October 7, 2010
A Cultural Bridge to Life and Spirit

By Kanwal Prakash Singh

Food is the essence of life.  Food is life; food is god; food is fun.  Food is singularly the most essential element for human body, mind and spirit.  Delicious foods, festive clothes, hearty laughter add zest to human spirit and universe.  Food generates needed energy, excitement, pleasure and a sense of being alive.  Food also reminds us, that as the greatest and most vital gift for human survival, food carries a divine connection and a spiritual blessing.  Food evokes a spirit of thanksgiving, prayerful reflection, and an intrinsic desire to share, to please our heart and the higher power that blesses us our daily sustenance.

We are reminded, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for there by some have entertained angels unawares.”  We find echoes of this sentiment in every culture and faith tradition.  The Sikh scriptures state: “Earn your livelyhood through righteous labors and share your rewards with the needy.  Nanak (Founder of Sikh faith) says that: this is the Way to know God.”  The unannounced guest at the door is to be recognized and welcomed as a special messenger with whom we are to share our bounty, for “his or her name is already written on every grain that he or she is ordained to partake.”  Therefore, we must extend our hospitality with a joyful spirit and sense of gratitude for the privilege to share our blessings with this fellow human being ‘sent’ or placed at our crossroads.

Perhaps in the same spirit, we organize food drives, support interfaith hunger initiatives, pursue foreign policy of ‘food for peace,’ and food as a cultural bridge to nations and communities affected by floods, famine, natural diasters and devastating human conflicts.  Food is the vital sign of life; food is hope; food is friendship.  The absence or denial of food can result in death, conflict, unrest, and horrific consequences.  We cannot think of food as a weapon to achieve some political objective; food is the anchor of life, an essential element of peace and progress.

Human civilization owes its very foundation to our search for food, mastering and excelling in the art of living, surviving, enjoying the fruits of our labors, and discovering life in its colorful multi-faceted splendor as the ultimate divine blessing.  Food generates conversation, exchange of ideas and experiences; cuilinary arts and tastes provide sensuous pleasure, cultural insights into food preparations, preferences, and religious influences.  Today, fine dining establishments combine many arts: beautiful settings and landscaping, fine-dining environment, art, music, dance and live performances to nurture visual and sensory faculties to enhance the feasting experience as a pleasureable pastime and memorable cultural adventure.  Over the centuries, serving food has become an artform and has influenced the arts.  Food preparations for special occasions like marriages, major holiday feasts and worldclass gatherings have taken on a festive aura, attractive textures and imaginative presentations in breathtaking venues.

Throughout history, our food choices and tastes have reflected the impact of geography, climate, ethnic and traditional values rooted in faith, culture and heritage as well as outside influences that arrived with traders, invaders and travellers.  Today, with the transcending frontiers, international travel, and internet, we are witnessing an abundance of once unfamiliar ethnic restaurants and exotic foods around us.  From peanut butter sandwiches, barbeque chicken, and American apple pie, many are graduating to alloo pranthas, chicken tikka masala, and mango icecream.  We are becoming much more aware of our myriad choices of Greek, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, African and other ethnic eating-places in our towns and cities.  We are daring to try them and finding them incredibly delicious and enjoyable.

We are finding that the themes and feasts at our major celebrations and fundraising events are international and introducing us to people, culture and experiences that were once distant.  We are learning about the life and spirit of new fellow Americans who are setting up roots here; travelling in record numbers to the farthest corners of the earth to learn about other cultures.  We are joining in religious and cultural celebrations, witnessing multi-faith weddings, and ethnic festivals that are providing us a window to people and cultures that are flourishing amidst us and are providing us an opportunity to enrich our spirit with such special offerings.  These experiences live and thrive in our mind and spirit for a long time and leave some permanent imprints of our shared humanity in which food is the common life-breath.  

Such encounters can trigger new interests and begin the process of learning about the world that we share with others.  These events often serve as a marketplace of ideas, cultural exchanges, building new bridges across diverse faith communities, as islands of friendship and surprising opportunities to connect at many levels.  The Friendship Lunch hosted by the Hoosier Sikh Americans at the Indiana State House in partnership with the Indiana Humanities Council and Indiana Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, was just one opportuntiy to learn about the Sikh Americans who are a part of Indiana’s growing international population (see pictures below).  The September 16th event was the first of planned celebrations of Indiana’s faith communities.  The program included greetings by honored guests, Sikh invocation, photographic display of Sikh activities in Indiana and Sikh contributions to the world; a DVD presentation of Sikh arts, community and culture; a Punjabi folkdance by young Hoosiers, a North Indian lunch, and a whole lot of opportunity to meet many faith and community leaders, friends, Punjabi ladies and turbaned neighbors.  You can only imagine the myriad conversations that this historic first generated.

This post was written by Council friend Kanwal Prakash “KP” Singh. Learn more about KP at www.KPSinghDesigns.com.

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