The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Hinduism and Indic civilization have always been among the brilliant lights in the firmament of humanity’s heritage. Volumes have been written – lay and religious, literary, philosophical, and spiritual, poetic and dramatic –  relating to the Hindu world and culture. There are copious commentaries and countless interpretations on the abundant treasures of the Hindu tradition. All these are the proud possessions of the people of India and of Hindus all over the world. But one thing there has not been until now:  a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism, an Encyclopedia to which the primary contributors are scholars and thinkers largely from the Hindu tradition.

On August 26, 2013, The Encyclopedia of Hinduism was launched at the University of South Carolina in America: a country which has become a welcoming home to hundreds of thousands of Hindus in recent decades, an America which deserves more appreciation for its good works than it normally receives.

It is no secret that these are not the best of times for Hinduism. But Hindu culture has a glorious past and a promising future. It should not be forgotten that Hinduism has survived many plundering hordes and alien intrusion, forced conversion, colonial occupation, political domination and economic exploitation. However, if the mute mountains and meadows, the surging rivers and peaceful lakes in India could speak, they would proclaim fascinating and uplifting episodes that have transpired on India’s sacred soil, periods of joy as well as of tears, of feasts and festivals, and creativity, as also the ways in which Hindu culture has been enriched even by its alien unwelcome intrusions. The serenity of Vedic hymns, the visions of the Upanishads, the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, the magnificent epics of Valmiki and Vyasa, the bhakti works of Tulsi Das and Kabir Das, and Guru Nanak, and countless others, the grand compositions of Kalidasa, Kamban and countless others: these are among the undying pillars of Hindu culture.

Even in the midst of all the glitter and glitz, pubs and pizza huts, Bollywood and Tollywood and all the rest of it that are inevitable in a modernizing industrializing society, the spirit and soul of India are alive and well, vibrant and vivacious, like the temples and   sculptures and places of pilgrimage. Furthermore, the invocation of aum, the chants of the sacred mantras, the graceful lighting of the lamp, the spiritual disciplines of yoga and meditation, Hindu places of worship, as also all the colorful dances and cuisines of India have in the past several decades spread beyond the shores of India into every civilized country of all the continents of the globe.

The Encyclopedia of Hinduism spans between its beautifully bound covers not only  the richness and abundance of Indic culture, the revelations of India’s seers, the reflections of her philosophers, and the spirituality of her saints, but also the discoveries of her scientists, the insights of her mathematicians, the variety of her languages, the creativity of her poets and artists and much more. It is a magnificent monument that celebrates India’s culture and traditions. It will inform the current generation and in its many re-editions it will inspire generations yet unborn.;

Food: IV. Food in Religious Traditions

This food is the gift of the whole universe,

Each morsel is a sacrifice of life,
May I be worthy to receive it.
May the energy in this food,
Give me the strength,
To transform my unwholesome qualities

into wholesome ones.

I am grateful for this food,

May I realize the Path of Awakening,

For the sake of all beings.

– Buddhist prayer

Human experience is enriched by art, music, and literature, by philosophy, science, and religion too. But none of these would be possible if the body is not nourished by food. It is, therefore, not surprising that in all religious traditions there are references to food.

Bertrand Russell wrote: ““Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures.” Very true. But Russell missed an important aspect of religions. All religions say something or other about food and sex. Bolshevism is silent on these.

A goal of religion is to connect with the Divine: this fills the soul of the devout with ecstasy. At the physical level, one of the most universal of such joys derives from the eating of food. From the first suckling of mother’s milk to the last gulp before heartbeat ceases, food is not only the ultimate source of our sustenance, but also the provider of pleasure: Food is thus the closest to God at the physical level.

Starvation can stifle our capacity for love, and bring out the worst in human passions and behavior. Continued hunger can thus blind us to the message of religions, as well as to all that is beautiful, including a yearning for God. Food is thus an important factor in religion. The Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar recognized the importance of food that results from rain  for prayer and worship. He wrote  in a couplet (Tirukkural,2.8):

    No pompous worship if the skies go dry

    From here below to the god on high.

In other words, though people may pray for rain and water, if the prayers are not answered over long periods of time, worship activities will cease in communities. Not many will attend religious services or even do their daily prayers if they are starving.

Religions beseech the divine for food and express gratitude for  the same.  They also see food as a source of mystery. Foods have esoteric dimensions. The ancient Greeks had ambrosia, the Romans nectar, and the Hindus amrita which were said to be immortalizing potions that the gods imbibe. In the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar (the Eucharist) of the Christian tradition, there is mystical trans-substantiation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of the Savior. In the Hindu world, ordinary food becomes sanctified by a ritualistic offering to the gods.

There are prayers before and after meal in all religious traditions. In the Torah it says: “And thou shalt eat and be satisfied and shalt bless the Lord thy God for the goodly land which he has given thee: The land of wheat and barley, of the vine, the fig and the pomegranate, the land of the oil olive and of date syrup.”  A Hindu pre-meal prayer translates to: “Take the name of the Divine before putting a morsel into your mouth.” An Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer is: “O God, bless the food and drink of Thy servants, for holy art Thou, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” An after-meal prayer in the Islamic tradition is: “Praise to Allah for feeding us, giving us to drink and making us Muslims.” A Unitarian grace is: “Loving spirit, be our guest, dine with us and  share our bread, that our table might be blessed and our souls be fed.” 

One of the underlying principles in religions is to resist temptations. Given that food is also a source of physical pleasure,  religions remind us that we should not fall prey to our natural instinct to crave for and indulge in too much food. Furthermore, there is the tenet, explicit or implicit, that it is easier to experience the Divine with a modestly satisfied stomach rather than with an overloaded belly. This is the reason why many religious leaders and certainly the founders of religions have generally been somewhat lean. The prophets of Judiasm, Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, as also the rishis of the Hindu tradition, were all men of slender frame. With the possible exception of some medieval popes,  they have never been corpulent individuals. The founders of most religions as also many other spiritual masters are said to have had prolonged periods of the fasting experience. God does not reveal Himself to overweight over-eaters.

Nevertheless, some religions have had visions of devoiring deities. Dionysus of ancient Greece was the god of wine and agriculture. Bacchus was likewise in the Roman world. For the Mesopotamians the god of food and vegetation was Dumuzi. The Japanese called their goddess of food Uke Mochi. In Hinduism we have Annapuruna who is the goddess of harvest and food. Chicomecoatl was the food-Goddess for the Aztecs. Polytheistic religions have the advantage that they can assign majesty and monopoly in any field to particulars Gods.

All religions impose rules on what one is allowed to eat and what one should not even touch or smell. Whatever may be the origin of such alimentary no-no’s, they have become intrinic to every religious observance. Some anthropologists have discovevred that food taboos exist even among more pristine peoples, such as the so-called tribals of Papua in New Guinee, the Orang Asli of Malaysia, and the hunters-gatherers in the jungles of Paraguay, none of whom subscribe to any of the mainsream religions of the world. In other words, Hindus avoiding beef, Jews and Muslims not touching pork, and Jains not eating any animal food at all don’t reflect any exceptional pattern in human behavior.

