Saying Grace to sanctify food at mealtime generally refers to Christian traditions. But other religions too have their prayers to offer gratitude and invoke God to bless the food to make it more nourishing.
Hinduism considers invoking God’s blessing before consuming food essential, says Pandit Jagdish Sharma, the priest of Rajdhani temple in Virginia. Hindus do this by placing their food before the deities they worship and by reciting certain shlokas (scriptural verses). Once the food is offered to God, it becomes prasad or blessed food. Prasad in Hindi or Sanskrit means “favor” or “grace.” Hindus also seek blessings from Ma Annapurna, the goddess of food, grains, and nourishment.
The chanting of mantras to invoke and give thanks to God before partaking of a meal is an age-old Hindu tradition that has been unfortunately forgotten by many Hindus who have left villages for the cosmopolitan city or left India, Pandit Sharma adds
Bhagavad Gita, which encapsulates Hinduism in one short volume, even has advice on the kind of food we should eat. Lakshman Das, the resident priest at the Hare Krishna temple in Potomac, MD, quotes the verse: āhāra śhuddhau sattva śhuddhiḥ. It means that by eating pure food, the mind becomes pure. People with pure minds, in turn, prefer pure foods. Therefore, we should watch what we eat as it has a direct effect on our body and mind. Lord Krishna says in the Gita that leaves, fruits, and water suffices to keep us healthy.
Dr Moxraj, a former yoga teacher at the Indian Embassy in DC and follower of Arya Samaj, says that the Vedas, the fount of Hinduism, recommend blessing the food and emphasize what to eat and when to eat. They suggested just two regular meals in a day and no snacking in between. No talking or doing something else while eating. Giving time and respect to food, in turn, nourishes our bodies in the best way possible. Vedic people consumed whole grains such cereals, initially barley and later rice, pulses such as urad, moong, and masoor, vegetables such as lotus root, lotus stem, bottle gourd, and milk, mainly of cows, but also buffaloes and goats, and milk products.
Sadhguru, a global guru, says the invocation before meals takes away the compulsiveness for food. The website of his Isha Foundation quotes him, “We must eat relishing the nourishment of what the food offers and with gratitude of what it means to our life… that you are conscious of some other life willing to merge with your own life and become you.”
As per yoga, you must chew every morsel of food 24 times. This way the food gets digested in the mouth.
Buddhists bless their food by reciting OM AH HUM and visualizing all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas blessing the food with the qualities of the holy body, speech, and mind.
There are several chants to be done before and after meals to express gratitude. Gokan-no-ge, the ‘Five Reflections’ or ‘Five Remembrances’ is from the Zen tradition. It means reflecting on our work and the effort of those who brought us this food and absorbed it into the food. Then we recite OM AH HUM, says Peter, who has been following Zen Buddhism.
In Jainism & Sikhism
The Jains pray before their meals and follow a strict vegetarian diet. They are lacto-vegetarians and exclude roots and vegetables grown underground such as potatoes, garlic, and onions to avoid injuring small insects and microorganisms as well as to prevent the entire plant from getting uprooted and killed.
At Sikh temples, called gurdwaras, prasad is prepared in the langar community kitchen. Prasad is first blessed by offering an ardas, or prayer, often before reading a hukam (the day’s verse) from the Guru Granth Sahib, their Holy book, says Bhai Jagmohan Singh, a raagi (singer) at the Silver Spring Gurdwara in Maryland.
If one begged from the One Lord, the Great Giver, one will be blessed with everything, adds Singh. So, in one’s mind and body, with each breath and morsel of food, meditate on the One and only Lord God. Sikhism teaches you to pray for the well-being of all of humanity.
Sikhs avoid ritually slaughtered meat (halal), which slowly drains the blood and is mandated for Muslims.
Parsis, Bahais, and others
Zoroastrians’ regard for all food as sacred is derived from Ahura Mazda, their creator deity. So all actions of eating in some way are sacred, says Nosh Nallavahah, a Mumbai-born Parsi now living in New Jersey. Prayers are usually said before meals to bless the food. Parsis traditionally observed silence during meals, making it a solemn occasion for giving thanks.
According to Dr Kavian Milani, who was born in Iran and now holds weekly Bahai meetings in his house in Falls Church, VA, Bahais may say grace like this: “Thy heavenly food and confer upon us Thy blessing. Thou art verily the Bestower, the Merciful, and the Compassionate. O my Lord, my Hope! Praise be unto Thee, for Thou hast sent down unto us this spiritual table, supreme benefit, and heavenly blessing.”
Tamae, a Tokyo-born resident of Virginia, talks of a Japanese custom to bless the food with a prayer, ‘Itadakimasu’. This polite phrase meaning “I receive this food ” expresses thanks to the food preparer and appreciation for Mother Nature, the ultimate provider of food.
The Chinese don’t have a special prayer for food but they say, “chī hǎo hē hǎo”, literally meaning, “eat well and drink well”.
Others offer their gratitude in myriad ways to myriad agencies for the food that sustains us. Here are a few:
Lord and Lady, watch over us
Bless this food, this bounty of the earth.
Corn and grain, meat and milk…
Gifts of life, bringing sustenance and strength,
I am grateful for all I have.
A carnivore may thank the animals:
Hail! Hail! The hunt has ended,
We honor the one who feeds us tonight,
may his spirit live within us!
To invite the gods and goddesses of one’s tradition to join at mealtime:
I set a place at my table for the gods,
and ask them to join me here tonight.
My home is always open to you.
After talking to people of diverse religious communities, I can say with certainty that the traditions of blessing food and offering gratitude at mealtime are alive and well. These customs are good for health, gulping a burger washed down with cola to fill the stomach is not.