The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists

Reviewed by Francis Zimmermann

The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Vol.114 No.3



Copyright by American Oriental Society 1994

            Most of the papers collected in this volume were first presented at 
            a conference on Food Systems and Communication Structures, organized 
            in 1985 at the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, by R. 
            S. Khare and the late Professor M. S. A. Rao. This is a book about 
            the ways in which the Hindu and Buddhist cultures approach food as 
            an "essence" and an aesthetic "experience" within personal and 
            social life. Several papers discuss the issue of food essence and 
            aesthetics, with special attention to Hindu saints and devotees, for 
            whom foods represent a cosmic principle at one level and a most 
            immediate and intimate semiotic reality at another. The entire book 
            is based upon a theoretical assumption formulated by R. S. Khare in 
            his introduction: 
            Food in India is never merely a material substance of ingestion, nor 
            only a transactional commodity. It is synonymous with life and all 
            its goals, including the subtlest and the highest. Sometimes highly 
            abstract (approximating the linguistic, aesthetic, and even 
            nontransactional, or supratransactional "grammars") and sometimes 
            palpably tangible (as a physical substance and "bodies"), this food 
            asserts such a life-guiding presence that it concerns, one way or 
            another, the thought and practice of the entire Indic civilization 
            (p. 1). 
            The general orientation thus defined will be discussed below, after 
            brief presentations have been given of each of the eight papers 
            included in the book. 
            R. S. Khare (University of Virginia) opens the series with "Food 
            with Saints: An Aspect of Hindu Gastrosemantics." These are general 
            comments on the way Hindu holy persons handle food to serve moral 
            and spiritual purposes, in various forms of "transactions" (for 
            which word Khare gives vyapara as a Sanskrit equivalent, p. 31), 
            encoding foods with special messages as they go about eating. 
            Detached from food, the holy man makes food "speak" and "act" on his 
            behalf. His food conveys his blessings and curses. As leftovers, his 
            food guides disciples toward spiritual experiences. David G. White 
            (University of Virginia) specializes in comparative mythology and, 
            from the rich material he collected on the mythology of the dog-man, 
            he has extracted a well-researched paper, the title of which speaks 
            for itself: "You Are What You Eat: The Anomalous Status of 
            Dog-Cookers in Hindu Mythology." White's precise annotations and 
            exhaustive references should be praised. Contrary to the other 
            contributors to the volume, White is well acquainted with researches 
            currently pursued in Europe (Charles Malamoud, etc.), which allows 
            him to throw a bridge between American transactionalism and European 
            holism in the study of Hindu mythology. Vidyut Aklujkar (University 
            of British Columbia) is a student of devotional poetry in Marathi, a 
            striking feature of which is the profusion of food imagery. 
            Aklujkar's short contribution, "Sharing the Divine Feast: Evolution 
            of Food Metaphor in Marathi Sant Poetry," offers vignettes of 
            Jnanadeva (1275-96), Namadeva (1270-1350), Ekanatha (1533-99), 
            Tukarama (1598-1649), and their poems, with special reference to 
            feasts and leftovers as poetic symbols of shared intimacies with the 
            divine. Paul M. Toomey (who has taught at Cornell and Tufts) 
            conducted field-work on Annakuta (the Mountain of Food), one large 
            food festival held in Braj, in which a metonymy is established 
            between food offerings and Krishna's enjoyment of his own blissful 
            nature (rasa) through the emotions of devotees he brings into 
            existence. The title of Toomey's paper, "Mountain of Food, Mountain 
            of Love: Ritual Inversion in the Annakuta Feast at Mount Govardhan," 
            refers to symbols and behaviors that create an overall sense of 
            ambiguity. In some cases, for example, Brahman pujari dress as 
            cowherds. Or else, in contrast to most other large food festivals 
            where pakka foods (cooked in or with cow products) are central, 
            Annakuta is the only occasion when kacca foods (boiled in water with 
            no ghee nor milk) are displayed and offered to the god's icon. The 
            visual display of a category of food which is prohibited in most 
            commensal situations, and in a space which is defined as public, 
            formulates in ritual terms the strongly egalitarian message of 
            devotional Vishnuism. Manuel Moreno (Northeastern Illinois 
            University), studying the "Pancamirtam: God's Washings as Food," 
            relegates emotion and otherworldly pursuits of the devotee to the 
            background, in order to focus on the pharmacological and humoral 
            nature of foods and baths offered to god Murukan's icon at Palani in 
            Tamilnad. Twice a year, in winter and summer, the idol of the god is 
            said to swell due to cold or heat as humors (Tamil tosam, i.e., 
            Sanskrit dosa). Important festivals, accompanied by well-attended 
            pilgrimages, are held to heal the god, by offering him pots of water 
            from the Kaveri river to cool him, or pancamrtam candies to warm him 
            up. Murukan's food washings are collected by a particular group of 
            pilgrims, the Nattukkottai Cettiyars (a caste of traders and 
            bankers), who ingest them to regenerate certain lost qualifies in 
            their bodies that they share with Murukan's body. Moreno publishes 
            the detailed schedule of daily feeding and bathing of the Palani 
            idol, and the recipe of the Palani pancamrtam. He concludes with 
            remarks on "God as rasam" (p. 167), playing upon the polysemy of 
