The priest had predicted a year of exceptional riches, a year blest by the gods, a year of the dream harvest, without drought or floods, cockchafers or locusts or calamity in any form. Everyone believed and rejoiced. They put everything they had into the planting. They borrowed from the village money-lender to buy extra seeds and hire oxen to plow. The bounty would more than cover the debt as well as the enormous interest. They sowed with prayers and then squatted on the edge of the fields each day to watch the miracle of vibrant green life sprout forth before their eyes. They saw the tender shoots arise and take on the beautiful emerald colour that begs for water. The time for planting out had arrived and they watched the sky anxiously for signs of the monsoon rains. Priests came and chanted near the fields, villagers made offerings at the local temple and the rainmaker went from house to house with an ornamental frog atop his head. They waited and feverishly speculated, but the rains stayed away.
At first the bold green stalks audaciously endured under the relentless sun's rays, then they faded to a greyed green and, finally, to a yellowish colour. They drooped and faded and died, and with them died the best efforts and hopes of all the men, women and children whose staff of life they were to have provided for the months to come. All their prayers and plans and careful watching would not breathe sap into the wilted stems or thrust up the tillers among which the panicles would form and become fertile. Not for them the harvest songs and the threshing-floor, the clouds of chaff dust that get into their eyes and the pounding of the pearly grains. They would join instead the ranks of the numberless ones whose crops have failed, who have lost everything to money-lenders and who have roamed homeless, exhausting their wits in the effort to obtain just a handful of precious rice.
For a handful of rice men have bartered their souls, and yet, according to all the legends concerning its origin, it was freely and divinely given. It was a gift that would provide one quarter of the world's cereal production, one that would become the mainstay for more human lives than any other single grain. Not surprisingly, therefore, to hundreds of millions rice is the symbol of divine provision, abundance and fertility, a natural bounty which only had to be cultivated after the loss of paradise and the separation of heaven and earth. Asians associate its polished whiteness with primordial purity, the Japanese believing that one must never spoil this by mixing it with sauces or other food while eating. In parts of Indonesia paddy-fields themselves are considered pure and sacred and may not be defiled with fertilizer. Purity symbolically combines with fertility in Borneo, Java and Sarawak, where a young girl is considered eligible for marriage only when she can cook a perfect bowl of rice.
In ancient China the privilege of sowing the first annual paddy was reserved for the emperor alone. Recognized as a living embodiment of divinity in the world, he re-enacted the original giving of rice each year by placing a sanctified seed in the soil to signal the beginning of planting all over his vast realm. Similarly in Japan, for centuries sprouts from a sacred garden have been given to the emperor's grandson each year to plant for much the same reason. The idea that kings were more than mere mortals permeated the ancient world. They were closely associated with the bringing of rain as well as the gift of abundant food. In Sanskrit one of the words for rice, dhanya, also meant 'sustainer of the human race', and the name of more than one ancient Indian king was derived from it. Thus, Shuddhodana, the father of Gautama Buddha, was known as 'Pure Rice' or, more literally, 'Pure Gift'.
In many Asian countries the words for food and rice are synonymous or interchangeable. The Japanese and Chinese people refer to the daily meals simply as morning, afternoon and evening rice, while place-names like 'Java' convey the meaning of an 'island of rice', where centuries ago food and rice merged in the basic fact of a universal subsistence and medium of exchange. One can understand why, as the basis of life and culture to millions in the world, rice makes its appearance in the offering bowl, in the fire of sacrifice, during the wedding ritual, the house-warming and in the creation of auspicious designs. All over India the rangoli, the alpana, the mandna or the kolam drawings done on the ground or floor are rendered with rice powder because it is sacred and believed to have magical powers to protect life.
The symbolic link between rice and life extends itself to celebrate fertility and all that contributes to it. Thus, workers preparing to observe rice-transplanting rituals in Japan gather at dawn with songs alluding to erotic adventures before the actual invocation of the field-god takes place. The workers gather the seedlings from the nursery field and march out to hear the rite of 'calling down'. Before them stretch the inundated fields that have been ritually plowed by beautifully decorated prize bulls and raked to remove the clods. Then the women step forth in a line and rhythmically, to the beat of bamboo sticks and drums, begin to insert the seedlings into the mud. Like the ancient sun-goddess Amaterasu-Omi-Kami, who is said to be the ancestor of the imperial family, the women give to the earth the food that will, for another season, make life possible.