 There are references to foods in the Vedas of the Hindu world. The sacredness of the cow is articulated there. Here too are the sources for the veneration of milk and the sanctification of food in rituals. In all Hindu places of worship, food is ritually offered to the gods through sacred mantras. Fruits and nuts, thus sanctified, are known as prasad.  Prasad is distributed to the congregation. The Bhagavad Gita declares that those who offer food to the Divine before consuming it are relieved of sins. The implication is that since God represents all humanity, sharing food with fellow humans is a meritorious act. In every Gurudwara of the Sikh tradition, food is always served at the conclusion of worship services. It is more organized and elaborate than the faithful crowding around the coffee pot and donuts after Sunday service in some churches.

In Hindu cultural-religious framework, as also in the traditional medical system of Ayurveda, food is classified in terms of its effects on our minds and moods. Here one speaks of three categories of food, referred to as satvik, rajasik, and tamasik. Satvik food is wholesome and conducive to the development of  finer qualities. Its effect is to make one gentle, peaceable, and balanced, capable of caring and kindness. Milk, nuts, yogurt, fruits, and mild vegetables belong to this category. Rajasik food, on the other hand, stirs one’s dynamic and aggressive potential, leading to hyperactivity. Hot peppers, potatoes, and chilies are examples of rajasik food. Finally, tamasik food tends to make one lethargic and dull-headed. Mushroom, alcohol, blue cheese and mind-altering drugs are listed in this category.

It is also a finding of science that what we eat can and does affect our nature and moods. After all, food contains chemicals which affect the brain. Researchers are trying to understand this in terms of tryptophan, serotonin, and such, but the effects are undeniable. So the old adage “Tell me what you eat and I can tell you what you are” is not just imaginative talk.

In the Jewish tradition, the kushrut prescribes kosher and proscribes treyf  food. Leviticus 11:3 spells out:  “Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.”  Also, certain fats (tallow) and sinews of animals are forbidden, and meat is to be first salted to remove all traces of blood. The Old Testament mentions  various birds of prey and certain species of fowl that are forbidden to enter the kitchen. As to aquatic animals, only fish with both fins and scales are counted as kosher. On the other hand, all fruits and vegetables are kosher. But they should be  thoroughly washed before eating because insects might have crept in. Insects are non-kosher.

In his book “To Be a Jew” (an excellent resource on traditional Judaism), Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that the dietary laws were designed as a call to holiness. He points out that the laws of kashrut elevate the simple act of eating into a religious ritual. The Jewish dinner table, he says, is often compared in rabbinic literature to the Temple altar. In fact, most dietary laws in the Judaic tradition are not directly from the Bible but from interpretations  of the Talmud by qualified rabbis.

In Christianity, aside from avoiding fish on Fridays and eating only sparsely during Lent, food restrictions are relatively less strict. In Mark 18 Jesus asks rhetorically to his people, “Are you so without understanding also? Do you not perceive, that whatever thing from without enters into the man, it cannot defile him?” In other words, Jesus was saying essentially that there are no such things as permitted and unpermitted foods. The Christian idea is that when it comes to eating whatever is available, God does not put any restrictions.

Islam is closest to Judaism when it comes to dietary rules. Here again, food is classified as halal or lawful food and haram or unlawful food. Halal meat refers to the flesh of animals that have been slaughtered by invoking the name of Allah. One is expected to express gratitude to the Almighty for the food that satisfies hunger and the drink that quenches thirst. The list of haram food is very much like the one in the Jewish tradition, except that Islam permits the consumption of sea-food, and unlike in Judaism, prohibits alcoholic drinks. The foods explicitly recommended in the Qur’an include milk, dates, grapes, honey, corn, grains, olives, certain plants and livestock.

It also states explicitly in the Islamic scripture that there should be no wastage of food: an important injunction as relevant today as when it was first stated. It says in the Qur’an (6: 141): “Waste not by excess, for God loveth not wasters.” The Prophet was clearly aware of the irresponsible ways in which people threw out food even in those days. There is a saying among Muslims to the effect  that one shouldn’t waste water  even if one is standing on the banks of the river Tigris. Such is the awareness of conservation.

It is also enjoined on Muslims to eat calmly and slowly, never in a haste or hurry. Another interesting and healthy habit encouraged here is to eat to fill only a third of the stomach, to drink to fill another third, and to leave a third empty. If all followed this, we would all be free from a good many diseases tormenting the world today. After all, as someone said, only half of what we eat is to keep us alive; the other half, to keep our doctors alive.

Another enlightened principle in the Islamic framework is that natural bounties like meadows and water belong to one and all in a community. There is great reverence for agriculture. A frequent refrain in the Qur’an is that food is a gift from God.

We can learn from the contrasts in different religions regarding food-rules that while the followers of every tradition must respect the rules of their own system, humanity expresses itself in different languages and customs, and  none of these can claim monopoly over truth. In Romans (14:1) we see that the restrictive food regulations of the day were used to teach a spirit of tolerance: Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.  One person’s faith allows the person to eat anything, but another, whose faith is different, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.  Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?”

It goes on to say, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind… Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God…”

Religious apologists have given what they believe to be scientific reasons  and moral justifications  for the dietary laws of their tradition. Not all these may stand critical scrutiny. In this context, the believer’s answer is perhaps the best of all, besides being the most religious. The answer to the question, “Why is this food allowed and that food prohibited?” is very simply: “Because it is so stated in our sacred book.” It is important to stress that in the religious context, injunctions carry the weight of sacred authorities. This, rather than empirical validity or logical reasoning, is what determines belief and behavior for the truly religious person.

Nevertheless, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have pointed out that there are ecological and medicinal values implicit in many food taboos. Often, such taboos have led to more efficient utilization of some resources, as also to the protection of some others. Food regulations also have the cultural effect of giving practitioners a feeling of belonging to the members of the group. We seldom recognize the role that food has played in traditional societies in affirming one’s cultural affiliation. Often one feels oneself to be Jew or Christian, Hindu or Muslim or Jain by what one eats and avoids at the dinner table.

There are at least two  messages in all dietary restrictions: The first is that  it is important to be discriminating in what we eat. In the pre-civilizational state   human beings chewed and swallowed whatever they could lay their hands and teeth on. This was natural instinctive response. But with the advent of what we call culture, values began to develop in human thought and behavior. These values included categorizations of good and bad, right and wrong, prescriptions and proscriptions. The ability to distinguish between good and evil, pure and defiled, sacred and the profane, has played an important role in civilization. Imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat fosters a kind of self control, enabling us to learn to restrain our basic instincts. It is in this context that we must view the rules governing food intake.

The second thing we learn from food-restriction laws is humane treatment of the creatures that are killed to satisfy our appetite. The lion pounces on its prey, as the eagle does on its, without the slightest pity for the helpless creature that is to be mangled and masticated. That animals are there for humans to feed upon is consonant with Nature’s food-chain. But as beings with a moral sense we have sensitivity for cruelty and are touched by compassion. That is why religions teach us to follow procedures that are least painful.  A central refrain in kosher and halal laws is to slaughter animals while inflicting  minimal pain.

