Anna in Sanskrit means food, since food is an absolute essential for human existence our Upanishads equates food to Bramha describing it as Annabramha indicating the importance of sustenance and replenishment of the body before merging back into the cosmic reality. It is for this reason that Annadhaana is regarded as shreshta dhaana amongst Hindus and till this day the ritual of donating food is carried out in Hindu homes, temples, ritualistic or religious gatherings in the form of Prasaadham to the devotees.
While smaller temples manage to provide smaller portions of Prasadam, the practice of feeding meals to large number of devotees in large temples is the most prominent feature in most Hindu temples.
Lord Sri Venkateshwara temple at Tirumala serves free food to thousands of devotees every single day. The Guruvaayur temple, Palani temple, Shirdi Sai baba temple, Mantralaya Raghavendra Swamy temple and all their branches, the Shringeri and Hornadu temples, the Andaal temples, the Shri Lakshmi Narayani temple in Vellore which is renowned as the Golden temple of South India, the Dharmastala ManjunathaSwamy temple, Udupi Shri Krishna temple, Ranganatha Swamy temple of Srirangam, the Kukke/Ghati Subramanya Swami temples – all these temples provide free food to thousands of devotees every single day. It is not unusual to find even the smallest Murugan temple or Ganesha or Hanuman temple offering bowls of Prasaadam to all their devotees. Apart from the traditional temples even the modern Akshaya Patra foundation of ISKCON supplies free food to many schools, the Golden temple in Amritsar holds Langar, offering free food to several thousands of devotees every single day, as a matter of fact Langar is hosted by several other small Sikh groups as well. When I had been to Natula Pass in the Indo-China borders, even at 14500ft, a steaming hot sumptuous meal was served in a Langar at the Baba Harbhajan Mandir. It is a shrine built by soldiers in commemoration of Major Harbhajan Singh a war soldier who was killed (drowned in a glacier) during the Sino-Indian war.
Lakhs of other small temples follow the same practice of feeding (free food) the devotees from across the classes without any jingoism about humanitarianism or propaganda of identity appeasement. The Annadhaan is such a prominent feature in South India that even during the construction of a house, the construction laborers are specifically hosted an elaborate lunch to make sure that they are satisfied and do their job with a good positive intent.
When such is the magnanimity of the socio-religious philosophy upheld in our culture in general and temples in particular, it makes one wonder why then in such a scenario do we need socialistic political props like Amma or an Indira Canteen?
Against this backdrop it is important to understand that the rapid and rabid proselytizing activities by the Missionary and Madrasas in Southern India starting from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra and now Karnataka has led to digestion of Hindu symbolism and a shunting suppression of Hindu religious spaces with oppressive legislations or outright harassments to the point where temples can no more sustain or are compelled to shut down or give up the administration of the temple completely to the Government. The latest reports coming about Sri Parthasarathy Perumal Temple which is being forcibly taken over by the Kerala Government with a High Court order by surrounding the temple with a battery of policemen!
It is this kind of systematic diminishing dissolutions of temple spaces that is backed by Government sanctions under the garb of secularism and administration of equality that has today brewed up a socio-political atmosphere that is perhaps necessitating a social alternative to make up for the loss of a forced Hindu religious laxity. Because after proselytization the converted masses who until recently were taking Mahaprasad can no more accept the food that is first offered to the Hindu Gods as preached and prescribed to them in their newer faiths. Perhaps this is what compels the constitution of subsidized canteens to effect authoritarian ricebag politics at the cost of burdening the taxpayer which is like collecting forced donations much like in a communist regime!
Our temples are not just houses of spirituality but are tall towers for social integration and emboldening empathy. Temples spend their revenue for sustenance, upkeep of the temple and feeding the devotees with a Satvik Prasaadam because Annadhaana is innate and intrinsic to Hindu values. And the interesting part is _ inspite of the Government interference in our temple revenues and management it is only the Hindu temples that continue to contribute to humanity by feeding freely a sea of devotees at all given times throughout the year. The everyday Annadhana is something unique only to the Hindu religious centers because the monotheistic walls of Mosques and Churches although free from Government interference in their revenues or management affairs are devoid of the concept of mass free feeding and it is perhaps to cater to this section of people that an otherwise polarizing scheme is passed off as a populist scheme.
If temples were to be empowered without the burden of having to fill the Government treasury coffers and if temples were allowed to run their own affairs with minimal guidelines from the Government, there would never have been a need for socialistic schemes like Indira canteen or Amma canteen selling food at Rs.5 and Rs.10 when temples have been providing the same or much more for free. Today nobody can demand of the Church or a Mosque or a Madrasa to administer in a particular way nor do these religious powerhouses engage in feeding the masses like in the Hindu temples, thanks to the twisted legislations of the Hindu Endowment and Charity Act much against the constitutional guarantee of freedom for running religious centers where only Hindu temples are watched and controlled.
But the mascots of equality will whine over the so called Brahmin hegemony in temples and how lower castes are differentially and unjustly treated in temples even when the fact on ground today remains that there are exclusive temples of Dalits like the Maariamma temple or Kabalamma temple or MuneeshwaraSwamy temple and many such distinct shrines where the temple trust is completely run by Dalits and Vokkaligas and the so called blood sucking Brahmins do not simply interfere in their matters. Similar is the case with Lingayats. Also most Muzrai temples that are owned by the Governments recruit non-Brahmin staff. But this theory of differential treatment although true in some parts of India has already been generalized and overtly milked to disintegrate the Hindu society especially in states of Tamil Nadu, Andra, Kerala and Karnataka. It is another thing that the American society still witnesses racial segregation on a Sunday congregation in many White Churches and 90% of Afro-Americans still pray in Black Churches but hey India is a casteist racist misogynist country!
While every country has its share of anomalies and fault lines, this kind of a full-fledged propaganda has eased the unchecked emergence of radical evangelical societies and Madarasa boards that are harvesting on Hindu souls inducing the disillusioned converts with utmost hate for their past religion, making them vulnerably overlook the abject poverty they live in, as they are given propagated political handouts like subsidized food.
The ambitious Indira Canteen that was set up with tall promises of hygiene and standards has been embroiled in the news for all wrong reasons from day one. From being located near trash dumps, or being set up on public Park spaces to building it inside a temple premises to demolishing a historical monument to make way for Indira canteen to the ruffling of the media crews who sought to shoot the Kitchen and the process followed for cooking. It was alleged that the contractors did not even have a formal contract from the BBMP. Later it was found that the food was allegedly outsourced from marriage parties and local hotel caterers or was locally cooked in open spaces much against the hyped hygienic cooking in high tech kitchens. Also the hygiene standards of the Indira canteen are questionable as per this video that is doing the rounds on social media.
Compare this with the Mega temple kitchens upon which international documentaries are broadcast in channels like NatGeo highlighting the technologically advanced mechanisms deployed in these temples and the excellent hygiene standards adopted along with an army of tireless diligent service minded workers and volunteers who serve food without much hype as against the hysteria of subsidized canteens.
The hurried speed with which the Indira canteens were brought in just before an election year, certainly raises eyebrows if this was one of those vote gathering and fund allocating efforts at the fag-end of a Ahinda tenure. Whether populist canteens are conceived with earnest intent or for political eulogy is for people to ascertain but the concerning context of shrinking space for Hindu temple management remains for introspection if these socialist and communist political pursuits of subsidized canteens are cleverly wrapped clandestine alternatives made available for minority appeasement at the cost of the majority and that if these subsidized canteens can ever make up for the concept of Annadhana!