Annam Bahu Kurvita

The Mountain Path, December 1998, Vol. 35 Nos.3&4
by Prof. Leela Subramoni

This book under review is a scholarly exposition of the great tradition of annadana that was prevalent in ancient India – Bharat – under the benign rule of Sri Rama and later Yudhishthira. Far from being a restricted activity confined to the limited requirements of a particular community, annadana is revealed by the authors to occupy a central position in the social, political and religious life of the Indian people.

The subject of annadana is discussed in eight chapters followed by an epilogue that connects the ancient tradition with the modern situation. The giving and sharing of food is common to almost all cultures across the world. But in the Indian context it is the one guiding principle in the life of the nation. It is also a way to the realisation of the ultimate Reality – the supreme Brahman.

The book takes us on a nostalgic journey to the distant past when the people of India enjoyed an abundance of food to the point of surfeit. The first chapter points out the importance of giving food and gives a number of quotations from Sri Krishna’s advice to Yudhishthira. The story of King Sweta (chapter 2) illustrates the law that one gets according to the amount and care with which one has given food earlier. While describing the yajnas of the great Kings of India the authors say that these were occasions for celebrations which united all the sections of the Indian people. “… political power, if it is to remain within the bounds of dharma, must remain widely dispersed” (p.22). In Ramarajya, the Indian model of ideal polity, “the number of rajavamsas, kingly dynasties, rises a hundred fold”. “Annadana is at the centre, the events seem to unfold around it.” In both Dasaratha’s and Sri Rama’s asvamedha yajna, annadana is the central activity. The Ramarajya begins and ends with annadana.

The fourth chapter gives an excellent account of life in Yudhishthira’s kingdom. It seems incredible today that Bharat once enjoyed such abundance in food and such great generosity in feeding. As the authors say, the resilience of the Indian psyche after the Great War is a matter of great pride. Referring to various texts the authors have shown very clearly that it was the responsibility of the kings and the rich “to ensure eradication of hunger and destitution” and such formulation of the responsibility of the kings and the rich was “part of the essential doctrine of political organisation in India.” The authors then point out the Dharma of grahastha and the special responsibility of the ruler or the king. “The sin of want and hunger even due to natural causes and disasters lies primarily upon the king.” According to Bhishma, in the Mahabharata, agriculture, animal husbandry and trade are the very life of the people.

The importance of annadana in the life of the nation is underscored when the authors relate it to the Upanishadic teaching, and point out that anna is the first manifestation of Brahman. The Taittiriya Upanishad gives a pivotal position to anna and its manifestations, in a seeker’s path to brahmavidya.

As the authors say, “It is indeed of great significance that anna should occupy such a primary place in a venerated text of brahmavidya, a text whose concern is Moksha.” Their explanation and elucidation of the text of Taittiriya Upanishad is pivotal.

This great tradition of giving food in plenty and sharing it has been in vogue in later times also as in the reign of Harshavardhana and in the reign of the kings of Thanjavur. The authors state that this tradition was followed till recently even in ordinary Indian households. But with the quantity of food decreasing, the custom of sharing slowly receded to the background and remained a sacred memory. This was the direct result of the British invasion of India. “The abundance of food began to turn into a state of acute scarcity within decades of the onset of British rule.” Vast areas fell out of cultivation and “the productivity of lands began to decline precipitously”. The Indian concepts of abundance and generosity have given place to scarcity and callousness. The book does not merely tell us what the situation was in India, but exhorts us “to bring ourselves back to the invaluable discipline of sharing. We have to make a national resolve to care for the hunger of our people and animals”.

The book is highly relevant to our times and a reminder of what should deeply concern us now. The clarity and elegance of the presentation of the subject makes compelling reading. Do read it.