Diet in Hinduism
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Diet in Hinduism is traditionally governed by the rules laid out in the Dharmaśāstras, a genre of Sanskrit texts pertaining to Hindu religious and legal duty. The Dharmaśāstras has put much emphasis on Bhojana ("that which is enjoyed"). Others have attached additional Hindu Law instructions and taboos to food. Together, these address areas such as how many times food was to be defilement, whose food was to be eaten, and etiquette and ceremonies before taking food both at the time of taking it as well as after taking it.
Food in the Vedas
The fiend who smears himself with flesh of cattle, with flesh of horses and of human bodies,
Who steals the milch-cow's milk away, O Agni,—tear off the heads of such with fiery fury.
The cow gives milk each year, O Man-regarder let not the Yātudhāna ever taste it.
If one would glut him with the biesting, Agni, pierce with thy flame his vitals as he meets thee.
Let the fiends drink the poison of the cattle; may Aditi cast off the evildoers.
May the God Savitar give them up to ruin, and be their share of plants and herbs denied them.
Agni, from days of old thou slayest demons never shall Rākṣasas in fight o’ercome thee.
Burn up the foolish ones, the flesh-devourers let none of them escape thine heavenly arrow.
— Rig Veda (10.87.16-19)
Some consider this as a disapproval of the cow slaughter and meat eating in general. Others put it in the context of demons and evil spirits (Yātudhāna) stealing the cattle and the milk, and mention that the beef eating was common in the Vedic times. Multiple other Rigvedic verses in Mandala 10, including 85.13, 162.4 and 162.12-13, contain references to the slaughter of cattle, horses and other animals, as well as meat eating.
The Atharva Veda bans only the eating of raw flesh and of human flesh:
Those who eat flesh uncooked, and those who eat the bleeding flesh of men,
Feeders on babes unborn, long-haired, far from this place we banish these.
The Āpastamba Śrautasûtra from Yajurveda has clear references to proper preparation of beef in certain occasions.
Food in the Dharmaśāstras
Food is the essence of life, from which things unfold. “Everything is centered in food, the evil deeds of man resort to their food. Whoever eats the food of another partakes of that man’s sin.” It is because of this that elaborate restrictions are laid out for Indian society about everything relating to food. Some obscure commands do exist in the Dharmaśāstras about food. For example, Manu says that one should face east when partaking in food and the Visnu KH. S. 68 goes on to say that a man is allowed to do so facing south, except when the diner’s mother is alive. Food does, however, play a useful role in the concept of life for Hindu society. Manu II. 5 goes on to tell which direction, when eating, promotes which asset in life. Someone facing the south would eat food that would lead to fame, as one who faces west eats food to produce wealth, and so on.
It is also instructed that one who is about to eat food should greet the food when it is served to him. In performing this act, he should pay honour to it, and never find fault in it.
The injunctions found in the Dharmaśāstras are summarized more clearly by Patrick Olivelle in his article "From Feast to Fast: Food and the Indian Ascetic." In his work, Olivelle breaks down more clearly what the Dharmaśāstra prescribes for individual parts of Hindu society. All the topics that Kane touched on, mentioned above, are explained here in a way which relates food to both everyday life for Hindus as well as life in the cosmic realm.
The production, preparation, exchange and consumption of food have very particular processes of execution. These aspects of food are all commanded in order to protect kinship, purity, ritual, ethical values, and social stratification, each of which play a huge part in Hindu society. Food plays a central role in explaining the Hindu conception of the cosmos and creation itself. Ancient creation stories portray the creator god of the Brahmins as the creator as well as the actual food for his creatures. The production of food is the immediate concern after the creation of the very first beings. Other creation myths exist, each of which, however, connect creation, food, and sacrifice. Food was held in high respects, according to the Dharmaśāstra, from the very beginning. Manu "From the sun comes rain, and from rain food, and therefrom the living creatures derive their subsistence”
Kane and Olivelle both reference the command that “One should not speak ill of food. That is the rule” to further the point that food is established upon food. Food being established upon food in this text is the ancient way of describing the correlation between food and eater, that one cannot exist without the other. “The whole of creation, therefore, is a vast food chain."
As well as being the source of creation, food is also seen as a danger in Hindu society. As food is the source of creation at the cosmic level, so is it the source of immorality at a social level. Food is central to sacrificial offerings to the gods. Even of the five daily sacrifices, four of them involve transaction of food. In this way, since the cosmos represents a giant food cycle, the interdependence of all beings is expressed in the transaction of food.
Although in most Dharmaśāstra texts the behavior towards food is described more for Brahmins, the elite caste, recent studies of these texts show that similar behavioral patterns existed at all levels of Hindu society. This culture has formulated many prohibitions and classifications with regard to food as a critical mechanism for the formation of social groups and the expression of leadership. Other such social classes in society that are to obey injunctions of food are the mendicant world renouncers and the sedentary forest hermits.
Food and asceticism
The world renouncer is not allowed to produce, store, or prepare food. He obtains his daily food solely by begging. Because there is a proper time for this begging, which is after the householders of the upper classes have finished their food, his meals consist of their left-overs. Distinct types of begging exist, with each different method pertaining to a different subclass of these mendicants. The lowest class eats at the house of his son or his relative, the next class does not go to the house of his relative, but rather begs his food from seven other houses. The highest, archetypal renouncer begs randomly, but obtains just a morsel from each of the houses from which he begs. As these classes of people cannot produce or store food, their relationship to this entity is one-way. The renouncer does not engage in any form of food transaction, only reception.
