Forbidden Foods

World Mythology 39 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday, Mumbai, 1 Nov 2009

We would like to believe that eating is a rational act, governed by hygiene and nutrition but in most cases it is not. We eat because food is tasty, because we are hungry, because that is what our family told us to eat. Often, we eat some things and don’t eat others because by doing so we reaffirm our links to a particular group.

Chinese emperors were known to use food as a tool to indicate their station in society. Only feudal lords were allowed to eat beef. Mutton was for high-ranking ministers, pork for lower ministers, fish for generals and only vegetables for commoners.

The reasons for religious dietary laws are often shrouded in mystery – with reasons ranging from hygiene to divine decree to unquestionable tradition.

Jewish dietary laws involves ‘kosher’ foods. Kosher means that which is fit or proper, and the rules determining kosher are complex. For example, only fish with fins and scales are kosher. Thus clams, shrimps, and crabs are nonkosher. Animals that chew the cud and have cloven hoofs are kosher. Blood is non-kosher. Eggs must be checked for blood spots. These were apparently instituted for health reasons – because certain foods get spoilt easily, because one can get trichinosis from pork. But if that were the case then these laws would have been abandoned with the advent of modern food processing. Beyond the ‘rational reasons’, it seems more likely that these dietary laws helped the Jewish Diaspora reaffirm their separateness and identity through centuries of exile and persecution.

Jesus was born in a Jewish family and no doubt followed the kosher dietary laws. During the last supper he equated wine as ‘his blood’ and offered it to his followers. Was this an act of breaking free from the Jewish fold since blood is non-kosher? That the Church did not impose any dietary restrictions, Jewish or otherwise, on its followers helped it become a global religion welcoming people from all walks of life into a fold. Little wonder then that Christianity grew in numbers and gradually became the dominant religion of Europe.

The rise of Islam saw many practices and taboos, some expressed through dietary laws, that helped Muslims distinguish themselves from other peoples of the Book. To distinguish themselves from Christians, Muhammad forbade the consumption of pigs. To distinguish themselves from pork-shunning Jews, Muhammad forbade the consumption of wine, something that was part of the Jewish sacrament.

The 20th century saw the rise of Nation of Islam amongst African Americans who wanted to establish for themselves a new identity that broke free from their past as the descendants of slaves. Like their Muslim brothers elsewhere in the world they shunned pork and wine, but they also shunned tobacco and a whole list of vegetables commonly consumed by their black brothers who were following Christianity, the religion of their enslavers.

In India, food was used to create a spiritual hierarchy – vegetarians assumed superiority over non-vegetarians, and among vegetarians those who did not eat garlic and onion were positioned above everyone else. Any discussion of Hindu diet cannot avoid the ‘beef’ issue. Cows were sacred to early cattle-herding communities. Somewhere along the way, especially with the rise of Buddhism, Jainism and the Bhakti movement with their doctrine of non-violence, eating animals in general and the cow in particular became taboo in the Indian sub-continent. But did protection of the milk-giving cow, extend to the bull, or the castrated ox? What about the buffalo? Does not the goddess Durga impale the buffalo-demon and demand its sacrifice during Navaratri each year? The scriptures do not give a clear answer, leading at least one writer to wonder if the sacredness of the white cow and the profanity of the black buffalo had more to do with race and caste and gender and less with non-violence.

The food we eat may project things about us (that we are non-violent, that we are less polluted) but it does not necessarily influence our behavior. The non-garlic-eating mother-in-law may believe in ‘protecting tiny creatures who live under the soil’ but that does not stop her in any way from harassing her non-garlic-eating daughter-in-law. Vegetarian businessmen can be quite ruthless in business. The non-beef eating politician may believe in protecting cows but feels comfortable rousing rouse mobs against peaceful beef-eating communities. Two nations may agree on why pork must be shunned, but that will not stop them from slaughtering each other in wars. Dietary laws – desperately rationalized by believers – are artificial constructs that rarely impact the behavior of its followers giving more meaning to the following thought of the Upanishad: “Everything in the universe is food. We eat some. Some eat us.”