Like the Japanese, the Thai have also attributed the gift of rice to a goddess. In many parts of Thailand rice is deemed to be an animate creature which comes into being and grows like all entities possessing souls. It is said that the Rice Mother, Mae Phosop, becomes pregnant when rice flowers bloom, that she delights in the scented powder received from the stamen and swells with its fertilization much like a pregnant woman. Her offspring is the rice itself, each grain of which contains its own kwan (soul) that must be ritually gathered along with the harvest. One is reminded of the Eskimo observation that life is full of awesome and sometimes dangerous forces, especially because one's food is made up of souls. As with the Eskimo's seal or caribou, to Thai farmers rice is alive and transmits the energy of a divine source of power manifest on the earthly plane. From the realm of spirit, which is fiery, the power passes through the watery astral realm to the physical world. Analogously, the seed in the world rises up with the shoot from the muddy earth, through the watery realm, to burst into manifestation in the open air belonging to the fiery sun. Thus the whole cycle of descent reverses itself in a completion of wonderful fruitfulness. As the seedling first begins to grow, it finds its source of energy in the endosperm. But when it has produced four leaves (symbolic of its earthly manifestation), it becomes dependent upon the world around it, gathering its nutrients from the soil, from photosynthesis through the leaves.
It is the watery element which determines the limits of fixed field cultivation. Winds that set kites flying move in April from the southwest and in December from the northwest. With them come the prayed-for monsoons. Timing is everything. As the barometer lowers across the Asian mainland, south beyond the equatorial isles a whole courtly etiquette comes into play. Cultivators must have the ground prepared and the seeds ready to grow when the first drop of moisture reaches them. If broadcast, they must already be in the soft earth and sprouting or they will be washed away. Planted too soon, they will scorch and die. Planted too late, they will drown. The ceremonial cycle must thus be finely tuned to a cyclic weather pattern upon which billions of souls have depended for centuries, and it unfolds in a ritual cadence deeply embedded in all Asian cultures.
Rice was the first cultivated crop in Asia, being originally domesticated in India, where terraces built for rice have been found along the Ravi River dating to the Pleistocene period (around 12,000 B.C.). In Chinese records it was listed as the most important of the five principal foods five thousand years ago, and rice pollen found in three-thousand-year-old clay at Lake Biwa in Japan tells the story of its transmission to the land which, from very early times, was known as Mizumono Kuni, the 'Land of Luxurious Rice Crops'. Earthen vessels still containing rice seeds date back forty-five thousand years at Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro, and a wealth of three-thousand-year-old carbonized grains and husks have been found at Hastinapura, now in Uttar Pradesh. In his Ayurvedic Materia Medica, Susruta described and categorized different varieties of rice growing in various parts of India three thousand years ago. All Hindu scriptures mention the grain, the ancient Tamil Puranas containing descriptions of the different types to be used in particular religious offerings. But it is noticeably missing in ancient Egyptian writings and in the Bible. The Talmud mentions it and we know it was eventually cultivated in Egypt around three hundred and seventy-five years before Christ, but it was a late-comer among grains in the Mediterranean world and was very cautiously received in Europe because of its association with the spread of malaria. To the east, however, the great civilizations of Golconda in India, Srivijaya in Java and Angkor in Cambodia (to name a few) had all been built upon a foundation of domesticated rice. While Europe was still in an unsettled and primitive state, throughout Asia there was
Along with the complexity of these social structures, the varieties of rice increased and spread further abroad, to adapt to ever new ecological niches. Some types thrived in light sandy soil, others in clay. Some matured in ninety days, others in one hundred and fifty or two hundred and sixty. Many varieties developed inflorescence when the hours of sunlight began to diminish, others which were not photosensitive flowered according to an internally determined sequence of development. The photosensitive indica varieties proliferated throughout the subcontinent, China and Southeast Asia. They became the most widely grown type, while the photo-insensitive japonica strains were to flourish mainly among the Japanese, who favoured its fixed maturation pattern, permitting them to plant in various seasons. No other important cereal crop is more diversified by environment than paddy. It is grown from forty-five degrees north to thirty-five degrees south, and from sea-level to an elevation of ten thousand feet in the Himalayas. In India today there are thousands of varieties, including over six hundred 'improved' strains which swell the ranks of this highly adaptive genus known to the modern world by a Latin name (oryza) borrowed from Arabic traders who took it, ultimately, from the Sanskrit term vrihi.
