Sunday, February 15, 2009

Food and Eating in Hinduism and the Baha'i Faith

A Brief Comparison

Eating customs are among the most deeply entrenched behaviors of any culture. At its most basic level eating keeps us alive. Beyond that level however, food and eating co-mingle with other emotional needs. As M.F. K. Fisher says, “There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk.” Combined with the sanction of religious taboo and long custom, dietary laws and traditions become among the strongest bonds put upon us. Indeed Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik in the introduction to their collection Food and Culture: A Reader, remind us that Eating is an endlessly evolving enactment of . . . community relationships” (1). And while it is open to dispute, Claude Levi-Strauss posits that cooking, like language, is a universal human activity. To this end, he suggested that people everywhere consume food that is raw, cooked or rotted: In any cuisine, nothing is simply cooked, but must be cooked in one fashion or another. Nor is there any condition of pure rawness: only certain foods can really be eaten raw, and then only if they have been selected, washed, pared or cut, or even seasoned. Rotting, too, is only allowed to take place in specific ways, either spontaneous or controlled” (Quoted in Food and Culture).
Levi-Strauss suggested universality of these categories, all people at all times have structured their food consumption around them, which leads to a consideration of how food preparation and consumption embed themselves into a culture. Most dietary laws come from religious or scientific sources. In America, today, we have perhaps replaced religion with science, but we still control, condemn or approve, and enjoy eating according to strict ‘rules,” albeit ones that seem to change with dizzying speed. For many people both in the U.S. or around the world, however, diet is also regulated by religious teaching. Not to go too far afield, but the dietary laws most of us in the west are familiar with are those of Judaism or Islam. The Bible hints at three dietary ages: the Edenic which is vegetarian; the Noaic in which everything is available to man for food including meat, but not blood: the Mosaic which sorts out the clean and the unclean beasts from which man may eat(Soler, in Food and Culture,56, 57). Hinduism also constrains its followers with strict laws regarding diet and commensality. In the Baha’i Faith, however, we have been released from dietary constraints with two exceptions: alcohol and animals found already dead, carrion.
These prohibitions make excellent sense. They reinforce the dignity of man by protecting him from drunkenness with its accompanying social and physical evils. Eating meat found dead, rather than humanely slaughtered, properly drained of blood and gutted leaves man open to disease. It also implies an innate cruelty that would underly a culture that sustained itself in such ways. Additionally, these dietary laws allow Baha’is to travel the world and eat among any people. And it leaves peoples who join the Faith free to continue cultural ways that are among the deepest and most meaningful to any group. We have only to consider the role of food at ethnic identifier for Italian Americans or African Americans. Thus the Baha’i traveler or teacher can truly be a world citizen, at home in any culture.
Dietary laws from ancient revelations, have of course on a very physical level been designed to protect adherents from illness. They reinforce larger concepts such as the agreement of science and religion. Dietary restrictions also allow identity within a group and without, providing clear boundaries between those who belong at the commensal table and those who cannot enter the community. Hindu dietary laws, I confess, present a bewildering array of rules about food and its preparation, the manner of eating, and those with whom one may consume food. Abdu’l-Baha helps to explain the variations in the laws that we find when we compare religious teachings:

Secondly: Laws and ordinances which are temporary and non-essential. These concern human transactions and relations. They are accidental and subject to change according to the exigencies of time and place. These ordinances are neither permanent nor fundamental. For instance during the time of Noah it was expedient that sea foods be considered as lawful; therefore God commanded Noah to partake of all marine animal life. During the time of Moses this was not in accordance with the exigencies of Israel's existence, therefore a second command was revealed partly abrogating the law concerning marine foods. During the time of Abraham -- Upon him be peace! -- camel's milk was considered a lawful and acceptable food; likewise the flesh of the camel; but during Jacob's time because of a certain vow he made, this became unlawful
(Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 93)

On one hand, we can consider these riches of guidance as an example of how religion and science reinforce each other. Ancient people were not ignorant. They understood spoilage and such. They also knew without having a scientific vocabulary for it that certain animals had very primitive digestive systems which might produce ‘unclean’ meat. Beyond that, they clearly understood the role of spices in preserving food and in making plain foods (lentils) palatable. Today we count five tastes that allow us to enjoy food, along with the sense of smell. And indeed, those tastes are described in Ayurvedic medicine.