On this last matter, there is no religion that is as respectful of and as concerned about life and creatures as Jainism. Jainism rests on the principle of ahimsa which means non-injury to any living creature. Normally we care for our family, then for our friends, then for our community, and for our nation. At the most enlightened level people care for humanity at large, for the wellbeing and peace of one and all.  

 Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, went a step beyond. He preached that we must care for all living beings, and we must not hurt or kill any animal. By all measures, and irrespective of whether this is practicable or not, the Jain principle of ahimsa is one of the most enlightened principles ever enunciated. Implicit in it is compassion for all fellow creatures on the planet. It is this idea that inspired vegetarianism in the Jain world: a determination not to kill any animal for any reason; least of all, for the satisfaction of one’s own palate and nourishment.  This has led to food abstentions that might seem extreme to outsiders. Thus Jains are very particular about how they work around flames and fire, making sure that insects don’t fall into them inadvertently. They never drink unfiltered water as it might contain small organisms. They are extremely respectful of plants. They avoid eating roots like potatoes and onions. they don’t take fermented beverages because they contain microorganisms (yeast). For the same reason they avoid putrefied food. A profound ecologically moral principle is implicit in Jain diet: namely,  that we are not the only creatures for whom the earth exists. From this recognition follows the notion that we should not hurt or kill other creatures for our own satisfaction. Practical or not, it is literally the highest mode of expression of the principle: Live and let live.

Incidentally, it is the Jain principle of ahimsa paramo-dharmah: Not causing injury to others is the highest religious practice, that led to the political movement of non-violence in the twentieth century. It inspired Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Who would have thought that injunctions on food formulated more than two millennia ago would lead to a political action principle centuries later!

With all the apparent differences, there are two elements that are common to all religions  in the context of food.  First, all religions teach charity which is essentially caring for the less fortunate.

The Buddhist Dhammapada  says: “Fools are not generous: the world of the gods is not for the stingy.” The Hindu Taittireeyaka Upanishad (III:10.1) says: “Let him never turn away (a stranger) from his house, that is the rule. Therefore a man should by all means acquire much food, for (good) people say (to the stranger): There is food ready for him. If one gives food amply, food is given to the person amply. If one gives food fairly, food is given to the person fairly. If one gives food meanly, food is given to the person meanly.”

Deuteronomy (15:11) says: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, ‘Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land’” In the Book of Job (22:5) we read: “Is not thy wickedness great? And thine iniquities infinite?… Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry…Thou hast sent widows away empty-handed, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken….”

In Luke (11:41) Jesus says: “But now as for what is inside you, be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” In other words, caring for the hunger of others is what really matters, rather than what one eats. Or again (Luke, 14:13-14), we are told: “But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shall be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee. “

The Qur’an says (2:195): “Give generously for the cause of God… Be charitable; God loves the charitable.”

The second principle that religions preach is refraining from over indulgence.  Among the negative consequences of the undervaluing of traditional religions in the modern world is a growing propensity for unrestrained self-gratification. Obesity, greed, and promiscuity follow naturally from self-gratifying callous behavior.

At the same time, religions also recognize the natural human desire for gastronomical satisfactions and gustatory delights. Outlets for this are provided in various feasts and festivals that are part of all religions. Whether in Greece or in Rome, in China or in India, the practice of celebrating at home or in groups arose in all cultures. It may be for marking the birth of a prophet, or for commemorating an  auspicious event in the tradition. On such celebratory occasions there is always a feast with an abundance of edibles, often specific to the occasion.

Food by any other name would be just as satisfying, if it is tasty, or if one is truly hungry. Food in God’s name is spiritually uplifting also.

I will conclude with  lines from the Book of Genesis (1:11-12).

“And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”

August 22, 2013

Food: III. The Food Chain

Who reigns over this fragile food-chain, by virtue of what? – intelligence, cunning, adaptability & the strength of combined numbers?… Not your everyday animals, birds, reptiles, fish, plants  No, none but Man lords it, rules at the top –  glancing Askance heavenwards all the while with repressed guilt – which is why cannibals must surely head the food-chain … though he, like you, could just as easily succumb to a million other creatures, including invisible airborne spores … So know your limitations and learn to survive – especially the ministrations of your own kind.  

Tyrone Graham.   

Normally in the modern world we get our food from the grocery store where we pick and choose what we want, not just for the day, but for a whole week or more. We also store food for the long term future, whether in cans or in freezers.

When we stand in line in the cafeteria for lunch or dinner, we are part of a queue to reach our goal. That goal is the head of the line where there is the spread with trays of dishes for the day. This mode of satisfying hunger, orderly and civilized as it may be, is, as we all know, totally artificial.  We like this, not only because we have grown accustomed to it, but also because it is much more convenient than having to pluck fruits and vegetables, grain and green  every day, slaughter animals in the backyard or basement, and fetch water from the nearby stream every time we have to eat. 

For millennia now we have moved away from our pristine natural state. Such departure from nature’s life-style led to what we call the cultural phase where everything from eating and drinking  to clothing and greeting  is cultivated, as distinct from the spontaneity  in life and creative responses that characterize Nature. 

In the natural world, consumption of food occurs through another kind of chain, quite different from the one in the cafeteria. Nature’s way may seem cruel because it is wrought with claw and killing, involves pain and bloodshed. Compassionate believers may wonder why God devised a system where merciless mangling and dreaded death are necessities for the survival of species. One can imagine a system where every creature from ants and antelopes to lions and leopards can be nourished by sand and stone or through protein that Nature synthesizes in water from carbon dioxide and minerals. For whatever reason, this has not happened. God or Nature works in weird as well as in mysterious ways.

We have food chains in the biological world consisting of creatures that nourish themselves on other creatures that do the same. So every creature has sub-creatures on which it feeds and super-creatures which feed on it. Food is both passive and active, subject and object, noun and verb. It is not reciprocity but punishment, as it were, killing and karma. You killed that creature for your food because you are stronger, so a stronger one than yourself will kill you too for its food.

Thus a leaping frog that feeds on a fragrant flower is itself gobbled up by the wily snake which itself serves as food for the owl with   piercing eyes. In a calm and cool body of water, the bleak fish eats the shrimp, and is itself eaten by the perch which is good food for the pike. The pike is delicious dish for the osprey. Thus we have a series of biters who are themselves bit,  gobblers who are themselves gobbled.

In some food chains each creature lives on just one species. Ecologists call them monophagous food chains. There are also polyphagous food webs which are the marvelous cascading quilts of eaters and the eaten in the complex biosphere.

When we picture our blue planet  or display it on a map, what come to the fore are the mantle of air, vast lands and vaster seas, slender streams and surging rivers, rocky mountains and green meadows,  deserts and plains, as also cities and towns and villages galore. But built in the physical framework of air and water and at a safe  and sustaining distance from the sun, and the countless biochemical molecules  in the engine of life, there is this invisible scaffolding  for life-forms that is as much part of our green planet as atmosphere and oceans, continents and tectonic plates. This bio-friendly scaffolding is what sustains all life. At the individual organismic level, life is essentially a chemically complex open system that absorbs and eliminates matter and energy, and is subject to a variety of experiences in the process. At the collective level it is an interconnected and interdependent net of wriggling, throbbing, and feeding organisms which have evolved as different species.

