Recently I read about the practice of keeping ‘public refrigerators’ outside their premises by some organisations and stocking them with food for the hungry to pick it up freely. Links here and here. While this might be a new concept for our country, elsewhere this is not so uncommon with even private citizens pitching in. It makes it easier for the hungry to get food and what is more, they don’t need to beg.
Back when there were no fridges there used to be these ‘night beggars’ (Rapichchaikkaran in Tamil) who made the rounds when people usually would have finished dinner, say around 9 pm or so. The leftover food was given away by people so that there was no wastage and the beggar had enough to eat and take it home too. This ensured that even beggars didn’t eat stale food! Today in many homes stale food remains in the fridge for days and then is thrown out. What a waste!
But this post is not about wastage of food. It is about the joy of giving food to the hungry. Our elders considered it a sacred duty and did it with true compassion. Annadanam, is one of the highest forms of charity in all religions. All major temples, ashrams, gurdwaras and other places of worship serve free meals to the devotees who visit them.
Delhiites would know about the roadside tents that spring up during certain festivals of different religions, where everyone is served food and water. During summer, the water turns into chilled milk sweetened and flavoured with Rooh Afza, lemon juice or cold chhaas.
At homes too – even today in smaller towns and villages – anyone who drops in at meal times or is hungry, is promptly invited to join the family in the meal however frugal or simple.
Annadanam is distinct from poor feeding, as it is about feeding the hungry. Factors like poor or rich, human or other living beings, are immaterial to this noble deed. Also, it is an act of compassion – or should be. For anything given out of pity loses its spiritual value.
Whenever I think of food and nurturing, some images flit through my mind like a movie. One of them is that of goddess Annapurna in my puja. I am sure She can be found in millions of puja rooms across the country – a little brass murti, with a ladle in her hand. I have grown up being told that Annapurna cries every time food is wasted or thrown away. The image has stayed with me and till this day, I can visualise her shedding tears when I see wasted food. It was an emotional moment for me when I saw Her on our visit to Varanasi some years ago.
And then there is the memory of my elder brother lovingly feeding a street singer. It has been three years since he left us, and there are many incidents and images that crowd my mind, but this one stands out among them. My brother loved bhajans and especially abhangs that this particular street singer sang and one day decided to invite him in. The old man was taken aback, but came in and regaled us with some of his best abhangs. Though he gave him some money, my brother thought it fit to honour the artiste in him by giving him a meal. I am sure that the old singer would have remembered the meal served with so much love more than the few coins he got for his singing. I was just eight at that time but I still recall the incident as if it happened yesterday.
If my brother fed a street singer to honour him, my paternal grandmother saw the very Lord Balaji of Tirupati in every beggar who called out at the door. I have not seen this incident as she had passed away before I was born, but have heard it from my elder sisters and mother. Out Pati loved children, was the most gentle and caring soul so little wonder that she never turned away anyone who came to the door asking for food.
The family was large – a joint family with nearly 20 mouths to feed, sometimes more with visiting relatives and friends. Grandfather was the Headmaster of a Municipal School. Salaries of teachers being what they were in those days, he earned a pittance and even though three of the brothers including my father earned, it was a job to make ends meet.
Some days when Pati sat down to eat, a beggar would appear at the door. The eldest uncle would be trying to get him to move on, when Pati would pick up her plate and go to the door, giving him all the food. ‘That is Venkatachalapati Himself,’ she would tell her son when he protested. Lest he say that she was wasting food, she would hasten to assure him, ‘I will fast today.’ And she would!
Not to be left behind in compassion and kindness, Thatha would do his own brand of social service. He came home with a bag full of wilted and worm-ridden vegetables saying, ‘The poor woman was looking so sad – no one was buying from her. How would she feed her family? So I bought from her. Just use the good ones and throw the rest to the cows!’ Who could tell him that the cow got an upset tummy after every visit of his to the market?
What a perfect philanthropic couple they were who could see the hunger of someone in worse condition than them! That is spirituality at its best, for they didn’t feed out of pity but out of compassion, just as my brother had.
One winter in Jabalpur, we fed a whole family of stray pups buying extra milk and making rotis specially for them and saw with joy the pups survive even as many others in other streets died of cold and hunger. I remember how the L&M would see to it that all of them got equal share, even shooing away the aggressive ones when they tried to snatch the food from the weaker ones. The other dogs and pups were fed by other households too, but perhaps not with as much love and involvement as our set was!
Feeding the hungry is ingrained in our culture and not just feeding of humans. The first handful of rice to the crow, the first roti to the birds, the grains and water in bowls left in the garden/balcony/terrace, the feeding of stray dogs and cows….one could go on. In our colony we have this elderly gentleman who can be seen with a big bag of rotis, which he gets made specially for the street dogs. It is amazing to see them obey him when he tells them to sit and wait for the rotis without jumping or running wildly around.
Why, even feeding the ants is considered as annadanam as the following anecdote involving the great seer of Kanchi, Jagadguru Chandrashekharendra Saraswati shows:
The sage had once entrusted a devout and destitute elderly woman with the job of searching out anthills in the town and scattering food grains around them. She did the job diligently as she considered it her sacred duty to obey him. Later when a rich man had come to the Mutt and was telling the Guru about how he had fed a thousand people with ill-concealed pride, the sage told him that there was someone who had fed not a thousand but lakhs with her own hands and pointed to the woman. Indeed, feeding any living being is annadanam! In Tamil we say that even if the person doesn’t thank you, his/her/its stomach would bless you when you feed the hungry.
When I feed my maid, often along with the L&M, I don’t see someone working for me, but the woman from long ago who shoved half a roti into her mouth and chased it down with tea or sometimes even water before rushing to work. How different is this working woman from that one?
It is said that we are what we eat, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say that we are what we serve and feed?