The Six Tastes
How much of each Dosha your body produces depends primarily on which Tastes you consume. The tastes influence the balance of the Doshas in the body. Like the Doshas they are derived from the Five Great Elements. They have profound effect on all parts of the organism and not merely the tongue.

Sweet. Composed mainly of Earth and Water. Sweet increases Kapha, decreases Pitta and Vata, and is cooling, heavy and unctuous. It nourishes and exhilarates the body and mind, and relieves hunger and thirst. It increases all tissues.Sweet produces satisfaction or satiation. Overindulgence in Sweet Taste leads to its negative aspects, complacency and greed. Intense complacent effect increases the naturally inert, complacent Kapha, cools the anger of Pitta and comforts the fear of Vata.

Sour. Composed mainly of Earth and Fire. Sour increases Kapha and Pitta, decreases Vata, and is heating, heavy, and unctuous. Sour refreshes the being, encourage elimination of wastes, lessens spasms and tremors, and improves appetite and digestion. Produces the searching outside oneself for things to possess. Sour causes evaluation of a thing in order to determine its desirability which selectively enhances certain appetites. Overindulgence in evaluation leads to envy and jealousy, which may manifest as deprecation of the thing desired, as in the "sour grapes" syndrome. Envious effect increases Kapha if envy of another's success incites you to obtain further success for yourself. Otherwise Pitta will increase as jealousy mutates into anger over the raw deal you feel you are getting from life. Envy does help reduce Vata, by focusing and heating up your consciousness.

Salty. Composed mainly of Water and Fire. Salty increases Kapha and Pitta, decreases Vata, and is heavy, heating and unctuous. Salty eliminates wastes and cleanses the body , and increases the digestive capacity and appetite. It softens and loosens the tissues. Salty Taste increases zest for life, which enhances all appetites. Overindulgence in zest leads to hedonism, the craving for indulgence in all sensory pleasures physically available to the body.

Pungent. Composed mainly of Fire and Air. pungent (which is hot and spicy like chilli peppers) increases Pitta and Vata, decreases Kapha, and is heating, light and dry. Pungent flushes all types of secretion from the body, and reduces all Kapha-like tissues such as semen, milk and fat. It improves the appetite. Pungent Taste is productive of extroversion, the tendency to excitement and stimulation, and particularly the craving for intensity. Overexcitement and over-stimulation leads to irritability, impatience and anger (pungent language or a sharp retort). Pungent Taste increases Pitta by actively increasing the flow of hormones and digestive juices, making it easier both to digest and to manifest anger. It relieves Kapha by decreasing self-satisfaction, and temporarily relieves Vata by permitting expression of bottled-up resentment. In the long run, however, Pungent increases Vata by exhausting the organs and glands, which, "dries you out", limiting your ability to project aggression or unhappiness outwards.

Bitter. Composed mainly of Air and Space. Bitter increases Vata, decreases Pitta and Kapha, and is cooling, light and dry. Bitter purifies and dries all secretions, is anti-aphrodisiac, and tones the organism by returning all Tastes to normal balance. It increases appetite, and controls skin diseases and fevers.Bitter Taste produces dissatisfaction , which produces a desire to change. When you have to swallow a "bitter pill"' its bitterness dispels your self-delusion and forces you to face reality. Too much disappointment leads to frustration, which confirms your system in bitterness. Grief is also bitter.Bitter is best of all Six Tastes. As Dr. Vasant Lad says, "Bitter is better." in small amounts Bitter helps balance all other tastes in the body. Just as mild dissatisfaction with yourself or your situation impels you to change, Bitter dilates channels which are too constricted, thus reducing Kapha and its complacency , and constricts those which are overdilated, thus reducing Pitta and its anger. Overuse of Bitter increases Vata as dissatisfaction and continuous change induces insecurity and fear.

