All civilizations were built by men and women who ate bland food. They tasted what was on their plate at its most natural, closer to the source and mindful of it – this was food which was not washed away by herbs and spices, and its identity. In that moment though, their own mind was at its utmost clarity working without the chains of taste. They ate less and only when they were hungry. Food was intended to be nourishment, and not pleasure. Hunger was a common and a natural feeling, and no one reacted to it the way we react to it now.
But, these creators of civilizations might have unknowingly been building it all for a future where their sons would pursue taste and other vanities more fervourously. With the food security that modernity creates, the practicality of food has been surpassed by leisure. Today’s food is too rich and we do not have to work for it to taste as good. It caters to the tongue but not the body. This does serve the industry which thrives on giving it this role, but this industry is also answerable to no one.
There is also the rare nobility in blandness and simplicity of food. It can be found preserved across traditions in acts and roles concerning purity, service to God, mourning, sacrifice and health. There is something pedestrian about food that has all the ornaments of grease, spice, sugar and heat – everyone loves it, it doesn’t take much to appreciate it. We also see that both dietary factions of carnivores and vegans converge when it comes to not cooking one’s food. Their reasons might be to preserve the desired nutritive qualities, but it is also the taste which is preserved. Come to think of it, any act of preservation changes the taste of the food, which has directly or indirectly led to the hedonistic face-stuffing we see today. With the change of labor from physical to largely mental, the diets of the elites and the masses have also swapped – it is now the elites who pay more for a diet of a medieval peasant, and the masses now survive on hyper-processed monotony packaged for instant consumption.
Krishna speaks of diet in the Bhagavad Gita often; in a sentence, that – your food affects your thoughts, and eventually your karma. This awarenesss of one’s diet extends to its source, on how the food is acquired and prepared. Even in these times, we loop to the same conclusion with the influence of gut bacteria on brain activity. If diets can make you feel depressed or happy, can they not shape your entire vision of the world, which also affects your action? And what impact does leaning toward a type of diet have on an entire society/generation? Which foods build civilizations and which foods destroy it?
It is a surprise that the festival has survived through its transition from organic to something highly manufactured – right from the logistics to the main object of focus. Amidst my thoughts on how the entire custom has changed in these times into an impersonal delivery through a gift mailing service, I recall the hastily written letters, grooved with the handwriting on the unwritten side of the folded paper – sometimes it would be torn from a notebook and the other times from a fresh ream. Even before unfolding this message and reading it, the density of this script would give an estimate at the time-window she got to find this year in her hectic schedule – regardless of that, it would still go into my box of memories. And in that haste would also be a half-open pack of teeka and rice powdering and staining the whole envelope from the inside. Its smell would mix with the scent of the rakhi creating that unique sensory imprint of this festival.
Now, it is nothing like that – just a neatly packaged rakhi with a generic printed message. The biggest content of the envelope is a discount coupon for the next order.
It has been a few days and I am planning to take the rakhis off my wrist. I am thinking of all the plastic and how it has increased its share against other materials that were used in the decoration and details. Ideally, I am supposed to leave these under a tree when I discard them but these particular threads will have to be thrown into the recycling bin, which doesn’t feel like the right treatment for something your sisters spent time selecting and stressing over its successful delivery to you. I see the damages of this product’s entire life-cycle compared to what it was originally intended to be – a mere thread. One is a product, another is an artifact.
The simplicity of the thread makes it iconic and beautiful, maybe with a personal touch of something she added that will burst into life at the roots of a tree – that would be enough, which is possible by freeing it from the ugliness of the over-ornate that has infested every aspect of our lives. Unless the people who practice this tradition start considering sustainability and simplicity seriously, this topic will become yet another matter of government intervention into their belief system in the coming future. Complaining then surely will not help.
Removing the layers of consumerism from our festivals is important, and looking at the original practices – the ancient practices, at their simplest, also reveals their environmentally conscious set up.
People from all walks of life are around me, with their own stories and problems in their hearts, the most heart wrenching of complaints and the most miraculous of wishes can be found in this room. Among all this gravity, children run and play. I used to be like them once, this open hall with adults as dynamic obstacles would be the board for countless new games. This temple on a hill in Pennsylvania, though thousands of miles away from the homes of the people who stand here right now, is no different than any other temple in place and time.
And then my gaze goes over the idols, the decorations, the ritual and every step it contains within as the coordinated acts of worship, the chanting, the music, the symbols and everything that makes a religion what it is. Someone must have created it at some point – it was surely conceived by the imagination of a highly creative individual of the time, an imagination cleansing itself of the pride to praising something greater than itself. And now thousands of years later, people do this, parts of it but in a similar spirit – names and titles and facts have faded but there is still a link I see in this moment. What is all religion and tradition but a way to honor the art of one’s ancestors? And, can art even exist without them?
Today, I see the beauty in the lifeless carved rock. There is a lump in my throat, I feel insignificant in front of that unknown sculptor’s patience and belief in something so abstract – that it cuts through time and space and sweeps away my entire existence, something which I have comfortably rationalized to myself even when it stands on a weak and often faltering foundation. This is the truth of the greater abstract within which my lie of a little existence lies.