  • Manish

    Dear Mr. Devdutt,

    The Hindu dietary system is very complex, it was divided on the basis of four castes, 1) Brahmins – were not allowed to consume non vegertarian food as they preached vedas and invoked spritualism in people. They believed that non veg food would make pronounciation of vedas hard same with garlic & onion

    The Kshatriyas protected the country and as the weak cannot protect the country they had the rights to eat non veg food.

    The shudras did all kinds of tasks which were labour intensive & hence were allowed to eat non veg.

    This is how our dietary habits are evolved and are followed till today…

    The hindu food is always based on logic rather than to differentiate from other religions..

  • Dear Pandithji,

    Thought, would miss your Sunday-Midday column, but delighted to see in the Sunday-Hindu Magazine, God is always as usual great.

    Request you to continue spreading the light of knowledge to rescue the innocence from the increasing darkness (indiscriminate materialism).

    Thank you,


    G. Suresh

  • Dear Mr. Pattnaik,
    Is it true that Ram was a nonvegetarian in the forest when he was sent to banvas. That he along with his brother laxman was hunting for deer and other animals for food? Also is it wrtten in the hindu scriptures that one can be a nonvegen?We never heard of nonveg being cooked at home for any hindu festivals. But this time in Delhi during Diwali i was quite alarmed to see this happen.Why are we turning to becoming non believers?

    • Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

      Kashmiri Pandits eat meat during Shivratri….Consumption of fish is common amongst Bengali and Oriya and even some Konkan Brahmins… no universal observation of vegetarianism….Kanappa in the Periya Puranam offered meat to Shiva with love….the politics of food is a sensitive and complex topic….lets leave it to the politicians and lets not judge people by what they eat.

  • Hi,
    I found your post distinct from previous posts in that it was
    a) Weak in context and
    b) A bit disjointed.

    It leads me to think that you’re perhaps moving away from your core comfort zones into areas that perhaps are new or just taking root in your mind — This is wonderful, even if it disappoints what I look to get out of your posts – a more concentrate form of thoughts.

    At the core of what you’re saying though – if I may extend it beyond food is that any action when applied as means of identifying oneself [as a religion or a nation] isn’t rational.
    This view is however very simplistic.

    I view different food habits, restrictions as ways of codifying not just awareness of a particular food but also the gained knowledge of what it works for and what it doesn’t. I view much of our religious practices, books and beliefs as just this — a method to codify knowledge. I don’t have to study Jung or Freud to understand the role of my ego. I can through actions taught to me by my parents, my country or my religion get at its goods / bad over time. Stories, practices all weave this fabric of human understanding of our own existence.

    Having said this though it’s good to see you extending beyond your comfort zone: It might lead to interesting insights for us all.

  • saravanan

    Food is never based on caste or religion. It is based on the season. Season in which a food variety grows more and Season whether it is summer, rainy, winter etc.
    The festivals we celebrate is based on this only.
    Summer season = Adi amman festival, Panguni uthiram, Chithirai festivals – people serve watery food – butter milk, juices, kool ( liquid food made of ragi )

    starting of rainy season – purattasi month – do not take non veg foods = season of diseases.
    winter season – krishna jayanthi, deepavali, pongal – use of jaggery mixed food – to keep the body warm.

  • Shanmugam

    Hi Dev,

    It is not ‘periyar purana’, it is Periya(big) Puranam.

    In Tamil nadu vegetarian food is called saiva food and non-vegetarian asaiva. Orthodox saivites (non brahmins) in Tamil nadu don’t eat non-vegetarian food. There was a big struggle going on between buddhists, jains and saivites in ancient Tamil nadu over religion. The general assumption is that saivites became vegetarians to counter Jainism and then vegetarianism spread to brahmins and vaishnavites in TN.

  • Pankaj Dwivedi

    Devdutt jee,

    Congratulations on writing succinctly on a topic that is often debated but seldom understood. You have clearly stated how eating beliefs are influenced by more than one, complex factors.

