One objection to Food for Life frequently encountered from devoteesand non-devotees alike, is that the programme is simply an attemptto win public favour. We are not really interested in helping peoplebut are trying to manipulate public opinion by performing a highprofile charitable service. For devotees, this objection is alsorooted in the doubt that, as a spiritual organisation, ISKCON shouldnot be concerned with mundane welfare work and, of course, we shouldcertainly not be trying to manipulate people's minds by doing somethingwe don't really believe in ourselves. The purpose of this papertherefore, is to answer this objection and to establish Food forLife as a programme deserving as much credibility as both hari-namaand book distribution. It is divided into two sections: the philosophicalbasis of the programme from Srila Prabhupada's writings, and somepractical aspects and benefits of Food for Life.
Perhaps it would be appropriate to begin with a few words about the name 'Food for Life'. For devotees, the name should be synonymous with prasadam distribution. However, the fact that the perfectly acceptable programme of prasadam distribution has been given the name 'Food for Life' is perhaps where the doubts begin. It seems to indicate an attempt to manipulate opinion and win favour with the public. Well, in a sense, that's true - we are trying to highlight prasadam distribution. However, although that has the benefit of winning public support - and I doubt if anyone will say that this is in itself a bad thing - there are also other good reasons for it. By giving it an identity of its own, we make prasadam distribution into something that can be easily accepted by everyone. The public may view it as a welfare programme, but does that matter? As long as we ourselves do not lose sight of what 'Food for Life' actually is, then there should be no problem. If the public are watching us perform devotional service and they appreciate that service, for whatever reason, then surely this is most desirable. In addition, by having a division of ISKCON which is dedicated to distributing food to the needy, we can open many doors in society and thus greatly expand prasadam distribution. Obviously we want everyone to get prasadam and not just the 'needy'; but we have to start wherever we can and continue from there - 'In like a needle and go out like a plough'. In addition, although I do not have access to a computer database of all Srila Prabhupada's instructions, I have fully researched his main writings and will therefore support my position with quotes taken from these, namely Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam and Caitanya-caritamrta. I know that Srila Prabhupada gave many instructions about prasadam distribution in both his lectures and his conversations.
I would now like to talk about the philosophical basis of 'Food for Life'. I have divided this into five headings which I will deal with individually.
This statement will probably not attract much argument, if any at all. We all know how important it is to distribute prasadam. Where would the Sunday Feast be without a feast? Could we contemplate any festival without big prasadam distribution? Would we ever turn anyone away from our temples without offering prasadam? Obviously not. Indeed the Bhagavad-gita states that, 'Any sacrifice performed without distribution of prasadam is considered to be in the mode of ignorance.' (Bg 17.13). But is there a need to make prasadam distribution a separate programme, outside of our normal preaching at meetings and festivals, etc.? There are several quotes which appear to support this. For example, in the Srimad-Bhagavatam we find the following instruction: 'Temple worship necessarily includes distribution of prasadam . One should exhibit compassion for ignorant living entities by distributing prasadam. Distribution of prasadam to the ignorant masses of people is essential for persons who make offerings to the Personality of Godhead.' (SB 3.29.24 purp.). This quote appears in the significant context of instructions on Deity worship. Lord Kapila has stated that Deity Worship is not pleasing to Him if it is performed by a person ignorant of His presence in everyone's heart. In his purport, Srila Prabhupada confirms that the way to recognise the Lord's presence is the hearts of others is by giving them prasadam. By the qualification 'ignorant masses', Prabhupada gives a clear indication that we should be going out to the people with that prasadam. The preceding purport also contains the following instruction: 'Distribution of prasadam . even to the ignorant masses of people and to animals, gives such living entities the chance for elevation to Krsna consciousness.' (SB 3.29.23 purp.). The Fourth Canto similarly states: 'In this age, distribution of prasadam has replaced distribution of money. No-one has sufficient money to distribute, but if we distribute Krsna-prasadam as far as possible, this is more valuable than the distribution of money'. (SB 4.9.24). This appears in the context of descriptions of the great sacrifices performed by Dhruva Maharaja. Sacrifices are complete only after charity has been given and here Srila Prabhupada instructs that this charity should be prasadam distribution. Later in the same Canto, we find this statement: 'Somehow or other everyone can manage to perform such a yajna (sankirtana) and distribute prasadam to the people in general. That is quite sufficient for this age of Kali. The Hare Krsna Movement is based on this principle: chant the Hare Krsna mantra at every moment, both inside and outside of the temples, and, as far as possible, distribute prasadam. This process can be accelerated with the help of the state administrators and those who are producing the country's wealth. Simply by liberal distribution of prasadam and sankirtana, the whole world can become peaceful and prosperous'. (SB 4.12.10). These various instructions indicate the significance of prasadam distribution as a fundamental preaching tool. Of course, the ideal situation is also to perform sankirtana and there are ways that kirtana can be incorporated into Food for Life. However, even if we cannot engage these 'ignorant masses' in sankirtana, we can at least give them prasadam. By the purifying effect of the prasadam, their inclination to chant the holy name can thus be awakened.