Astringent. Composed mainly of Air and Earth. Astringent (which makes your mouth pucker) increases Vata, decreases Pitta and Kapha, and is cooling, light and dry. Astringent heals, purifies and constricts all parts of the body. It reduces all secretions, and is anti-aphrodisiac. Astringent Taste produces introversion, the tendency away from excitement and stimulation. Excessive introversion leads to insecurity, anxiety and fear. Astringency causes contraction, which makes you "shrivel like a prune." and clamps the "cold, bony hand of fear" around your throat. Astringent taste constricts, drawing one away from the self-satisfaction of Kapha, and the self-aggrandisement of Pitta. Its constriction increases fear of insufficient sensory "nutrition" and leads to increased Vata.

All these tastes are essential for proper functioning of the organism, and reach us primarily through our food.

Modern science tells us that we can detect the four tastes we all learned in school: sweet, salt, sour, and bitter. Additionally, Umami (旨味?) is one of the five basic tastes sensed by specialized receptor cells present on the human tongue. Umami is a loanword from Japanese meaning roughly "delicious flavor", although "brothy", "meaty", or "savory" have been proposed as alternate translations.[1][2] The same taste is also known as xiānwèi (traditional Chinese: 鮮味; simplified Chinese: 鲜味 literally "Fresh Flavor") in Chinese cooking. In as much as it describes the flavor common to savory products such as meat, cheese, and mushrooms, umami is similar to Brillat-Savarin's concept of osmazome, an early attempt to describe the main flavoring component of meat as extracted in the process of making stock (Wikipedia)

When humans eat, they use all of their senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste) to form general judgments about their food, but it is taste that is the most influential in determining how delicious a food is. Conventionally, it has been thought that our sense of taste is comprised of four basic, or ‘primary’, tastes, which cannot be replicated by mixing together any of the other primaries: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. However, it is now known that there is actually a fifth primary taste: umami.
The Hindu list adds astringent and pungent to our familiar list of four. The include spicy and astringent under the list of ‘tastes’ that we can detect in the mouth.
While man was not ready for the concept of ribonucleotides (in umami) when the Vedas were revealed, the Hindu pantheon of flavors seems to echo our modern understanding of taste and its function in food. The dictionary lists pungent as an adjective with the following synonyms. 1. strong, hot, spicy, seasoned, sharp, acid, bitter, stinging, sour, tart, aromatic, tangy, acrid, peppery, piquant, highly flavoured, acerb << OPPOSITE mild.

On a larger scale, Hindu dietary law serves to support the caste structure of HIndu culture.To give just two examples: Food must be prepared according to defined practice and the preparer’s status or state of mind can affect the ‘quality’ of the food, making it unfit for consumption.

From The Mahabharata Anusasana Parva, Section CXLII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Mahadeva said: Those that are righteous and desirous of acquiring merit always pursue with firmness the culture of the soul. The food that comes from cruel or fierce persons is censurable. So also the food that has been cooked for serving a large number of persons. The same is said of the food that is cooked in view of the first Sraddha of a deceased person. So also is the food that is stained in consequence of the usual faults and the food that is supplied by a Sudra. These should never be taken by a Brahmana (priest)at any time. The food of a Sudra is always disapproved of by the high-souled deities.

If a Brahmana, who has set up the sacred fire and who performs sacrifices, were to die with any portion of a Sudra's food remaining undigested in his stomach, he is sure to take birth in his next life as a Sudra. In consequence of those remains of a Sudra's food in his stomach, he falls away from the status of a Brahmana. Such a Brahmana becomes invested with the status of a Sudra. There is no doubt in this. This Brahmana in his next life becomes invested with the status of that order upon whose food he subsists through life or with the undigested portion of whose food in his stomach he breathes his last. That man who, having attained to the auspicious status of a Brahmana which is so difficult to acquire, disregards it and eats interdicted food, falls away from his high status.
Additionally many foods are forbidden for reasons that now seems arbitrary and obscure.