    Above all religious and political reasons, it can be safely argued that if civilizations originated and prospered around centers of abundance of resources, food and others, then eating habits must also follow a pattern that is defined more by local traits than anything else. For example, seafood consumption is heaviest in all maritime locations and plains of North India have the concentration of the largest Vegetarian population since it is conducive and cost-effective to grow so many vegetables and cereals.

    However, as you chose to end your article, everything is a part of a well-thought food chain and still humans are the most blessed omnivores. It is their conscience which should direct them to be a veg or a non-veg in modern times when they are spoilt for choices. Politics & Religion have plenty of other issues to deal with.

    Thanks & Regards!
    Pankaj Dwivedi.

  • Madhur Limdi

    I am a recent fan of your writing. I love the incredible clarity, and the sublime blend of contemporary themes interwoven with pauranic tales that emerges in your writing.

    Unlike your other writing which is anchored by a well articulated “absorbing” fable this one seems to fall short!

    In Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) food has been categorised into three parts.

    1.Rajasic food
    2.Tamasic food
    3.Saatvic food.

    Practitioners of spirituality in Hinduisim are advised to avoid the Rajasic and Tamasic foods as they create desires and increase mental dullness. All vegetarian food, except a few are Saatvic.

    Onion and Garlic are considered HIGHLY TAMASIC IN NATURE and so are forbidden for consumption. There is an interesting pauranic tale that ties this theme (I believe it has been referenced in your writing before though not in its form as below).

    According to puranas, when the devas and asuras churned the ocean with manthra mountain and snake vasuki, amrit
    finally emerged. Lord Vishnu gave it to devas. Disguised as devas, two asura’s lined up as well. At the moment they received the amrit, some devas realized their cunning act. Devas caught the throat of the two asuras and made them spit the amrit. That spit amrit fell on earth, and is said to have given rise to onion and garlic. So both garlic and onion emerging from the asura mouths have asura gunas, that is, tamasic, giving excessive sense feelings, bad odour etc.

    There are other fascinating pauranic tales along the forbidden food themes, specially about garlic and onions, but none so powerful as the one above.

    • RAJESH

      I am into metaphysics ,philosophy and spirituality but I am not completely sure that we can avoid onions altogether. Onion is an aphrodisiac but prevents cancer . Garlic is a powerful antibiotic .So next time please do some research before misleading people.

  • Ashish

    Dr. Devdutt:

    Just chanced upon your website through your most excellent talk. I have been a big proponent on the whole cultural and anthropological link between thought, religion, and the whole veg-nonveg diet debate and am really impressed by your article on it.

    Most people (like Mr. Limbi above) get too engrossed in the micro-logic of the texts and do not appreciate the big picture (the hierarchy and differentiation logic). Like you point out a politician rousing mobs and then saying he doesn’t eat non-veg, or a ruthless business man saying no to garlic or onion.

    Keeping on rock and rolling :)!

  • Dear Mr. Dutt,

    I was recently introduced to your writings and I must say I have been highly drawn to the topics on which you write. I just thought of registering here though that this article on food habits has somehow missed mentioning the Ayurveda that may have dictated many of the eating traditions that Hindus follow. For example, Vatha , pitha and Kapha as three fundamental “characteristics” that form a food gives rise to many ways of eating like – Rajasik, Tamasik etc. (You may appreciate it).

    • These concepts deal with health and not with social taboos….the article is about social taboos.

