Religions and mystics the world over have believed for generations in the power of food to transform us —to transport us from the world of the ordinary to the world of the Divine. When Jews bless food on a Sabbath, it is considered holy, or kadosh, which, interestingly enough, means "set apart"—in other words, food that is no longer in the realm of ordinariness. When Catholics consume bread and wine in church, it is presented as the body and blood of Christ, and no longer the same as the bread and wine you might enjoy in an Italian restaurant.
This magical transformation of food happens across many religions, and goes a long way toward explaining prasad (sometimes called prasada), which is the offering made by Hindus of food, flowers, water, and such during a ceremony or to a priest or saint. A simple definition of prasad would be "an offering from the individual self to God." However, in recognition of the fact that God is omnipresent and cannot exist without existing in us, part of this prasad is generally returned to the giver. The blessed food, flower, or object, offered and returned through this ritual, becomes sacred. We offer prasad selflessly to God (or to a saint or teacher who has brought us closer to God), and our individual self expands when the blessing is returned.
In keeping with the notion of transformation, the prasad you offer is not always returned in the same form. For example, in India, you may join a prayer ceremony by the Ganges and offer a little leaf boat filled with flowers and incense; at the end of the ceremony, you will receive small white sugar balls distributed by the priests as prasad. There is a fluidity of exchange, as the offering and receiving of prasad is a generous, nonbureaucratic process—an act of reverence, devotion, or petition, or all of these combined, performed with a loving heart and the power of intention.
It is through this exchange that self-transformation takes place. And what better mechanism than food to do the transforming? Food itself is transformed by our bodies, and in turn it transforms us. Blessed food, once it has been offered through ritual, has traveled between the boundaries of the profane and the sacred, just as it has to travel between the outside and inside of our bodies once it is ingested. Food is seen not only as nourishment but as a vehicle for transformation and purification.
The first stage of this magical transformation takes place in the ordinary offering. The Bhagavad Gita says this of prasad: "Whoever offers a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or even water with devotion, that I accept, offered as it is with a loving heart." Anything you offer, then, is acceptable, as long as you are offering yourself for purification in the process.
The next stage of the ritual is in God's acceptance of your gift or sacrifice. Of this alchemical transformation, Swami Sivananda, one of the best-loved saints of India, said: "The Lord enjoys the subtle essence of the food offered, and the food remains as it is in the shape of prasada. While feeding mahatmas [great souls] and the poor people, that which is left behind is taken as prasada."
You may wonder how an offering of food can do anything in particular for God, because God is already omnipotent and in possession of everything. That kind of thinking comes from the Western perspective of sacrifice as a one-way gesture. Eastern thought turns this concept on its head, espousing that God is everywhere, including in each of us. Food becomes an explicit way of describing this relationship of omnipotence, or brahman. In eating blessed food, you are confirming that there are no separations, and that the Divine is free to act through you. (Interestingly, the Latin root of the word
sacrifice, which is sacrificare, means "to render sacred"; if what is being offered is yourself, this too is made divine.)
By Western standards, if your offering were returned to you, you might think it had been rejected. Not so in the case of prasad—though there is a great old story of an offering that was not returned to the one who offered it.
One day, when the poet saint Namadeva was a small boy, his father couldn't make his usual offering of food to Panduranga Vitthala, the deity the family worshiped, so Namadeva's mother asked her son to take an offering of rice in his place. Namadeva went to the temple and asked the idol to eat. Being so young, he did not realize the idol would not literally eat the food, so he implored it to eat in front of him, believing that Vitthala did this for his father. When Vitthala heard the plea, his heart went out to the boy, and the idol manifested himself and ate the food offered.
When Namadeva's father asked him what had happened to the prasad that had been offered to God, Namadeva innocently told him that "God had eaten it" and was met with total disbelief.
When we offer food to God, we are usually the ones who do the eating. And why not, if we ourselves are part of the divine totality, the brahman? The purpose of prasad is to remind us of this connection. Eating is something we do regularly, and unless we reflect on the moment, it confirms everything that is commonplace about our lives. If instead we cook and eat with intention, it is believed that the total field of divinity will be enlivened within us.
Swami Sivananda, who counted Swamis Vishnu-devananda, Satchidananda, and Sivananda Radha among his devotees, wrote this about prasad: "Live for a week in Vrindavana or Ayodhya or Varanasi or Pandharpur. You will realize the glory and the miraculous effects of prasada. Many incurable diseases are cured. Many sincere aspirants get wonderful spiritual experiences. Prasada is a spiritual elixir. Prasada is the grace of the Lord. Prasada is a cure-all and an ideal pick-me-up. Prasada is an embodiment of Shakti. Prasada is divinity in manifestation. Prasada energizes, vivifies, invigorates, and infuses devotion. It should be taken with great faith."
On a recent trip to India, my mother organized a havan, or fire prayer ceremony, for me. Sweets were offered at the beginning of the prayers, and once the priest had lit the havan fire, chanted his mantras, and watched the flames die toward the end of the ceremony, we were given the sweets to eat. In other words, our offering was returned to us. Throughout our offering process, we repeated in Sanskrit: "I do this not for myself," yet at the same time, we were receiving blessings, together with prasad. The differences between giving and receiving were transcended with the recognition that there is only one totality, one brahman.
Not surprisingly, prasad tastes divine and is also sublimely sweet. Before it becomes blessed food, it is purchased from the local shop and paid for with ordinary hard cash. The most common sweets used as offerings are different variations of barfi—a treat usually made of condensed milk that has been solidified and mixed with almonds, cashews, pistachios, or coconut. But many types of sweets can be offered as prasad.
In a Western context, a simple blessing on cookies, chocolates, or even dinner will turn ordinary food into prasad. This blessing can be more subtle than an out-loud prayer, because what you are offering and gaining, after all, is awareness, directed through intention.
Does food offered as prasad and eaten after a ceremony taste any different from the nonblessed variety? Well, take a bite and see for yourself.
Half Indian, half English, Bem Le Hunte is the author of The Seduction of Silence, a story about five generations of an Indian family.