Food and Immortality in the Veda: A Gastronomic Theology?

Carlos Lopez


It is well known from the work of Wilhelm Rau that the opposition of eater (attṛ) and eaten (adya) is used by the Vedic poets as a conceptual frame to articulate social ideology. 2 As Ś.B and numerous other passages put it: the brahmins and the kṣatriya-s unite to ‘eat’ the people (viś). Life and society are understood by the Vedic poets in terms of the basic struggle of acquiring food. Food itself becomes the most basic conceptual tool by which the functioning of the human being, human society and the cosmos are understood. Food as a conceptual tool may be seen in its most basic form in the statement of Taittirīya Upaniṣad (TU) 3.10, which identifies food (annam) as prathamajā ṛtasya “the first born of ṛta.” That annam is conceived as more than just everyday, edible goods is clear from the fact that food is personified as the first born progeny of the most important abstract power in the Veda, namely, ñta, “the active power of truth,” which underlies all cosmic, divine and human action. In this passage, food is placed at the center of the eschatological vision of Vedic culture. Immortality, an unending existence in the next world, is articulated in terms of food. This paper begins to explore the role of food, as a general category, in the expression of concepts and ideas that form part of the eschatological vision of Vedic religion. The focus of this paper will be to show that key eschatological concepts - the notion of immortality (amṛta),3 the vision of heaven, and its opposite (nirṛti ) - are construed within a ‘nutritionally fixated’ worldview; a worldview that at every turn construes ideas, concepts, and processes (both cosmic and human) from the point of view nutritional necessity. This does not mean, of course, that this is the only worldview present in the Vedic texts; rather this gastronomic worldview is one that can be pieced together from various hints and suggestions that are scattered throughout the corpus of Vedic literature.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Carlos Lopez