regions was worth living” wrote Scott in his memoirs.

National Geographic Magazine has brought out a special issue on Food describing the Communal Table in Malpa Alta, Mexico, where the faithful eat, pray and celebrate to keep life whole. Every year for many years, the people of Milpa Alta, Mexico have prepared a meal before Christmas, the magnitude of which would seem to require nothing short of a miracle. Sixty thousand tamales and 5000 gallons of hot chocolate are made from scratch in less than a week, not too much, not too little for the thousands who show up for the feast. Many in Malpa Alta work in the food business, growing nopal (prickly pear cactus) or selling barbecued meat or mole sauce. The Triangulo Bakery sells sweet bread, known as Concha (shell) because of the pattern etched into loaves. There is food in every corner here. It is no wonder feeding of the multitude is such a pleasure to this crowd though no simple matter. In the morning calm a carpet of decorative sand is strewn along a street in Milpa Alta to celebrate La rejunta, one in a yearlong series of events leading up to a January pilgrimage. This borough of Milpa Alta, the poorest in Mexico City has more than 700 religious fiestas every year celebrated with food. On the Saturday before Easter woman prepare tamales for a large gathering on Sunday to honor El Senordel Santo Entierro or the Lord of the Holy Burial, represented by a statue portraying Christ as he lay buried after the   Crucifixion. When the moment to serve comes during Christmas, the male cooks stand like sentries and count out a specific number of tamales, calculated to correspond to the amount of money each donor has given.   Christmas is a nine day celebration leading up to Christmas Eve. People of Milpa Alta year after year yield to the power of food, family and faith.

The mass feeding in some the holy places like Tirupati, Dharmasthala, Sringeri and Udupi and others has missed the attention of National Geographic Magazine, where all visitors   irrespective of their caste or creed or social status are welcomed with hot meal served on  disposable leaf plates with special dishes included for festive days free of charge all 365 days in  a year.  There is a Siva temple near Dehradun where every visitor to the temple is welcomed with hot spicy rice pudding (kichadi) and Tea every day where you are not allowed make any money donation. A board in bold letter says: “the food served here is free, the worship services are free; please do not donate any cash, we don’t have any provision to collect money like collection box; our motto is community service” They don’t want any donation by the daily visitors and there is no provision to collect money like Hundis or cash collection boxes.  They have their own donors and also depend on the profit from the sale of artifacts. The philanthropic donors have donated so much after building the temple the interest generated is more than enough to run all expenses and also contribute some amount to the capital build up.  Probably the Hindu temple in Toronto is one such in Canada where the religiously devoted   Ceylon migrants have donated profusely.

In USA many Hindu Temples and Gurudwaras (Sikh Temples) believe in sharing a mid-day meal with all visitors to the place donated by a groups or individuals. Busy Americans take a day off from the kitchen and enjoy the meal of many traditions in rotation. I often wonder why these temples do not provide a money collection box at the dining hall with a visible display “food for the starving: please donate a dollar per head” learning from the wisdom of Tiruvalluvar described above. This will be a regular cash collection for food donation drive for the program serving the poor while enjoying the free food without   pinching anybody like what temples do when they take the blessed lamp (Aarati) around to collect money. I have seen these temples become busy with a food drive collection for Thanksgiving Day feeding joining the main stream of Americans. They could as well make this a regular Program. The gift of food is the greatest gift. It should not be confined to one or two days in a year but all through the year as the food need is there by the poor every day. In India many temples collect money every day from the willing donors under Annadana scheme or food Charity scheme and divert the money usefully and purposefully to poor homes. This is also considered as a service to God for serving the needy people is the same as serving the God as the Kannada proverb goes (janaseveye janaardhanana seve).

Nashville, the city where I live, is known as the Musical City of USA. Here Tuba Christmas brings dose of Holiday spirit when Americans are charitably disposed like Thanksgiving, otherwise busy all the time of the year with their work. Tuba Christmas concert is designed to help the public see and hear that the tuba is a very good melody wind instrument.  If listening to 100 tubas playing Christmas carols does not get you in the holiday mood, perhaps nothing will. Such Christmas concerts are free but love donation offerings are taken up after each one, for downtown Presbyterian’s homeless feeding program. This is the only time Baptist collect money for the Presbyterians. Therefore there is nothing wrong in our collecting voluntary donations for a good cause while having our community free lunches in the temple.

