Definition and Importance of Food


1. Introduction

        Food, clothing and shelter are the fundamental necessities of living beings. From the perspective of sustenance of life of human beings, food is the most important necessity. Food nourishes the human body.

2. Definition of Food

A. अद्यते अस्मै इति अन्नम् ।- Vigrahakosh

Meaning : That which is eaten is known as anna (Food).

B. ‘Substances that have good taste and odour, have an attractive appearance, which when consumed in an appropriate manner and quantity get digested and absorbed into the body, can replenish the wear and tear of muscles, generate new nutrients and energy required by the body, can give a feeling of contentment and Anand (Bliss) to the mind, are known as anna (Food)’.

3. Importance of Food

        ‘The entire universe is sustained on food, life, mind, science and Anand. To acquire all these, we should have food in abundance, and make it available to others too.’ – Taitariya Upanishad

A. Overall importance of food

अन्नमयं हि सोम्य मनः । – Chhandogyopanishad, Adhyaya 6, Khanda 6, Vakya 5

Meaning : Mind is made from anna.

B. Food is of utmost importance for the gross body

शरीरमाद्यं खलु धर्मसाधनम् । – Kumarsambhav, Sarga 5, Shloka 33

Meaning : Physical body is the only important medium to perform spiritual practice. To possess a healthy body, food is of utmost importance.

C. Food provides the energy required for all essential life sustaining activities

        The human body requires energy to perform all activities. Food is the source of the energy required for all essential life-sustaining activities such as walking, talking, breathing, digestion, functioning of the heart, thought processes, etc.

D. Food is an incomparable friend that imparts happiness, and is not envious

        Hindus have known the spiritual importance of food since times immemorial. Different sections of Vedas have mentioned prayers in relation to food. Hindus consider food as Holy. In the first chapter of the Rugveda, there is a hymn called ‘Annastuti’. In this hymn, the importance of food has been stated as, ‘An incomparable friend that imparts and generates happiness’. In the Vedic times, a cereal named ‘satu’ carried special importance. Even food items such as curd, ghee (Clarified butter) and honey have been termed as ‘anna’ and ‘param anna’ (Supreme food).

E. Food is a God-provided medium for us to imbibe all vital Principles

Question : Why has God not made human beings in such a manner that they can sustain only on air ?

Answer : Every human being is a fraction of God. Not only Vayutattva (Absolute Air Principle), but all Principles exist within God. Hence, God has made food a medium to facilitate the merger of all Principles into every individual. All these Principles are conducive for the spiritual practice of the individual’. – Ms. Sonal Joshi, Goa (3.8.2005, 1.20 p.m.)

4. Importance of food and diet in Hindu culture

अन्नं न निंद्यात् । तद्व्रतम् । – Taittiriyopanishad, Bhruguvalli, Anuvak 7

Meaning : Never criticise food, for it is a vrat (Vowed religious observance).

अन्नं न परिचक्षीत । तद्व्रतम् । – Taittiriyopanishad, Bhruguvalli, Anuvak 8

Meaning : Never waste food, for it is a vrat.’

A. Our body is the only medium for God-realisation; hence, for taking its care, food is essential

When an individual moves ahead on the path of spiritual practice, he appreciates the meaning of the adage – ‘शरीरमाद्यं खलु धर्मसाधनम् ।’, (Meaning is provided in point 3B). To a seeker, till he attains the goal of ‘आत्मनो मोक्षार्थं जगद्धिताय च ।’ (Meaning, Moksha [Final Liberation] for self and welfare of the world), the human body that it has acquired by God’s grace, is the only medium for God-realisation. Thus, the individual considers maintaining good health as its supreme duty. Hence, it takes food required for the nourishment of its body.

B. Eating does not mean merely filling up the stomach to satisfy hunger, rather it is a Yadnya-karma !

        His Holiness Parshram Pande Maharaj has written a poem in Marathi. The summary of this poem is provided ahead.

        Food can be a saviour as well as a destroyer. Hence, consume that which is beneficial. Disintegration of food assisted by the mind, saliva and the tongue results in creation of flesh, blood, bones and finally the mind. All this is God’s Divine play. The type of food we consume forms our attitude. Appropriate diet, pleasure, contemplation on God, spiritual practice and Guru’s grace give rise to Anand. God has given us this body to liberate ourselves (from the cycle of birth and death) and hence, it has to be reared on a sattvik (Sattva-predominant) diet. Though human beings have the intellect to understand, they consume inappropriate diet under the influence of desires, and in the process invite various ailments. Saints have been saying, ‘Eating does not mean merely filling up the stomach to satisfy hunger, rather it is a Yadnya-karma.’ Those who consume food with this attitude are real superior beings. When consumed as ‘PurnaBrahman’(Brahman in entirety), it gets transformed into Chaitanya (Divine Consciousness) and hence, should always be consumed as such. Chaitanya imparts enthusiasm, happiness; it helps us to be in communion with the soul. Without Chaitanya this world is meaningless. Such an individual dwells under the illusion that Maya (The Great Illusion) is the reality. Hence, surrender unto the Guru. Only then will you be able to identify this sagun (Materialised) Maya. When on the path of spiritual practice, by Guru’s grace, it is this very Maya that takes us to Moksha. Hence, at every stage contemplate on the Holy feet of the Guru (Spiritual Master).

C. When food is consumed with the conviction that it is Prasad (Holy sacrament) of God, it provides nutrition to the body and satisfaction

        ‘There is a well-known shloka by Samartha Ramdas Swami which says that food consumed while chanting the Name (of God) gets digested easily, and such sattvik food provides praṇa-shakti (Vital energy). Food is also accorded the status of ‘Purṇa-brahma. The shloka also conveys that ‘Eating does not mean merely filling up the stomach to satisfy hunger; rather it is a Yadnya-karma’. Food consumed with a conviction that it is Prasad from God assumes a Brahman (God Principle) form, it provides nutrition to the body and gives a feeling of contentment.’ – His Holiness Pande Maharaj, Panvel, Maharashtra

D. Generosity taught by the Hindu culture – Even if there is scarcity of food in the house, always honour the guest by serving him a portion of the cooked food

        In the earlier times, cooked food was not sold. There were no restaurants then either. Instead, there were dharmashalas (Rest houses for travelers). Travelers arriving on foot at noon, and considering themselves as guests would say, ` ॐ भवति भिक्षां देहि’ (O Mother ! Please give us alms.). ‘Even if there is scarcity of food in the house, we should always honour the guest arriving at our doorstep by serving him a portion of cooked food’; this sort of generosity is found only amongst Bharatiyas (Indians).

Spiritual reason : Even if there is scarcity of food, if some portion of it is served to guests arriving at our doorstep, it results in bestowing merit and blessings from the guest. ‘Hindu culture treats a guest as God. It is believed that serving food to a guest arriving at our doorstep results in bestowing merit. A feeling of contentment from food helps awaken an individual’s Atma-shakti (Energy of the soul). Hence, the guest with awakened Atma-shakti blesses the individual serving food by giving him good wishes. These blessings work at the level of ichha-shakti (Energy of will), which results in the fulfillment of all wishes of the individual serving the guest. When food is given to a guest, we get blessings that originate from its Atma-shakti, and through the thought-oriented process in the form of good wishes, we get energy at the corresponding levels, and thus accumulate merits. Hence, it is said that despite scarcity of food in the house, a guest should always be served.

Reference : Sanatan Sanstha’s Holy text ‘Importance of a sattvik diet’.