Bless This Food
Ancient and Contemporary Graces From Around the World
By Adrian Butash
New World Library Copyright © 2007 Adrian Butash
All rights reserved.
Let me meditate on the glorious Supreme Being, the Sun,
which brightens all the three worlds —
the Heaven, the Earth, and the Nether land.
May He enlighten our hearts and direct our
— The Gayatri Hymn (circa 1500 BC)
The Gayatri Hymn, the holiest verse in the Rig-Veda (III. 4.10), addresses the sun, the Supreme Being, who was usually personified as a goddess, the wife of Brahma and the metaphorical mother of all. The sun is a metaphor for divinity, being the generative support for life on earth and the provider of food.
Said to have been inscribed on dry leaves, the Vedas — the sacred scriptures of Hinduism — are the most ancient ritual utterances of the early Aryans of India. The name of this particular hymn comes from the Sanskrit gai, meaning to sing. The hymn is also known as the Gayatri Mantra. The word mantra means incantation. A mantra can be a one-syllable word or a few words, a sentence or a few sentences.
* * *
Here with flowers I interweave my friends.
Let us rejoice!
Our common house is the earth.
I am come too, here I am standing;
now I am going to forge songs,
make a stem flowering with songs,
oh my friend!
God has sent me as a messenger.
I am transformed into a poem.
— Nahuatl blessing (circa 1300 BC)
The Nahuatl Indians of Mexico considered food sacred, a gift from the Sky Father and Earth Mother. Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent deity who represented earth and vegetation, and was important in art and religion throughout Mesoamerica for over two thousand years, a period encompassing the preclassical era, before the Spanish conquest. Civilizations worshipping the feathered serpent included the Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec, and Aztec, all of whom adopted it from the Mayan people.
* * *
I am food, I am food, I am food.
I am the food-eater, I am the food-eater, I am the food-eater.
I am the combining agent, I am the combining agent, I am the
I am the first-born of the world-order, earlier than the gods, in the
center of immortality.
Whoso gives me, he surely does save thus.
I, who am food, eat the eater of food. I have overcome the world. Iam
brilliant like the sun.
— Mystical chant from the Upanishads (circa 900 BC)
The Upanishads are part of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism. Composed over several centuries, the Upanishads illuminate the doctrine of Brahman — the ultimate reality of pure consciousness — and the identity of Brahman with atman, the inner self of man. These scriptures were transmitted orally in Sanskrit through the ages and were considered poetic liturgy. The Upanishads also contain the most definitive explications of aum (OM), the divine oral word, the cosmic vibration that underlies all existence.
* * *
On the day the seed breaks through the ground ... say a prayer to Ninkilim.
— Ninurta (circa 1700 BC)
In an ancient Sumerian site called Nippur, a small inscribed tablet that dates from 1700 BC was unearthed in 1949. It is known in anthropological circles as the first farmers' almanac because it records agricultural advice offered by a father to his son. Along with practical instructions, the father has recorded the requirement that one must say a thanks-giving-for-food prayer, a commandment laid down by Ninurta, son of the "true farmer" Enlil, a principal Sumerian deity.
* * *
Author of my well-being,
source of knowledge,
fount of holiness, height of glory,
all-mightiness of eternal splendor!
I shall choose that which
He shall have taught me
and I shall rejoice in that which
He shall have appointed unto me.
When I put forth my hands and my feet,
I shall bless His Name;
when I go out or when I go in,
when I sit down or when I rise up,
and upon my bed shall I sing unto Him.
I shall bless Him with the offering
which comes forth from my lips
for the sake of all which He has established
unto men, and before I lift up my hands to partake
of the delicious fruits of the earth.
— Dead Sea Scrolls (second century BC–first century AD)
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of biblical Hebrew documents, were recorded on parchment by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes of Qumran and later hidden in jars in caves. The scrolls occupy a place in the history of biblical writing and poetry and are important to scholars of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Essenes were a pious sect who dressed in white and ate communal meals at which a priest said grace before eating. It was unlawful for anyone to taste the food before grace was said. Both Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, and Philo, a Hellenized Jewish philosopher, recorded accounts of the Essenes' communal meetings, meals, and religious celebrations. The tribes were most probably strict vegetarians who ate mainly bread, wild roots, and fruits.
* * *
Offerings are made to thee,
Oxen are slain to thee,
Great festivals are kept for thee,
Pure flames are offered to thee.
— Egyptian prayer (3100 BC–AD 400)
Ancient Egyptians prayed to Hapi, the Nile god of nourishment, petitioning for the flood that would enrich the fields. Each and every year, Hapi would increase the Nile so that it flooded, depositing rich soil on the farmlands, allowing the Egyptians to grow crops — and survive. His name means "Running One," referring to the current of the Nile. Occasionally, the annual flood was said to be the arrival of Hapi. In hieroglyphics he is was often pictured carrying offerings of food or pouring water.