The forest hermits, on the other hand, are not mediated in their food habits by culture. Their food is wild and uncultivated. Their diet would consist mainly of fruits, roots, leaves, and anything that grows naturally in the forest. Forbidden to them is anything that is cultivated. Gaut. III 32 and Baudh II.6.11 state that ‘He shall not step on plowed land; he shall not enter a village.’. Like the renouncers, the forest hermits are further subdivided into those who cook their food and those who do not cook their food. Each of these subcategories are even further divided into five classes based upon whether they only eat grains, or only roots, and so on for those that cook. For those who do not cook their food, their five classes are based more on how they eat their food: with hands only, with mouth only and so on.
Observing ascetical food codes and habits allows scholars to make generalizations regarding food according to these patterns. For instance, Olivelle claims that four distinct areas of Hindu relationships to food exist in ascetical food practices. These would be procurement, storage, preparation, and consumption. In these areas, humans put forth much effort and energy to follow them correctly. This then, becomes a social as well as cultural endeavor for which to practice. The rules of the ascetics show that they take and eat only that which is enough for their sustenance. The creation myths at the cosmic levels show that the ideal world with provide everything humans need, so long as humans take only what is necessary to them. Taking more than one needs or what is commanded of one’s caste results in greed and the overall deterioration of the world. Food then, is a dangerous substance, as well as the source of all things in being. The relationship between a man and his food, then, is his relationship to the cosmos.
Some major paths of Hinduism hold vegetarianism as an ideal. There are three main reasons for this: the principle of nonviolence (ahimsa) applied to animals, the intention to offer only "pure" (vegetarian) food to a deity and then to receive it back as prasad, and the conviction that non-vegetarian food is detrimental for the mind and for spiritual development. Many Hindus point to scriptural bases, such as the Mahabharata's maxim that "Nonviolence is the highest duty and the highest teaching," as advocating a vegetarian diet.
There are many Hindu groups that have continued to abide by a strict vegetarian diet in modern times. One example is the movement known as ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), whose followers “not only abstain from meat, fish, and fowl, but also avoid certain vegetables that are thought to have negative properties, such as onion, mushrooms and garlic.” A second example is the Swaminarayan Movement. The followers of this Hindu group also staunchly adhere to a diet that is devoid of meat, eggs, and seafood.
Vegetarianism is propagated by the Yajurveda and it is recommended for a satvic (purifying) lifestyle. Thus, another reason that dietary purity is so eminent within Hinduism is because “the idea that food reflects the general qualities of nature: purity, energy, inertia”; it follows that a healthy diet should be one that promotes purity within an individual.
Contrary to popular belief, India is not presently a predominantly vegetarian country. Brahmins of East India and Kashmir and the Saraswat Brahmins of the Southwest are allowed fish and some meat.
Historically and currently, those Hindus who eat meat prescribe jhatka meat. This is a common method of slaughter when Bali Sacrifices are made to some Hindu deities, however, Vedic rituals such as Agnicayana involved the strangulation of sacrificial goats. Many Shaivite Hindus engage in jhatka methods as part of religious dietary laws, as influenced by some Shakta doctrines, which permit the consumption of meat. During Durga Puja and Kali Puja among some Shaivite Hindus in Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir, Jhatka meat is the required meat for those Shaivite Hindus who eat meat. Many Vaishnava sects prohibit the consumption of meat, and their relative demographic predominance over some non-vegetarian Shaivite sects leads to a common stereotype that all Hindus are vegetarian.
Many dalit communities eat meat, such as the Chamar community of Punjab, but some may abstain from beef and/or pork, dependent on the village culture. Although killing cows is prohibited in Hinduism, in Nepal some Hindus mainly Matwali ("alcohol drinking") sacrifice and consume meat from the Buffalo. There is a disagreement on buffalo meat consumption between Indian Hindus and Nepalese Hindus on this topic as cows and buffalo are seen as related species, with matwalis holding that buffalo consumption is an old tradition in their country, and is regularly consumed by them. Buffalo meat is popular in Nepal's capital but is rejected by others, while in India buffalo meat is largely rejected. Though, Yak is consumed in Himalayan range as a necessity as only source of protein . In the southern most state of Kerala beef and mutton are served in hotels and are consumed by almost all communities. Though there are strict Brahmin communities who abstain from it.
However, it is a completely different scenario in Northeast India, comprising the Seven Sister states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura; and Sikkim. The people in these states follow forms of hinduic beliefs and traditions opposite to that of mainland India. The Brahmins and religious functionaries partake of all types of meat, excluding beef. However, the other non-Brahmin people partake of even Beef at times. Especially, in ancient Assamese Hinduic scriptures and popular beliefs, various types of meat, right from ducks, pigeons, turtles, snakes, lizards and even to deer, buffalo and elephant are prescribed in order to maintain health and to recover from sicknesses. According to local traditions and beliefs there are different methods of preparing the meat, either by steaming, or by boiling or cooking with fresh blood. Certain religious functions require blood to be directly partaken from a slaughtered animal.
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