We need both matter and energy. There is matter aplenty all around us on and inside our planet. There is abundant energy splashed by the inexhaustible sun shining day and night on our abode. The challenge is to trap that energy, not just for lighting homes, running cars, and for a hundred other purposes that technologies accomplish, but for the most vital processes in the living body. Even after a billion years of evolution, the capturing of energy directly from sunlight for this need has been  achieved only by the green of the world which are  at the base of all food chains. Known as  autotrophs, these turn inorganic matter into organic ones, utilizing  the influx of photons from the radiant sun. Autotrophs have the extraordinary capacity to turn lifeless carbon dioxide and water  into organic molecules: energy-packed glucose that nourish entities throbbing with the magic of life. Green grasses are biological solar panels. Without revealing their chemical technology of energy-transfer, they  feed the heterotrophs that can survive only by consuming organic food. Thus, practically all living organisms depend one way or another on autotrophs. No less marvelous are the grass-eating cattle and horses  which transform grass into proteins and carbohydrates;  and  feed    countless other creatures on earth. They, in turn, eat and feed on other creatures, and themselves become food sooner or later for some other creature.

As good old Shakespeare put it: “We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table; that’s the end. A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.” Paraphrasing the Scriptures, one might say “From grass thou sprang and unto grass thou shalt go.”

  Whether herbivores or carnivores, parasites or saprophytes, every one of them, from microscopic organisms like viruses and bacteria to mammoth whales and giant redwoods need food in one form or another. This is another context where some may want to suggest another blueprint for life: Make organisms such that they have every experience they currently have without any need for food. This may not be all that naïve when we consider that this could well be an ultimate outcome of robotic research: the fabrication of living systems, even humanoids that need no food beyond dry-cell batteries for joyful existence.

But that is not quite how biological species thrive now. One  of the greatest wonders to have emerged in Nature is the intricate food web on earth that has been functioning so admirably well until quite recently.  This self-sustaining labyrinth feeds billions of organisms. It is among the most sophisticated complexities in a universe replete with routinely functioning complex systems. Its sole purpose is to answer to the alimentary needs and hunger pangs of life forms on our planet.

The food chain may be a predator chain in which super-creatures feed on sub-creatures, sort of like a capitalist economy. Or it may be a parasite chain in which smaller organisms subsist on larger ones, sort of like a welfare system. Or again, and certainly the least cruel of all, is the saprophytic chain where microorganisms live on dead matter, not unlike divers who delve the oceans to find lost treasures in sunken ships. Scavengers like vultures feed on corpses and carcasses too, grateful to Zoroastrians who let them feast on their dear departed.

Scavenging is certainly less intrusive on fellow creatures than the systematic slaughters that take place routinely in the abattoirs of world where poultry, cattle, and hogs are prepared for the butcher shops and kitchen tables of the world.

Humans are unique, not only in mind but also in body. Unlike in most other creatures, our digestive system can tolerate a variety of foods: we are not, evolutionarily speaking, vegetarians or carnivores, but omnivores. The buffet in a restaurant colorfully expresses our capacity and craving for all kinds of foods, from vegetables and fruits  to pork and poultry.  We have been described as opportunistic eaters, i.e. capable of eating and digesting whatever food is available in the fields, at the market, or at a host’s dinner table, or in the cafeteria at Silver Bay. We cannot afford to be scavengers because carcasses breed toxic microorganisms.

With the advent of civilization, vegetables are no longer eaten raw, except in salads and exotic diets. Now, like meat,  they are cooked and salted and spiced, baked and broiled and barbecued. However, with the growth in human population we could not live simply on what the land gives from its generous soil. So we developed the science of agriculture, of animal farming and poultry faming and fisheries and what not in more sophisticated ways than Nature’s food chain. In our industrialized world food also involves fertilizers and fuel-burning tractors, transportation trucks, refrigerators, and such. All this has become intrinsic to the human-centered food chain.  They are what make the abundance and easy availability of food for those who can afford. Somehow food chains have been sustained for long in wondrously balanced ways.

In this context it is extremely important to understand we can and do affect the food chain in significant ways. Our predator role, whether through deer hunting or in other  contexts is part of nature’s carnivorous eco-framework. But we can and do affect food chains knowingly or uknowingly in important ways. When we inject  elements in a food chain injurious to the system, the impact can be disastrous not only for the members within the system, but for others also.  The web of interlinking food chains  involving countless organisms can be disrupted in at least two ways: Either by making their survival impossible by injecting toxic substances in their environment or by removing some members in the chain through excessive hunting or fishing.  If the body chemistry of a species is adversely affected, then that of the creature that consumes it will also be affected. As  and when we add to the environment chemical pollutants, these eventually enter the bodies of various consumers. Thus we have managed to make vultures nearly extinct in many parts of the world through pesticides which entered into the bodies of animals on whose carcasses vultures feed.

In the 1980s India, like Bangladesh, used to export frogs’ legs for the culinary delight of the French. While millions of dollars were earned in this way, considerable diminution resulted in frog population in India. This led to significant increase in certain insect populations. Frogs eat more than their weight of insects, some of  which are harmful to crops. They also eat mice which feed on carelessly stored grains.

So India began to import and use more pesticides. More pollution followed the additional use of  pesticides.  It was discovered that it is far cheaper to ban the export of frogs’ legs and forego the foreign exchange than buy and dump more pesticides on the land. So the price of cuisses de grenouillerose in France, until the French  found that Indonesia was willing to leap into the frog market, though at least one school of Islamic law prohibits the killing of frogs and other amphibians.  Leaving aside the inhumanity in the callous butchery of frogs, which involves the dumping of twitching live creatures in a mountainous heap, the ecological impact of eliminating vast numbers of frogs from the wild is considerable.

On the other hand,  the domestication of sheep not only helps in grazing vast tracts of grassland, but also eliminates insects harmful to agriculture. Then again, by introducing rabbit into Australia, the whole ecology of the continent was unhealthily, and perhaps irrepairably, affected.

Like tigers and lions in the wilderness we are not just predators, but apex predators. In the sea it is the great white shark that is the largest apex predator. Weighing 4000 pounds and with 300 teeth, each one of these creatures is said to consume 11 tons of food every year. Devouring as they do vast numbers of sea-lions, dolphins, and other sharks  which feed relentlessly on smaller fish, white sharks keep the fish and squid population in balance and available for human needs. Largely because of overfishing and accidental trapping by nets thrown into the sea, the white shark has been put on the list of endangered species.

Our encroachment into the natural food chain is nowhere more dramatic than in our callous treatment and reckless exploitation of the seas.  In the ocean the microscopic phytoplankton is connected to the zooplankton eaten by small fish, larger fish and so on up to the giant whale. Thus when chemical industries  dump  dioxins, heavy metals, and  polychlorinated  biphenyl into the ocean, these enter the plankton and eventually reach dolphins and many kinds of fish. The PCBs accumulate in the fat of  animals.  In the case of dolphins they are passed on through mother’s milk to the offspring. This is what led to an alarming death rate of first born dolphins in many waters of the world some decades ago. Fish and shrimp, dolphin and whale meat consumed by humans were thus polluted. This happened in Japan, among the Inuits of Canada, and the Arctic people in Europe: wherever people eat seals and whales. Bringing this information to the people saved a few who came to know about it and avoided these foods, but it did not save the aquatic animals.

