A few months ago, internet was abuzz with reports of a popular celebrity being perplexed at the sight of Indians “still” eating with their hands, implying that only underdeveloped or backward civilizations would follow such a practice.
However, there were some sections of young Indians, who were apologetic about it. Probably due to global exposure & frequent travel, some of the Indians have begun to feel that their habits are outdated, and are apologetic about their habit of eating with fingers. I have personally come across young Indians at canteens of MNCs who somewhat feel ashamed to eat with their hands because they are being made to believe that it is a sign of backwardness, and end up making a mockery of themselves by trying to eat even Dosa with fork & knife.
This article is mainly for such young Indians.
Let me first begin with an outright claim that eating with hands is not a sign of backwardness but actually the most refined, scientific & spiritual phenomenon which has stood the test of time.
Yes, you heard it right. It is the most refined, scientific, logical & spiritual phenomenon and hence has been in practice for thousands of years in India. Actually, almost every tradition or custom followed in India has scientific reasoning, which was perceived as superstition by foreigners, but thanks to the research efforts of scientists of the 21st century, such practices (which were earlier perceived as superstitious or backward practices) are now being vindicated by none other than the foreign scientists themselves.
For example, in an earlier article, we had seen how the tradition of squatting (Indian toilet system), is actually the most human friendly technique:
Why Indians draw Rangoli:
Scientific reason behind OM mantra chanting which is a tradition among almost all Indians:
Today, let’s find out how eating with fingers is actually the most scientific technique & spiritual phenomenon which can enhance the overall experience.
Firstly, let’s take up the spiritual part. Since time immemorial, Indians have held Vedas & Vedic studies including Ayurveda in the highest regard, and incorporated its concepts in their everyday lives. Most of the popular “home remedies” which are propagated across generations and have proven to be highly effective, are actually concepts & ideas from Ayurveda itself.
Now, coming to the topic. Although we broadly use the phrase “Eating with hands”, it is actually the fingers which play the most important role in this process. According to Ayurveda, each finger has special spiritual significance, and represents the elements of nature. It comes under the topic called “Mudras”, and deserves a separate discussion altogether, but let’s take only the main points from it.
As per the logic of mudra, it is said that the Universe is made of 5 elements namely Fire, Air, Space, Earth, Water. i.e Agni, Varun, Akash, Prithvi, Jal.
Also, as per the logic of mudra, it is said that fingers are the extension of those 5 elements and each finger connects to a particular element.
Thumb finger connects to Agni.
Index finger connects to Varun.
Middle finger connects to Akash.
Ring finger connects to Prithvi.
Little finger connects to Jal.
Now, one might wonder what role do these elements play in the process of eating. It is said that while eating with hands, since all the five fingers come in contact with each other and with the food, the amalgamation of all the 5 elements, forming a connection with the cosmos & thereby energizing the food with cosmic energy.
All these might sound very extraordinary & far fetched, but one must try it out themselves to experience it. One can try a simple experiment of eating with spoon day, and with hands the next day, and they will clearly find out the difference. Eating with hands would feel more refreshing & fulfilling, because that food would have got energized while getting into contact with the fingers which are basically extension of the five elements of the Universe.
Apart from energizing, eating with hands would involve the sense of feel & touch which provides an wholesome experience, adding to the already existing sense of sight, aroma & taste. Some of the popular Indian restaurants which have set up shops abroad, recommend customers to try to eat their Indian specialties with their hands, and the feedback from those customers have been exhilarating, which suggests that it is not merely a belief system but actually a wholesome & fulfilling experience.
The next reason is that eating in hands helps in better digestion. How? Let me explain. This is the scientific aspect, and is now being researched by Scientists in the Neuroscience field. Our fingers have millions of nerve endings which are highly sophisticated, can sense even the most minute details, and send relevant signals to rest of the body, resulting in voluntary as well as involuntary action.