* * *
O Lord of the universe
Please accept all this food
It was given by you
Let it be of service to all
Only you can bless it
— Bhagavad Gita (500 BC)
The Bhagavad Gita is the "Song of the Lord," also known as the "Song of the Divine One." Written in Sanskrit, the poem comes from the Mahabharata, one of the greatest religious classics of Hinduism. The Gita is often described as a concise guide to Hindu philosophy. One Hindu concept teaches that food should not be eaten unless it is first offered to God. It then becomes prasad — blessed by God. The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most compelling and important texts of the Hindu tradition. It is considered by scholars to be one of the world's greatest religious and spiritual scriptures.
* * *
I thank Thee, O Lord,
because Thou hast bound me in the bundle of life.
I thank Thee, O Lord,
because Thou has saved me from the pit.
I thank Thee, O Lord,
because Thou has gladdened me with thy Covenant.
I thank Thee, O Lord,
because Thou hast set thine eye on me.
— The Thanksgiving Hymns, from the Dead Sea Scrolls
(second century BC–first century AD)
I composed this original thanks-giving blessing from the exact texts of couplets taken from a group of sixty-six fragments of eight devotional poems in biblical Hebrew. The eight devotional poems are characterized by the identical formulaic opening line of each one, "I thank Thee, O Lord." These eight poems are recorded in the Scroll of the Hodayat (thanks giving).
The Dead Sea Scrolls are of great religious and historical significance, as they are among the very few known surviving biblical documents written before AD 100. The parchment scrolls, discovered in a cave in Qumran in 1947 by a shepherd boy, were wrapped in linen and stored in jars. They include texts from the Hebrew Bible, a term that refers to the common portions of the Jewish and Christian biblical canons.
* * *
The spiritually minded,
who eat in the spirit of service,
are freed from all their sins;
but the selfish,
who prepare food for their own satisfaction,
Living creatures are nourished by food,
and food is nourished by rain;
rain itself is the water of life,
which comes from selfless worship and service.
— Bhagavad Gita (500 BC)
The Gita illuminates Krishna's teachings, especially the grace of God. Sri Krishna ( Sri is a holy title similar to "Lord") has been called the Christ of India owing to the remarkable parallels between the lives of Krishna and Jesus. As implied by this hymn from the Gita, any sacrifice performed without regard for scriptural instructions, without distribution of prasadam (spiritual food), without chanting of Vedic hymns, without remunerations to the priests, and without faith is considered to be the result of ignorance. Hence, it is essential to offer food to God in the form of prayer, so that impurities do not afflict one's mind.
* * *
We thank you, Father,
for the life and knowledge you have revealed to us
through your child Jesus.
Glory be yours through all ages.
As grain once scattered on the hillside
was in this broken bread made one,
so from all lands may we be gathered
into your kingdom by your Son.
— The Didache (circa AD 70–150)
The name Didache comes from didactic, a Greek word related to "doctrine." It refers to the "Teaching of the Two Ways," exemplified in this passage: "There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways" (chap. 1:1). The Didache is the oldest Christian literature outside of the New Testament. A church manual of early Christian practice — that is, a catechism — it included advice on aspects of church life, including piety, prayers, and food matters. Catechisms are doctrinal manuals in the form of questions followed by answers, a format that enhanced learning and memorization. The "early Christian" period extends from the time of Jesus' death, in approximately AD 33, to 325, when the First Council of Nicea was formed. Christianity grew out of a sect composed of the followers of Jesus during the period of the second temple, built in the first century.
* * *
Ishvari, who ever giveth food,
Bestower of happiness to all,
Who advanceth all people,
Presiding Devi over the city of Kashi,
Vessel of mercy, grant me aid.
— From the Mahabharata (200 BC–AD 200)
The Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic of India, whose title means "Great India," is the longest single poem in the world, containing seventy-four thousand verses, plus long prose passages of 1.8 million words total. It is the foremost source of information on classical Indian civilization and Hindu ideals. The scope and grandeur of the Mahabharata is best summarized by a quotation from the beginning of its first parva (section): "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere." Devi is the Sanskrit word for Goddess. She is synonymous with Shakti, the female aspect of divinity, and is the provider of spiritual and physical nourishment.
* * *
O Devi, clad in fine garment.
Ever giver of rice, Sinless One,
Who delights in the dance of Shiva.
O Annapurna! Obeisance to thee.
— Hymns to the Goddess (circa 200 BC)
This hymn comes from the Tantrasara, an ancient Vedic Sanskrit text. In the Hindu faith, the goddess Devi is creator and nourisher of the world, a role analogous to that of the Christian "Mother of God." She bears the fruit of all knowledge. The goddess Annapurna is the Hindu goddess of food and cooking. Rice here means all life-sustaining food in general. In sculpture and drawings, Annapurna is represented as the goddess who holds in one hand a jeweled vessel containing food and, in the other, a spoon to distribute the food among her devotees. She has the power to give food to an unlimited number of people. The name Annapurna literally means "one who is full of food." In India, images of Annapurna are often displayed anywhere people eat.
