Food taboos

From Dhamma Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Food taboos

an article by Shravasti Dhammika

Brahmanism, the dominant formal religion ¬¬¬¬¬¬during the Buddha’s time, had a complex set of regulations concerning food, at least for higher castes. Some of the many impure foods included milk from camels, sheep and most wild animals, the flesh of birds that acquire their food by scratching or pecking or which had webbed feet, and most fish but with certain exceptions. Flesh procured from a slaughterhouse, from single-hoofed animals, from cows that have lost their calves, from solitary animals, village pigs or chickens were also considered impure. Even pure foods became unacceptable if they had been touched by the hem of a garment or given by a royal messenger, a bald man, an impotent man, a moneylender, a physician, a person carrying weapons, and especially by low castes or untouchables. One was not to eat while travelling in a boat, sitting on a terrace or if an outcaste, a pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman or a eunuch was watching (Manusmṛti. 3,239) The most impure and polluting of all food was leftovers (ucchiṭṭha) and anyone who even touched them would themselves become impure. The early Buddhists were quick to point out and mock what they saw as brahman obsessiveness concerning what they ate, where and from whom they accepted it, and their notions of pollution and purity. The Satadhamma Jātaka is an example of this. According to this tale, an untouchable youth, supposedly the Buddha in one of his former lives, and a young brahman “from a distinguished northern family” found themselves on the road together. Although loath to be in the company of an untouchable, the brahman decided to travel with him for safety’s sake. When the two stopped for breakfast, the untouchable washed his hands in the nearby stream, unwrapped his rice packet and before eating it, offered some to the brahman who had nothing to eat. The brahman indignantly refused the offer so the other ate his meal without further ado. By the time the two stopped in the evening, the brahman was exhausted and famished. The untouchable ate his rice without a word while the brahman stood by watching, his stomach rumbling and his mouth watering. Finally, unable to endure his hunger pangs any longer, the young brahman decided he would eat his companion’s leftovers. As soon as he had finished he was overcome with revulsion at the thought of what he had done. Unable to stand himself or face his family or kin ever again, he ran into the forest and lived in complete isolation for the rest of his life. (Ja.II,82-84)

The Mahājanaka Jātaka tells another story deliberately meant to emphasize the early Buddhist rejection of the concept of pollution by food. A man, again the Buddha in one of his past lives, roasted some meat on a spit and put it aside to cool before eating it. While the meat was momentarily unattended, a stray dog grabbed it and ran off with it. However, before the dog could eat his prize he was startled by a crowd, dropped the meat and ran away. Seeing this, the man retrieved his meat, cut off the part touched by the dog and ate it. It would be difficult to imagine something more revolting and polluting in Brahmanism, dogs being considered the most impure of all animals. The story concludes by saying: “If purchased with wealth righteously earned any food is pure.” (Ja.VI,62-4)

For the Buddha, virtue was many more times more important than supposedly pure or impure foods. The Āmagandha Sutta says:

If one is rough, lacking pity, back-biting, harmful, arrogant, mean, sharing nothing with others, this makes one impure, not the eating of meat. Anger, arrogance, and stubbornness, hatred, delusion, envy, pride and conceit and keeping bad company, this makes one impure, not the eating of meat. Immoral behaviour, refusing to repay debts, informing on others, cheating in business, causing divisions between people, this makes one impure, not the eating of meat. (Sn.244-46)