The Indian Tradition of Growing and Sharing Food: A Lost Tradition

To us Indians, sharing of food comes naturally.

India it seems continued to follow this discipline till almost the present times. Texts of all ages from different parts of India emphasize the importance of ensuring an abundance of food and sharing it widely before eating for oneself.

Even a Buddhist Tamil text like the Manimekalai, which pointedly disparages the Vaidika tradition in many ways, tells the touching story of Aputran who, being left alone on an uninhabited island with an inexhaustible pot of food in his hands, prefers to die of hunger rather than eat for himself from that pot, without sharing it with anyone else.

And the older people in at least the state of Tamil Nadu still remember how their parents used to wait outside the house before every mealtime for some seeker to come and accept food from their hands, and on the days that no seeker appeared the parents went hungry too.

The story of Harshavardhana, the renowned seventh century Indian king, who used to empty his treasury every few years and share his riches with his people, is well known. And when Hiuen-Tsiang, the revered Chinese scholar who visited India during the reign of Harsavardhana, describes the festivals of sharing that Harsavardhana organized, it reads almost like the descriptions of grand giving and sharing that happened unceasingly during the great yajnas of Srirama and Yudhisthira and other celebrated kings of classical antiquity.

thanjavurEven as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century, the kings of Thanjavur seem to have cared as deeply about assuaging the hunger of all within their kingdom as the kings of Indian antiquity. In a fascinating letter written by Raja Sarfoji, the king of Thanjavur, in 1801 to the British who had by then set themselves up as the colonial overlords, the Raja describes the chatrams (broadly, rest houses) that abounded in his state, especially along the road to the great pilgrim centre of Rameswaram, which had been running since the times of his ancestors.

In these chatrams all comers received food throughout the day, and at midnight bells were rung to call upon those who may have been left behind to rush and receive their share. The Raja goes on to describe in detail how the chatrams took care of those who fell sick during their stay, and of the dependents of those who happened to die there.

The running of the chatrams, the Raja felt, was what gave Thanjavur the title of dharmarajya, and this was the title, the Raja told the British, he valued above all other dignities of his office. And he implored the British to ensure that whatever else might happen to his state, this tradition of providing for the hungry was not abridged or eliminated.

This king of Thanjavur, it seems, was amongst the last representatives of not only the tradition of feeding the hungry, but also the Indian tradition of growing a plenty.

Historical evidence from different parts of India from around the tenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century indicates that lands throughout India used to yield an abundance. Inscriptions from the Thanjavur region from 900 to 1200 CE record yields of between 12-18 tons of paddy per hectare. An 1100 CE inscription from South Arcot, neighbouring Thanjavur, mentions yields of 14.5 tons per hectare, and another inscription of 1325 CE from the relatively dry Ramanathapuram records production of 20 tons of paddy on a hectare of land.

Similarly high levels of productivity were reported by the European observers from many parts of the country. Thus, for productivity of foodgrains in the region around Allahabad, one such observer in 1803 reported a value of 7.5 tons per hectare, and another reported a yield of 13.0 tons of paddy from Coimbatore in 1807.

We have fairly detailed information about production and productivity that prevailed in about two thousand localities in the Chengalpattu region that surrounds the city of Madras in the 1760s. The best lands in the region, according to this information, produced as much as nine tons per hectare at a period when the British and French armies were crisscrossing the region and subjecting it to much devastation.

The average of the region was a modest 2.5 tons of paddy per hectare, nevertheless it amounted to the availability of as much as 5.5 tons of foodgrains a year for an average household of between four to five members, which represents a very high level of prosperity, not merely by the Indian standards of today – which happen to be abysmally low – but also by the standards of the most prosperous nations in the world.

A ‘Wasteful’ Habit

With the coming of the British the abundance of the lands disappeared almost overnight. In the Chengalpattu region, which was one of the earliest in India to come under the British rule, the relatively modest average yields of 2.5 tons per hectare observed in the 1760s had come down to a mere 650 kg per hectare already by 1788.

The yield of lands seems to have persisted around this low level throughout most of India during the whole of the British period. Average productivity of paddy in India in 1947 at the end of the British rule was less than a ton per hectare, that of wheat around 700 kg, and of the coarse grains much below that figure.

Availability of food per capita also declined precipitously, leading to the unending series of famines that kept visiting India throughout the British period.