The ocean’s food pyramid has also been polluted by sewage and farm fertilizers that create vast amounts of bacteria and algae. Every time a beach is closed, it is because of the chain reaction induced by pollution at the most basic level. There has been a steady rise in seafood-related infectious diseases in the U.S. and all over the world.

Or again, consider the finding that in many parts of the world bees are fast disappearing. Some seven years ago it was reported by beekeepers that many healthy bees took off from their hives and simply did not return. Scientists were quick to give this phenomenon a name: Colony Collapse Disorder. According to some reports, by now a third of the bees in the  United States have disappeared. This is a greater sting than what a thousand bees can collectively give us. Absence of bees  will not just make it difficult to get honey. There is much, much more to the disappearance of bees: Countless fruits and vegetables depend – have depended for ages – on bees for pollination. The diminution in bees would be terrible because the list of vegetations that rely heavily on bees ranges from almonds and apples through broccoli and cucumber to pea nuts and soybeans and more.

Some suspect that there is perhaps a new parasitic mite that is disabling the bees, or a virus that is affecting their immune system.  Whatever the cause, the total disappearance of bees would be among the most disastrous environmental impacts on the human condition.

This is a telling reminder that the food web of which we are a part includes creatures that we seldom look upon as related to us is any way. This danger is not unrelated to global warming. The climactic alterations that have been unleashed, irrespective of who or what is the cause of it all, are bound to affect rainfall and draught, causing uncontrollable floods and scorching draught that would make arable land untillable or sterile. Should that come to pass, the regular greens and grains we have been harvesting for thousands of years will come to a screeching halt. No matter how, if the web of food supply be punctured here and there in significant ways, the end result would spell disaster of catastrophic proportions.  That has the potential for making our species extinct more effectively than religious bigotry, unrest in the Middle East, or war between big powers.  The only consolation, if such were to happen, is that other organisms, less intelligent and less creative for sure, but more in harmony with their environment, will live and thrive for longer stretches of time.

As we all know, the matter of polluting the environment with chemicals and its long rage effects was first thoroughly researched, reported, and warned by Rachel Carson some fifty years ago. In her classic and path-changing book Silent Spring, she shockingly pointed out the harm we were inflicting on our environment and on ourselves in the name of scientific progress, mistakenly imagining we were helping ourselves.

Let me conclude with a poem by L. Frank Baum:

A bee flew down and ate an ant,
a bug he ate the bee,
a hen then gobbled down the bug,
but failed the hawk to see,
the hawk had eaten up the hen
before she saw the cat
which ate her up but, then the dog
ate the cat quick as that.
a wolf now sprang upon the dog
and ate him in an instant,
and then a lion ate the wolf
and found her very pleasant.
but when the lion fell asleep he said I really cant

imagine why that wolf should taste exactly like an ant.

August 20, 2013

On Food: II. Grains, Fruits and Vegetables

Fields of gold,
waves of grain,
the summer comes to a
The harvest is ready,
ripe for threshing,
as the sun fades into autumn.
Flour will be milled,
bread will be baked,
and we shall eat for another winter.

Patti Wigington

There are three levels of reality. First is the microcosmic level where atoms and electrons whirl and vibrate, imperceptible to our normal modes of cognition. Then there is macrocosm of sun and stars and galaxies. Between these is the mesocosm, the level of palpable reality. This is the level to which we are accustomed in our everyday life. At this level we recognize things and creatures, plants and animals. The foods we consume are at this level, though the elements and processes that serve us for our sustenance and health are at the microcosmic  level.

Today let us reflect on foods we get from the soil: on grains and fruits and vegetables. Humanity depends for its survival on the regular and abundant emergence of these in the fields of the world.

From the botanical point of view, everything we call cereal is a grass. Grains are grass fruits, consisting of an endosperm, a germ, and a bran. Whole grains are not popular with the food industry because they cannot be preserved for long. But they are rich in proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and oils. Long before John Harvey Kellogg, the vegetarian from Michigan, appropriated the name cereal for his brand of corn flakes, ancient Romans had named cereals after Ceres, their God of harvest. Rice, corn, wheat, barley, rye, and oats are all cereals, i.e. fruits of certain types of grasses. If the government knew this there wouldn’t be total a ban on grass.

There is another variety of grains which are called pulses. These include beans, dry peas and lentils. They too are  rich sources of proteins. This reminds me of an incident decades ago when my daughter came home from school  very confused because her biology teacher had told her that meat was absolutely essential for living. She knew her grandparents were pure vegetarians. I told her not to worry since they were in their seventies and in  good health. I went to her biology teacher and told him it was possible to be alive for long on vegetarian diet.  He said he disagreed, and showed me a biology text to prove his point. I told him that  my parents had been living fairly healthy lives for decades without so much as seeing an omelet, let alone carving a steak or chewing on a pork chop. He thought there was something wrong with my parents. I explained to him that millions of people in India live on vegetarian diet, their chief sources of protein being  milk products and a variety of pulses. He looked very puzzled and even somewhat unhappy. I have often wondered about the reliability of some nutritional reports like: a glass of wine a day is good for the heart, chocolate and elephant tusks are powerful aphrosadiacs, caffeine can prolong your life by three days, etc.

Most of us see grains in grocery stores,  as bread and rice, or in soups. We see fruits peeled, sliced, or jammed in bottles; we see vegetables cut or cooked or fried. It is a miracle that the golden sunlight turns into green grass and leaves, and then to grains. If we crave miracles, this is one: the transformation of solar radiation into salad and sandwich for us to eat and enjoy. Don’t be impressed by scientists when explain  this by saying it is because leaves have chlorophyl. The word only means green leaf in Greek. A word may sound technical if you you use a term from a Latin or Greek dictionary.  But that does not explain a fact.

Some three hundred crops provide us with plentiful food, and of these barely twenty four give most of the food we eat. Of these again only eight are responsible for 85% of all the food we eat.  Just three of them are responsible for practically all the main foods that people consume, directly or indirectly. These are rice, wheat and corn. With every grain is associated a fascinating history, important science, and multiple uses.

Wheat has been for ages  one of the most widely used cereals. More land is dedicated to wheat than to any other grain. Since the yield is excellent per unit area it is a very good cash crop, besides being the most protein-rich grain we have.

In a world of diminishing resources, wheat production has been steadily increasing. In the twentieth century there was a five-fold increase in wheat production in the whole world. In the second half of that century, there  was a ten-fold increase in the annual rate of wheat yield. It should not be forgotten that, aside from tractors and fertilizers,  all this has been possible because of  a fairly steady climate and weather. In the year 2007, as a result of flooding in the northern hemisphere and draught in Australia, wheat production diminished, and the price of wheat per bushel tripled.