When the food is touched with fingers, the nerve endings at the fingertips determine the kind of food, determines its nutritions, and sends signals to the digestive system to start secreting the relevant digestive juices. Similarly, the nose also has sensory processing which triggers secretion of saliva & digestive jucies. That’s why just the mere aroma of food sensed by the nose immediately sends signals for secretion of saliva in the mouth. Depending on the kind of food which is touched, the relevant digestive juices & enzymes are released. All these are carried out as involuntary actions without involving the brain at all.
In fact, recent studies in Neuroscience have proven that fingertips perform complex processing and decode signals without the help of brain.
Based on the above study, we can establish the fact that the nerve endings on the tip of fingers, have the capability to process & send signals to digestive system, thereby helping in better digestion, which might not be possible when spoons are used.
Talking about hygiene, contrary to the popular misconception, eating with hands is actually more hygienic & less riskier than eating with spoon or fork. Suppose an unhealthy person uses a spoon to feed himself in a restaurant, and the spoons are not washed properly due to irresponsible staff, then the next person using that contaminated spoon might get affected. This way, one has to surrender his health into the hands of cleaning staff. i.e Despite being clean & precautions, one has to depend on the cleaning staff because if they are negligent, then he will fall sick for no fault of his. Whereas if one uses his own hands, all he needs to do is just wash his hands before eating, and he need not depend on anybody else.
This was illustrated by Former President Dr S Radhakrishnan in the form of a banter during a dinner with delegates in London.
Apart from the above mentioned reasons, there are various simple reasons based on common sense & logic. For instance, consider a hypothetical situation where one would dig a piping hot dish with a spoon & ram it into his mouth. He ends up burning his tongue, which is one of the most sensitive organs & would need lot of time (days or even weeks) to recover.
Now, consider the same situation, but with hands instead of spoon. While touching the food itself he will realize that it is very hot, and hence manipulate it with his fingers till it cools (or wait for a while till it cools), thereby saving his tongue.
Also, while using hands, it is far easier to separate residual spices from the main food. Have a look at the following photograph of a popular Indian dish called Vegetable Pulao.
As we can see, there are several spices like cinnamon bark, cardamon, Marathi moggu (Kapok buds), etc, which are added to enhance the flavor during cooking, but need not be consumed while savoring the dishes. Imagine how tedious it would be to separate them out while eating with a spoon, compared to eating with fingers.
Now, let’s have a look at tradition meals from different parts of India.
There is so much of variety, and eating them is not so straightforward as just slicing & eating a cake or pizza. It is almost impossible to eat roti with a spoon or knife or fork. Nor can ragi ball be consumed with the help of a spoon. It requires skillful fingers to pluck each piece, roll it into a tiny ball, dip it into sambhar & swallow it effortlessly. Similarly, puris have to be carefully pulled apart with flexible fingers, rolled into curry & consumed. And so on with most of the traditional foods of India.
As most of us would agree, when something is designed such that it has to be operated in a certain way, then it has to be operated in that way for maximum efficiency & benefit. For example, if an auto rickshaw is designed to operate on diesel, then it has to be refilled with diesel only. Refilling it with kerosene might still run the rickshaw but we have seen how such vehicles not only harm the environment around it but also deteriorates itself in the process. i.e It is not efficient in the long run because it was not designed that way.
Similarly, most of the Indian traditional foods which have been produced & developed over the centuries were designed with Vedic, Scientific & Logical methods which made them suitable for eating with hands, so as to derive the maximum benefits. If we want to eat them with spoon & fork just to impress an American colleague, then we would actually be losing out on all the above mentioned benefits & experience.
Hence, there is no need for young Indians to be apologetic about their habit of eating with hands, because Indian food itself is such that it has to be eaten with hands, and not to forget that, as explained throughout this article, it provides a host of benefits like fulfillment, improved digestion, spiritual progress (i.e mudras), convenience and many more benefits.
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