What may not be so clear, however, is the strong and persistent influence of an earlier faith on the formulation of Hindu ritual practices in Bengal. This is a reference to the animistic beliefs of the indigenous inhabitants of eastern India (including the Bengal region) whom the Vedic Aryans eventually dominated. The Hindu idea of propitiation through meals, not to be confused with the practice of offering a ritual sacrifice, which is common to many religions in ancient and modern times, very likely derives from those earlier beliefs.
Reasons for offering meals as propitiation
Two aspects of life in Bengal- natural and social- have, over the years, served to bolster the concept of the meal as propitiation. Nature has endowed the region with extraordinary fertility. Rich silt deposited by the numerous rivers has made the production of food crops easy. But Nature also regularly subjects the land to the violence of floods and cyclones, which often lead to epidemics and famine. This alternative cycle of contrary events has infused daily life in Bengal with an aura of intense uncertainty. Anything that appears stable one day may vanish suddenly the next because of the wrath of Nature, leaving the hapless human deprived of even rudimentary life-support systems.
Socially, the position and role of the woman in Bengali society are integral to the notion of the propitiatory meal because in most cases such meals are offered (even prepared) by the woman of the house. As keepers of ritual tradition (religious, mythic and folk) in the home, women have meticulously handed it down to successive generations. And so strong is the process of transmission that the custom of propitiating through meals has lasted well into modern times, regardless of the numerous changes imposed on Bengali society by a series of external invading and colonizing forces.
Hindu Origins of offering meals as propitiation
The notion of appeasing a dangerous creature through the offering of a meal is well documented in the early Hindu religious texts. Consider one of the early stories of Creation from the Satapatha Brahmana (the Brahmanas were written after the Vedas and most scholars agree in dating them between 900 and 700 BC). In the beginning, there was no one but Prajapati. In his desire to create progeny, he practised asceticism for a long time. When he was almost exhausted, Agni (fire) came out of his mouth. Since he came out of his father's mouth, Lord Agni is an eater of food. But there was no food in the universe for Prajapati's firstborn. In his ravenous hunger, Agni turned on his own father. In order not to be consumed, Prajapati desperately rubbed his hands and produced an offering of milk and clarified butter. But the offering was tainted with hair.
So Prajapati rubbed his hands again and this time he produced an absolutely pure offering of milk and butter. Agni was satisfied with this and turned away without devouring Prajapati. Milk thus became the first food for many living creatures.
One story in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata (which scholars date between 300 BC and 300 AD), exemplifies the custom of appeasement through providing a meal. The Mahabharata chronicles the fortunes of the five Pandava brothers, who suffered years of hardship and deprivation of their share of the kingdom because of the shenanigans of their evil cousins, the sons of King Dhritarashtra.
Among the many hardships the Pandavas endured was a thirteen-year period of exile. They wandered from region to region, often spending stretches of time in the wilderness where food and shelter were hard to come by. But they had one asset for survival- a magic copper cooking pot given to them by Lord Surya, the sun god. The condition was that as long as Draupadi, the princess married to all five brothers, did not have her meal, whatever she cooked in the pot would renew itself infinitely and feed an indefinite number of people. Each time she ate, the contents would be finished; she would have to clean the pot, put in fresh ingredients and cook a whole new meal. The pot thus gave the exiles the flexibility to feed whatever guests chanced their way at mealtimes (the forests being also the haunts of itinerant sages and ascetics), since it was customary for the woman of the house to eat after everyone else had been fed.
But disaster struck one day. The wicked cousins, who were enjoying the exiles' kingdom and wealth, heard about the magic pot and came up with a plan for further mischief. They asked the great ascetic Durbasha to visit the exiles in the forest and ask to be fed after Draupadi had eaten. Durbasha agreed to this request and arrived, with ten thousand disciples in tow, at the forest shelter where the exiles were staying. 'We are hungry,' he said, 'please give us food as soon as we come back from bathing in the river.' But Draupadi had already finished her meal for the day and the pot was empty. Even under ordinary circumstances, it was considered bad luck to turn away a hungry person who was asking for food. But in this case the problem was doubly dire because Durbasha was notorious for his violent rages and his habit of raining down curses on those who displeased him. Naturally, the denizens of whatever household, palace or ashram he chose to visit did their utmost to present him with elaborate meals to appease his hunger/anger and avoid those curses.
Panic-stricken, Draupadi called on the Lord Krishna and asked him for help. He appeared before her and asked her to examine the pot very carefully, in case there was even one grain of rice left in it. She found a grain of rice and a fragment of a leafy green. Krishna immediately ate those and declared that the hunger of all living beings was appeased for now. On the riverbank, the irate Durbasha and his disciples suddenly felt totally sated; they started burping, exactly as one does after a big meal. Draupadi and her five husbands were thus saved by Krishna's divine powers.
The story illustrates an article of faith among the ancients. Brahmins (including those who practised asceticism and thus became holy men) were believed to have extraordinary powers and members of all other castes- warriors (like most royalty), traders or peasants-had to please them. If a Brahmin appeared on your doorstep, no matter how inconvenient the hour, you had to offer him the best meal you could. Pleasing the Brahmin/ascetic was expected to bring good fortune; but far more important, and as Draupadi feared, displeasing such a person was sure to bring down destruction on the family. The presentation of a meal cooked with care was an appropriate act of submission. In Bengal, this early Aryan/Vedic concept was reinforced by the older propitiatory customs of the local inhabitants.
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