The Sensual Art of Eating with the Hands

For thousands of years, people across South Asia and the Middle East have eaten with their hands, and not utensils. Even today, the practice has become very common – and to the casual onlooker, it may seem somewhat strange!

However, first of all, we have to understand that eating itself, as also cooking, is somewhat a sensual art, deriving from our creative powers and stimulating our digestions. We now know about the enteric nervous system of “brain/gut” axis, that systems such as Ayurveda have known about since time immemorial.

Touch (sparsha) is, in itself, a sensual and necessary comfort for humans, via love, embrace etc.  Thus also, these “street foods” apart from the Italian pasta fork!

Take for example, every brain impulse, the effects on neurotransmitters; when people ‘tuck in’ to the kebab, to the fried chicken and eat with their hands, the brain is fully stimulated to relish the full taste, unobstructed by the (cold, inorganic) aids to deliver such to the mouth. Half of the subconscious “stress” of eating is aside, due to etiquette being waved. The nerves of the fingers also may touch the lips – such stimuli humans, as sensory organisms, crave!

In India, however, it is the right-hand only used for eating; the left, used for ablutions, is considered ashuddhi or impure/unclean. This has to do also with the right-hand representing the sun, fire and pingala nadi in yoga (thus, better for improving digestion), thus higher and more subtle and masculine. The left hand is considered lunar, watery and feminine, as the ida nadi in yoga runs through it and is hence more dense and earthy – thus relates to wastes (malas), considered of these more watery and earthy elements. Touch is hence more perceptible subtly on the right and is pure (sattwika/shuddhi). The left is akin to leftovers (ucchishtha), relating to the Goddess and impure. Yet, in higher yogic circles, the path of the goddess, especially the taboo, is hence known as Vamamarga or the left-hand path.

Touch itself is related to the element of air or oxygen (vata, vayu), which is connected to the skin, in Ayurveda. Vayu/vata is itself responsible for life in the body as a biological constituent (dhatu) in the body providing movement (gati) of the blood, respiratory system etc. Without it, the heart wouldn’t beat, the brain wouldn’t think and we are but a lifeless corpse! Touch/vayu also relates to the highest form of prana or the breath of life, connected to the soul. Thus, the connection between inner peace, calm and our own soul (Ayurveda tells us we should eat in a quiet, calm place for such a purpose).

The science of eating with the hands also goes deeper. When we eat, the index finger and thumbs are connected, forming the jnana-mudra, the symbol of wisdom via subtle pressure points via nadis or subtle channels across the body, also in the hands. This stimulates our intellect, and also has a reaction on our digestive system and is said to awaken the digestive fire, assisting with metabolising our foods.

Connecting the middle-finger and ring-finger to the thumb, as we do when eating, activates a form of the apanavayu-mudra, a hand symbol where the index-finger is tucked in (similar to apana-mudra where the small and index fingers remain erect), and assists with elimination of wastes in the body (by apanavayu, which takes them out and down, from the body), provides good colonic health in such a manner, etc. When eating with the hands, food is actually being stimulated in such a manner via this.

In the ancient system of palmistry, apart from planets, the system of mudras or hand gestures tells is that the thumb is itself the principle of agni or fire, relating to metabolism at all levels – from digestive metabolism, to that of the bodily tissues. Stimulating it – as we do when eating (as the thumb is required) activates this by pressing on the thumb. It is also believed that such energies are imparted to the food via this also, giving it an “energised” aspect. Of the fingers, the little finger represents water, ring finger represents earth, whilst the middle and index fingers represent ether and air, respectively.

In this way, all of the three biological humors in the body, the doshas, are combined via these combinations. Food may also taste more delicious, since all of the five elements are imbibed it it, at the subtle level of the tanmatras or base atomic levels, viz. ether (sound), air (touch), fire (sight), water (taste) and earth (smell).

Here, we can see that combining the fingers to eat, also sends heightened messages to our brain’s neurotransmitters via the nerves and nadis, the subtle channel systems – and helps us to better appreciate food from a “warm” than a “cold” aspect as we would via utensils. In this way, we relish foods by having a better perception, a more intimate connection via the sounds it makes when we eat it, the touch and texture of it which we perceive via our fingers, as also the warmth, which provides our minds with more nourishment – as well as relishing in the sight of foods, the taste and finally, the smell.

In this manner, the five elements are perceived via eating with the hands as a kind of “meditation”. For this reason since ancient times to the present day – many Indians, of all castes and classes, regions and beliefs share a common goal of eating with the hands – an ancient sensual art, for these reasons!

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