Annadana by Unchavrtti Brahmana (उञ्छवृत्तिब्राह्मणः)
Annadana (Samskrit : अन्नदानम्) is proclaimed as the best of danas by many traditional texts starting from the vedic times. The following story describes the greatness of Annadana vrata observed by a brahmana residing in Kurukshetra as mentioned in the Mahabharata. Adhyaya 90 of the Anugita parva of Asvamedhika parva describes the anecdote of a half gold strange mongoose which arrives in places where danas are performed in grandeur after mahayajnas. After the Asvamedha yajna the mongoose arrives in the sabha of Yudhisthira and says :
सक्तुप्रस्थेन वो नायं यज्ञस्तुल्यो नराधिपाः। उञ्छवृत्तेर्वदान्यस्य कुरुक्षेत्रनिवासिनः॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.7)
saktuprasthena vo nāyaṁ yajñastulyo narādhipāḥ। uñchavr̥ttervadānyasya kurukṣetranivāsinaḥ॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.7)
"O Rajas of the earth, this great yajna of yours has not yet equaled the one single measure of roasted grain sattu (सत्तू । dish made of barley) given away by a generous resident of Kuruksetra, who himself used to live off the left-over grains collected by unchavrtti."
And he proceeds to tell the story of the Brahmana to Yudhisthira
उञ्छवृत्तिब्राह्मणः ॥ Brahmana who lived by Unchavrtti
धर्मक्षेत्रे कुरुक्षेत्रे धर्मज्ञैर्बहुभिर्वृते। उञ्छवृत्तिर्द्विजः कश्चित्कापोतिरभवत्तदा॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.24)
dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre dharmajñairbahubhirvr̥te। uñchavr̥ttirdvijaḥ kaścitkāpotirabhavattadā॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.24)
Once upon a time in Kuruksetra, the land of dharma, the land that is always inhabited by those who know dharma, there lived a brahmana. He obtained his livelihood by unchavrtti (उञ्छवृत्तिः) - by gathering the left-over grains from harvested fields and marketplaces. Like a pigeon, he would painstakingly collect his food grain by grain. And on such food did he nurture his whole family, comprising his wife, son and daughter-in-law.
This brahmana family, though living the life of a worldly household was engaged in great austerities. They were pure in their thoughts and actions. They had subdued their worldly desires. Of the meagre food that they gathered, they ate only once in six mealtimes. And if for some reason they had no food when the sixth mealtime arrived, they would skip the next five and wait for the sixth again.
And then it so happened that the land was visited upon by a terrible famine. The crops in the fields dried up. There were no grains to be collected from anywhere. The brahmana family, who lived off the left-over grains gathered afresh for every meal, of course had no stocks in their home. They were reduced to total destitution. The sixth mealtime arrived and passed again and again, but the brahmana family had nothing to eat.
They remained without food for many weeks. They waited and somehow survived the next five mealtimes. And then they set out again in search of food. This time they were in luck. They were able to gather one measure of barley. They brought it home, roasted and pounded the grain, and prepared for their long-awaited meal. They performed the proper ablutions and made their offering to the fire. And, only then did they divide the roasted and pounded grain into four quarters and sit down to partake of that austere meal.
अथागच्छद्द्विजः कश्चिदतिथिर्भुञ्जतां तदा॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.34)
ते तं दृष्ट्वातिथिं प्राप्तं प्रहृष्टमनसोऽभवन्। तेऽभिवाद्य सुखप्रश्नं पृष्ट्वा तमतिथिं तदा॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.35)
athāgacchaddvijaḥ kaścidatithirbhuñjatāṁ tadā॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.34)
te taṁ dr̥ṣṭvātithiṁ prāptaṁ prahr̥ṣṭamanaso'bhavan। te'bhivādya sukhapraśnaṁ pr̥ṣṭvā tamatithiṁ tadā॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.35)
But before they could begin eating, there appeared a twice-born guest on the door. Hungry though they were, the sight of a guest arriving at mealtime pleased them no end. They warmly welcomed him, enquired about his welfare, acquainted him of their own learning and antecedents, and escorted him into their little mud-house. And the head of the family respectfully invited him to take a seat and partake of his quarter of the roasted grain, assuring him that what was being offered had indeed been justly acquired.
On being thus invited and assured of the justness of the offering, the guest ate the quarter measure of grains. But this could hardly satisfy his appetite. And when the host saw that the guest had remained hungry, he felt deeply worried. How could he let someone go away hungry from his door?
Brahmana's Wife Offers Sattu
Noticing the anxiety of her husband, the wife suggested that her quarter-share of grains might be offered to the guest. The husband remembered that his old wife had been suffering the pangs of hunger for many many days: lack of nourishment had extremely weakened her and she had been reduced to a mere skeleton. He, therefore, felt hesitant in accepting the suggestion of his wife.
इत्युक्ता सा ततः प्राह धर्मार्थौ नौ समौ द्विज॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.49)
सक्तुप्रस्थचतुर्भागं गृहाणेमं प्रसीद मे। सत्यं रतिश्च धर्मश्च स्वर्गश्च गुणनिर्जितः॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.50)
ityuktā sā tataḥ prāha dharmārthau nau samau dvija॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.49)
saktuprasthacaturbhāgaṁ gr̥hāṇemaṁ prasīda me। satyaṁ ratiśca dharmaśca svargaśca guṇanirjitaḥ॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.50)
But the wife insisted, reminding him that she was an equal partner in his dharma and artha, his duties and his seekings. She requests him to accept the one-fourth share of sattu, as a woman gets the satya, dharma and svarga attained by her good qualities due to her husband.