  • Satish

    Read various articles on vegetarian food and non veg. I have heard devdutt pattnaik in the 90s alongwith Parag Trivedi..and thus began my interest in trying to understand various myths..With what ever little reading I have done including the mahabharata & ramayana..I have no where come across that only brahmins should eat vegetarianism and other eat non veg. Infact in ramayana ..the years spend in forest by the three was hunting rabbits small deer etc..( ofcourse rama was a kshatriya a thakur ) Even Agastya was fed goats meat which was to turn into a asura and kill him..This was symbolic of meat eating and cannabilism. Ofcourse these ideas are through various readings . I feel dietary habits are more to do with state of mind and the profession one is in or goal he or she wants to attain. Not sure where but once of the characters in a story says – God I have shunned meat and drinks I want to pray to be near you ..ofcourse everyone can expoerience it if you eat only satvic food after a few days he would experience an inner purity..I guess with un the influnce of jainism and these thoughts teh convention was for brahmins(in a few places) and vyshas eat only veg food

  • VSL Narasimham

    Happened to see your ‘East Vs. West – the myths that mystify’ video talk today on somebody’s suggestion. Very impressive indeed. Your talk was most listenable and engaging. Today I felt like I heard a logical voice in all the cacophony and babble of noises around me.

    The screaming headlines in newspapers, the raucous debates in legislatures and in the visual media, the chaotic polity and governance, miserable civic life have all drained the present day citizens and made them behave like a hermit. I think religion is giving them solace in their solitude.

    Your exposition is comforting and convincing, though I am yet to fully comprehend the Kartikeya and Ganesha approaches to the issue.

    I am happy I have found this site and I intend to visit this site often to get some insight into various aspects of mythology in relation to Hindu’s way of life.

    Thank you.

  • Pramod Srinivasan

    Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik,

    I am fascinated by your articles and your perspective on life, your articles are a wonderful read, Thank you.

    The food we eat is clearly not ‘rational’ as you project and surely social aspects or the ‘need to differentiate’ does impact what we eat.

    Probably a worthy exercise is to investigate how eating habits affects our society or social life. Does civilizations rise or fall based on what people eat? Is there any specific food which is better than others for a “better” life?

    Looking forward for the next post!!


  • sourav mallick

    Dr. Devdutt,
    I must thank you for educating common people on rational thinking by means of allegories.

    While you do take most examples from Mythology , I would like to see some post where you will “show” people how eastern mysticism and physics are intermingled.

    There are few articles on that but I think your reach is more than Capra( Tao Of Physics) in India context.

    Best Wishes,
    Sourav Mallick

  • heman

    The first chance I got to eat beef – I ordered it and enjoyed it very much.

    Hell with the stupid food laws. This is just another way for the powerful to have continuous influence on peoples’ lives.

    Control food and control sex, and they got total control !

  • Praveen

    I wonder how we take for granted that vegetarianism is ’embedded’ in Vedas. It is of later age that people developed these ideas. Original ‘Vedic people’ gave sacrifices, were meat eaters.

    To line with the point made by Devdutt, we have grown to create these distinctions for one reason or the other.

    Just wanted to clarify that Vedic traditions did not necessarily subscribe to the food laws of Hinduism (not sure is I can use -ism to describe our belief system) as we know it, rather evolved. Having said that why don’t we choose our food laws to what we see is fit ?

  • Nice topic, Dr. Pattanaik!

    I would like your interpretation of ancient views in the light of economics of meat consumption.
    Today, we hear of producing maximum tonnage of food-grain in the history of mankind, and yet not being able to feed all the hungry mouths due to our meat, wine and fuel consumption needing a large portion of food grains. We also have regions of low arable land having maximum vegetarian cuisines traditionally (example: Gujarat, Rajasthan). It has also been fairly easy to ban alcohol altogether in this region.

    Scientifically, predatory animals are lesser in population, lesser in number and more aggressive. (Recall the food pyramid?) This seems to go well with Ayurveda, which recommends Sattvic food (good for body and mind). I am not sure if Ayurveda is also part of your forte, but onions and garlic are probably considered “Rajasik” (Good for body/sex, but bad for mind). Meat too is Rajasik, I suppose.

    I wonder how the illiterate masses (with the caste-system in place) would have been communicated any science in this regard? Religion made perfect sense to ensure such ground-rules were followed without knowledge of the purpose.

    It would be good to include these aspects in the analysis, as it has more far-reaching implications.

    I am an ardent fan of your analytical and substantiated approaches that hold up only the smarter aspects of our traditions. Please continue your good work, break taboos and build bridges.