Within the genus Oryza there are twenty-five recognized species, two of which (O . sativa and O. glaberrima) are cultivated, O. glaberrima being largely confined to West Africa and considered a less desirable type. Though hybrids between the two species are always sterile, they both share the characteristics which separate rice so distinctively from wheat, maize or other grains. The 'wild rice' of North America, which was annually gathered by the Algonquian-speaking tribes, is not really true rice, but, acknowledged as one of the genera Oryzae, it too shares some of these features.
Oryza proper sprouts and grows up into a culm (stem) which produces tillers that increase in number throughout the vegetative stage. These support the stems which develop loose, fan-shaped panicles having slender radiating ribs. Borne upon these are spikelets which each contain a flower enclosed by two sterile florets held at the base by a chaff-like bract. The flowers open from the tip downwards over a few days, liberating the pollen so that it can fall from the stamen to the stigma and thence to the ovary. Since humidity determines how long the flowers remain open (from six minutes to over one hour), inadequate warmth seriously reduces the fertility rate. Each fertile flower is accompanied by two others, making up a trio, but the two lower blooms are reduced to the sterile florets mentioned above, while the fertile floret becomes tough and rigid with silica excrescences and hairs on its outer surface. The pericarp, formed from the wall of the ovary, is the seed-vessel which is removed as bran upon milling. Product of the tissue of the parent plant (the ovary wall), it is not a part of the succeeding generation resulting from fertilization. The embryo, growing within the fluidic starch-filled protein cells contained by the aleuron layer, represents the seed of future generations. It grows like a child in the amniotic fluid of the mother's womb. Thai farmers say that man's body is rice, because rice, like the baby, sits in the womb and eats what the mother Mae Phosop gives it to eat.
The O. sativa species of paddy spread northward from India before the Aryan dispersal from Central Asia. We know this because the name is alike in Zind and Sanskrit and similar in Old Persian. In the earliest days gatherers picked primitive rice (O. minuta) along tidal areas, where it grew among other grasses, just as the Munda people did in the Ganges delta in historic times. Eventually, slash-and-burn cultivation of dry fields prevailed, people dropping seeds in holes made with a dibble-stick and trusting to the rains. The Kalingas and lfugaos of the northern Philippines as well as other hill people in Southeast Asia still practise this ancient method of planting. But they cannot subsist on such small crops which must be supplemented by other sources of food that grow on land only borrowed from the dense forests. Theirs could never be the basis of a complex civilization, for they move with the trees and bend gracefully with the shift of seasons and ecological necessity. When man began to cultivate larger areas of land with a plow and oxen and committed himself to staying in one place, he put his eggs in one basket, as they say, and his fate in the lap of the gods. It is not surprising that, at this point in the evolution of rizo culture, the propitiatory character of religion became predominant for masses of farmers, and ritual complexities accompanying the growing and harvesting cycle came to occupy a large part of people's symbolic and practical lives. With larger plowed fields some still used the dibble-stick method of planting, while others sowed their seeds broadcast in the finely prepared dust where they would await the coming rain. The practice of seeding a diked nursery field where water could be confined became widespread, the young shoots being transplanted carefully to larger fields when the time was right. In Burma they are planted out from seed-beds in July, after the monsoon has moistened the soil enough for plowing. Rainwater accumulates in the fields as the paddy grows and by December it is standing in dry earth ready for harvest.
One crop per year is the yield of this method, in contrast to the three crops obtained in many areas of Taiwan and Japan. There the sunlight available for summer and winter crops differs, so that photo-insensitive strains of fast maturing paddy are favoured over the indica variety. Producing a kernel that is more glutenous in its composition, the japonica variety tends to burst and become sticky when cooked, but it can be grown year round or in tandem with the indica type, resulting in multiple crops undreamt of by the vast majority of paddy farmers in the world today. The scale and variation of paddy culture that exists spans the gamut of man's experience in the domestication of grain and it highlights dramatically a great change that has taken place in human consciousness. In Thailand a rai is considered a 'holding' of paddy land. It is a holding instead of a niche because a commitment to sedentary agriculture rather than shifting cultivation alters radically mankind's relationship to the rest of Nature. Significantly, the word 'hold' is a Germanic cognate of 'hero', the 'king of the hill'. It could be said that humans possessing holdings are thus rulers of an ecological domain rather than mere participators in its interaction. If one considers a broad spectrum of rice-planting methods – the dependence upon seasonal pools in northeast Thailand; flooding in Burma deltas; dibble-stick drilling in Borneo; broadcasting between furrows of winter wheat and barley in Japan, with controlled flooding after the harvesting of the latter crops; machine drilling in prepared diked fields in Louisiana; broadcasting by plane into fields where flooding is controlled by pumps and automatic spillways in California; and machine drilling in Israel where fields will be watered by sprinklers – one is presented with more than a sliding scale of technological development and affluence. One is afforded a picture of a shift from man as microcosm of the macrocosm in actu to man as manipulator of an external microcosm barely perceived as related to a macrocosm. In the former situation, human beings experience themselves as an integral part of the ongoing whole. In the latter case, man has suffered from an inability to either experience the microcosm within himself or to insert himself into the macrocosm. There is little mystery why the word 'alienation' has become a defining label of the contemporary human condition.
