Annam Bahu Kurvita

The Organiser, December 29, 1996
by M. V. Kamath

Two things that the British did to India – apart from whatever good they may inadvertently have done to the country – that are unforgivable and deserve condemnation are this disruption of our agricultural economy and the downgrading of Sanskrit as a “dead language”. Both were done deliberately and with evil intent. The disruption of our agricultural economy turned India into a destitute nation; the downgrading of Sanskrit served to hoist a tremendous inferiority complex on the people. Fifty years after we attained Independence we are still struggling to regain our lost heritage.

Consider this. Comparing Indian data with that relating to British agriculture, a British economist found as early as in 1804 that the productivity in India was several times higher than in Britain. What surprised the economist even more was the finding that the wages of the Indian agricultural labourer in real terms were substantially higher than those of his counterpart in Britain. Even under the most tyrannical ruler, the agriculturist was spared. It is generally accepted today that even during the reign of Aurangzeb the maximum revenue receipts never exceeded 20%. It has been wrongly assumed that the remaining 80% went to the feudal lords. Not true. The overwhelming proportion of revenue was left to the local level itself, to be spent on activities prescribed by age-old customs such as running of chhatrams or choultries, pathasalas or schools, maintenance of tanks etc. What the British did was to dismantle the entire fiscal and revenue systems. They demanded that the state should get 50% of the gross produce after it was converted into money and made into regular tax dues. Worse, when the ancient rajas were stripped of their political power they were elevated into Zamindars, modelled on the British system with the difference that while the British landlord paid only 10% of what he received as rent from the cultivator, the Indian landlord was asked to pay 90%. Inevitably, agriculture suffered. (Ref. PPST Bulletin, November 1983.)

The deliberate downgrading of the study of Sanskrit by condemning it into limbo as a ‘dead language’ was even more sinister. It served to cut off Indians from their own heritage which rightfully was theirs. It made them accept the theory that they were inferior to the White man, more specifically the Englishman. It helped undermine the infrastructure of their culture and turn them to the West, more specifically towards Britain. (We see today how cast-away elements of western entertainment like the Miss World tamashas are so eagerly accepted by the so-called Indian elite). The whole enterprise was intended to destroy India economically and culturally once it was destroyed politically.

What is now remarkable and praise-worthy is that the process of self-healing has begun. The work of Bajaj and Srinivas reminds us of what production and distribution of food – anna – meant to our ancestors and how those values were integrated into what is described as dharma – that which holds up – calls fro the highest commendation. The production of food and its even distribution amongst all, the giving of dana considered the supreme yajna have been themes frequently discussed in our ancient religious texts including the Taittiriyopanishad, the Shatapathabrahmana, the Vishnupurana, the Agnipurana, Bhavishyapurana, the Yajnyavalyasmriti, the Rivedasamhita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata… right down to Manimekalai. The basic theme in all is what the title of this book says: Annam bahu kurvita, tadavratam (endeavour so that there be a great abundance of food. That is the inviolable discipline of mankind).

The authors quote copiously from our religious texts. In the Mahabharata, for instance, Bhishma Pitamaha, the grand wise old man of the Kuru clan, gives a long discourse to Yudhishthira on all aspects of dharma. The discourse runs into 25,000 verses and forms nearly a quarter of the epic. Long afterwards, after Bhishma himself has gone and Yudhishthira performs the ashvamedhayajna, the latter asks Shri Krishna to sum up the essence of Bhishma’s teachings. That Shri Krishna does in just fifteen verses, the first ten of which lay down the centrality of anna dana, the giving of food in the life of a householder, and the next five celebrate the greatness of food, its emergence out of the vital essence of the earth and its intimate connection with all life. The very first verse of Shri Krishna is:

Annena dharyate sarvam jagadetachcharacharam
Annat prabhavati pranah prayaksham nasti samshayah

(The world, both animate and inanimate, is sustained by food. Life arises from food; this is observed all around and there can be no doubt about it).

And he ends his discourse by saying:

Annadah pranado loke pranadah sarvado bhavet
Tasmadannam visheshena datavyam bhutimichhata

(The giver of food is the giver of life, and indeed of everything else. Therefore, one who is desirous of well-being in this world and beyond should specially endeavour to give food.)

What better advice could Bhishma have given to Dharmaraja as the ultimate dharma of a King?

Incidentally, all descriptions of Ramrajya, the ideal times that the Indian considers as the ultimate in good government, involve an abundance of crops and the complete absence of hunger and thirst. Thus, at the very beginning of Valmiki’s Ramayana, in the fist chapter of Balakanda, the great sage describes the forthcoming reign of Shri Rama thus: “There is happiness and cheer all around. All are contented. All are well nourished. All follow dharma. All are in good health. All are without disease. And all are free from fear and hunger. No parent witnesses the death of a child. No wife witnesses the death of her husband. Fire causes no disasters. No living being ever drown in water. Winds remain benign… Nobody has to worry about hunger. Nothing is ever stolen…

Such a book as this, explaining our past and our culture, was waiting to be written. Now that Bajaj and Srinivas have written it, it needs to be widely distributed and read. It is a duty which we owe to ourselves to be one and whole again.

The reason is that vast numbers of educated Indians are sadly ignorant of their own past and glory. Many have been taught even to be ashamed of their culture. We can do much better than what we are doing now. Our production today is lagging behind even that of China. How come that productivity was very high in times past when today, for all the availability of improved seeds and vaunted technology, we can’t match the productivity of our neighbours? Why do people starve and why are we indifferent to our social responsibilities when early European observers and British administrators in India repeatedly came across the Indian habit of offering food and hospitality to all those who happened to come to their door or the village? The Europeans like Abbe J. A. Dubois, the French missionary who arrived in India in 1792 and spent 31 years enjoying the fabled Indian hospitality in the villages of Mysore, have written in deprecating terms of Indian customs and manners but they are pretty unanimous on one thing: the hospitality offered by Indian to strangers, rich and poor alike.

We need to go back to those ancient times and learn not merely how to produce more but how to distribute it efficiently not so much through official outlets but through private dana – giving. “We should”, the authors insist, “begin to pay attention to the lands and to the fulfilling of the inviolable discipline of annam bahu kurvita and to follow the instructions given in the Vedas that anyone who eats without sharing eats in sin, Kevalagho vai bhavati kevaladi.” And they end with a prayer that can hardly be questioned: “May we have the strength of mind and body to be Indians again, and fulfil the vrata of growing and sharing a plenty”.

Annam Bahu Kurvita: Recollecting the Indian Discipline of Growing and Sharing Food in Plenty: Jitendra Bajaj and Mandayam Doddamane Srinivas: Centre for Policy Studies, 27 Rajasekharan Street, Mylapore, Madras – 6000 004; pages lvi+217; Rs.400.