Give – out of compassion and love!

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!

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At a Gurdwara langar: Feeding the hungry is feeding God. Image: Firefly Daily

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.

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She feeds the universe – Goddess Annapurna

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-volusia-community

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!

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Getty Images

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?

28 comments

  1. You rightly said that feeding is ingrained in us..I rememeber in my childhood..first roti was for cow, and last one for dog.Then in the morning grains for birds, and all domestic workers were given tea and parathas,, and still its customary there to give breakfast to workers in house.

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    1. This is in our very culture, Renu. All we need to do is to tap these customs and bring about compassion and love in our children and others for all living beings, even plants. Don’t we offer ‘jal’ to bargad, peepal and tulsi too?

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  2. Beautiful narration Zephyr ! It’s truly criminal to waste food and it was inspiring to read about your whole family being so giving. There’s so much wastage happening in the whole food distribution cycle and it feels horrible to know that granaries of food rot or are destroyed by rats while the people die without food.

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    1. Wastage of food is truly criminal. And then there are those who give away food that has spoilt 😦 I cringe at this kind of giving. I’d rather eat yesterday’s leftover, but give my maid hot food. She loves it 🙂 It is truly rewarding to see the satisfaction on the face of someone whose hunger you have been able to satisfy, isn’t it? Like the organisations that are putting out their stocked fridges with fresh food, there are many who pick up left over food from restaurants and parties and distribute it among the hungry, And I have also heard of those that collect wasted food and send it to animal farms.

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  3. Nobody else I know could have written on this topic in this authentic, moving and inspiring way! I deeply appreciate that you also brought in the point about feeding the animals, ants. This is so often missed in our present modern/rationalistic cultural understanding – one that has given birth to a lifestyle which thought values ‘pet’ culture for all its modern reasoning (nothing wrong about that though) but fails to appreciate the deeper inter-connectedness between all creation. What you wrote about feeding the ants is thus so much more significant, I feel. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you Beloo, for reacting to exactly what I have meant in the post. But that is the reason I look forward to your comments 🙂

      It is not just modern thinking, but also western thinking, because annadanam means ‘poor feeding’ somehow! Wonder where poor come in here. I can think of all the so called charitable organisations that feed the ‘poor’ thereby creating a bunch of ‘takers’ who consider it their right to take from someone who is rich. Bhandara, langar or annadanam by contrast feed the hungry – rich or poor doesn’t matter. Of these too, the last is meant for all living beings. I think I have told you about the south Indian custom of making the rangoli with rice flour so that the insects can eat it. Often the rangoli has all but vanished by the end of the day. In villages they make rangolis twice a day!

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  4. My father used to always always utter, “annam para bhrama swaroopam” 🙂 How much we learn from our elders, no? I don’t have to say about mom in this matter. She is gone above and beyond and out of her way in feeding others. I think it comes naturally to some people. I remember once a person came for alms…properly dressed and neat looking one saying he is a teacher or something and doesn’t have rice. She realized she was out of rice in the house, went and borrowed 5 kgs of rice and donated. She learned later that he cheated but that’s ok she says. Loved learning about your grand parents 🙂 I also love to cook and feed others…that’s my stress buster but these days too tired of doing it.

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    1. Yes Latha, the person cheating is doing his karma and your mother is doing her dharma. I have also been cheated once royally, but whenever something like that happens I always think, it is the debt of some previous janma and has been discharged. And move on. No regrets whatsoever. No need to go out of your way to cook or feed, when you do it just do it with love and compassion and never ever cook with anger or any other negative emotion.

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  5. Feeding the needy is the highest act of compassion. Touching account. We do occasional annadanams at temple and we have a few stray cats who frequent our house whom we feed to the best of our ability. It does feel satiating to see empy stomachs being fed.

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    1. Anything, however small, when done with compassion is completely spiritual. As we believe that the Divine resides in all living things, feeding even the smallest creature is meritorious. And when we do it without any ulterior motive, it becomes even more divine!

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  6. I have been away from the blogging world – am back and slowly catching up on other blogger’s posts.
    I agree – giving is so joyful to the giver.

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    1. Good to see you after a long time. Hoe you have started blogging again too. I have read many posts on your blog about this topic, Priya and loved them all 🙂

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      1. Yes Zephyr, started blogging again … it feels good to be writing again:)

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  7. I always enjoy reading your posts. Feeding the poor is a divine calling indeed

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    1. Glad to know you like the post, Umojastrength and welcome here 🙂 I have stressed more on feeding the hungry, which is distinct from poor feeding. Of course, even poor feeding is part of it.

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      1. Interesting, I never thought of separating the poor and the hungry.

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        1. Oh yes! There is a whole lot of difference. Poor feeding is only feeding humans who are poor but annadanam which literally means ‘donating food’ includes all living beings from the smallest insect to the largest animal, humans included 🙂

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  8. It’s a noble act to feed the needy, humans and non humans for it carries spiritual value beyond cooking or buying vegetables. It run down the soul and spirit, spreading the virtue of joy and kindness. A beautiful post written with divine reflection.