Not many may know who Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport is. I first heard about him when I was in Ames, IA. He is the one who invented sliced bread in 1928. Although it has become proverbial, many other invensiotns were necessary before we could have even a loaf of bread: Mortars to pound the wheat and make a meal from which to sift the bran, crushers to grind, rotary grindstones, and so on.

The Romans started refining wheat to produce white flour. In ancient Rome one associated white bread with goodness, purity, and nobility of birth. Only the upper class used to indulge in it.  Prehistorians who have studied the skulls and dental relics of ancients peoples  have calculated that the percentage of teeth with cavities grew from 3 to 5 % from  3000 to 100 BCE, and jumped to 11% during Roman times. It peaked to 24% in 1959. White flour gets much credit for this, they say.

Some historians tell us  that  the health of the Roman upper class degenerated as a result of their fondness for white bread. This led to the fall of the Roman empire. Wheat caused the fall of ancient Rome?  Incredible. Actually, it was not wheat, but craving for something more and better all the time. Sometimes invention of luxuries can lead to self-hurt.

Modern food technology is barely two centuries old. Mass production of food began in nineteenth century England where it was re-discovered that the wheat germ contains oils which gradually becomes rancid. The germ contains much of food value, which also attracts rodents. Remove these and refine the wheat, and the flour lasts longer. Bread became the first technologically manufactured food, with many more to follow. White bread was resurrected in idustrializing England in 1826 when they did an experiment with bread made with white flour. It was found that a “dog fed on fine white bread does not live past the 50th day. A dog fed on the coarse whole bread lives and keeps his health” for much longer.

Rice is another staple grain with an ancient history. It has been cultivated in India and China since time immemorial. Elsewhere, as in the Americas and Australia, rice came in  only in recent centuries. Rice is an important food for billions of people in Asia, Afria, and South America.

There is an economic aspect of rice which leave us in a no-win situation. The vast majority of the poor in the world subsist on rice. Therefore it is important to have the price of rice very low. But rice is also produced largely in the poorer countries of the world. This means it would be to the advantage of rice growers if the price of rice is high.

This paradox reminds that as long as food articles are tied to market fluctuations, economy, and profit, humanity may never be able to solve the food crisis. But then, it is virtually impossible to change the market structure of world economy, or the economies of different countries. This implies that  there is potential for more starvation, and more debt to be incurred by the nations of the world.

In many Asian countries rice has a cultural and religious status that few other grains enjoy.  In China and Japan there are rituals associated with the rice crop. In India, feeding the child with its first spoonful of rice is a sacrament. Uncooked rice with turmeric is used in worship services. The sprinkling of rice on newly weds is a mark of wishing them good progeny.

Maize or corn is another  important cereal which was in common use in the Americas  before Europeans came to know about it in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Aztecs had a Maize God called Centeotl.

From here maize spread to the rest of the world. We know that human beings migrate from country to country and from continent to continent. But the same has happened to cereals and fruits also, often through the agency of humans.

Maize was one of the many genetically modified crops grown commercially in the world. In 2010, 86% of the maize crop in the U.S. and Canada was genetically modified in order to make them herbicide-tolerant.

Maize is also used for heating in corn stoves where the cobs serve  as fuel. As is well known, maize is used in the production of ethanol fuel to reduce pollution.  Currently forty percent of the 330 million tons of corn the U.S. produces each year  is turned into ethanol. When the Aztecs were growing the plant they could never have imagined that someday maize would be used for locomotion.

Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated. Archaeologists say they have found evidence of its use as early as in 8500 BCE. There is a cuneiform clay tablet in the British museum, dating back to 2350 BCE in which a Babylonian king prescribed how much barley each of his subjects could consume: rationing was already in vogue.

In ancient Greek rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries a special barley-based drink is said to have been used. Xenophon wrote: “For drink, there was beer which was very strong when not mingled with water, but was agreeable to those who were used to it. They drank this with a reed, out of the vessel…, upon which they saw the barley swim.” It was  an ancestor of the beer, and must have tasted very different from Amstel or Heineken or even King Fisher which is a beer from India which you all should try some day. 

The gladiators of ancient Rome were fed with barley: In fact, they were known as hordearii or barley-eaters. For many centuries barley was a staple  food in many regions of the world.  It was only in the 19th century that potatoes began to replace barley in Eastern Europe.

Aside from its use in the production of  beer, whiskey, and wine, and its abundant use as animal feed, barley also serves as algicide to protect pond plants and fish. According to David F. Houston of of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of TexasThe ease with which barley may be substituted directly for wheat in human food, and its usefulness to replace wheat milling by-products as feed in the production of the milk supply, render its abundant production important.

With its eight essential amino acids, Barley is also healthy in tea and coffee. The caffè d’orzo is nothing but barley-coffee. Some studies have shown that eating whole grain barley regulates blood glucose resopnse.

Just as the  Old World gave us wheat, rice, and Barley, the New world has given us not only maize, but also the Quinoa, the pseudo-cereal that grows in abundance in Ecuador and Bolivia. Quinoa is rich in nutrients, and can be cooked like rice. Unlike other grains, it is also used as detergent, and has some medicinal values.

Listen to this poem by an ardent admirer  and consumer of Quinoa (Denise M):

Quinoa, quinoa, my favorite whole grain

Boiled or toasted seasoned or plain

High in protein, and gluten-free

Rich in iron and in vitamin B

Full of fiber and a nutty flavor

Easy to cook and a pleasure to savor

Overshadowed by couscous, barley and rice

The less popular quinoa is twice as nice

It’s fluffy and versatile; add veggies or beans

Or make pudding, cold salads…nearly any cuisine.

I could eat it daily, again and again

This healthful quinoa, the “mother grain”

Among the many blessings we have received from Earth, are the countless  tasty and succulent fruits  that nourish and delight. Fruits have their origins in different parts of the world. Dates came from Egypt and apricot from China; avocado from Central America and blue-berries from North America, breadfruit from Indonesia and mango from India, pineapple from South America and pear from Europe, and so on.  This must remind us of the fact that we are all children of the same planet, inheritors of her abundant boons, and we  need to share earth’s bounties. 

Fruits and vegetables are both plant products. The difference is mainly in how they taste differently to human tongues.  Fruits are usually sweet-tasting; vegetables are savoury or less sweet. Squash, pumpkin, and cucumber, tomatoes, peas, green beans, eggplant, and sweet pepper are all vegetables in common parlance, but botanically speaking they are all fruits. Even some spices, like allspice and chilies, are technically  fruits. On the other hand, rhubarb which is only a leaf stalk  is often described as a fruit,  becaue it is used to make desserts. It is fair to say that fruits account for a significant fraction of the world’s agricutural products.

Here I must mention banana, one of the most remarkable plants that feed us. The fruit is green when raw and yellow when ripe, but we can also get red bananas. There are miniature bananas and very long ones. In India, the banana leaf is used as dish for dinner, and then as fodder for cattle. It is also used to wrap edibles. The trunk of the tree is also eaten, when appropriately curried and cooked. It is the easiest fruit to peel, easiest to bite, with hardly any seed to speak of  in our domesticated bananas, and quite sweet when ripe. Banana is sometimes fried, or baked with bread. One makes banana chips which are tastier than potato chips. Rich in starch, banana also contains vitamin B-6, Vitamin C, and potassium. Banana flowers are excellent as vegetables. That is why, the banana tree is regarded as sacred in the Hindu world, and held in high regard  throughout South East Asia. In addition to all this, it is the only fruit that offers us comic relief with its slippery peel when it makes humans take an unexpected ugly fall.