Srila Prabhupada himself coined this phrase, and there is an interesting purport in the Caitanya-caritamrta which nicely illustrates it: 'The Krsna consciousness movement vigorously approves this practice of preparing food, offering it to the Deity and distributing it to the general population. This activity should be extended universally to stop sinful eating habits as well as other behaviour befitting only demons. A demoniac civilisation will never bring peace within the world. Since eating is the first necessity in human society, those engaged in solving the problems of preparing and distributing food should take lessons from Madhavendra Puri and execute the Annakuta ceremony. When the people take to eating only prasadam offered to the Deity all demons will be turned into Vaishnavas.' Prabhupada goes on to say that due to this there will be Krsna conscious leadership and thus peace in society. (Peace resulting from distribution of prasadam was also mentioned in the purport quoted above from the Fourth Canto). If it is presented nicely in an appropriate manner, hardly anyone will object to taking prasadam. As we are satisfied that the taking of prasadam is in itself purification, we do not have to feel the need to overtly preach at the same time. We can simply hand out prasadam and let that do the preaching from within. The result in society will be as Prabhupada describes: there will be no more 'disturbing demons' as leaders and the threat of wars and oppression will thus recede. Prasadam is therefore a secret weapon, with the power to neutralise the enemy without their even knowing how it has happened.
Every devotee knows that the remnants of food left by the Lord are considered non-different from the Lord. By giving people prasadam, therefore, we are actually giving them Krsna. 'Yesam tv anta gatam papam jananam punya karmanam' (Bg 7.28). In addition, by offering prasadam to people we are also giving them pious credits on the transcendental platform; this means, for example, they will be able to gain some understanding of our books. Thus prasadam distribution will also enhance the effect of book distribution. In fact, a point of interest in this regard is the following verse spoken by Lord Brahma in the Tenth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, 'Athapi te deva padambujam-dvayam-prasaa lesanugrhita eva hi.' (SB 10.14.29) - unless a person receives the mercy of Krsna, specifically referred to here as prasadam, he will not be able to understand knowledge about Krsna (janati tattvam bhagavan manhimno); even if he studies the Vedas for a very long time (na canya eko 'pi ciram vicinvan). Also worth mentioning is the case of Narada Muni, who, by once taking the remnants of food left by great sages, became engaged in devotional service, 'Ucchista-lepan anumodito dvijaih sakrt sma bhunje tad-apasta-kilbisah.' (SB 1.5.25). This pastime also indicates the importance of ensuring prasadam is properly offered.
There is a famous story of a grhastha who asked Srila Prabhupada about the specific duties of grhastha asrama. Prabhupada replied that before taking prasadam, the grhastha should stand on the doorstep and call out for any hungry man to come and share his food. In fact, Srila Prabhupada was simply giving a practical definition of the duties of grhastha-asrama which are given in the sastra. We find many instructions in this regard; the instruction cited above is found in the Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 3.41: 'According to Vedic principles the householder, before taking lunch, should go outside and shout very loudly to see if there is anyone without food. In this way he invited people to take prasadam.' Further in this purport, Prabhupada also interestingly states, 'Thus (because of the above) the householder's life is called grhastha-asrama.' As we know, the essence of the religious duties for householders is charity, and this takes practical shape in the form of prasadam distribution. As quoted above (SB 4.9.24), Prabhupada states that distribution of prasadam replaces the distribution of money in this age, and also has greater value. In the purport to SB 4.12.10 Srila Prabhupada talks about sankirtana-yajna for householders, stating that they should, 'distribute prasadam to the people in general . somehow or other everyone can manage this.' Regarding to whom prasadam should be given, the following are specifically mentioned: 'Dogs, fallen persons and untouchables including candalas (dog eaters) should all be maintained with their proper necessities which should be contributed by the householders.' (SB 7.11.14).