  • Yashavanthi Niranjan

    Dear Mr Devadutt,
    I am happy to see your articles and talks coming to the public attention so fast in the recent past.
    I am a recent fan of your talks. I happened to hear your East vs West – The myths that mystify in economic times video. Can your believe, this was suggested to me by a Polish friend. I live in Finland. THe topics that you have covered in the talk are just apt and perfect that an Indian comes across in the Western world. I have come across people( mostly Europeans) asking me about too many Indian Gods, nodding our heads in a manner which can be YES or NO, taking things very personally and many such instances that you have touched in the talk. I am delighted that you have tried your level best to give a proper understanding through proper similies and metaphors.
    I would request you to cover some more topics like the common words or phrases that we use in India can lead to misunderstanding between colleagues keeping in the context of Mythology, as that is your principle subject of discussion.
    Thank you,
    Yashavanthi Niranjan

  • pragyesh

    dear mr.devdutt,

    You have mentioned in this article the social taboos related to food. i just wanted to ask that is it the religious dogmas that govern what we eat rather than our personal choice or, if the scriptures mention so, is their some logic behind such practices like their effect on human health and mind. because our scriptures considers food not only as a means to sustain our lives but rather a religious act which can be easily seen in any rituals throughout the country(and perhaps in other parts of the world too where it may have been influenced more by the desire to make itself more prominent and seem more pristine)

    i found scriptures more inclined to veg food ,though not shunning non-veg food altogether, as a means to help maintain ‘brahmcharya’.

    its quite logical to make this conclusion that those who wrote our scriptures had something logical in their minds to justify the kind of food we had.

  • Sandeep

    i came to this site after seeing your presentation at TED India. Did not agree fully with it, but the insight added a dimension to understanding of human behaviour, esp. the east vs west context of which i have personal experience. Disappointed with this column. You are stretching the logic without sufficient research on the ‘hindu’ food context, which is not really ‘hindu’ but ‘ayurvedic’. I acknowledge there will be factors around ‘culture’ or ‘myth’, but to debunk the food theory espoused by ayurveda as mere caste / class factor or myth is being unfair. I have personally experienced benefits of the ayurveda interpretation of food and body types, which are not limited by my caste / class. Unfortunately, the theory (as all others) got tainted by ‘religionists’ over time and may have been misused as way of defining the status / stature in society, just as occupation classes perhaps became rigid castes.

    • Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

      This is about social taboos, not about health practices….many readers are not making the difference. Social taboos are for entire communities, health taboos are for individuals based on their particular needs.

  • Gurucharan

    I read these comments and feel only Hindu Brahmins try to make vegetarianism and beef taboo something about health and logic. Typical caste behavior. They assume all Hindus are vegetarian. No, they are not. Kashmiri Brahmins eat meat. Bengali and Konkan Brahmins eat fish. Buffalo is eaten by many Dalits…don’t they count. No wonder these Hindus are driving Dalits into the beef-eating Muslim and Christian fold with their ayurveda- and logic- terrorism. I mean, the other day, I heard someone writing on the web trying to explain why Ram was vegetarian in the forest. I mean….come on….he was hunting deer only for skin and not for venison…what a joke..this is typical Brahmanical vegetarian fundamentalism

  • Thomas Weiss

    Dear Doctor Devdutt,

    I get it. Thank you so very much for your insight. We are fortunate for your pursuing your gift.

  • Hello Devdutt,

    “That the Church did not impose any dietary restrictions, Jewish or otherwise, on its followers helped it become a global religion welcoming people from all walks of life into a fold.”

    This remark is simply wrong. Consuming blood is clearly forbidden for Christians. (Acts 15:28,29). Moreover, this is part of the Noachian covenant, and not part of the law given specifically to Jews. (Genesis 9:4). Jesus’ statement has a symbolic meaning. He was not encouraging “Cannibalism” among his disciples.