“Forbidden foods
From The Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva Section CIV
One should eat only such food as is not forbidden in the scriptures, abstaining from food of every kind on days of the new moon and the full moon. One should never eat the flesh of animals not slain in sacrifice. One should never eat the flesh of the back of an animal. The flesh of goats, of kine (cows), and the peacock, should never be eaten. One should also abstain from dried flesh and all flesh that is stale. One should not slay a bird (for eating it), especially after having fed it.
All food that is forbidden in ritual acts should never be taken even on other occasions. The fruits of the Ficus Religiosa (sacred fig or Peepul tree) and the Ficus Bengalensis (in English:Banyan tree; as also the leaves of the Crotolaria Juncea (Sunn Hemp), and the fruits of Ficus Glomerata(cluster fig or Gular fig or country fig tree), should never be eaten by one who is desirous of his own good. The remnants of food and drink, as also the flowers with which one has worshipped the deities, should never be used.
The man of intelligence should never eat any salt, taking it up with his hand.
Nor should he eat curds and flour of fried barley at night. One desirous of food should never drink curds at the conclusion of a meal.
One should never eat off the same plate with another even if that other happens to be of one's own or equal rank. One should never even touch the remnants of other people's dishes and plates. Nor should one ever eat any food that has been prepared by a woman in her functional period.
One should never eat any food or drink any liquid whose essence has been taken off. Nor should one eat anything without giving a portion thereof to persons that wishfully gaze at the food that one happens to take.
One should, with concentrated attention, eat once in the morning and once in the evening, abstaining entirely from all food during the interval. One should never eat any food in which one may detect a hair. Nor should one eat at the Sraddha of an enemy. One should eat silently; one should never eat without covering one's person with an upper garment. One should never eat any food placing it on the bare ground. One should never eat except in a sitting posture. One should never eat while walking. One should never make any noise while eating. One who sits to one's meals after having washed one's feet, lives for a hundred years. One should first wash one's mouth thrice with water before any food. Having finished one's meals, one should wash one's mouth thrice with water and twice again.
One should eat one's food with face turned eastwards, restraining speech the while and without censuring the food that is eaten. If one eats with face turned eastwards, one becomes endued with longevity. By eating with face turned southwards, one acquires great fame. By eating with face turned westwards, one acquires great wealth. By eating with face turned northwards, one becomes truthful in speech. One should always leave a remnant of the food that is placed before one for eating. One should never take a meal without eating some sesame.
Inviting a guest at night, one should never, with excessive courtesy , force him to eat to the point of gratification. Nor should one eat oneself to the point of gratification. After the meal is finished, one should wash one's mouth and face with the right hand only. After washing, one should touch the crown of one's head with the right hand. Having finished one's meals, one should mentally touch fire.”

After hundreds if not thousands of years, much of the advice seems unclear and without practical basis. Compare this with Baha’u’llah’s advice on eating, “ A little food in the morning is like a light to the body. Leave all harmful habits, they cause unhappiness in the world. Search for the cause of disease. This saying is the end of this speech” (Law-i-Tibb). Here we see the wisdom of updating the social teachings, as new manifestation does. In this day, with refrigeration and better animal husbandry and farming, such elaborate laws are not necessary to protect our health. In addition, the new teachings of the Baha’i Faith eliminate the striations and stigma of caste thus opening the way for believers of all backgrounds to eat together of whatever food they wish. This sense of commensality will allow Baha’i communities of the future to embody the oneness of mankind that is the central tenet of our faith.

1 comment:

  1. Have you read this book?

    It's all about cultural and religious prohibitions on food. I haven't read it myself, but it looks good!

    The problem I always run into with ancient texts like these is that sorting out the useful from the superstitious always strikes me as an impossible task. Plus some prohibitions, I'm given to understand, had more to do with ritual purity than with food safety. What I find interesting is that the Baha'i Faith largely abolishes ritual purity, only maintaining it in a few very narrow and OBVIOUSLY ritualistic contexts like ablutions before prayers.