Sometimes Food for Life' is criticised for 'targeting the bums and destitutes on the street and this is not good because you're just encouraging them to be bums', but the previous quote specifically mentions that these people should be maintained by the grhasthas. In the Seventh Canto there are several statements regarding the importance of prasadam distribution by householders. 'Factually, according to the instructions of Srimad-Bhagavatam, every grhastha is a great communist who provides the means of living for everyone. Whatever a grhastha may possess, he should equally distribute to all living entities, without discrimination. The best process is to distribute prasadam. Whatever money a grhastha accumulates by the grace of God, he should spend in five activities. Namely worshipping the Supreme personality of Godhead, receiving Vaishnavas and saintly persons, distributing prasadam to the general public and all living entities, offering prasadam to his own self.' (SB 7.14 introd.). Perhaps a point worth considering in this regard is that Srila Prabhupada specifically refers to five kinds of sacrifice. In traditional varnasrama-dharma, this is karma kanda, not really appropriate for the Vaishnavas. However, Srila Prabhupada has given us a purely transcendental process which focuses on offering prasadam to different types of living beings. In fact, there is no such emphasis on any other kind of service for grhasthas anywhere in Srila Prabhupada's books. Clearly he considered this to be very important.
I wanted to emphasise this point as Srila Prabhupada has some very specific things to say in this regard. Food for Life prasadam is often not considered as needing to be such high quality. After all, beggars can't be choosers, they should all be grateful for anything at all. However, I feel this attitude is a little mistaken. For a start, surely any contact a person has with our movement should be memorable. Taking first-class prasadam is certainly that, but there are also statements in our books specifically dealing with this: 'To distribute to all living entities, the process is that we must first offer prasadam to the brahmans and the Vaishnavas, for the demigods are represented by the brahmans'. (Note here how Srila Prabhupada obviates the offering to the demigods by saying the brahmans represent the demigods). 'In this way the Supreme Personality of Godhead who is situated in everyone's heart will be worshipped. This is the Vedic system of offering prasadam. Whenever there is a ceremony for distribution of prasadam, the prasadam is offered first to the brahmans, then to the children, then to the old men, and then to women, and then to the animals like dogs and other domestic animals.' So the point here is that it should be done in a particular way. Certainly that would fulfil these instructions and also facilitate the distribution of first-class prasadam endued with great spiritual potency.
This hopefully establishes something of the philosophical import of prasadam distribution in our movement. Of course, we can find many more statements from Srila Prabhupada; I have not quoted any of his letters, conversations or lectures. However, it is still obvious that the programme is of paramount importance to our preaching.
We should be very confident about telling people about the spiritual benefits of prasadam. After all, we are a spiritual movement and they are obviously going to understand that we have some kind of spiritual programme, even while giving out food. As mentioned above, we should first of all make it clear that prasadam distribution is itself preaching as far as we are concerned. In other words, it is not just a front to enable us to get some straight proselytising in as soon as the opportunity arises; there are no obligations imposed by us on recipients of our food. We should however, try to explain how prasadam has a spiritually purifying effect, both on the individual and ultimately on society itself. For example, we can point out that shortages and scarcity in society are ultimately caused by man's greed, and how through his exploitation of the earth he has created various imbalances in nature.
As I have already mentioned, it is possible to government support for this programme. Indeed, it is a particular instruction of Srila Prabhupada that this programme should have such support. In the Fourth Canto, verse 12.10, he states that the leaders should support this programme of prasadam distribution. Such support is also mentioned in Madhya-lila, when referring to the Annakuta ceremony. In some areas they are already receiving such support. For example, there are surplus schemes in America and the European Community. They have mountains of food, especially butter which is given by the ton. Last year we obtained nine tons of this butter; we went out on to the street with a van and handed out blocks of it to people (after it had first been offered, of course), which was greatly appreciated by the public. Your local council or MEP will be able to tell you how to obtain such surpluses.
The question is: to whom are we going to give food? Everyone needs prasadam, so where do we start? In most places we go to the homeless and the destitute to begin with because they are usually the most accessible. They are certainly the most receptive to prasadam. Your first step therefore, therefore, is to identify where the primary need exists. Usually in the so-called developed countries, a certain class of people will be found on the streets. These people are usually easy to find as they tend to congregate in certain areas. In large cities such as London, where there are large numbers of homeless, there is no shortage of customers for free food. It is also very good public relations because it is such a problem . It has gone beyond to capacity of the Social Services to cope with and they're looking to the charity sector to help them out. In doing this, we can also gain support from the government. It is therefore intelligent to go for the homeless to begin with, because everyone recognises that there's a need there. In many programmes prasadam is given out from a van or a truck. Homeless people in cities will generally congregate in one particular place. If not, you may give them the impetus to do this by going regularly to the same place with the prasadam. Do not be too impatient: you may find there are only three people there on the first day. However, if you tell those three people, 'We'll be back tomorrow', the next day here will be six people, the following day several more. Therefore, don't give after only one or two days if there are not many people. Keep going and you will probably find that they eventually start coming if you have identified that there is a particular need in the area of your own town.