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  9. with time the character of people too change.SATISFACTION varies as we advance in this world and people turn more greedy.our culture gets diluted as the personalities change with modern world with more greed and jealousies.we don’t live in 19nth century or 20th century where some innocence was left in people minds.feeding poor these days is not worth cuz they don’t feel satisfied and they expect more out of greed and they don’t have same respect for the feeding person like it was in 20th century.

    i met chandrasekharendra saraswati when i was very little kid in my home town,he was 90 plus and he did not speak,he used to write on slate to convey something.he taught kriya yoga to my dad in person and my dad has great respect for him. chandrasekharendra brought cows and elephant along with him,i fed bananas to elephant,having never seen an elephant in real,i spent all my day watching elephant.animals are more faithful than humans when we feed them.humans don’t carry that faith with time though we are blessed with highest thinking capabilities.my dad spent all his life in doing good to people and being kind,but people just don’t remember what he did cuz humans are very opportunistic,greedy and circumstantial.I KNOW THAT GITA SAYS TO DO THINGS WITHOUT EXPECTING BACK. GITA WAS WRITTEN TO KEEP SOCIETY IN EQUILIBRIUM ATLEAST BY FEW PEOPLE. gita was wrong in that aspect,it did not promote teamwork.

    in this generation,feeding people don’t have much value/importance.people feed for some personal/commercial motives and people knowing that won’t have respect for the person who feeds them.you can see low quality food at charities and annadanam sathrams where people say since its annaprasadam,you have to consume food however the quality is without complaining.the very meaning of annadanam is derailed and it doesn’t exist in purest form,i heard once people in annaprasadam complex saying,they are not feeding us with their money for free,they make lot of money from donations n funds. in some temples,they sell idlis and ask to feed cows.feeding cows is kinda money making business.people are making business out of our dharma and the concept/nature of dharma is bulldozed.

    whenever i hire a cab,i need not feed driver according to rules,but being kind i feed him same expensive food i eat in restaurant without discrimination and at the end of journey, driver guy asks me more/extra money for being kind.another cab driver tried to cheat me for providing food and being kind to him.when the the character of HUMAN KINDNESS is dealt as weakness,the importance of KINDNESS loses its value.according to our vedas and upanishads,we have to follow yuga dharma.at the same time dharma is about feeding deserved people in kalyug for example victims of war and immigrants who lost everything due to disasters or calamities.

    after watching chandrasekharendra saraswati and my dad,i have learnt a lot that both were missing the very core principle that will reform living things.our culture/civilisation is based on morally right life and not gods or religion.LORD SHIVA was first god created by first human state of mind which was flawless and temple represents physical form of first human state of mind which people did not inherit from many centuries.other gods came into existence after human mind went corrupt and they created gods according to their convenience.the reason why LORD SHIVA looks more vibrant than any god cuz he is first human state of mind which was flawless.if we spread the root cause of human miseries,then we will be able to get rid of hunger of every living thing.WE DON’T LOOK FOR PREVENTION BUT PEOPLE FIND SATISFACTION IN FINDING MANY CURES WHICH DON’T LAST LONG.SO PROMOTE FLAWLESS HUMAN MIND AND DEMOLISH GODS N TEMPLES.

    .AFTER COMING ACROSS EVERYTHING,I HAVE REALISED THAT THE MORALLY RIGHT HUMAN WILL NEVER EAT/EXPECT FREE FOOD..HE/SHE WILL BE HAPPY TO GIVE UP LIFE INSTEAD OF SURVIVING ON FREE FOOD AND THAT IS DHARMA.

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    1. You are blessed to have such a noble soul as your father! He considered it his dharma to help others, and it is the dharma of those who don’t acknowledge it, not to do it. You clearly seem to expect gratitude and thanks from those you give something.

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  10. jaishvats · · Reply

    My father in law once gave food to a boy who had come to collect the clothes for ironing….he simply asked him ifhe was hungry and when the boy said yes he laid out a plateful in front of him thst he gobbled up in no time… Got reminded of that

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    1. That is true compassion. One can spot need if one keeps the heart open. Not feed out of compulsion or expecting something in return and when it doesn’t come, abuse the receiver, as some are wont to do! One need not feed the poor, but anyone who is hungry and still get the same joy.

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  11. Our scriptures,customs and traditions speak highly of annadhan.For a person who has the means,feeding the hungry is deemed a good investment for the present and beyond, saysTiruvalluvar in one of his kurals(aphorisms)? It is supposed to be a greater virtue than donating many horses, elephants, gold ornaments, vessals, land, kanyadhanam etc.according to a Sloka in Subhasithani.As you have rightly pointed out even birds and insects are not left out.
    I remember my mother in my younger days cooking daily extra rice ,sambar and rasam consciously to give a poor family with many mouths to feed. The grandchildren and great grandchildren of that family are now very well off and the surviving older generation still remember gratefully the compassion of my mother.
    A good reminder from you to the readers to follow this noble practice

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    1. Our elders did all that daanam without anyone knowing about it. It is their charity that keeps generations of children in abundance. A friend of mine in Delhi told me about how thousands of people had come for his mother’s funeral. The family was stupefied at the show of love of complete strangers whom the lady had touched in some way, but mostly helped with food and other small things she had given them when they came to her. All this without the family knowing anything about it. He said, ‘Don’t know when she did all that!’ That is the power of unconditional giving – out of love and compassion.

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  12. Feels so good to visit your blog after a long break, Zephyr! Agree the joy of giving is unparalleled

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    1. Oh, I know, you are the globetrotting traveler these days 🙂 Good to see you here after a long time!

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  13. What a beauty. Had tears in my eyes when I read about the couple. Over the years I have started to realize the most fulfilling pooja is indeed feeding a hungry stomach. Great one zephyr. Enlightening.

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    1. Welcome here, Aarish! Glad that you liked the post. I feel blessed to be the granddaughter of the compassionate elderly couple. It is undoubtedly their compassion and daanam that is protecting their heirs.

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