* * *
If beings knew, as I know, the result of giving and sharing,
they would not eat without having given,
nor would they allow the stain of meanness
to obsess them and take root in their minds.
Even if it were their last morsel, their last mouthful,
they would not enjoy eating without having shared it,
if there were someone to share it with.
— Teachings of the Buddha (fifth century BC)
This prayer comes from the Itivuttaka. Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) lived as a prince in a wealthy family in Nepal for thirty years. His encounters with a crippled man (representing old age), a diseased man (illness), a decaying corpse (death), and an ascetic (a life of poverty) motivated him to abandon his inheritance and dedicate his life to relieving suffering. He attained enlightenment after a little girl gave him, the future Buddha, some rice to eat. It was the meal that allowed him to complete his goal of attaining nirvana as he meditated under the bodhi tree.
His teachings focused on the Four Noble Truths (especially on the idea that suffering is part of existence) and the Noble Eightfold Path (right thought, right understanding, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration). Theravada Buddhism strongly emphasizes the practice of giving as an essential religious act and identifies generosity as one of the most admired spiritual goals.
May the blessing of God rest upon you,
May his peace abide with you,
May his presence illuminate your heart
Now and forevermore.
— Sufi blessing (seventh century)
Sufism, which dates from the seventh century, is the esoteric dimension of the Islamic faith, an inner spiritual path to a mystical union with God. Sufism originated in the Koran and is compatible with mainstream Islamic theology. Around AD 1000, the early Sufi literature, in the form of manuals, treatises, discourses, and poetry, became the historic record of Sufi thinking and meditations.
Sufism is based on the teachings of Muhammad and emphasizes a love for humanity. Sufi ideas infuse Arab and Persian poetry. Adherents of Islam belong to numerous sects; the Sunni and Shia are the two main branches.
* * *
O God, give me light in my heart
and light in my tongue
and light in my hearing
and light in my sight
and light in my feeling
and light in all my body
and light before me
and light behind me.
Give me, I pray Thee,
light upon my right hand
and light upon my left hand
and light above me
and light beneath me.
O Lord, increase light within me
and give me light
and illuminate me.
— Ascribed to Muhammad (circa AD 570–632)
Muhammad was an Arab religious, political, and military leader who founded the Islamic faith and united the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula into a federation of allied tribes with its capital at Medina. At age forty, he reported receiving revelations from God through the angel Gabriel. These revelations were documented by his followers and became the basis for the Koran, which is considered to be the direct word of God. Muhammad is the most important prophet of God (Allah). For scholars of Islamic law, he is the legislator-jurist who defined ritual observance; for the mystic, he is the ideal seeker of spiritual perfection; for the philosopher and statesman, he is a role model as both a conqueror and a just ruler; for ordinary Muslims, he is a model of God's grace and salvation.
* * *
Blessed are you, Lord.
You have fed us from our earliest days;
you give food to every living creature.
Fill our hearts with joy and delight.
Let us always have enough
and something to spare for works of mercy
in honor of Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Through him, may glory, honor, and power be yours forever.
— Fourth-century Christian prayer
* * *
Praise we the Lord
Of the heavenly kingdom,
God's power and wisdom,
The works of His hand;
As the Father of glory,
Wrought the beginning
Of all His wonders!
Warden of men!
First, for a roof,
O'er the children of earth,
He established the heavens,
And founded the world,
And spread the dry land
For the living to dwell in.
— Caedmon (AD 680)
This grace is "Caedmon's Hymn," named for a lay brother at an English monastery who feared the custom of singing at meals. One evening, Caedmon retired to the stable out of shame, as he had often done, and as he slept he had a vision that called him by name and bade him sing. "I cannot sing, and therefore I left the feast," he protested, to which the vision replied, "Sing to me, however, sing of Creation." At this, Caedmon began to sing verses inspired by God's urging. In the morning Caedmon recited his story and his verses to the learned men of the monastery, and all agreed that he had received a divine gift. This grace, composed in Northumbrian dialect, holds a distinctive place in English poetry as the earliest known text in English.
* * *
Zeus, beginning of all things,
Of all things the leader,
Zeus, to thee a libation I pour,
Of hymns the beginning.
— Terpander of Lesbos (circa 676 BC)
This hymn composed by Terpander of Lesbos, a Greek poet and musician, is addressed to Zeus, the supreme deity in Greek mythology. Terpander is recognized as the father of Greek classical music and lyrical poetry. His lyre, the kithara, had an increased number of strings — seven instead of four — and this revolutionized seventh-century music. Terpander won a prize for music with this instrument at the twenty-sixth Olympiad, held in Sparta. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Bless This Food by Adrian Butash. Copyright © 2007 Adrian Butash. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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