Even if there is not a homeless problem in your area, there will almost certainly be needy groups living in the community, particularly the elderly. These people are often neglected by their families and are in a very impoverished condition. As this is also a recognised area of need, it will again attract a lot of sympathy and support. The best way to begin helping in this area is to approach other charities who are directly involved in looking after the aged and work with them. In England, for example, there are charities called Help the Aged and Age Concern. You will have to work in conjunction with such organisations for a period of time. It's no good thinking that they are immediately going to trust you; due to our religious convictions they will suspect ulterior motives at first. However, if you demonstrate sincerity and a desire to give out prasadam with no strings attached, they will gradually come to accept you. They usually won't give you addresses of individuals within the community because they have to protect them. However, they may take the food and distribute it themselves, and as you win their confidence they may eventually allow you to go directly into the community and distribute.
There are also many families who, for one reason or another, have had to leave their home; they couldn't afford the mortgage repayments, the wife is kicked out by the husband who was beating her, etc. In these case, you can also approach the Social Services and ask them for information on this section of the community. Some may co-operate, others may refuse to admit there's a problem that they're not dealing with. Again, other charities will usually help; charities network and co-operate with each other, so we must also learn how to do this. We can gain support in this way as there are certain agencies specifically set up to give financial support to charities. You can obtain information on from sources such as directories of grant-giving bodies or local government representatives.
Students are another target area as they nearly always short of money You can either distribute to individual student hostels or from a fixed location, for example, somewhere on campus that the student union allows you to use on a regular basis. It doesn't necessarily have to be daily; it could be weekly to start with - even this will have a good effect on the public's perception of ISKCON. For instance, in Newcastle recently there was a problem with the anti-cult people and we had certain persons in the community come forward and support us. They made very positive statements about us because of the Food for Life programme, even though distribution only takes place a couple of times a week. However, this small effort won important support when it really mattered.
Prasadam distribution can also be undertaken at events such as music festivals. There are thousands of people there and you can give out vast amounts of prasadam, in addition to selling books and chanting the holy name. However, Food for Life means free, or heavily subsidised, food. In my opinion, food sold for profit should not be advertised as 'Hare Krsna Food for Life'.
Perhaps the best way to distribute prasadam on a regular basis is from a fixed site such as a restaurant or café. In addition, there is far less stigma attached to going to a café than to getting food from a truck on the street. A donation box can be made available and people can retain their self esteem by giving something towards their meal if they desire. Alternatively, a small charge can be made for all they can eat. An example of this can be found in Australia, where several 'budget restaurants' have been opened offering unlimited prasadam for fifty cents or a dollar; this has resulted in trenendously good public relations. In England, whenever we meet an Australian on the street, they are immediately favourable, often saying 'Oh Hare Krsna, I ate some of your food and it was delicious.' They will know us as being strongly committed to free or subsidised food distribution. Prasadam's a big thing in Australia and has certainly won a lot of the public and government support. We have recently adopted this idea in Manchester and it has been very successful. We have a shop with two rooms; one containing tables and chairs in which free prasadam is served. the other selling devotional items. We are hoping that this idea could be tied into the grhastha-dharma. A pertinent problem our movement faces now is engaging and maintaining grhasthas. Having a small preaching centre where free prasadam is given out together with an outlet selling prasadam, books, incense, etc. is something which I believe grhastha couples could do quite easily.
As I have demonstrated, there are many ways to get a Food for Life programme started. Even if all of the above is beyond your capabilities, you can still invite guests to eat your own prasadam. Srila Prabhupada would often refer to his own father who would always have 'two or three or even more guests for dinner'. So where there's a will there's a way: you can always find some way to distribute prasadam. However, I should emphasise that it must be done in a compassionate mood. It is real preaching to give a person prasadam, a great mercy of the Lord, and should not be considered as just a public relations exercise. Most importantly, try to make the prasadam as first-class as possible. It really makes a difference when the food is very tasty, hot, nicely offered, nicely served and, if possible, in vast quantities.
This article is based on a lecture given at the Second European Communications Seminar, NJNK, January 1992.