Pride & Prejudice – My eating habit is better than yours

Traditions and customs are sacred and profound for humans. Whether we like it or not, we invariably live under the auspices of our traditions – consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, when discussing a tradition which is not one’s own, it is wise to maintain a “political correctness” and formal politeness. Atleast this is my philosophy.

However, some time we meet folks who not only lack the understanding or appreciation of another culture or tradition, but also view it from the prism of their own background which obviously they hold in very high esteem. Whatever be the reasons, these kinds of people make really bad company.

I was at a cosmopolitan dinner some time ago, when an invitee brought up the topic about eating habits. She has been around the world and to India as well. I sensed that she didn’t have very high regards about Indians in particular and the India in general. Delving into the reason behind this could be the subject of another piece.

Coming back to the dinner – she animatedly explained to the other guests how she was amazed to see Indians eating with their hands. She ranted about how unhygienic and filthy the entire exercise looks and explained in gross details how she was disgusted with it. The conversation then veered off into the virtues of using silverware. If the situation warrants I too am adept at using forks and knives but being the only Indian at the table, this “eating tradition” conversation had me squirming in my chair. I believe that situations like these can actually be helpful in understanding how the world society works, the way our society works, and how we should deal with the inherent differences.

India is a remarkable country, and I don’t say that because I am Indian. I say that because I observe India the “country” from the third-party point of view and what I see amazes me to no end. Scan across the globe and India would perhaps be the only country which would be the dream subject of any “simplexity” theorist. The number of traditions, cultures, attitudes, and behaviors that this country displays can have the best of anthropologist gasping for breath. But I digress.

When it comes to eating with hands, most of the times we – the Indians – say that it’s a way followed since ancient times. Some of us are embarrassed by it as well, like I was at the aforementioned dinner. However, most of us don’t really know the reasoning behind it. After that eventful night, I decided to research about the origins of this practice. I will try to dispense what I learnt now.

From ancient times, food and eating habits of any society is mostly governed by its staple produce, maturity, and traditional wisdom. The system of cooking and eating habits is also majorly influenced by the philosophies that the said society holds dear.

Historical accounts and studies show that ancient India had a very highly developed culinary tradition, which not only provided specific recipes for cooking but also the reasons why certain ingredients were used or not used for a particular dish. These accounts also specified how the founders of these traditions took the pains of explaining what effect the consuming of a particular type of food had on the human body and psyche; thus laying the foundation of the theories such as “prevention is better than cure” and “healthy mind, healthy body”. These scientific enquiries which were performed more than 4000 years ago in ancient India have only begun recently in the developed world of today.

Ancient Indian philosophers believed strongly in a universal cosmic energy source from which all things are produced and when destroyed would return to it. They believed in the “panch tattva” or the five elements which combine in varying levels to create humans, animals, and vegetation. They also believed that the Indriya – which is Sanskrit for “Agent, sense organ” were the means by which the human body maintained the balance with the cosmic energy all around it. The five agents of perception are – hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. And, the five agents of action are speech, grasp – by means of the hands, movement, excretion, and generation.

Aahara – which is Sanskrit for food or that which nourishes– is the means to sustain the body. The ancients knew about the metabolic processes performed on the food and knew that the final product of such a process was the creation of energy. Which in plain speak would mean energy to sustain the energy.

In the light of this understanding they concluded that the process of eating should be with participation of the five agents of perception so as to make it harmonized with the cosmos, the life force, and the vessel of the life force – which is the human body. And therefore achieve full benefits of the food.

In the process of eating, the sense of sight is involved as we can see what we eat, the sense of taste is involved because we can taste the food, the sense of smell is involved because we get the aroma of the food, the sense of hearing is involved as we can hear the teeth crunching or crushing the food, and the sense of touch is involved as we are in “direct” contact with the food through the means of our hands. Therefore the correct and combined participation of all the senses of perception provided the right medium and practice of creating the energy to maintain the vessel of the life force. While the first four perception senses – sight, smell, taste, and hearing – are very obvious and hence not noticed; the fifth which is touch is something that is very visible. Therefore, we have the tradition of eating with hands, and not using any accessories.

India is a rapidly advancing country both in terms of economics and world politics. And so, there is bound to be a resistance by the other players in the field. This is very natural and should not be construed as hostility. This resistance psychosis comes partly due to the lack of complete knowledge and the partly due to inherent insecurity. Any country or society in the world, no matter how advanced, suffers from insecurity and a fear of the unknown – people or culture. The basic reaction to mitigate such insecurity or fear is flight or fight. This is what most Indians face when they move out into societies other than their own.

The ideal way of dealing with such situations is to understand the root of the reaction, respond assertively yet politely to it, and never be overwhelmed. Sometimes reticence and humility is misread as weakness, which can be counter-productive for future engagements with the party concerned. Therefore the approach should be to combine the potency of self-knowledge, the power of assertion and, the balm of humility to react to such kind of uncomfortable situations. This has worked for me till now; hope it works for you as well.

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