Food: IV. Food in Religious Traditions


This food is the gift of the whole universe,

Each morsel is a sacrifice of life,
May I be worthy to receive it.
May the energy in this food,
Give me the strength,
To transform my unwholesome qualities

into wholesome ones.

I am grateful for this food,

May I realize the Path of Awakening,

For the sake of all beings.

– Buddhist prayer

Human experience is enriched by art, music, and literature, by philosophy, science, and religion too. But none of these would be possible if the body is not nourished by food. It is, therefore, not surprising that in all religious traditions there are references to food.

Bertrand Russell wrote: ““Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures.” Very true. But Russell missed an important aspect of religions. All religions say something or other about food and sex. Bolshevism is silent on these.

A goal of religion is to connect with the Divine: this fills the soul of the devout with ecstasy. At the physical level, one of the most universal of such joys derives from the eating of food. From the first suckling of mother’s milk to the last gulp before heartbeat ceases, food is not only the ultimate source of our sustenance, but also the provider of pleasure: Food is thus the closest to God at the physical level.

Starvation can stifle our capacity for love, and bring out the worst in human passions and behavior. Continued hunger can thus blind us to the message of religions, as well as to all that is beautiful, including a yearning for God. Food is thus an important factor in religion. The Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar recognized the importance of food that results from rain  for prayer and worship. He wrote  in a couplet (Tirukkural,2.8):

    No pompous worship if the skies go dry

    From here below to the god on high.

In other words, though people may pray for rain and water, if the prayers are not answered over long periods of time, worship activities will cease in communities. Not many will attend religious services or even do their daily prayers if they are starving.

Religions beseech the divine for food and express gratitude for  the same.  They also see food as a source of mystery. Foods have esoteric dimensions. The ancient Greeks had ambrosia, the Romans nectar, and the Hindus amrita which were said to be immortalizing potions that the gods imbibe. In the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar (the Eucharist) of the Christian tradition, there is mystical trans-substantiation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of the Savior. In the Hindu world, ordinary food becomes sanctified by a ritualistic offering to the gods.

There are prayers before and after meal in all religious traditions. In the Torah it says: “And thou shalt eat and be satisfied and shalt bless the Lord thy God for the goodly land which he has given thee: The land of wheat and barley, of the vine, the fig and the pomegranate, the land of the oil olive and of date syrup.”  A Hindu pre-meal prayer translates to: “Take the name of the Divine before putting a morsel into your mouth.” An Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer is: “O God, bless the food and drink of Thy servants, for holy art Thou, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” An after-meal prayer in the Islamic tradition is: “Praise to Allah for feeding us, giving us to drink and making us Muslims.” A Unitarian grace is: “Loving spirit, be our guest, dine with us and  share our bread, that our table might be blessed and our souls be fed.” 

One of the underlying principles in religions is to resist temptations. Given that food is also a source of physical pleasure,  religions remind us that we should not fall prey to our natural instinct to crave for and indulge in too much food. Furthermore, there is the tenet, explicit or implicit, that it is easier to experience the Divine with a modestly satisfied stomach rather than with an overloaded belly. This is the reason why many religious leaders and certainly the founders of religions have generally been somewhat lean. The prophets of Judiasm, Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, as also the rishis of the Hindu tradition, were all men of slender frame. With the possible exception of some medieval popes,  they have never been corpulent individuals. The founders of most religions as also many other spiritual masters are said to have had prolonged periods of the fasting experience. God does not reveal Himself to overweight over-eaters.

Nevertheless, some religions have had visions of devoiring deities. Dionysus of ancient Greece was the god of wine and agriculture. Bacchus was likewise in the Roman world. For the Mesopotamians the god of food and vegetation was Dumuzi. The Japanese called their goddess of food Uke Mochi. In Hinduism we have Annapuruna who is the goddess of harvest and food. Chicomecoatl was the food-Goddess for the Aztecs. Polytheistic religions have the advantage that they can assign majesty and monopoly in any field to particulars Gods.

All religions impose rules on what one is allowed to eat and what one should not even touch or smell. Whatever may be the origin of such alimentary no-no’s, they have become intrinic to every religious observance. Some anthropologists have discovevred that food taboos exist even among more pristine peoples, such as the so-called tribals of Papua in New Guinee, the Orang Asli of Malaysia, and the hunters-gatherers in the jungles of Paraguay, none of whom subscribe to any of the mainsream religions of the world. In other words, Hindus avoiding beef, Jews and Muslims not touching pork, and Jains not eating any animal food at all don’t reflect any exceptional pattern in human behavior.

 There are references to foods in the Vedas of the Hindu world. The sacredness of the cow is articulated there. Here too are the sources for the veneration of milk and the sanctification of food in rituals. In all Hindu places of worship, food is ritually offered to the gods through sacred mantras. Fruits and nuts, thus sanctified, are known as prasad.  Prasad is distributed to the congregation. The Bhagavad Gita declares that those who offer food to the Divine before consuming it are relieved of sins. The implication is that since God represents all humanity, sharing food with fellow humans is a meritorious act. In every Gurudwara of the Sikh tradition, food is always served at the conclusion of worship services. It is more organized and elaborate than the faithful crowding around the coffee pot and donuts after Sunday service in some churches.