Before migrating to this country I never thought this Country in which I thought honey and milk flows all over had its share of poverty and hunger. According to recently released data from the USDA (Department of Agriculture) approximately 49 million people in the United States live   in food-insecure households, with nearly 16 million of them being children. In other words 14 percent of American households faced difficulty in providing food for their members at some point during the year. In Middle Tennessee where I live that number equates nearly 400,000 people.

Food insecurity leave alone poverty contributes to negative consequences that have an impact on individual health and wellness, and ultimately quality of life. As a result there is a growing awareness for our joint passion for hunger awareness and hunger relief. This is not much pronounced among Hindu American community who are fairly well placed and well served   because of the immigration controls particularly on migrants from India unlike border Spanish population and refugees from many lands, which admits well qualified Indians after screening. But yet Hindu American community though grown with their culture “Eevadu Vilagel”, do not focus on food Charity  and are not  deeply concerned with this serious problem country is facing with growing job insecurity threats and appalling healthcare costs. In   1964 Martin Luther King Jr.  said “I have the audacity to   believe that people everywhere can have  three  meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds;  and dignity , equality and freedom for their spirits”.  I guess he had only the African American Community in mind when he made these remarks. India will be happy if everyone has at least one square meal a day! Americans by nature are charity minded. They rise to the occasion and soon there may be Hunger Action Month marked in a year bringing national awareness of food for the needy. At present few days prior to  Thanksgiving Day is also earmarked, running the program of Food Drive through November, as the final Day to deliver all food materials  essential for cooking for the Thanksgiving Dinner in community kitchens and also extending  help  in preparing and serving the meal to the hungry. But Thanksgiving weekend’s main focus is on family dinner and travel plans for the weekend. Soon America may decide on another day and make it even a “National   Conscious Day for the Food-insecure” or “Know Hunger Day”, if the situation on food–insecure   grows further and spreads wider. 

Perhaps you all know that Tyson Food and National Urban League formed a joint “KNOW Hunger” campaign in 2012 first in Jackson, Missisipi. Based on the success of this program they launched an expanded two–year program in the religious city of Nashville known for its charity called “KNOW Hunger Nashville” as Nashville has attracted lot of refugees driven from Muslim countries, Nepal and Bhutan, besides large Spanish community who are in the group of Food-insecure or poverty line. There is yet another charitable organization called “The Little Party That Could” in Nashville. Little Pantry patrons stop by each week to shop around free and hang out. Hunger and necessity brings most people to the Little Pantry That Could. But it is not just the food that draws them back. Many come to just while away better part of a day without picking up any food at all. Needy are welcomed with eye contact and hugs which are also free. It is the philosophy of this charitable institution that it is essential to create a food   pantry where no one feels shame when they show up for help. This is what our Vedas say: sraddhaya deyam, sriya deyam”. This is the little courtesy shown especially to those who live on streets. What makes this place unique? If someone asks for drinks to quench his  thirst he gets it; if someone wants food to satisfy hunger  he gets it; if someone wants to carry some food material to cook his  own way  he  gets it;  and if they are barely covered  and ask for clothes they get it. If not available what they need on every Saturday, they can get some conversation, a hug, and a little camaraderie. Every volunteer at the “Little Pantry That Could” is told their mission is not to help the people fill a bag with food. It’s to get to know them and make sure they know they are loved.