            this Sanskrit word, which may mean "juice," "alchemical 
            quintessence," "flavor," and "aesthetic mood," according to context. 
            (Khare glossed over the same word in his introduction, by saying: "a 
            material-Ayurvedic-aesthetic-divine substance [rasa or rasam]," p. 
            13.) However, this interpretation of the humoral and pervasive 
            nature of god Murukan is based on folk etymologies that would 
            require further analysis. The name Palani is said to derive from the 
            Tamil expression palamni, "you are the fruit." Murukan "is the fruit 
            par excellence whose juices are the sweet pancamirtam washings from 
            his body" (p. 168). Murukan is the god who has muruku, that is, 
            youth, tenderness, sweetness; "in other words, he embodies the 
            essence (rasam) of the hills and their inhabitants" (p. 158, 
            repeated p. 168). But rasam, here, seems to have been superimposed 
            on the ethno-graphic data. One has the feeling that the 
            interpretation remains at the level of images and depends upon 
            hurried semantic shifts from fruits to sweets to pervasive juices. 
            In "Food Essence and the Essence of Experience," H. L. Senevirame 
            (University of Virginia) explores analogies between physiology, 
            aesthetics and religious experience. Although the last pages are 
            based on an ethnographic description of Sinhalese cuisine, this 
            paper is essentially made up of approximative statements of 
            Ayurvedic humoralism and the aesthetic theories of rasa and bhava. 
            Then comes another contribution from R. S. Khare, "Annambrahman 
            [sic]: Cultural Models, Meanings, and Aesthetics of Hindu Food," 
            which outlines Hindu views on the relationships between seen and 
            unseen properties of food. Khare suggests placing the Eternal Food 
            at the intersection of upanishadic views on prana (breaths), 
            Ayurvedic views on food transactions, and the Hindu philosophy of 
            tapas (austerities) and self-discipline. The series of eight 
            contributions ends with a fine "bouquet" of flowers of rhetoric 
            arranged by the late A. K. Ramanujan (Chicago), "Food for Thought: 
            Toward an Anthology of Hindu Food-Images," which is both an essay 
            and a collage. Poems and tales are cited to exemplify different 
            paradigms of Hindu thought, in which food provides the basic 
            imagery. Ramanujan reviews larger schemes like that of the Food 
            Chain, performatives like proverbs about food, and figures of 
            speech, including metaphors like "the Karman eater," etc. 
            In the latter part of this review, I would like to concentrate on 
            two theoretical issues. Indologists would be prepared to accept 
            Khare's statement quoted above: "Food in India is synonymous with 
            life, etc.," although they might question the exaggerated importance 
            attached to the cosmic dimensions of the food metaphor. But he goes 
            one step further, when suggesting that India and the West have 
            entertained two fundamentally different attitudes toward food: "The 
            cultural approach to food in India, I suggest, has been distinct 
            [from the Western approach] in some fundamental - ideological - 
            ways. Food is not just a symbol of or for the cultural but it is 
            integral to the Hindu's ultimate reality in the same way as 'self' 
            or 'soul' is" (p. 19 n. 3). This relativistic presupposition is 
            highly questionable, which amounts to saying once again that Indian 
            thought is unique and untranslatable. That food is integral to the 
            ultimate reality is very much a tenet of traditional Western 
            worldviews. Let us refer to Jean Bollack's Empedocle (Paris: 
            Editions de Minuit, 1965-1969), index s.v. nutrition, and, for 
            example, vol. III.2, p. 404: "leur subsistance ne se distingue pas 
            de leur nature." Aromatics and cuisine have been shown to display 
            the very same philosophical and cosmological connotations among the 
            Pythagoreans, by Marcel Detienne in his celebrated Les Jardins 
            d'Adonis (Paris: Gallimard, 1972). The idea that, in various 
            cultures, food is integral to the ultimate reality was first 
            pro-pounded by Marcel Mauss in 1939, in an expose entitled 
            "Conceptions qui ont precede la notion de matiere," where he traced 
            the shifts of meaning from food to subsistence to substance to 
            matter (Mauss, Oeuvres [Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969], II: 164). 
            I hope these references will help the reader contextualize the book 
            under review. 
            A specific activity conducted during the Mysore conference, which 
            determined the transactionalistic orientation of this book, has 
            unfortunately been kept in the background, but it should be 
            mentioned here. Professor McKim Marriott (Chicago) introduced 
            Samsara, a game which simulates, or formulates, by means of 
            simulating behaviors, the transgenerational process of rural Hindu 
            life. Since this game has not yet been published, its description, 
            outlined in pp. 201-2 of the book, will be of interest as a 
            complement to India Through Hindu Categories, a book edited by McKim 
            Marriott (New Delhi: Sage Publ., 1990), where he resorts to other 
            simulating devices to construct an Indian ethnosociology. The goal 
            of each player of the Samsara game is to conduct his life, i.e., 
            birth, marriage, accumulation of wealth and crops, feuding, and 
            dying, with minimal "markings." This simulation game of "markings" 
            ascribed to players whenever they make a move is, to me, a 
            convincing interpretation of the karma concept. Food, precisely, 
            represents one of those markings, and the Samsara game represents a 
            most appropriate realization of what Khare and his colleagues had in 
            mindwhen choosing the title of the book: "The Eternal Food," that 
            is, food as karma markings flowing throughout samsara.