In 1880, when the British had their first serious look at the problem of famine, they estimated the available food to be around 280 kg per capita per year, which is to be compared with the availability of around 5.5 tons per household in the Chengalpattu of 1760s. Estimates of actual production in the 1890s, when the first systematic data were collected, turned out to be nearer 200 kg per capita per year. And our production remains near this figure even today.

Thus did the British convert the traditional plenty into a scorching scarcity that persists with us till now. And they institutionalized the scarcity by forcibly deflecting the Indian polity away from its traditions of sharing.

The institutional arrangements that the Indian kings had made for providing for the seekers, like the chatrams that the Raja of Thanjavur mentions in his letter of 1801, were unacceptable to the British from the very beginning. They insisted on withdrawing with a heavy hand the resources that used to flow to these institutions. Their insistence on such withdrawal of resources was so great that Richard Wellesely, the governor-general of the East India Company at the time of the conquest of Mysore in 1799, found it necessary to warn Diwan Purniah of dire consequences in case he indulged in the alienation of state revenues to such institutions.

Purniah, who had been re-appointed the Diwan by the British to administer Mysore on their behalf but in the name of the hereditary ruler of Mysore, promptly reduced the resources assigned to such institutions from 2,33,954 to 56,993 controy pagodas in the very first year of the new administration.

In addition to scorching the lands and stunting the polity, the British polluted the minds of the Indians by turning them away from their discipline of giving before eating and towards a callous indifference to the hunger and want of others.

williamThe sharing that the Indians practised as a matter of the inherent discipline of being human, was disdained by the British as a wasteful habit. And their disdain had such impact on the newly emerging elite of India that already in 1829, William Bentinck, the then governor-general of the Company could write that-

..much of what used, in old times, to be distributed among beggars and Brahmins, is now, in many instances, devoted to the ostentatious entertainment of Europeans; and generally, the amount expended in useless alms is stated to have been much curtailed…

The Indians who came under the sway of the British soon internalised the British judgments on the Indian discipline of sharing; the very first issue of Keshub Chandra Sen’s Sulabh Samachar, dated November 15, 1870, carried an article against the evil of giving alms. “Giving of alms to beggars is not an act of kindness,” the article proclaimed, “because it is wrong to live on another’s charity.” And the article went on to suggest that incapacitated beggars should instead be trained to do “useful things for society.This attitude of demanding work of those who do not have enough to eat has over time become a cliche among the relatively well-off Indians, especially those who claim to have acquired a modern, rational consciousness.

However, in spite of all the efforts of the British, the habit of sharing before eating remained widespread enough for the Famine Commission of 1880 to fret about its consequences on what they described as the administration of famine. They were afraid that such caring by the people themselves may detract from the majesty and the sovereignty of the state and recommended-

Native society in India is justly famous for its charity…. Such charity is to be encouraged at the beginning of distress;… but when famine has once set in with severity it may become a serious evil unless it can be brought under some systematic control. …When once Government has taken the matter thoroughly in hand and provided relief in one shape or another for all who need it, and a proper inclosed place of residence for all casuals and beggars, street-begging and public distribution of alms to unknown applicants should be discouraged, and if possible entirely stopped.

Incidentally, in the Indian scheme of things it is indeed the uninvited and unknown seeker at the door who is honoured by the name of atithi and who has to be sheltered and fed with great ceremony and respect by the householder for his daily discipline, of feeding others before eating for oneself, to be properly accomplished.

As against the great ceremony and respect that the Indian tradition insisted must be bestowed upon a seeker, the relief that the British administration provided in times of famine, and which according to the famine commissioners justified their discouraging, if not completely banning, the Indian tradition of caring for others, consisted in providing a survival wage, “sufficient for the purposes of maintenance but not more”, in return for a day’s hard labour at specially organised work sites.

For those whose health had deteriorated beyond the possibility of work, the commissioners recommended provision of “dole” after due examination by inspecting officers, and the dole was to be withdrawn as soon as a person, in the eyes of the inspecting officer, began to look fit enough for work. Even from women “who by national custom” were “unable to appear in public”, the commissioners expected work, in the form of spinning cotton for the state, in return for the dole of grains provided to them and their children.

Such was the horror that the British administrators felt for the “gratuitous” giving out of food, which for the Indians is the very essence of being human. And, the famine commissioners’ report of 1880 became the basis for the creation of an elaborate bureaucracy for the management of relief and distress, and the judgments and sensibilities of the British thus became institutionalized into state-controlled mechanisms for commanding the supply and distribution of food, that remain with us till today.

In spite of all this the ordinary Indians till recently retained some sense of the discipline of endeavouring to have plenty of food and sharing what one has with others before partaking of it oneself.

