Naivedyam – I ‘Tera Tujhko Arpan’

It never fails to amaze me the way our ancestors wove customs and traditions with religious rituals in our daily lives. Food forms an integral part of these customs. Festivals and fasts (vrats) are part of this scheme of things, as special naivedyams mark both the festivities and abstinence.

Sankranti sweets made of sweet potatoes

We make special items on festivals, which are often made of the produce of the season or with ingredients that are suited to that particular season. As sweetmeats made of til (sesame) or shakarkand (sweet potatoes) made for Sankranti and the pongal and khichdi made with freshly harvested grains and vegetables. Special offerings are prepared for festivals like Navratris, Ganesh Chaturthi, Janmashtami and even Shivaratri. Likewise, we eschew certain foods during fasts and eat only specific foods or even give up food altogether for the duration of the fast. This ensures rest and detoxification of the digestive system. Truly remarkable wisdom, isn’t it?

Food is the most important of human needs, but in our culture it goes a step further and assumes a sacred spiritual significance. Hindus make a naivedyam (offering) of whatever they eat, first to God before serving it, like giving the first bite of a choice morsel to our most beloved.

Offering naivedyam is distinct from the ritual of saying grace over food that is practiced by Christians – where God is thanked for the food He has given. The roles of the Giver and the receiver are clearly defined here. But when we offer naivedyam, it signifies an intimacy with the Divine, and a sense of surrender. ‘How can you offer God’s gift back to Him?’ is a question that may arise here. But this is where the closeness the devotee feels with God comes. It at once signifies that God is one of us, and yet superior to us. There is a beautiful thought behind this – tera tujhko arpan (in Sanskrit: त्वदीयं वस्तु तुभ्यमेव समर्पये) – we offer unto Thee what Thou hath provided.

Take the chappan bhog, for instance. Krishna saved Dwarka from the deluge that threatened to drown it by lifting the mountain Gowardhan for seven days without food. The people of Dwarka were so overcome by remorse and love for their Lord that they made 56 different kinds of dishes for him – eight items per day for seven days – once the rains ceased. Such are the sentiments behind offering naivedyam!

Technically, one is supposed to offer ‘atma nivedanam’ to God – that is, offer oneself at His Lotus feet in a gesture of total surrender – shorn of ego. How many of us can do this? Instead, we do it symbolically, by breaking a coconut and removing the water from it before offering it to God. The coconut is offered whole as a mark of reverence, but when broken, it signifies the breaking of the hard shell of the ego, emptying it of all undesirable traits (the water) and surrendering the pure self to God.

Chappan Bhog
(Source: ‘Zephyr’)

The naivedyam can be anything from mere tulsi teerth or flavoured sweetened water to the most exotic sweet or even the chappan bhog of 56 food items! What we offer is immaterial, but how we offer it, makes all the difference. We all know the story of Sudama, who had nothing to offer to his friend Krishna except a few handfuls of poha (beaten rice), but which delighted the Lord so much that he lavished all the riches on him – all without Sudama even asking for anything!

Talking of naivedyam, one has to mention prasadam also. North Indians colloquially refer to the act of making an offering to the deity as ‘prashad chadhana.’ But the offering becomes a prasadam only after being offered to God.

(Source: ‘Zephyr’)

To understand how naivedyam turns into prasadam, one should understand the sthula and sookshma states of things. The former is physical and the latter is subtle or unmanifested. So while we offer the naivedyam in the sthula state, the Deity partakes of it in the sookshma state. If one were to explain in mundane terms, one can say that the material food (naivedyam) is transformed into a spiritual one (prasadam), invested with the grace of the Deity. The devotion, love and faith invest the prasadam with divine powers too.

With His grace, even a cup of poison can turn into nectar. When Meera was given the cup of poison by her brother-in-law Vikram Singh, she first offered it to her beloved Krishna as was her custom. And lo and behold! He turned it into Amrit!

Naivedyam is typically made without tasting, as it has to be offered first to God. Only for the exemplary devotees is the privilege of offering something after tasting or using it. Shabari, of Ramayana was one such devotee. Anxious to give only the sweetest of bers (wild berries) to her beloved Lord Rama, she bit into every berry to make sure it was sweet enough for Him.

Likewise, Andal, the great poet saint of Srivilliputtur in Tamil Nadu, who was determined to only marry Lord Vishnu. She was known as Soodi kodutha sudarkodi, meaning, “The bright creeper-like woman who gave her garlands after wearing them” to Lord Vishnu. The daughter of Periyalwar, one of the 12 Alwars of Vaishnavism, 11-year-old Andal made garlands for the Lord at the temple. Just to see if it would suit Him, she would first wear it and stand in front of the mirror to check. One day her father caught her at it and was furious. She began making a new garland. However, that night Lord Vishnu appeared in Periyalvar’s dream and told him that he cherished the garland that Andal first tried on herself and that she should continue doing it.

Coming back to prasadams, temple prasadams hold a special significance for the devotees. How often have we clamoured for a pinch of vibhuti or Kumkum from a temple, believing that it would be the panacea for our ills? In fact, we keep small tins of both and apply them on our foreheads after bath every day, or when we go on an important errand believing in its power to help us. Whenever someone suffers from an ailment, it is customary to apply a pinch of vibhuti on the forehead and rub some on the affected part. We can say that the efficacy of a prasadam is largely based on faith and devotion.

Some temples have iconic prasadams, as the Tirupati laddoo, which is so famous as to have even got a geographic copyright! The entire neighbourhood gets a piece of it when someone makes the pilgrimage to Tirupati. Likewise, there are special prasadams at various temples across the length and breadth of the country, with interesting legends associated with them. We will take a look at them in the next part.

Read the next section of this series here

Cover Picture: Naivedyam on Karthigai festival (Source: ‘Zephyr’)

Author:  Zephyraka Cybernag, is an award-winning blogger and writer, who blogs on social issues, culture, spirituality and family.

Published: June 24, 2018

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