It is said that during the first yuga of this manvantara people ate rice plain because it was so rich in nutrients and sweet to taste. Just as virtue dominated the world, so pure rice was the staff of life and people ate it unmixed with more earthy foods and with perfect satisfaction. But with the second or Treta Yuga, people began to mix their rice with curds and certain vegetables, no longer satisfied with its simple pure taste. In the Dvapara and Kali Yuga that followed, rice progressively became mixed, covered, surrounded, adulterated and overwhelmed by sauces, tangy vegetables, hot peppers or even meats. Rice by itself had gradually lost some of its nourishment and flavour, while human appetites had become more aroused and voracious. In their custom of eating rice unseasoned in a dish separate from other seasoned foods, the Japanese have preserved something of an age-old awareness of the ideal. Few of them may be thinking of Satya Yuga when they consume their rice neat, but its connection for them with the imperial family and legends heard in childhood imbue the dish with a meaning not shared by other fare.
The ultimate source of energy put into a paddy field is the sun. This is true for the soil, man with his tools, the draft animals and the plant. In the arithmetic of input and production, the shifting cultivator wins least, the broadcaster of seeds gets most. It is only when population increases to the point where land becomes scarce that the labour-intensive method of transplanting out from a nursery field is most suited. With the push towards mechanization throughout the world, many incongruities and imbalances have occurred. Farmers behind their bullock-driven plows may be convinced that a tractor would solve all their problems in life, but the speed of a tractor is not necessarily useful even if fuel and mechanical parts and expertise were readily available. It is helpful only where large flat fields exist and fast plowing helps to coordinate with weather, or where one process must dovetail closely with another. If plowing can be done at leisure over a few days (as it can when broadcasting family-owned fields), the speed of the tractor would be a wasteful and unwarranted energy input. Efficiency follows a delicate line traced between brute force and time-honoured tradition. It always finds its way along the most direct and simple route in Nature, an act man has found very difficult to imitate.
With the Green Revolution a new hope was kindled that hunger might be banished from our globe. But the super-productive varieties of seeds developed are dependent upon expensive fertilization and a capital-intensive technology which is tailored to irrigated conditions. The fact is that only twenty-six percent of the paddy-growing areas in the world meet these criteria. Most fields are in arid zones, under deep water (where low nutrients ensure smaller yield) or in the rainy uplands where small terraced fields prevail. Thus the 'revolution' with its new technology locked out the vast majority of rice growers in the world – the very people who needed the innovations most. In Bangladesh alone thirty million farmers depend on the fortunes of deep-water rice, constantly plagued by problems of over-submergence, salination, insects and disease, whilst many more millions elsewhere in South Asia anxiously pray for rain to moisten their scorched fields. In India itself about six million hectares of rice land suffer excessive flooding during the normal monsoon season, which is hardly a blessing except in the face of drought. Will new technology solve the problems? Will dams and canals, pumps and dikes, spillways and desalination projects resolve the difficulties? Will massive supplies of fertilizer, insecticides, abolishment of the system of lineal inheritance (which steadily reduces the size of fields by dividing them up every generation) do the job? Perhaps the solution lies in discouraging family holdings. Perhaps the greatest yield can be got by doing away with all private land-ownership or by turning farms into agro-corporations. Does this sound suspiciously familiar? Looked at from the point of view of a divinely impressed natural efficiency, it begins to appear grotesque. The so-called ^romantics' who feel a nagging though vague sympathy for the older, seemingly inefficient, modes are not wrong. They may be vague and uncertain but they sense that the new 'solutions' towards which the world has been leaning are dehumanizing. They look about them and wonder at the 'efficiency' of a system where sedentary, overfed people have to run on asphalt streets, breathing polluted air in order to stay in shape.
