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Ucchishta In Hinduism – Food Leftover Concept

Etymologically, the meaning of Ucchishta is anything leftover as a remainder, rejected or abandoned. The term Ucchishta has undergone severe changes in Hinduism. The word is derived from the root ‘sis’ preceded by the prefix ‘ut’, “meaning to leave as a remainder”, and followed by the suffix kta. 

Today in Hinduism, its conventional sense is widely used to denote the food left in the plate from which one has eaten, and, one who has not washed his hands and mouth after a meal and hence impure. The term plays an important role in religious contexts, bearing multidimensional senses like remainder of food, residue of sacrifice, unholy, impure, stale, an attribute of gods like Ucchishta Ganapati, and goddess like Ucchista Chandalini, a form of Goddess Matangi.

Ucchishta As Germ Of Creation In Vedas

In Vedic literature, ucchishta is praised as a residue of sacrifice in which the germ of worldly creation exists. The idea is found in the Atharva Veda in a complete hymn as a glorification of Ucchishta or residue of the yajna (Atharva Veda XI.7).

Ucchishta contains the name and form as the connecting link between Brahman and the world (ucchishte nama rupam cocchiste loka ahitah – Atharva Veda XI 7.1).

Indra and Agni and the whole universe are comprised in Uchishta, or residue of sacrifice.
Ucchishta holds earth, heaven, and everything like sea waters, moon and wind (Atharva Veda XI 7.2). Real, non-real, prajapati, death, and other gods are also prevalent in Ucchishta (Atharva Veda XI 7.3-4). All things that breathe life, all creatures and all the celestial gods sprang from Ucchishta (Atharva Veda 7.23).

But this glorified sense of Ucchishta as a source of all creations is changed to denote the remainder of food and drink since the Upanishadic period. Chandogya Upanishad (I.10.3-4) mentions the term in a story of Usati Chakrayana, prescribing to receive the remnants of food and drink even by some learned person under some circumstances like an unavailability of anything as means of livelihood.

Ucchishta – Left Over Food In Dharmasutras

Dharmasutras and Smriti texts discuss this concept in detail, in the context of forbidden food. There were strict rules on giving one’s leftover food (or ucchishta) to another.
According to Apastamba Dharmasutra (I.2.21.25-26), a Brahmin should not give his ucchishta to a non-brahmin.

Ucchishta In Manusmriti

Regarding the term ucchista to denote remnants of food and impurity, Manusmriti states, let a Brahmin not give to any man his leftover food… nor go anywhere without having purified himself after his meal. Manu forbids giving ucchishta to a shudra.

In the sense of impure, Manu uses the term ucchishta several times in the context of drops of leftover water from the mouth or touching of anything by an impure person (Manusmriti V.141 – 143).

Manusmriti has given four meanings to Ucchishta –
  • Leftover food
  • Food taken out in a vessel before serving
  • Unwashed hands and mouth after meals
  • One who has answered a call of nature and not yet performed the purifiatory acts like acchamana, etc.

The Mahabharata (III.136.14) uses the term to denote impure and the Bhagavad Gita use it to denote leftover food.

Maha Subhasita Samgraha records the term in three verses (6359-61) in the sense of negligible matter, sanctifying and uncleanliness; ucchistam karakharparam (a beggar’s bowl of a skull), ucchistam sivanirmalyam…ati arvitrakah (leftover milk and faded flowers offered to Lord Shiva are sanctifying) and ucchisto na sprset khadgam (one with unclean hands after a meal should not touch a sword.

The term Ucchishta is a multidimensional concept in Hinduism.