After millennia during which the vast majority of people spent much of their waking hours in the production of food, came the industrial revolution: which led to radical changes  in agriculture. With the emergence of modern mechanized and chemical agriculture with its countless paraphernalia, millions were released from toil in the fields. Agricultural outputs were multiplied, and the quality of the foods produced were much improved.

All this was great and welcome. At the dawn of the twentieth century,  many people felt good with the promise of abundance and satisfaction for everyone before long.  This phase of hope barely lasted a few decades. In the second half of the twentieth century  the Eudys principle kicked in: The Eudys principle states that every good thing introduced in human societies will sooner or later lead to problems, difficulties, and unhappy side-effects. 

Thus, improvements in agriculture and medicine resulted in population growth and longevity. This meant feeding more mouths for longer periods, and the need to grow more food. This called for more water and other resources, more mechanization and pesticides, and all the rest of it. In other words, the emergence of modern agriculture has not been an unadulterated blessing. Worse, it has led to some of the most ominous circumstances in human history, threatening us with our own extinction as a species.

Let us close with the poem:

Oh, I have walked in Kansas
Through many a harvest field,
And piled the sheaves of glory there
And down the wild rows reeled:
Each sheaf a little yellow sun,
A heap of hot-rayed gold;
Each binder like Creation’s hand
To mold suns, as of old.               (Vachel Lindsay)

 Let us express our gratitude to our unnamed ancestors who learned to sow and reap  the greens and the grains. Let us be thankful to the farmers of the world who literally give us each day our daily grain, and to the bakers of the world who literally give us each day our daily bread.  Hallowed be their labors.


August 19, 2013

Reflections on Food:1. Significance of Food

Mother Nature who art on Earth
Hallowed be thy ground.
May thy farms and fields flourish,
With fruits and grains that by all are found.
Give us each day our daily food
To us and to one and all.
Let’s work for the common good,
Let that be your clarion call.
Let’s not drift into selfishness
Feeding ourselves alone
When others elsewhere are hungry,
With nothing to call their own.
May we share the food we have,
For this we collectively pray:
May none suffer from starvation,
May all have food each day.

        V. V. Raman

 We are creatures on planet earth, in a niche in a vast universe of large galaxies and countless stars, amidst  planets in a solar system at an insignificant spot in the fringe of the Milky Way. In the language religion and the metaphor of poetry, we are blessed with body and spirit with which we experience this world.

The spirit thinks, generating thoughts, lofty and trivial, serious and light-hearted. It enjoys and suffers, conceptualizes and calculates. It is encased in a physical body. The body responds to sight, reacts to sound and smell, feels touch and relishes taste. It sees the wonder and splendor around, experiences pain and pleasure, and etches an individuality on the spirit making each one of us an unbridgeable insular entity at the deepest core. Yet, the body is sustained by many interconnected factors in the environment: light and warmth from the distant sun that sustains all life here below. The airy mantle that clothes our planet silently fuels our lungs.  So we inhale and exhale. This is the breath of life, the pneuma of the Greeks, the prana of the  Hindus, the chi of the Chinese.

Water quenches our thirst, cleanses our bodies, and cools us when surroundings are hot.  Rivers transport water back to the sea, the source of all the salt we need.

Of all the things that enable the body to function, the most enjoyable is food. The beauty of Nature can be seen and admired, the music of instruments can be heard and enjoyed. The fragrance of flowers is within our olfactory reach. What is seen or heard or smelled is not affected, nor diminished in quantity as a result of our experiencing it. But food needs to be personally consumed, and it reduces the source.  

One can live for many days and months without seeing a Monet or a Michelangelo, without listening to Bach or Beethoven or even the Beatles, and without relishing the smell of lilies and jasmines. But unlike beauty, sound, and smell, food is not a luxury, it is an everyday need, a sine qua non for living.

Then again, there are delightful sights and smells in Nature, and even the sounds of roaring waves and the cooing of birds to please our ears. All these are readily available.
For food, however, we need to labor, sow seeds in the ground and water the fields. Furthermore, even when we toil, we are dependent on cloud and rain for seeds to sprout. We rely on unseen forces and uncertain sources to harvest what we need.

Plato said “Knowledge is the food of the soul.” It is no less true that food is the gateway for the full experience of the soul, and it is food that enables us to contemplate the soul. The finest expressions of the human spirit emerge only in bodies that function well. Poor artists may have painted masterpieces, but there has been no starving Raphael or Rembrandt.

We have breakfast and lunch, snacks and dinner during each waking day. All these are part of an elaborate framework. That framework includes science and technology, economics and politics, culture and history too. 

Food has had enormous impact on the human condition. It is on this theme that I plan to reflect in the chapel talks this week.

Food is out there everywhere. We can see fields of wheat and corn, we  can walk through gardens of vegetables and orchards of fruits and vineyards. We find foods in grocery stores, in boxes of chocolates, and candies wrapped in glossy paper.  But all this can become part of us only when we eat them. It is eating that transforms inert matter into delectable taste. Only that which is edible may be justly called food, just as only that which is assimilated constitutes true knowledge.

As a bonus to eating, there is taste which is the experience that adds to the glory of this basic necessity for the human body. But for taste, eating would be as drab and demanding as routine exercise to keep the body fit. If we are grateful for the food we get, we must be equally thankful for the taste buds we are endowed with, which is perhaps an evolutionary trick to make sure we eat and live.

The farmer-author Joel Salatin wrote: “This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; this ain’t moral.” Yes, all foods have stories behind them. Whether cereal or milk, steak or salad, coffee or crackers, fruit or ice-cream,  every item we consume is the result of a long and intractable chain of transformations and processes that have evolved in Nature over the ages and have arisen through human effort and ingenuity.

Our pristine ancestors were for eons nomadic hunters and food gatherers. Between the epoch of the first appearance of humanoid creatures and the dawn of recorded history, our species procreated and propagated from generation to generation. Prehistorians have traced the activities and accomplishments our primordial ancestors during the early phases of their explorations and awareness of new terrains.

As with all other creatures, the first and foremost concern of Homo sapiens was survival which called for food and shelter from the elements. At one time human beings consumed practically everything they could lay hands on: earthworms, frogs, lice, and spiders, to name but a few which may seem  unpalatable to many in our own times. But some of these are available today in select upscale restaurants, reflecting our proclivity to progress and regress.

The need for variety and the desire for better things have always propelled humans. In the distant past this spurred hunting for large animals. Thus, from the very beginning, efforts to satisfy needs and desires have been among the  mainsprings of human activity. When all needs are met, and all desires fulfilled, there is no urge to improve upon what is easily available. If all materials needs are met, there might be no change and further search. On the other hand, it is only there is enough food to eat that there can be creativity in art and science and music.

