It never fails to amaze me how our ancestors had woven customs and traditions into religious rituals in our daily lives. Though many of these rituals involve cultural and artistic expressions, food forms the most important and integral part of these customs. This is evident from the fact that both festivals and vrats are marked by special naivedyam.
We make special foods on festivals – often from the produce of the season or with ingredients that are conducive to health during that particular season. Take Sankranti for instance. The naivedyam include til laddoos and pongal and khichdi made with freshly harvested grains and vegetables. Likewise, special offerings are prepared for festivals like Navaratri, Ganesh Chaturthi, Janmashtami and even Shivaratri. Coming to vrats, we eschew certain foods and eat certain specific foods, or even give up food altogether. This ensures rest and detoxification of the digestive system, which the modern nutritionists and dieticians recommend today. Truly remarkable wisdom of our ancestors, wouldn’t you say?
What is naivedyam? Actually, ‘naivedyam’ has no corresponding word in English, just as a host of other Indian language words don’t. ‘Offering’ is the closest one can come to it, but it doesn’t bring out half the nuances of ‘naivedyam’. In our culture the offering goes a step beyond the mere act, giving it a sacred and spiritual significance. Hindus first make a naivedyam of whatever they eat to God, before serving it to other living beings including humans. Isn’t it so like giving the first bite of the choicest morsel to our most beloved?
Offering naivedyam to the Deity is distinct from the Christian ritual of saying grace over food – where God is thanked for the food He has given. The roles of the Giver and the receiver are clearly defined here. ‘How can you offer God’s gift back to Him? Isn’t it presumptuous?’ is a question that many ask. When we offer naivedyam, it signifies an intimacy with the Divine, and a sense of surrender. It at once signifies that God is one of us, and yet superior to us. There is a beautiful thought behind this – Tera tujhko Arpan – we offer God what He has given us, much like a child buying gifts for its parents with the money they have given him!
Take the chappan bhog, for instance. Krishna saved Gokul from the deluge that threatened to drown it by lifting and holding the mountain Gowardhan – as an umbrella over the city – for seven days going without food. The people of Gokul were so overcome by remorse and love for their Lord who had gone hungry to save them, that once the rains ceased, they made 56 different kinds of dishes for him – eight items per day, for seven days! Such is the love behind offering naivedyam.
Technically, one is supposed to offer ‘atma nivedanam’ to God – that is, offer oneself at His Lotus feet in a gesture of total surrender – shorn of ego. How many of us can do this? Instead, we do it symbolically, by breaking a coconut and removing the water from it before offering it to God. The coconut is offered whole as a mark of reverence, but when broken, it signifies the breaking of the hard shell of the ego, emptying it of all undesirable traits (the water) and surrendering the pure self to God.
The naivedyam can be anything from mere tulsi teerth or flavoured sweetened water to a simple sweet or even the chappan bhog of 56 food items! What we offer is immaterial, but how we offer it, makes all the difference. We all know the story of Sudama, who had nothing to offer his friend Krishna except a few handfuls of poha (beaten rice), but which delighted the Lord so much that he lavished all the riches on him – all without Sudama even asking for anything!
Talking of naivedyam, one has to mention prasadam also. North Indians say, ‘Prashad chadhana’ when they offer something to the deity. This is incorrect, because the chadhawa becomes a prasadam only after being offered to God.
To understand how naivedyam turns into prasadam, one should understand the sthula and sukshma states of things. The former is physical and the latter is subtle or unmanifested. So, while we offer the naivedyam in the sthula state, the Deity partakes of it in the sukshma state. If one were to explain in mundane terms, one can say that the material food (naivedyam) is transformed into a spiritual one (prasadam), invested with the grace of the Deity. The devotion, love and faith invest the prasadam with divine powers too.
With His grace, even a cup of poison can turn into nectar. When Meera was given the cup of poison by her brother-in-law Vikram Singh, she first offered it to her beloved Krishna as she customarily did before eating or drinking anything. And lo and behold! He turned it into Amrit for his beloved devotee!
Naivedyam is typically made without tasting, as it has to be offered first to God. It is only for the exemplary devotees, the privilege of offering something after tasting or using it. Shabari was one such devotee. Anxious to give only the sweetest of bers to her beloved Lord Rama, she bit into every berry to make sure it was sweet enough for Him.
Likewise, Andal – the great poet saint of Srivilliputtur in Tamil Nadu. She was determined to only marry Lord Vishnu. She was known as Soodi kodutha sudarkodi, meaning, “The bright creeper-like woman who gave her garlands to Lord Vishnu after wearing them.” The daughter of Periyazhwar, one of the 12 Azhwars of Vaishnavism, 11-year-old Andal (herself an Azhlwar, and the only woman among them) made garlands for the Lord at the temple. Just to see if it would suit Him, she would first wear it and stand in front of the mirror to check. One day her father caught her at it and was furious. She began making a new garland. However, that night Lord Vishnu appeared in Periyazhvar’s dream and told him that he cherished the garland that Andal first tried on herself and that she should continue doing it.
Coming to prasadams, temple prasadams hold a special significance for the devout. How often have we clamoured for a pinch of vibhuti or Kumkum from a temple, believing that it would be the panacea for our ills? In fact, we keep small tins of both and apply them on our foreheads after bath every day, or when we go on an important errand believing in its power to help us. Whenever someone suffers from an ailment, it is customary to apply a pinch of vibhuti on the forehead and rub some on the affected part. We can say that the efficacy of a prasadam is largely based on faith and devotion.
Some temples have iconic prasadams, such as the Tirupati laddoo, which is so famous as to have even got a geographic copyright! The entire neighbourhood gets a piece of it when someone makes the pilgrimage to Tirupati. Likewise, there are special prasadams at various temples across the length and breadth of the country, with interesting legends associated with them. We will take a look at them in the next part.
A version of this post had first appeared in Jagrit Bharat.