This is a book about the ways in which the Indic (primarily Hindu and Buddhist) cultures approach food as "essence" and experience within personal and social life. With emphasis on expressive aspects, contributors to this volume discuss food for its cultural leaned and popular characteristics across the subcontinent's varieties of "text", regions, and languages. The accounts try to illustrate aspects of the rich "food culture" Indian civilization provides. However, the book does not propose to describe systematically the empirical diversity of food and culinary habits; nor does it attempt to deal with changing gastronomic practices of castes, sects, and ethnic groups of contemporary South Asia, and its emerging public culture around culinary traditions.
Instead, the book focuses on the long-term sharing Hindu and Sinhalese "food cultures" provide, encoding and enhancing some distinct notions of Indic essence, experience, and aesthetics. Our accounts rest on interdependence between textual, aesthetic, ritual, customary, and popular descriptions and discourses. These try not only to read the "Internal language" of food-markers and meanings, but also help uncover those creative intimations, interpretations, and reasoning patterns which may constitute a distinct aspect of Indian civilization and its contribution to world culture.
An example of such a distinct reasoning pattern is the way India (as distinct from Western thinking) conjoins food's cosmological, moral, social, and material qualities within a comprehensive order of essence and experience. As the papers of this volume variously emphasize, food in South Asia intimately concerns bodily conditions, social experiences, emotional states, literary expressions, religious practices, and philosophical ideals. For the Hindu, food is a part of the revealed knowledge; it is an extension of the non-contingent and the self-evident. If food this way truly acquires a pervasive cosmic presence within the Hindu life, it does so not by dichotomizing and excluding the practical aspects. Instead, the "practical" becomes an experiential ground as much for testing the Hindu's ability "to live the textual ideals" as for "testing" the inner worth of moral ideals against actual life experiences. Food thus becomes synonymous with one's life's refining essence and subtler experiences until the ultimate goal of life is reached (whether it is liberation or something else). Conceptually, food for the Hindu is not simply a medium of expression (nor only a symbol of or for culture) but rather a direct essence and expression of the ultimate Reality itself. As such, it is, in a most fundamental way, always prior to such contingent qualifiers as status, sex, age, and social and religious duties.
The implications such a cultural ideology of food are wide ranging and require systematic investigation across the domains of idea and practice. If the Hindu's food, for instance, stands as a moral value, which is prior to various social, age and gender distinctions, what implications does such a conception have for practical issues, and the Hindu's approach to them? Instead of being either "neutral" or simply age-gender "bound," does such a conception of food produce a distinct perspective (along with its own blind spots) on how food reaches all creatures intimately, collectively, and as a "basic right" within a universal moral order? Popularly, only the creator or the divine ultimately ensures its availability to all creatures. This perspective is maintained despite the common knowledge that, in practice, social and economic factors strongly constrains food availability and adequate diet. For the Hindus, the moral order continues to receive attention as "the ultimate cause".
Though we have limited our attention in this book to only some shared "essences and experiences" of food mostly within the Hindu cultures and regions, the Hindu and Buddhist ideologies of food deserve a full comparative account on their own grounds. Within such as a study must also be considered the question of how these traditions deal with issues of "food and women" and "food and female principle." Only such studies will better prepare us to consider the problems "food and gender" studies raise, as conceptualized in the West and imported into contemporary South Asia.
The accounts in this book recognize the woman's presence and role in an implicit way, essentially by context of discussion and by level of idealization. Our contributions mention the woman's role within ideal, ritual, expressive, and aesthetic contexts. However, this is no substitute for more systematic studies of the subject of women and food within South Asian societies and cultures. There is much to learn here, with comparative views from inside the culture and outside. But we must simultaneously recognize the the "gender focus" inevitably brings with it the Western-style politics of Western "individuals" rights and a politics of protest and counter privilege that is far removed from the conjoining Indic ideologies of food essence and experience. In such a juxtaposition, it is crucial that we are able to treat the import, without privileging it, to let the people's own knowledge and sense freely appear.
The papers collected in this volume have gone through a rather long and complicated journey. We (the late Professor M.S.A. Rao and I), as organizers, conceived of "some sort of publication" soon after a group of Indian and American scholars had participated in a conference on Food Systems and Communication Structures, held during January 2-6, 1985, at the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, India. With our decision to publish selected papers, we asked the contributors to revise their presentations for publication, while we looked for two or three additional contributors to strengthen the volume's dominant focus. However, before these steps could be completed, Professor Rao unfortunately fell ill and died. Just about the same time, my own engagements, one year-long field work trip and other research and teaching priorities, intervened, forcing me to postpone the project for a rather long period. Meanwhile, understandably, three contributors decided to publish their papers elsewhere (through three new ones joined Aklujkar, Moreno, and White). I could return to the book only in late 1989. The present collection is a result of this second, rather "revised" effort, which owes most to the continued patience and faith of the "original" and new contributors included in this book.
Though the authors of this book reflect a diversity of disciplines and perspectives (some planned and some fortuitous), all attest to the cultural depth and sweep food evokes on the subcontinent. How does the subject enjoy as distinct and comprehensive a conceptual practical discourse structure in India as our papers here suggest, requires still further exploration. Similarly, we need to know more about how food in India continues to show its two Janus-like faces one with a core of ideological essentialism and perpectivism (as with the Hindu and the Buddhist, in two different ways), and the other with problems, contradictions, and conflicts encountered in practice. The third modern face of food is still under construction, but it is not likely to simplify picture.
