Food, in the Name of God
How different cultures and religions connect food with god
From Navratri to Ramadan, langar to bhandara, food plays a crucial role in our religious festivals and practices- as a medium of our love for and faith in god. These religious traditions may be practiced differently in various cultures and religions, each practice coming with an interesting story or a belief. However, the central idea remains the same- connection with god.
According to the Vedas in Hinduism, in bhog (offering) as well as sweetmeats, only sattvic food should be offered to god. The word sattvic, meaning 'pure essence,’ is believed to keep our health and temperament under control. Ghee (clarified butter) is sattvic in nature, however, it must only be consumed in moderation as it might create complications if consumed in larger quantities.
Interestingly enough, this is not only true for human beings but is believed to be true for gods as well. This can be seen mentioned in a tale from the epic Mahabharata: A king named Swetaki, who while performing a great yagna (ritual), poured libations of clarified butter into the fire nonstop for twelve long years. As a result of continuously drinking the clarified butter for twelve years, well beyond the point of satiety, Agni, the fire deity became extremely sick.
He then went to Brahma for help, who recommended eating up (burning) the whole Khandava forest along with its creatures to cure the stomach ailment. And thus, ultimately with the help of Arjuna and Krishna, he burnt the forest down and at last regained his strength.
Hindu temples, even outside of India follow the sattvic diet. One such famous temple is ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness), where Apple co-founder Steve Jobs used to have his weekly meal during his struggling days, which he spoke about in an interview- “... I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled upon by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”
The sweet and warm smell of Kadah (a type of whole-wheat flour) prasad is sure to bring back a feeling of nostalgia for any Sikh. This widely adored prasad which leaves our palms glistening because of the ghee it is enriched with, interestingly also symbolises equality in different ways.
To make the Kadah prasad, its main ingredients- flour, sugar and ghee are used in equal proportions. Furthermore, it is shared out equally among all where each person, rich or poor, man or woman receives it in the same manner- with both hands held out, representing equality and humility. If one refuses to take Kadah prasad when offered, a sewadar (volunteer) may interpret it as an insult due to the great significance that this holy food holds in Sikhism.
The word langar finds its roots in the Persian language, where langar means an 'almshouse.' However, it is most commonly associated with Sikhism because of the massive popularity of this notably charitable practice. A visit to the Gurdwara is incomplete without consuming the langar prepared in the community kitchen where an amalgamation of various religions is seen in the huge halls as people from different religions sit down together, on the floor as they partake of the holy feast prepared by the sewadars.
Even the exquisite food made in the royal kitchens seems pale in comparison with the food served in the langar, prepared with simplicity and love, of which particularly the taste of dal (lentils) and roti (bread) remains unmatched.
This can be seen from the time when Mughlal emperor Akbar himself sat in the pangat (row) amongst common people and ate at langar with which he was so pleased that the emperor gifted the city of Amritsar as a wedding gift to Sri Guru Amar Das’s daughter.
According to the ancient accounts of the founder of Sikhism- Sri Guru Nanak Dev, who at the age of 12 was given a sum of twenty rupees by his father to buy spices at a good bargain for trading, on his way to the market came across a few saints who had not eaten for days. The young innocent then without any second thought spent his money feeding the saints, thus seeking his true bargain. Later on, Sri Guru Nanak Dev established the practice of langar at Kartarpur (Pakistan) to uphold the principle of equality among all the people regardless of their religion, caste, community or class.
A similar view is witnessed at the dargah (shrine) of the celebrated Sufi mystic Nizamuddin Auliya, who believed that love for god meant love for humanity. At the langar there, dastarkhwan (mats) are spread on which the people sit to join the feast and the khuddams (servers) serve vegetarian food to all.
Initially, meat curry along with rice was served at the dargah. However, when the Nizam realised that some visitors, because of their dietary and religious restrictions are unable to sit at the langar, declared that the food served there would only be vegetarian so that nobody leaves hungry. And till date, this custom is followed.
While in Hinduism the food is offered to god, in Christianity the belief is that Jesus Christ is himself present in the food, i.e., bread and wine. The iconic painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, 'The Last Supper,' which depicts the last meal of Jesus Christ before he died, holds the image of the scene, where according to Mathew 6:26-28, Jesus took some bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body,” and then, he took a cup, offered it to his disciples saying, ‘’Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."
During the Holy Communion, bread and wine are consumed in the remembrance of the body and blood of Jesus, where blessing the bread turns it into the body of Christ and is called the 'sacrament.'
At last, we may try to connect with god through food in a number of ways - sometimes by fasting, sometimes by feasting on bread and wine and sometimes by feeding a poor soul in the name of god. And these methods, although can be different in practice, stand for the same principles of goodness and religion. A spoonful of sweet curd before an important event or a handful of prasad certainly cannot turn around luck, but, it is these small yet significant practices that fill our lives with hope and reassurance.
Pushpesh Pant is a chef at Olive Qutub, Delhi.
Cover Photo: A depiction of emperor Akbar at langar