Annam to Brahman

Ahara – 9 June 2019

In the Indian Vedic tradition, food, annam, is not just a biological substance that sustains and nourishes life, but is equated with Brahman, the ultimate truth, essence, origin and goal of all that exists in the world.

‘Annaath Purushaha’, declares the Taithiriya Upanishad, ‘from food was born man’, tracing the human being’s origin from the ether, air, fire, water, earth, plant life, and finally what it calls annam, food.

The Upanishad acknowledges that indeed, all life is born from food, and returns to food, but in true Vedic style, it goes beyond biology. It emphasises a deeply metaphysical understanding of what food is and what role it plays, not only in the cycle of life, but in the relationship of the human being with the world around him, with the devas, and with the ultimate ‘truth’ Brahman.

‘Annan na nindhyat’, ‘Annan na parichakshita,’ it warns, ‘never disrespect food.’ Those who view and understand food as Brahman, will not only obtain food and material prosperity, but Brahmavarchas, the effulgence of the Veda, and mahan kirti, great glory.

Small wonder then, that Vedic culture is equally emphatic about the value of giving food. The famous Rig Vedic Suktha, referred to as the Bhikshu Suktha (Rig Veda X.117), is a paean to generous giving. Those who are stronger, more fortunate, should give to the ones in need, it exhorts. Moreover, says the sixth rik in the suktha, “who eats alone has only evil,” kevalagho bhavathi kevaladi. As for the giver, the very first rik in the suktha declares – “the wealth of one who gives never becomes exhausted.”

Therefore, says the Taittiriya Upanishad, Annam Bahu Kurvitha – “produce a lot of food. Do not refuse one at your door. Food that is prepared and given in the best way possible, returns to the giver in the best way possible.” (Ethadvai Mukhatonnam Raadham).

The Upanishad concludes, I am the food (Aham annam), I am the eater (Ahamannadho), I am the first in the order of the world (prathamaja ritasya), I exist before the Gods, (purvan devebhyo), and finally, who gives me has protected me. (Yoma dadathi sa idheva ma vaha.)

The Veda goes further to emphasise not only the value of giving food (even a little food offered, it says, suffuses the whole world and the world hereafter!), but that it is both prana and apana, the in and out breath, thus giving life as well as taking it away. Which is where the science of Ayurveda comes in. After all, what you eat is what you are, and the right ‘ahara krama’ will put you on the path to not only health and long life, but, coupled with sadhana, ultimate realisation of the self’s identity and purpose.

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