Happy Thanksgiving! I’m spending Thanksgiving this year in Nairobi, Kenya. So I’m probably eating ugali instead of mashed potatoes today, and it almost certainly will be beef or chicken instead of turkey. But, Thanksgiving is about more than just the food.
I always think about this essay I wrote a few years ago about saying grace when it comes to the Thanksgiving holiday.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the subtle side of saying grace.
When I was a child, grace was my grandfather’s thing. Before we would eat, we would say grace. This was the ritual, the habit. And if you were me, the ritual also would include the fear that you might be called upon to say grace. That was always my fear because I didn’t understand grace or know how it worked.
So growing up, grace was a little mysterious, a little scary, but mostly a ritual I knew nothing about. My family was not big on ritual, so we had few of them.
The absence of ritual or overt dogma during my childhood probably explains why I arrived at Advaita Vedanta as a spiritual path. In the Advaita canon, ritual is okay; it primes the pump before we find a deeper understanding. But once we have that deeper knowledge, we can safely ignore the ritual.
The key point that is often missed, however, is that we can’t discard the ritual until we know what we’re doing. Technically the ritual is unnecessary. But if we don’t completely know what we’re doing—and who among us is fully enlightened?—then ritual should not be discarded completely.
Ritual is a tried and true routine, like reading before bed. We may not realize why reading at night is better than television, but the reading ritual works regardless. If we were sleep experts, we might know that a melatonin supplement and other behavior can make late night television acceptable, but few of us are sleep experts.
The same goes for other rituals such as grace. The more I experiment with grace, the more I realize its subtle power. Grace, among other benefits, keeps truth present.
Throughout the course of our day, we’re confronted with literally thousands of examples that reinforce our ignorance. We’re told that it is a dog eat dog world, and this is illustrated by millions of people who act selfishly because they’ve been taught that it is a dog eat dog world. We experience ourselves as separate from others because we’re surrounded by people who consider themselves separate from us. We hear that happiness comes from wealth because those around us believe that a little more wealth will finally bring lasting happiness.
We’re awash in a sea of bad lessons that are learned one impression at a time.
There are many cures for this constant stream of ignorance. One is removing ourselves from society, which is the path that many monastics choose. Another is counteracting ignorance with truth. If ignorance is reinforced daily, so also must truth be reinforced. And that is what grace is all about.
Muslims strongly understand the power of combating ignorance with truth. Remembrance is one of their “Five Pillars;” every Muslim must pray five times each day. This volume of prayer can be onerous, especially in our modern world, but it keeps the sincere Muslim’s mind on God.
Instead of slowly drifting from his faith—the inevitable conclusion of living in the world—a practicing Muslim is constantly reminding himself and renewing his understanding of truth.
Five times each day, the various steps of salat in Muslim prayer promote outer purity, inner purity, faith in a higher power, connection to the higher power, caution against ego, humility as a tool against this ego, truth in the direction of life, and non-attachment to worldly desires. If performed mindfully, salat is a phenomenal defense against the spiritual drift that comes from hanging around falsehood all day.
Saying grace is another way we can counteract the constant bombardment of bad lessons. Pulling out a prayer rug five times a day may not be possible, but performing a simple prayer before meals is pretty easy. With modern snacking habits, this quick prayer can easily occur more than five times each day and serve as a reinforcement of our core beliefs.
Each faith has its own meal-time prayer. In the Vedanta faith, chapter 4, verse 24 of the Bhagavad Gita often is used.
The prayer goes as follows:
brahmārpaṇaṁ brahma havir
brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam
brahmaiva tena gantavyaṁ
om śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ
A literal translation of the transliterated Sanskrit goes something along the lines of, “To him Brahman is the offering and Brahman is the oblation, and it is Brahman who offers the oblation in the fire of Brahman. Brahman alone is attained by him who thus sees Brahman in action.”
But since mindfulness is an important part of the ritual, and the translation itself is a little obtuse, a colloquial translation of the translation might read:
God is the food, and
God is the bowl serving the food.
God is the one who prepares the food, and
God is the one who eats the food.
God alone is attained
by those who see God everywhere.
Or put another way, the scholastic Vedanta monk Swami Nikhilananda explains the verse as meaning that “after attaining the Knowledge of God, a man sees God in everything. He sees God in every part of the action: the instrument, the doer, the result, and the action itself. These have no existence apart from God, just as the mirage has no existence apart from the desert. What appears to be water to the ignorant is nothing but the desert. Likewise, what appears to the unenlightened as the instrument of action, the doer and so on, is realized by one who is endowed with the Knowledge of God as God Itself. To him everything is God.”
Within the prayer is the core idea of Vedanta explained through the act of eating. By reciting this grace, the Vedantin reminds himself of his core belief and then reinforces this belief by physically acting out the prayer through the ritual of eating.
Saying grace is a profound maneuver that transforms each meal into an act of worship that counteracts the ignorance we confront each day. Done mindfully, it sneaks this worship into a schedule that otherwise might be full; we always make time to eat.
This is especially true on Thanksgiving. So on this day, it might be worth giving an extra thought to saying grace. It can be more than just ritual.
This essay originally appeared on the site, American Vedanta.