If one turns to the rice plant to learn of efficiency, one might begin by seriously asking whether rice which was not grown with prayers, nor with gratitude, nor with a sense of the sacredness that flows through all that is fertile and life-giving in the world, could possibly be as nutritious and sweet tasting as that which was. One recalls the case of a minister of a Southern California church who, possessing not the slightest trace of any deeper symbolic understanding, calmly ordered that people throw birdseed at departing wedded couples to avoid the sprouting of rice kernels in the lawn along the walkway. If rice in the West was an acquired taste borrowed from Asia, so too was the rich symbolism attached to it. Even in a society bereft of cultural roots like that in which we live, people continue doggedly to throw rice at weddings and resent the mention of an inappropriate-seeming substitute. Not that many understand much about why rice is thrown, rather that it is simply a tradition in a nouveau riche society where traditions are hard to come by. Satin slippers may not conduct one to paradise, but perhaps a few well-wishers intuit that something deeper symbolized by the rice might. They may sense that the fertility it represents is really an outer mask of a hidden, unconditioned current of immortality. Fertility implies generation and generation of life is surely the closest thing to immortality experienced on the physical plane.
If one wishes to approach the garment-hem of immortality, can one learn from the flowing cycle of generations of paddy? Why else would the Thai farmer liken the body of man, who is the microcosm, to rice? Like him, we can see a fertile stream of unfolding symbols in its fertilization, germination, sprouting, tilling and flowering. To plant the seeds of such awareness in ourselves, the ground must be cultivated and made ready. The water that comes to it should be born of prayer and sacrifice and flow into soil rich in nutrients produced by deep thought and inner alchemical transformation. The seeds must be fresh. They are always saved from the last crop – the last generation of growth. But they need to be kept free from the damp of astral contamination and put back into the soil before the germ within them dies. They grow in the nursery of our consciousness close together, jostling for light and air, and we must trim them before we set them out in the greater fields. Within the prepared soil of those fields, seeds like thoughts need to be spaced out to gain maximum growth and fruition but planted close enough together to withstand the winds. Too much overheating with fertilizers and they will shoot up overly high and collapse under their own weight. Too little exposure to the sun of truth and they will fail to become fertile. The balance needs to be delicately discovered along the fine line of efficiency traced between the rajasic will and the tamasic tendency to rely upon worn ideas and modes. As with the rice kernel, only the hidden embryo of the idea will carry life into the succeeding generation. The pericarp which is hulled away as bran in the milling is the husk of the preceding generation. It, like the sterile florets, had its function and can be used in the process of eliminating everything other than the undying spark of life and truth being transmitted so perfectly and efficiently.
The untruths need to be shed, they need to be hulled away. When man becomes a 'holder' of land, his fatal tendency is to 'freeze' the free flow of Mac Phosop. He believes he is being efficient when he maximizes his yield and profit with the least expenditure of labour. But this simplistic formula thwarts the health and needs of the body and teaches people the art of manipulating Nature instead of discovering the subtle channels through which life, abundance and truth could find their purest and most efficient expression. The loss of nourishment and sweetness, said to be the characteristic of rice in Kali Yuga, reflects the unimaginative sterility of collective humanity locked, as it has been for millennia, into crude thought-forms based upon fear, desire and greed. Like every seed that grows, every human being struggles towards the sun. But in his true nature man is not a rampant weed engaged in an endless territorial struggle with other forms of life. Intelligent man is the divine ancestor flowing up through the watery paddy field in the seedling plant. He reaches out beyond the crowded jostling within the astral fluid of becoming to plant himself with graceful economy and wisdom in this worldly field of growth. If a tractor will help him best prepare the soil for the most sacrificial and beneficial manifestation of his living inner seed of spirit, then he can employ it. If a dibble-stick is more suitable to his potentials in giving, he should use it. The main point is that the divine current should flow out unfettered to all who have need and hearts ready (like waiting fields) to receive it.
No more beautiful sight is there than emerald paddy fields adorning the crimson loam of our mother earth. Bhumi rejoices in such finery and sings in joyous harmony with the solar deity who called it forth in all its billowing glory. Standing upon a rocky slope of the Eastern Ghats of South India, one may gaze out upon a pattern of red kum kum powder pathways, criss-crossing waving squares and rectangles of this brilliant green, paddy fields stretching to the sea, men and women tending the tillers, moving in waves through the waving leaves, moving and experiencing with hands, eyes and ears the flow of growth, the current of life's expression. One can imagine fields beyond the sea and around the globe, flowering and giving birth, Mae Phosop bestowing upon those succouring her the direct perception of an erstwhile hidden immortality. Such cultivators would never be drudges mechanically working the soil, year after year. For them the fields of paddy would be sacred, they would burst with emerald flame, proclaiming the oneness of life, the oneness of the 'holding', the blessing of rice.