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[sv-rituals] Re: Before eating....

From: mani2 (
Date: Thu Jun 27 2002 - 11:12:21 PDT

--- In sv-rituals@y..., "krishnasusarla" <krishna@a...> wrote:
> My grandparents often had a custom of sprinkling water around the 
> plate before beginning a meal. Then they would take small helpings 
> of the rice before beginning to eat in earnest. 
> Can someone explain the significance of this custom, who is 
> eligible/required to perform it, and how exactly it is to be 
> performed? Also, is it to be performed before any meal, or just 


This ritual is known as parisecanam (encircling with
water) and the eating of the small helpings of rice is 
known as prANAhuti, offerings to the vital breaths.
It is performed twice a day when rice is eaten. All
other meals are considered "extra" or secondary

I wrote some musings about this ritual in March of 2000.
Here is an excerpt:

There is actually philosophical significance to  
the parisecana and prANAhuti mantras.  

1) Parisecana

As Sri Vijayaraghavan has explained, after we sit down
for our meal, we say the mantra:

satyam tvartena parishincAmi

   (O Food! You are True. I encircle you with
    divine righteousness.)

and we circumambulate our food with a sprinkling of water.
This sprinkling of water is known as "parisecana".

At night, this mantra is 'Rtam tvA satyena parishincAmi',
transposing the 'Rtam' and 'satyam'.  

I am not sure of the exact philosophical details as to
why Vaidikas do this particular part, but I can surmise one
meaning from the mantra. "Satya" means that which is real 
or true. "Rta" is a notion of the Divine Law or moral principle.
The term "Rta" is often found in the Rg Veda, and it is
from this that the idea of "dharma" later evolved.

>From this we can gather that the parisecana mantra is sort of a
formulaic "protection" for the food we are about to eat. 
Practically, it does also serve to ward off insects, etc.,
and perhaps this is another reason why the ritual developed
in this particular form. 

2) prANAhuti -- the offering to the vital breaths

The next step is the part of greater philosophical significance.
Recall that in the Vedic tradition, every act eventually becomes
an act of worship, an act of recognition of the pervasiveness of
the Supreme Brahman and Its power.  

When we eat, we nourish our bodies. Food is therefore essential 
for bodily sustenance. Within our body is the "ana" or 
vital breath. The "ana" has five activities or "prANa-s". 
The five prANa-s represent the various bodily functions that are 
critical for survival.  They are considered a manifestation
of the power of the Supreme in the bodily plane.

 [ It is almost a universal cultural idiom to recognize breath
   as the vital force behind life.  In English, when someone dies
   they are said to have "breathed their last".  In Tamil,
   the word "ushir" or "uyir" can mean both breath or life. ] 

The idea is that by first making an offering to the prANa-s,
we pay homage to their life-giving power by virtue of their
performing the bodily activities that are crucial to our
survival.  In this way, this ritual recognizes that not
only is food important to survival, but the very bodily
functions that we take for granted are essential, and we
owe all of this to the Supreme, who sits as the superintending
power behind all bodily activity, no matter how mundane.

The vital breaths or "prANa-s" are five in number. The latter
four are derived from the first. They are:

   prANa -- the principal breath
   apAna -- responsible for excretory activity
   samAna -- responsible for digestive activity
   vyAna -- responsible for circulatory activity
   udAna -- respiratory activity

This act of thanksgiving to God who through these bodily
functions sustains life is done by saying the following
mantras, and eating a little bit of rice and ney (ghee)
without chewing it (because, after all, the food is an
offering, not meant for personal consumption):

  om prANAya svAhA
  om apAnAya svAhA
  om vyAnAya svAhA  
  om udAnAya svAhA
  om samAnAya svAhA
  om brahmaNi ma AtmA-amRtatvAya

The last line means, "May my self be united
in Brahman (the Supreme), so that I may attain

Eating, then, is a profound act of worship which
sustains the body so that we may further worship
Brahman. There is also an implication that the
swallowing of tasty food symbolizes the oblation
of the individual self to God, so that God may,
in a sense "eat" and "enjoy" us.

Before and after eating the meal, water is sipped,
once again with a mantra.  The rishis of yore found
this aspect of the ritual so important that they
mention it in both of the largest Upanishads, the
Brhadaranyaka and the Chhandogya, in virtually
identical terms:

  Realized people, while eating, do as follows: before and 
  after their meal, they "dress up" the prANa with water.
  The prANa receives clothing in this manner, and
  it does not remain naked.

       -- Chhandogya 5.2.2 & Brhadaranyaka 6.1.15

I am not quite sure why "clothing the prANa" with
water is so important, but both Sankaracharya and
Ramanujacharya write that meditation on prANa having
water as its garments is very important. They seek
to distinguish the meditation on this idea from
the ritual, emphasizing that the meditation is
what is recommended and not mere ritual.

It does make some sense, however, from other angles.
Water is a purifier, and drinking water before and
after (Acamanam) is a purifier and sustainer of
the body.  Furthermore, the yoga shastras recommend
that we eat food to fill only half our stomach;
one half of the rest, i.e., one quarter of the 
stomach we should fill by drinking water. The rest
should be air.  This is supposed to be the ideal
proportions for spiritual and bodily health.

The mantras recited when sipping water before and
after imply this as well:

  amRtopastaraNam asi -- Oh water! You are the seat
                         of immortality.

Since water is drunk before and after the food,
perhaps this is a suggestion that to approach
immortality, one should drink water to fill the
stomach 1/4 way. But this is just a guess.

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