The brahmana then took her quarter-share of grains and respectfully offered it to the guest. The guest partook of this second quarter measure of grains, but even this did not fully satisfy his hunger. And the brahmana host was left worrying again.
At this the son offered his quarter-share of grains to be given to the guest. The father was even more reluctant to accept this offer. For him, as he said, the son — even if fully grown up — remained a child. And how could he deprive a child of essential nourishment?
अपत्यमस्मि ते पुंसस्त्राणात्पुत्र इति स्मृतः। आत्मा पुत्रः स्मृतस्तस्मात्त्राह्यात्मानमिहात्मना॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.63)
apatyamasmi te puṁsastrāṇātputra iti smr̥taḥ। ātmā putraḥ smr̥tastasmāttrāhyātmānamihātmanā॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.63)
But the son insisted, reminding him that the sons are sons because they help a man in crossing the samsara and thus in preserving the dharma of man, and in any case a son is the man himself born again. The brahmana was pleased to find that the son had well learnt the ways of self-control and propriety. He took the quarter-share of his son and happily offered it to the guest. But, the guest was still hungry.
Then it was the turn of the daughter-in-law to respectfully urge the father-in-law to accept her quarter-share of grains and offer it to the guest. The hesitation of the father-in-law in accepting this offer was perhaps the most extreme. The daughter-in-law was a mere child, who was suffering the pangs of hunger, and who had been entirely enfeebled by days and days of fasting. It was his duty, as he told her, to protect her in all respects. How could he deprive such a one—who was a child, a woman, a fasting person and an enfeebled one — of her meagre food? And after all she, as the daughter-in-law, was the font of love and affection for everyone in the family. The father-in-law was indeed hesitant. But the daughter-in-law insisted, telling him that for her he as the elder of the house was both the teacher and the god. She says to her father in law
तव प्रसादान्निर्वृत्ता मम लोकाः किलाक्षयाः। पुत्रेण तानवाप्नोति यत्र गत्वा न शोचति॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.69)
धर्माद्यो हि यथा त्रेता वह्नित्रेता तथैव च। तथैव पुत्रपौत्राणां स्वर्गस्त्रेता किलाक्षयः॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.70)
पितॄनृणात्तारयति पुत्र इत्यनुशुश्रुम। पुत्रपौत्रैश्च नियतं साधुलोकानुपाश्नुते॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.71)
tava prasādānnirvr̥ttā mama lokāḥ kilākṣayāḥ। putreṇa tānavāpnoti yatra gatvā na śocati॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.69)
dharmādyo hi yathā tretā vahnitretā tathaiva ca। tathaiva putrapautrāṇāṁ svargastretā kilākṣayaḥ॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.70)
pitr̥̄nr̥ṇāttārayati putra ityanuśuśruma। putrapautraiśca niyataṁ sādhulokānupāśnute॥ (Maha. Asva. 14.90.71)
Summary : With your blessings I will attain the infinite lokas. A man attains those heavenly worlds where there is infinite happiness. Just like Dharma associate with Artha and Kama, leads one to svarga loka, and just as the three fires, Garhapatya, Ahvaniya and Dakshnagni; are instrumental in attaining svarga, so also the three kinds of progeny - sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren lead one to the heavenly worlds filled with everlasting bliss. Pitru rna (debt to forefathers) is fulfilled by the son to the father.
She insists that her dharma, her earthly body, and the life that animated it, were all dependent on the service of the elders. She implored him not to deprive her of the honour of fulfilling the debt of the forefathers. The father-in-law was greatly pleased. He profusely blessed her and took her quarter-share of grains to offer it to the guest.
The guest was finally satisfied. And, the guest was Dharma himself, who had appeared in the human form to test the depth of the brahmana's commitment to dharma. The brahmana had proved himself. He and all his dependents had offered justly and painstakingly collected food to a guest, even as they themselves were almost dying of hunger. Even the gods in the heavens were struck with wonder at the tenacity with which the brahmana and his family held on to the dharma of annadana, to the discipline of satisfying the hungry before eating for oneself.
Such selfless offering of food, as Dharma told him, was greater than all the gifts offered in several asvamedha- and rajasuya-yajnas. With the gift of that one measure of roasted and pounded grains, he had in fact conquered, for all times, the brahmaloka: saktuprasthena vijito brahmalokastvayaksayah?
Soon a celestial chariot appeared there. The brahmana, invited with great reverence by Dharma himself, took his place in the chariot along with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. And all of them ascended to the brahmaloka in great glory.
Turning dust into gold
After narrating the story, the mongoose informs the gathering of the great in the ashvamedha yajna of Yudhisthira that he himself witnessed the whole sequence of events from his hole in the ground nearby. He came out of the hole after the ascent of the brahmana with his family. The smell of the roasted and pounded grains offered by the brahmana family to their celestial guest entered his nostrils, the soil moistened with the water offered by the brahmana touched his body, and he came in contact with a few grains that had fallen from the hands of the generous hosts and the celestial guest. Such contact with that meagre, yet great, gift of anna turned the whole of his head and half of his torso to gold.
The mongoose goes on to say that since then he has been roving across the earth to find a place or occasion that would make the rest of his body golden. He has attended many yajnas and visited many a forest where the tapasvins perform their great austerities; but to no avail. He came, he says, to the yajna of Yudhisthira in great expectation. But his hopes have been belied. The grand annadana of Yudhisthira's asvamedha has failed to compare with the gift of one measure of roasted and pounded grain made by that austere brahmana of Kuruksetra.
- Bajaj, Jitendra and Mandayam, Srinivas. (1996) Annam Bahu Kurvita. Madras: Centre for Policy Studies Madras
- Shastri, Ramnarayanadatta Pandey. Mahabharata Volume 6 (With Hindi Translation) Gorakhpur : Gita Press