By Janet Tuenschel
As a young girl in India, my friend, Renuka would visit the bustling and poverty-stricken city of Haridwar with her father. They spent one busy and eye-opening week there each year. She remembers the shock of seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of people living within the impossibly small area of one city block. The purpose of her family’s visit: to feed as many of those people as they could. A local food preparation company made the food, while Renuka and her father stood in the streets feeding all who came. This generous yearly visit was based on the old Indian tradition of annadan.
Annadan, providing food or drink to those in need, is an early form of Indian charity. From ancient times to this day, it is considered one of the greatest gifts to offer food to the hungry in India. While the act of annadan is not as common as it once was, the selfless act of giving continues to be highly respected in India.
Annadan is just one type of Indian charity. Dana, at the root of the word annadan, is the traditional word for Indian charity and it appears in a variety of ways. Two such forms include vastradan, the giving of clothing, and patradan, the donating of utensils. The giving away of dana is believed to secure divine blessings for the giver and is meant to be a purifying act. The practice has Hindu roots, but is common in all parts of Indian society. According to Hindu description, “dana is the act of conscious and willing relinquishment of possession and transference of ownership of something to another willing recipient who consciously accepts the transfer.”
In early times it was customary for Indians to open their homes and offer food to the poor. If a family had plenty, the husband of a home would often go out into the streets and call out for anyone who was hungry to join his family for a meal.
To honour the ancient tradition of annadan and provide help to those in need, many Indian charities offer special meals to the poor. One such charity, Dasanudas, believes that feeding the poor is the first step in breaking out of a destructive cycle of poverty. The charity believes that by being fed people are better able to cope with life. In particular, hunger robs children of the benefits of education. To quote a former president of India (2002-2007), Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, “Good food makes the children not only concentrate on studies, it also improves their health. Educated and healthy children will lead to a healthy and knowledgeable society.”
Annadan is an important part of the giving traditions of India. The recognition that food is such a basic and crucial element to life has held a primary position in Indian philanthropy.