When religions preach curtailment of wants, as they often do, they inspire us to ethically noble and spiritually uplifting modes. But too much restraining desires is seldom an incentive for scientific, technological, or economic  growth. Whether such growth is necessary for human happiness and to what extent it is even healthy, and at what point it may even become harmful are questions that ethicists and social philosophers have been debating for a long time.

Gradually, humans beings developed the ability to obtain more massive flesh, like that of the elephant and the reindeer,  the buffalo, the camel and such. Instinctively they kept away from the lion and the tiger. In any case, hunting by Homo erectus had some unexpected consequences. To begin with, most wild animals that hunt for prey, such as lions, tigers, and wolves, use brute force on their victims. Their piercing claws and sharp teeth rip open the bowels of the prey. But in the case of humans, the would-be prey was often stronger and more massive than the hunter, thick-skinned and wild.  Not all animals are as easily snared as the frog and the fish. This meant that humans had to devise other means to subdue their game. This they did with sharp stones and pointed sticks to begin with. In other words, humans began to use the resources of the world around in order to exploit Nature for their needs, and to explore new ways to augment their intrinsic strengths and capabilities. They began to manipulate things. Our ancestors became tool-makers. Thus was born technology. Its initial aim was to kill in order to feed. Who would have thought that it was the quest for fleshy food that gave birth to technology!

But even with tools and techniques, it was not always easy to capture the swift deer or the massive elephant. This could only be done by careful scheming, clever strategy, and coordinated action. That meant collaboration between different individuals. This called for communication through grunts and groans.  Thus hunting provoked humans to act in concert, to share thoughts and plans through symbolic sounds. A victorious capture led to collective jubilation. Social cohesion arose. Efforts to combine forces also led to better communication: the transfer of thoughts and ideas. Thus it was that   language emerged in human groups.

In other words, not only the material tools, but also the conceptual instruments of language and the spiritual dimensions of shared life arose from the hunting era.  Thus, the foundations of technology and of   culture  were laid by the most fundamental characteristics of our species: namely, perennial attempts to satisfy hunger, the urge to have more than what is available, and the ingenuity to exploit the resources that abound in Nature. Food has played a more important role in our history than one generally realizes.  The New World was “discovered”  as a result of a quest finding a shorter route to get for spices from the Indies. If there had been no cumin and pepper there might not have been a United States and Canada.

Some twelve thousand years ago, a spectacular change occurred. Unlike political revolutions, the agricultural revolution was not born of the mind, not stirred by ideas and ideals. It did not arise from an urge to fight imperialism or injustice. It was brought about  by the accident of discovery, by Nature thrusting upon humans the possibility of food from land on a regular basis. The agricultural revolution is perhaps the only revolution that did not call for the spilling of blood. As the cultural critic Daniel Quinn put it, it was “not an event like the Trojan War, isolated in the distant past and without relevance to your lives today. The work begun by those Neolithic farmers … has been carried forward from one generation to the next without a single break, right into the present moment. It’s the foundation of our vast civilization today in exactly the same way that it was the foundation of the very first farming village.”

Now there was an opportunity to settle down and produce food systematically. This was no small discovery. It took many centuries before its full impact was realized. Prehistorians have determined the particular grains that first came under humanity’s sway. As to precisely when and where this occurred for the first time, no one can be quite certain. There is considerable evidence that major transformations along these lines occurred several millennia ago in what we now call the Fertile Crescent.

As we all know, along with the agricultural revolution came the domestication of animals: the dog and the sheep, then cattle, horse, and other animals. This was another giant step in the human  control over Nature, for now human beings began to exploit the muscular power of oxen, the wool of sheep, the milk of camel and cows, the vigilance of dogs, and the speed of horses. The history of technology is no more than the history of humanity’s gradual harnessing of the resources of the world around us to mitigate muscular effort and enhance physical comfort. And it all began with the search for food.

Agriculture also meant settling down: to sow and nurture and reap. In between, there was time to relax, to reflect, and to stare at the stars. No longer was  every member of the group needed for food production. Clay, stone, and wood, which had  come under creative hands, began to inspire artistry and craftsmanship. The possibility of storing food averted famines, and it also increased population. The establishment of communities led to social order and communal activities. Some began to build better shelters, some to watch the skies systematically, yet others to sing and fantasize, and others still to just talk about it all in groups, if not in conferences. In other words, astronomers, composers, scientists, artists, poets and wordy philosophers: all could thrive only because food became readily available. This has been so all through history down to our own times.

This milestone also had considerable effect on Nature over the ages. Even during the hunting stage, human beings began to indiscriminately drive many a beast away from its natural habitat, if not push it to extinction. Gradually, human ingenuity turned to even greater assaults on the environment. Plants and trees have always grown in abundance in various regions of the world. The richness of the flora and fauna has more significance than their variety and splendor. We have come to realize  in our own times that the totality of plants and animals in any given place, and in various regions of the world, form an interdependent self-sustaining whole that we call the ecosystem. In due course, the complexity of the ecosystem was drastically reduced by human intervention. The channeling of waters by means of irrigation schemes began to erode the soil, creating imbalances in the ecology with the ultimate result that vast areas of lush vegetation were turned into arid deserts. The rich variety of fauna was replaced by one or just a few crops of advantage to humans. In other words, one important consequence of the agricultural revolution was that complex ecosystems were reduced to simpler ones, more prone to agricultural distress. The difference between ancient times and the modern is that in the past people did all this without knowing, now we do this with full knowledge.

The agricultural revolution transformed us from the Stone Age to that of settled  communities which invented writing. But food from land  also prompted the conquest of other peoples because not all geographical regions are equally conducive to the cultivation of wheat and corn, or the rearing of cattle and pigs.

In the modern world, as long as we live in a closed and self-sufficient community, with enough food to consume, we can simply eat and drink and be contented. That is how many generations lived and thrived, satisfied with what they had, and quite unaware of or indifferent to the wants and  insufficiencies of others beyond their own group. But in our own times, gory details of the contrast in the world are being brought to light all too graphically through magazines and televised news. That contrast is hard to imagine, it seems incredible and strikes as awful to many who are unaccustomed to it. At the one extreme we have restaurants in some cities where people dine with wines and fancy desserts for a few hundred dollars. At the other extreme there are anemic children and emaciated mothers who barely get a meal a day. Awareness of this unconscionable contrast prompts many to think of others, and to care for the pain and predicament of fellow beings. That is what constitutes moral awakening: It forces upon us an ethical responsibility that it is hard to shirk for a moral being.

Such is the story of food: from berries and beasts to haute cuisine, from a time when all had whatever was available to a phase where there is gross maldistribution of food, from the stage when food was just for nourishment to one where it is packaged and sealed, traded and transported and sold.

Beyond the menu in restaurants and recipe books, food has become a topic of great interest in today’s complex politics and grave concern in today’s economy. It has taken center stage in public discourse.

Let our satisfactions from the food we eat

Be incomplete without our sharing with others

In one way or another

Whatever we are fortunate to receive.

And to the ultimate source of our daily nourishment

Let us give thanks today as on every day.

 August 6, 2013