However, the continued scarcity and the almost total conversion of the mainstream of Indian public life to the western ways have so befuddled our minds that even the residual memory of the Indian ways seems to be finally fading. And amongst the more resourceful of the Indians there is not even a feeling of shame for the continuance of extreme scarcity or for the all-pervading hunger of men and animals around them.

We, who, as a people, used to be so scrupulous about caring for all creation, have become callous about the hunger and starvation of people and animals. We know of the hunger around us, and we fail to care. We, all of us together, all the resourceful people of India, bear this terrible sin, in common.

A National Resolve

But we cannot continue to live in sin. No nation with such a sin on its head can possibly come into itself without first expiating it.

We shall be liberated from the sin only when we begin to take the classical injunction of ‘annam bahu kurvita’ seriously, and begin to grow a great abundance of food again. We have not so far taken to the task with proper application.

coastIt is true that during the last fifty years, productivity of foodgrains has improved sufficiently to lift the national average to near two tons per hectare. But this average is quite below what was achieved in the eighteenth century in a relatively difficult and dry coastal terrain like that of Chengalpattu, and it is far below the level of productivity today in almost any other region of the world.

And, in any case, all increase in productivity has taken place on about 30 percent of the Indian lands, which have high resources of capital and modern technology and which produce for the market. The remaining about 70 percent of the lands, large parts of which lie in the fertile plains of the bounteous Indian rivers, continue in the state of deprivation and neglect to which they were reduced during the British rule and continue to produce barely one indifferent crop a year.

With care and application these lands can produce the abundance that classical India cherished, and in the process can enliven large numbers of Indians who have been forced into economic idleness because of the idleness of the lands.

Much is said about the growing population of India that has made it difficult for the lands to feed them all. But India is a country endowed with rare natural abundance. Unlike almost any other major region of the world, India is a country, where more than half of the geographical area is potentially cultivable, where almost every major geographical region is traversed by a great perennial river, and where the climate is so fecund that crops can grow throughout the year in almost every part. Notwithstanding her density of population, arable land per capita in India is still twice that in China and only marginally less than that in Europe.

The sin of scarcity shall be wiped off the face of India only when the idle lands begin to be looked after with care and attention once again, and the bounty that nature has bestowed upon India is converted into an abundance of food.

We have of course been paying some attention to the lands and agriculture. But so far our concern has been to somehow achieve an average growth of around 2.5 percent per year to keep pace with the growth in population. We have not attempted to reach a level of growth that would remove the scarcity of the last two centuries, and make India a country of plenty.

Achieving such plenty would probably require reorienting all our resources and all our thinking towards the land. And once the Indian lands begin to yield aplenty, and the blocked vitality of the Indian people begins to flow again, other attributes of prosperity, which we have been trying so hard to acquire, will also arrive in abundant measure.

We should begin to pay attention to the lands and to the fulfilling of the inviolable discipline, annam bahu kurvita. But we cannot continue to be indifferent to the hunger around us until the abundance arrives. Because, as classical India has taught with such insistence, hungry people and animals exhaust all virtue of a nation.

Such a nation is forsaken by the Devas, and no great effort can possibly be undertaken by a nation that has been so forsaken. In fact, not only the nation in the abstract, but every individual grhastha bears the sin of hunger around him. We have been instructed, in the authoritative injunctions of the Vedas that anyone who eats without sharing, eats in sin, kevalagho bhavati kevaladi.

Therefore, even before we begin to undertake the great task of bringing the abundance back to the Indian lands, we have to bring ourselves back to the inviolable discipline of sharing. We have to make a national resolve to care for the hunger of our people and animals.

There is not enough food in the country to fully assuage the hunger of all; but, even in times of great scarcity, a virtuous grhastha and a disciplined nation would share the little they have with the hungry. We have to begin such sharing immediately, if the task of achieving an abundance is to succeed.

To us Indians, sharing of food comes naturally. We do not have to be taught how to share, how to perform annadana because, we have been taught the greatness of anna and of annadana by our ancestors, and we have practised the discipline of growing and sharing in abundance since the beginning of time.

For such a nation to obliterate the memory of a mere two centuries of scarcity and error is a simple matter. Let us recall the inviolable discipline of sharing that defines the essence of being Indian. Abundance will inevitably arrive in the wake of such annadana.


Dr. J.K. Bajaj is Director, Centre for Policy Studies and author of several books including the landmark “Indian Demographics.”