  • @Gurucharan “typical Brahmanical vegetarian fundamentalism” is just so much prejudice. If a vegetarian doesn’t try to justify vegetarianism, who else should? Would it not be touted as less than credible? And what is fundamentalism in a tone of discussion and appeal as opposed to absoluteness? I wonder why you see this as offensive! Meat restriction was a socio-economic model is what it “seems”. On the other hand, if (and only if) it is proven that meat production denies basic foodgrain to many hungry people and yet you wish to eat loads of meat, is that not unethical? It’s just a discussion and no offense is meant to people. Please see what a meat eater’s humble article says:

  • Sathya

    Dear Dr.Devdutt,

    In Swami Ranganathananda’s “Universal message of the Bhagvad Gita”, he refers about the special status for cow in Hindu society. According to him its because cows are spiritually evolved animals. I shall get complete details.


    I myself being a Kashmiri Brahman ( now vegetarian for the last 10 years)and the oldest history book ” RAJTARANGNI” though could throw some light on this issue. But I fully agree with Dr. Dutt regarding the aspect of social taboos.Dr. Dutt you have point.

  • Rahul

    “Everything in the universe is food. We eat some. Some eat us.”- So correctly said.

    It’s amusing to see how people equate food to religion. Food and religion are means for something more enriching, and power. Why should what you eat define what you are.

    I am a beef eating hindu and its funny when on dinner table I order for my orange beef or beef stew, its gives most people paralytic attack or upsurge of hindusim (both at same time).

    How can eating lamb, goat, pork, chicken , variety of seafood is OK, the moment you order your orange beef you become a “non Indian/Hindu” as if we are permitted to take life of all creatures but end up turning cows into holycows.

    I have eaten few cows now and not once I had found any god in her stomach lay aside finding 33 million Gods.

    People give it a rest, if u want to eat garlic do it, if u want eat cow … just do it, but don’t look into my plate..its rude.

  • Ajay

    Dear Dr Devdutt
    Why do some people refrain from eating chicken on religious grounds but eat fish and meat?

  • Suraj

    While in many respects I agree with the points of this article, that dietary taboos can be used as a way of enforcing divisions, nor are they necessarily indicative of how people behave. Nevertheless, I feel that, in this article, you’re missing that dietary laws are important for many people because of conviction.

    For example, I know several people who chose to adopt vegetarianism primarily as a result of their convictions. I’m a non-vegetarian myself (though I do try and limit the amount I eat and do discriminate on the type), but is it really so difficult to accept that vegetarianism can be more than just a superficial caste construct?

    I get that to live, man engages in violence, in creating a field to grow crops or slaughtering cows, but as my vegetarian sisters point out, why is it always a zero-sum game to most non-vegetarians? To live in society means accepting so violence, but people have the choice to decide on the limits…after all, isn’t that part of what dharma-sankat is about? I don’t think having compassion for animals, even if it is selective, indicates a closed mind.

  • gaurrav jhalani

    dear devdutt sir
    while reading a book i encountered that during ikshavakshu dynasty times brahmins were also called “gau gakshan” and when vishwamitra or preacher hermit of ram use to visit darbaar od dashrath they were offered fresh “beef”?
    is it true? if then why food is a taboo like sex in our society?

    • Devdutt

      Everything changes with time….nothing is permanent….

      • Rashmi Nair

        Yes….everything changes…but then are so many hues presented via comments……some pertaining and some non-pertaining..

        • gaurav jhalani

          coming to this discussion after a long time i just want to write a awkward thought over here:

          why non veg is discriminated might be due to human structure?
          but discarding it comppletely on the basis of the murder this is a very ambigious thing!
          we grow(germinate establish the reproduction process) of the grains.
          we give them all nutrients.(right now after the green revolution more chemicals are put in the soil like we put medicines in the mouth of our infants).
          give them all tender love and care
          and what is necessary for them.

          then we dignify the culmination process as harvest.(mass murder)

          science establishes that plants respire.

          we don’t even raise our voice aagainst it.
          we are just following the herd.

          i tried(0.0001%) to show how our lifes have been affected by the agri- process us or is being affected?

          hope sum1 wud clarify over this

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