I was surprised such a noble cause was not pioneered by Hindu Americans who are naturally inclined
to such serious problems. Perhaps they are too busy building more temples adding Swami Narayan temples exhibiting Hindu Architectural Heritage and culinary skills of sweets and snacks and Saibaba Temples. These temples for newer deities not included in 33 crores  are   multiplying  because Hindus believe evolved noble souls release them   from worldly bondage (samsara) and transform the society to new world order. Further these are considered as Kaliyuga Avatars as fore-runners of Kalki. These philanthropic followers   convince   orthodox conservative Hindus that such noble souls are incarnations of either Siva or Vishnu or Lakshmi or Parvati; Hindus do not believe in worship of Brahma or Saraswati  but to be on the safe side include them in all payers and keep a place  for Brahma in a remote corner  of the temple.   Hindu Americans have no time for deep thinking on these and they simply follow the faithful in India and the Shilpis. They also invite anybody   who calls himself a Guru or Swamiji as they do not want to face their wrath if they are genuine. They have listened to the story of Durvasa often.
Providing food for the needy is Hindu dharma and a collective responsibility. Today one in nine people in the world are undernourished if not famished. With all the World’s focus on food today the world as a whole does not have food deficit but individual countries do. Even USA is not free from it.  Why do 805 million people still have too little to eat? It means we have not developed Hindu Dharma outlook to conserve and distribute food properly. The wise Tamil poet advocated teaching the first  Alphabet and vowel to the child with the slogan “A” for “Aram Seya Virumbu”—Love to do acts of Dharma and said “Ai” for “Aiyamittu un”   give the needy and then eat meaning let us share the food. Catch the mind young was her wisdom to develop dharmic attitude in every one’s mind.   Let us seriously think   the wisdom of Vedas   and understand the meaning of our daily prayers “Sarvejanaah sukhino bhavantu” and “Aatmavat Sarvabhooteshu” and continue to move forward to fight hunger. At a time when one in seven faces the challenge of food insecurity, Hindu Americans can pass for a while to divert their attention from acts such as building more temples just for the sake of   competition than need with sectarian outlook or draining more milk to municipal sewers in our excessive flow of devotion or Bhakti and do something to the society, sharing the responsibility of main stream. This should not only be the concern of Hindu Americans but also that of Indian American Community. They may not call it Dharma but certainly call it “KNOW—Hunger”, an act of sharing like Thanksgiving Day thought on charity.

Whatever it is, we must remember that there are many who are less fortunate than that we are.  Remember that there is more joy in giving than in receiving.  Helping others and focusing on being charitable, as opposed to concentrating on your own list of wants, will give your holiday more significance.  If monetary giving isn’t an option consider giving of your time and emotional support to those in need. We must also focus on the meaning of Religious Holidays like Pongal, Diwali and Holi. Holidays are not alone about decorations like putting artistic Rangoli, colorful lighting, cooking special delicious traditional food, presents, feasting or parties.  Of course these acts bring your special focus to the occasion but that focus must also lead you to noble thoughts for the day.   Holidays are a time to show, graciousness, selflessness, mercy and bestow happiness on others.   Perhaps, remembering that the holidays are an opportunity to center ourselves spiritually and to improve other’s lives, as opposed to our own, will allow us to navigate this time of year with the sense of joy that comes from giving rather than receiving. If you have closely listened to my discourses on great Hindu festivals they focus on this theme. Pongal a festival named after food is one such example which even asks you to   care not only human beings but also all living objects (Kaanum and Maattu Pongal). Please go through my earlier discourses, “A Festival of Tamils named after Food” and “Mahaalaya Paksha—Hindu Memorial Fortnight” in the light of the explanation above true meaning of great festivals.

Taittareeya Upanishad says: “Sraddhayaa  deyam / asraddhayaa na deyam / sriyaa deyam / hriyaa deyam / bhiyaa deyam / samvidaa deyam //
Charity should be   made with faith; it should never be given without faith; it should be given in plenty, with modesty and with sympathy.  Let there be also   friendly feelings when charity is given.
Sympathy should generate love in us.  Unless this love element comes to forefront in us, compelling us to seek an identity with the cause, we will not be spiritually disposed along the path of charity. Charity constricts the hearts and obstructs the human growth if it is not sweetened with the spirit of love and the joy of identification.

How Do We Go about Food Charity on Regular Basis?
 It is much easier in Hinduism if you are religious and spiritually disposed. Hinduism practices the denial of the foot needs of the body for the sake of spiritual gains during fasting days as   prescribed by Sastras,  of course they  also overfeed themselves  during festivals! According to the scriptures, fasting helps create an attunement with the Absolute by establishing a harmonious relationship between the body and the soul. To our advantage and health benefits this   thought is imperative for the wellbeing of a human being as it nourishes both of our physical and spiritual demands.

Hindus believe it is not easy to unceasingly pursue the path of spirituality in one's daily life. We are harangued by a lot of considerations, and worldly indulgences do not allow us to concentrate on spiritual attainment. Therefore a worshipper must strive to impose restrains on self to get his mind focused. And one form of restraint is fasting.  However, fasting is not only a part of worship, but a great instrument for self-discipline too. It is a training of the mind and the body to endure and harden up against all hardships, to persevere under difficulties and not give up. According to Hindu philosophy, food means gratification of the senses and to starve the senses is to elevate them to contemplation. Lumen the wise once said, "When the stomach is full, the intellect begins to sleep. Wisdom becomes mute and the parts of the body restrain from acts of righteousness."

