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Prasad: From the eyes of the receiver and giver
Special days of celebration always call for special offerings. Be it a marriage, the birth of a newborn, or any other milestone. We usually celebrate by offering heartfelt and joyous prayers to the Lord, accompanied by food and gifts, which we then distribute to our friends and family.
This tradition exists in all cultures, religions and ethnic groups, as a way of sharing our joy, first with our Maker and then with everyone else.
There are so many examples: the sacramental bread of the Eucharist, holy water, sweets, cakes and flower offerings, etc. Even customs that are very secular in nature today find their roots in earlier sacred offerings. For example, the tradition of lighting candles on birthday cakes is said to have come from the ancient Greeks, who would make round cakes to honour Artemis, the goddess of the moon. The lit candles on the cake represented the glow of the moon, and the smoke from the blown-out candles carried their prayers and wishes to the goddess who lived in the sky.
For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to all such offerings as Prasad. What is Prasad? Why is it given? How are we meant to receive it? Let’s explore these questions further.
Understanding the meaning of the word
Prasad comes from the word Prasada in Sanskrit, which was originally described in Vedic literature as a spiritual state. In an early text, the Rig Veda, Prasada is described as a mental state experienced by gods or sages, in which they felt a spontaneous generosity, often granting boons to their followers. It is only much later in history that Prasada came to describe the offering of material things such as clothes, flowers and food, especially sweets.
Looking into the etymology of the word itself, the two Sanskrit words derived from it are Prasanna and Prasada. Both words evoke a joyful feeling. Prasanna means ‘clear, bright, and tranquil’. Similarly, when someone is offering Prasada, it is with so much joy, brightness, and internal clarity.
How to offer prasad?
The best attitude is one of complete love and reverence, with such humility and innocence that we are offering the most potent part of that which we offer. In doing so, we create an osmosis between what is offered and the one to whom it is being offered. In fact, that is what gives Prasad its joyous quality and reverence – something that I have offered to my Maker, I can now share with all His other children.
How to distribute prasad to others?
People often follow a lot of cultural etiquette when distributing Prasad, and in today’s world this etiquette can seem too ritualistic and anachronistic at times. But if we explore the science behind the etiquette, we soon realise that there is a purpose to each gesture or ritual defined by our elders. The purpose is generally rooted in the scientific principles and physiology of well-being in a very precise way.
In India, one such ancient tradition is to always give and take Prasad with the right hand. Why is it so?
Let us try to understand a little more about how our body, brain and nerves work together. First, when we study the physiology of the human body, we discover that the right side of the body is primarily controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain and the left side of the body is primarily controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain.
Second, our autonomic nervous system controls our automatic physical responses to situations. It is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, our body becomes more active and excited, and endorphins and cortisol levels increase. In contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, our body relaxes and calms down, reducing our endorphin and cortisol levels.
There is something called Cerebral Hemispheric Laterality – each hemisphere of our brain is more connected to one of these autonomic nervous systems. When we stimulate the right hemisphere of our brain it invokes the parasympathetic nervous system, and when we stimulate the left hemisphere of our brain it invokes the sympathetic nervous system.
So, when we use our left nostril or left hand, it stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain, which is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us feel calmer. Hence, there is a yogic practice of breathing multiple times through the left nostril, while closing the right nostril, to lower stress.
So, what happens when we give Prasad? Our attitude for the occasion is meant to be joyful, with a feeling of love and gratitude towards the Divine. We want to remain active and excited, which happens when we give from the right hand, which is connected to the left side of the brain and the sympathetic nervous system.
How to receive prasad?
When we receive Prasad, also, the tradition in India is to take it with the right hand, which resonates with sympathetic responses so that we can reciprocate the feeling of joy of the giver. If we were to use our left hand it would resonate with the parasympathetic nervous system, and we would be mellow rather than sharing in the giver’s excitement and happiness.
When Prasad is offered to us in a beautiful and joyous way, we want to be in an equally joyous mood, grateful to receive this gift. Imagine being angry or upset when we take this divine offering in our hands! What message would it give to our Lord? How would our system react?
There is another aspect of great scientific and spiritual significance in the giving of Prasad: only a very small quantity of Prasad is supposed to be given and eaten. This is so that what little is given will remain in the body rather than being excreted, helping to purify the whole system.
The science of how Prasad can purify the system and cure spiritual ills is also a subject of profound wisdom for another time.
— Kamlesh D Patel, affectionately known as Daaji, is the Global Guide of Heartfulness meditation. He is a role model for students of spirituality who seek that perfect blend of eastern heart and western mind. He travels extensively and is at home with people from all backgrounds and walks of life, giving special attention to the youth of today. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org