Here I reproduce my Speaking Tree article published in Times of India on 24 April, 2015 for the benefit of the readers of this blog:
What to eat and what not to eat are options available to only those who have plenty to eat. For such a privileged lot, it can also become a matter of faith, rather something that their faith could dictate. But, ironically speaking, the notion of food as something divine has percolated down the ages into the human psyche not because of those who have plenty to eat, but mostly because of those who go hungry for want of access to food.
The idea of God as Annadaata, the giver of food, is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that one can feel the insecurity about the next meal. It is an irony of human ethos that while fasting is an essential aspect of nearly all religions to get closer to divinity, food in itself has been considered godly mainly because of its inevitable relationship with survival.
Gandhiji famously said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” However he often used fasting not as a religious duty, but as a socio-political tool for nonviolent struggle. To Gandhiji, fasting was a ‘potent weapon in the armoury of Satyagraha’ requiring ‘complete self-purification’, to shake the colonial authorities into action and also to appeal to his people to desist from violence.
Strangely, while the act of a public figure going without food for a social cause can move mountains, the large numbers of people going without food for days as a matter of routine for want of choice hardly gives sleepless moments to the ones who have enough food to eat. No wonder, this simple dichotomy led activists like Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Catholic priest and the first democratically elected President of Haiti, to ask enigmatically, “We have not reached the consensus that to eat is a basic human right. This is an ethical crisis. This is a crisis of faith.”
For those spiritual leaders who turned into socio-political reformers or activists like Astride himself, the reality of mass hunger seemed to have an embryonic relationship with the idea of God itself, thereby propelling them to take a leap of faith of a different kind. Vivekananda loathed the divisions that food had created when he remarked bitterly: “There is a danger of our religion getting into the kitchen. We are neither vedantists, most of us now, nor puranics, nor tantrics, we are just ‘don’t touchists’. Our religion is in the kitchen. Our god is in the working pot and our religion ‘Don’t touch me, I am holy’.”
On a much sharper note Ambedkar stated, “Do not keep company with those who believe that the God is omnipresent, and then go on to treat men badly…Do not keep contact with those who feed ants with sugar, but kill men by prohibiting them from drinking water.” Ultimately, while food can be regarded as a god, it is not always necessary to compare God with food, because while one apparently can do without God or gods, one cannot remain without food. In this sense, food is of vital importance not just for sheer survival but also because it has the power to bring peace and equality, as stated beautifully by the celebrated South Korean Buddhist poet, Ko Un, in his poem, ‘Song for Peace’:
“Peace is food./In bygone days, sacred was the smoke/rising from the chimneys in Korea’s hillside village homes/as rice for the evening meal was boiling./Lovely the rising smoke each morning as bread was baking./Peace is rice and bread.
The writer is an editor with National Book Trust, India.