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Chinmaya Mission Boston In The Spotlight: The Tradition Of Annadaanam

Dr. Vijayakumar Harohalli

The Tradition of Annadaanam


When I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, it was early morning. The dining hall where langar was served was already full. It was a huge space. They said that it could seat 5000 people at one time. Hundreds of volunteers were serving hot Rotis and dal with machine-like precision. The devotees would receive the Rotis with folded hands with absolute devotion. To them, the food served at the temple is a gift from God. This tradition which has been in continuous existence since the 1400s is revered by devotees from all walks of life. Emperors and beggars, men, women, and children sit on the same floor to receive the prasad. This enormous operation is almost entirely run by volunteers and the donations keep coming in cash or kind. The sheer magnitude of the service is mind-boggling. On any given day 50,000 meals are served and on special occasions, there might even be 100,000 people. 11000 pounds of wheat, 3000 pounds of rice, and many other food items are needed daily to sustain this service! 


This tradition called Annadaanam is followed in many temples and religious institutions in India for hundreds of years. And, Hindu temples built by the Indian diaspora have lovingly replicated the same custom in their adopted lands. The Chinmaya Maruti Center in Andover has an Annadaanam program when Balavihar is in session. About 300 to 400 meals are served every Sunday. 


What is the scriptural context behind this tradition? 


Food is regarded as a divine gift from Vedic times. अन्नं ब्रह्मेति व्यजानात् (Annam brahmeti vyajaanaat) declares the Taittiriya upanishad. It means food, Annam, is the supreme lord, Brahman himself. 


Before eating a meal, in Chinmaya Mission, we are taught to say a prayer. 


ब्रह्मार्पणं ब्रह्म हविः ब्रह्माग्नौ ब्रह्मणा हुतम्। 

ब्रह्मैव तेन गन्तव्यं ब्रह्मकर्म समाधिना।  


It is a verse from chapter 4 of the Bhagavadgita. The food we eat is Brahman himself. And, Brahman himself resides in the body to help digest this food ( अहं वैश्वानरो भूत्वा प्राणिनां देहमाश्रितः) and convert it into the energy we need to go about in our daily lives. Therefore every human endeavor is an offering to God, a sacred Yajna. In the third chapter of the Bhagavadgita this whole cycle of life is described: 


अन्नाद्भवन्ति भूतानि पर्जन्यात् अन्नसम्भवः।  

यज्ञाद्भवति पर्जन्यः यज्ञः कर्मसमुद्भवः।  

कर्म ब्रह्मोद्भवं विद्धि ब्रह्माक्षरसमुद्भवम्। 

तस्मात् सर्वगतं ब्रह्म नित्यं यज्ञे प्रतिष्ठितम्।  


The all-pervading Brahman exists in Yajna. The rains originate from this Yajna. From the rains comes to the food and the food creates life. A person in this tradition joins this circle and helps to keep it going by producing, distributing, and consuming food and puts himself to work in serving the divine purpose. 


The Gita also says that human beings are created to perform this Yajna. (सहयज्ञाः प्रजाः)

So, to do Annadaanam is like performing thousands of Yajnas


And, not sharing the food with others is considered sinful! केवलाघो भवति केवलादी (Rigveda: One who eats food by himself gathers sin by himself too)


Some wonder if we should be feeding the poor instead of feeding everyone. 


It’s a perfectly reasonable question. However, the scriptures don’t take the same view. Everyone who is hungry is in need of food. A poor man eats the food to sustain himself and a rich man eats to sustain others. Our duty is to share what is given to us and inspire others to do the same. 


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