Hindus fast on certain special days such as Poornima (full moon), Shashthi, Chaturdasi  and Ekadasi (the 11th day of the fortnight).
  • Certain days of the week is also marked for fasting, depending on individual choices and on one's favorite family deity. On Saturday, people fast to appease the god of that day, Sani or Saturn. Some fast on Tuesdays the auspicious day for Hanuman, the monkey God. On Fridays devotees of the goddess Santoshi Maa and abstain from taking anything citric.
  • Fasting at festivals is common. Hindus all over India observe fast on festivals like Navaratri Sivaratri  and Karwa Chauth. Navaratri is a festival when people fast for nine days. Hindus in West Bengal fast on Ashtami, the eighth day of the festival of Durga Puja.
  • Fasting can also mean abstaining from taking certain things, either for religious reason or for the sake of good health. For instance, some people refrain from taking salt on particular days. It is common knowledge that excess salt and sodium causes hypertension or elevation of blood pressure.
  • Another common kind of fast is to forego taking cereals when only fruits are eaten. Such a diet is known as phalahar.
 Ayurveda  recommends periodic and regular fasting. This ancient Indian medical system sees the basic cause of many diseases as the accumulation of toxic materials in the digestive system. Regular cleansing of toxic materials keeps one healthy. By fasting, the digestive organs get rest and all body mechanisms are cleansed and corrected. A complete fast is good for heath, and the occasional intake of warm lemon juice during the period of fasting prevents the flatulence.

Since the human body, as explained by Ayurveda, is composed of 80% liquid and 20% solid, like the earth, the gravitational force of the moon affects the fluid contents of the body. It causes emotional imbalances in the body, making some people tense, irritable and violent. Fasting acts as antidote, for it lowers the acid content in the body which helps people to retain their sanity.

Hunger strike   is a non-violent form of protest  Mahatma Gandhi taught us.  A hunger strike can draw attention to a grievance and can bring about an emendation or redress. It is also a dietary control which is a handy tool of societal control.    There is an anecdote to this: Once the workers at the textile mills in Ahmedbad were protesting their low wages. Gandhi told them to go on strike. After two weeks when the workers took to violence, Gandhi himself decided to go on fast till the matter was resolved.

Finally, the pangs of hunger that one experience  during fasting make one think and extend one's sympathy towards the destitute who often go without food. In this context act of fasting functions as a societal gain wherein people share with each other a fellow feeling. Fasting provides an opportunity for the privileged to give food-grains to the less privileged and alleviate their distress, at least for the moment.

Fasting can be regularly practiced as religious discipline as well as health discipline. The money saved on  food materials on these various kinds and days of fasting could be systematically  collected and diverted to food charity organizations like “Know Hunger”, “ Little Pantry That Could”  and Annadaana Schemes of Hindu  Religious Organizations etc.  I have already explained above how we could donate small funds or material for these Food Charities during our food sharing events with family and friend in temples and at homes and also on special occasions and festivals. One such great occasion is Mahalaya Paksha religious observance and 24 Ekadasis which include Vaikuntha Ekadasai, the holiest. Eclipses are also observed as fasting days by Hindus. By doing so, we will be adding further to our Punya or righteous benefits by our acts of charity on these holy days.

1) Swami Chimayananda, Taittirieeya Upanishad, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai, India.
2) Jagadguru Chandrasekharananda Sarswati,  Dharma, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.
3) Marc H. Morial and Donnie Smith, Hunger in TN is shared challenge, The Tennessean.
4) Victoria Pope, The Joy of Food, National geographic magazine, December 2014.
5) Srinivasan N.R., A festival of Tamils named after Food, Hindu Reflections, Internet, Jan. 2014.
6) Srinivasn N.R., Mahalaya Paksha—Hindu Memorial Fortnight, Hindu Reflections,   Sept. 2012.
7) Dr. Anna Settle, Psychologist, Stay focused on true meaning of the holidays, The Tennessean,   
   December 11, 2014.
8) Subhomoy Das, Why Fast? Internet.