The Mysore Food Conference, held during the Sixth International Institute for Semiotic and Structural Studies (1985), was made, in part, feasible by a travel grant from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. for the North American scholars. From the other side, the Central Institute of Indian Languages and the Central Food Technology Research Institute, both of Mysore, provided the conference and its participants with a venue, an intellectual ambiance, and generous hospitality. As is most often the case, this book also reflects only a fraction of the rich intellectual (and culinary) fare we had shared during the conference. This is indeed the occasion to thank the aforementioned institutions for their help, alongside a number of local hosts and individual scholars. Among those who must be mentioned are Ms. Francine Berkovitz of the Smithsonian Institution, the director of the two Mysore institutes, Dr. E. Annamalai, Dr. B.L. Amla; Professor D.P. Pattnayak, Dr. Ashok Kelkar, and most of all the late Professor M.S.A. Rao and his entire family in Mysore, for feasting us at his home on the occasion of the 1985 New Year.
Besides those included in this volume, the main participants of the 1985 Mysore Conference on food studies were Professors Mahadev Apte of Duke University, Judith Goode of Temple University, Ashok Kelkar of the University of Pune, David Knipe of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jayant Lele of Queen's University, McKim Marriott of the University of Chicago, M.S.A. Rao of the University of Delhi, and Rajendra Singh of the Univerity of Montreal. Professors Walter Hauser and Murrey Milner of the University of Montreal. Professors Walter Hauser and Murrey Milner of the University of Virginia, and Dr. P.K. Misra of the Anthropological Survey of India made useful comments. I acknowledge with thanks contributions form these (and several other Indian) colleagues who joined us in exploring humanistic and social-science based "food studies" on the subcontinent.
I am also grateful to Rafael Alvarado and Bruce Koplin for helping me revise different drafts of the typescript, especially by their expertise in word processing ("the only way to go," in their words).
This book is dedicated to the memory of Professor M.S.A. Rao, who as the Convener of the South Asian branch of the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food Problems, had proposed the Mysore Conference.
The papers assembled in this volume investigate food in India and Sri Lanka for its wide-ranging cultural and uses. The special focus is on the cultural essence and experience foods evoke among Indians. Several papers discuss the issue of food essence and aesthetics, with special attention to Hindu saints and the divine, where foods, firmly grounded in moral ideals and practice, represent a cosmic, divine principle at one level and a most immediate an intimate semiotic reality at another. Food in India involves cultural characteristics not commonly associated with food in the contemporary West, for the subject routinely concerns matters of this world as well as the other world. Food is integral to India's cultural philosophy, since it comprehensively reflects the essence and experience of Indians at personal and collective levels. Food in India is never merely a material substance of ingestion, nor only a transactional commodity. It is synonymous with life and all its goals, including the subtlest and the highest. Sometimes highly abstract (approximating the lingustic, aeshetic, and even non-transactional or super-transactional "grammars") and sometimes palpably tangible (as a physical substance and "bodies"), this food asserts such a life-guiding presence that it concerns, one way or another, the thought and practice of the entire Indic civilization.
No wonder that such a conception of food is conductive to producing a comprehensive semiotics and semantics of food. There is widespread common understanding that foods in India routinely grade people's caste rank, help cure ailments, and reflect innate personal dispositions and spiritual pursuits and attainments. In its sweep and depth, food in India affords the Indianist a cultural lens to see beyond such basic dichotomies of his analysis as the ideal and the practical; self, boy and the other, and abstract and concrete.
However, since our subject a systematic study of food as a comprehensive cultural language is still in initial stages, a suitable background discussion is needed for approaching the subject. Once we have that, we will first identify those major cultural ways in which food plays a pivotal role for the expression and communication of the Hindu world and its distinctness, and second comment on how the papers of this volume illustrate a few aspects of the Hindus comprehensive approach to food.
From the Jacket:
The interdisciplinary approaches presented here investigate food in India and Sri Lanka for its wide ranging cultural meaning and uses. The authors examine food in religious and literary contexts, where saints, ritualists, poets, and the divine often provide grounds for a practically inexhaustible hermeneutics.
The Eternal Food focuses on reflexive cultural expressions and personal experiences that food elicits in the region. Concerned with food as an "essence" and as an essential experience, the authors give special attention to Hindu saints for whom food, firmly grounded in moral ideals and practice, represents a cosmic divine principle at one level, and a most immediate and intimate material reality at another.
In the cultural diversity of India, the authors work with several conceptual models and meaning of foods. They demonstrate how it reflects common social understandings about social caste, the cure and prevention of ailments, its ability to alter moods and motivations, or affect innate personal dispositions, personal spiritual pursuits and attainments. In its sweep and depth, food presents a powerful cultural lens for seeing how practical, ritual, and spiritual spheres of life conjoin.
" This book brings together an interesting and 'palatable' variety of Indological approaches and areas. The opportunities to deepen and broaden one's knowledge, as an Indologist, are, therefore, considerable. The topic of food is undoubtedly important now and connects with a range of significant cultural semantic indicators relevant to the body and all that it represents in terms of lived experince and tradition."
- Gail Hinich Sutherland, Louisiana State University.
About the Author:
R.S. Khare is Professor of Anthropology and Chairman of the International Commission on Anthropology of Food at the University of Virginia.
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