Annadana Theory and Practice
The Sanskrit word “annadanam” literally means the offering or sharing (danam) of food (annam). In every ethnic and religious community across the Indian subcontinent, no festival or ceremony is complete without annadanam or at least with the distribution of prasadam, the edible items offered during puja.
Accordingly, the annadanam of food is stressed in ancient scriptures, including the vedas, upanisads, dharma sastras, dhamma pada, etc. Taittiriya Upanishad declares, “all life force comes from food”. (annam vai pranah) and “Let food be produced in plenty” (annam bahu kurveet). In bhagavad gita, sri Krishna declares, “From food all begins are evolved” (annad bhavanthi bhutani).
Annadanam at Teyvanai Amman Temple, Kathirkamam
Even simple folk practices preserve traditions that have endured since time immemorial. Ancient people believed that sprits or deities may move upon the earth in human guise, and that such beings possess special powers or abilities that may help those who are open hearted and generous towards such unusual strangers.
Hence, it is considered prudent in traditional societies to regard every stranger or sudden visitor with the utmost courtesy, respect, and hospitality including the offering of choice food items.
Manu Dharma Sastra’s aphorism “atithih devo bhava” (‘regard the guest as a deity’) plainly express this worldwide tradition among ancient societies that deities may move upon the earth in human guise, and that one should therefore regard them with the utmost courtesy and respect.
Annadanams too are conducted with this very principle in mind, for among the hungry crowd there may also be the anonymous genuine devotee, saint or even a deva or deity. Indeed, each and every poor person is regarded in this way, as expressed in the Sanskrit saying daridra Narayana (‘God dwells in the poor person’).