In Hindu cultural-religious framework, as also in the traditional medical system of Ayurveda, food is classified in terms of its effects on our minds and moods. Here one speaks of three categories of food, referred to as satvik, rajasik, and tamasik. Satvik food is wholesome and conducive to the development of  finer qualities. Its effect is to make one gentle, peaceable, and balanced, capable of caring and kindness. Milk, nuts, yogurt, fruits, and mild vegetables belong to this category. Rajasik food, on the other hand, stirs one’s dynamic and aggressive potential, leading to hyperactivity. Hot peppers, potatoes, and chilies are examples of rajasik food. Finally, tamasik food tends to make one lethargic and dull-headed. Mushroom, alcohol, blue cheese and mind-altering drugs are listed in this category.

It is also a finding of science that what we eat can and does affect our nature and moods. After all, food contains chemicals which affect the brain. Researchers are trying to understand this in terms of tryptophan, serotonin, and such, but the effects are undeniable. So the old adage “Tell me what you eat and I can tell you what you are” is not just imaginative talk.

In the Jewish tradition, the kushrut prescribes kosher and proscribes treyf  food. Leviticus 11:3 spells out:  “Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.”  Also, certain fats (tallow) and sinews of animals are forbidden, and meat is to be first salted to remove all traces of blood. The Old Testament mentions  various birds of prey and certain species of fowl that are forbidden to enter the kitchen. As to aquatic animals, only fish with both fins and scales are counted as kosher. On the other hand, all fruits and vegetables are kosher. But they should be  thoroughly washed before eating because insects might have crept in. Insects are non-kosher.

In his book “To Be a Jew” (an excellent resource on traditional Judaism), Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that the dietary laws were designed as a call to holiness. He points out that the laws of kashrut elevate the simple act of eating into a religious ritual. The Jewish dinner table, he says, is often compared in rabbinic literature to the Temple altar. In fact, most dietary laws in the Judaic tradition are not directly from the Bible but from interpretations  of the Talmud by qualified rabbis.

In Christianity, aside from avoiding fish on Fridays and eating only sparsely during Lent, food restrictions are relatively less strict. In Mark 18 Jesus asks rhetorically to his people, “Are you so without understanding also? Do you not perceive, that whatever thing from without enters into the man, it cannot defile him?” In other words, Jesus was saying essentially that there are no such things as permitted and unpermitted foods. The Christian idea is that when it comes to eating whatever is available, God does not put any restrictions.

Islam is closest to Judaism when it comes to dietary rules. Here again, food is classified as halal or lawful food and haram or unlawful food. Halal meat refers to the flesh of animals that have been slaughtered by invoking the name of Allah. One is expected to express gratitude to the Almighty for the food that satisfies hunger and the drink that quenches thirst. The list of haram food is very much like the one in the Jewish tradition, except that Islam permits the consumption of sea-food, and unlike in Judaism, prohibits alcoholic drinks. The foods explicitly recommended in the Qur’an include milk, dates, grapes, honey, corn, grains, olives, certain plants and livestock.

It also states explicitly in the Islamic scripture that there should be no wastage of food: an important injunction as relevant today as when it was first stated. It says in the Qur’an (6: 141): “Waste not by excess, for God loveth not wasters.” The Prophet was clearly aware of the irresponsible ways in which people threw out food even in those days. There is a saying among Muslims to the effect  that one shouldn’t waste water  even if one is standing on the banks of the river Tigris. Such is the awareness of conservation.

It is also enjoined on Muslims to eat calmly and slowly, never in a haste or hurry. Another interesting and healthy habit encouraged here is to eat to fill only a third of the stomach, to drink to fill another third, and to leave a third empty. If all followed this, we would all be free from a good many diseases tormenting the world today. After all, as someone said, only half of what we eat is to keep us alive; the other half, to keep our doctors alive.

Another enlightened principle in the Islamic framework is that natural bounties like meadows and water belong to one and all in a community. There is great reverence for agriculture. A frequent refrain in the Qur’an is that food is a gift from God.

We can learn from the contrasts in different religions regarding food-rules that while the followers of every tradition must respect the rules of their own system, humanity expresses itself in different languages and customs, and  none of these can claim monopoly over truth. In Romans (14:1) we see that the restrictive food regulations of the day were used to teach a spirit of tolerance: Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.  One person’s faith allows the person to eat anything, but another, whose faith is different, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.  Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?”

It goes on to say, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind… Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God…”

Religious apologists have given what they believe to be scientific reasons  and moral justifications  for the dietary laws of their tradition. Not all these may stand critical scrutiny. In this context, the believer’s answer is perhaps the best of all, besides being the most religious. The answer to the question, “Why is this food allowed and that food prohibited?” is very simply: “Because it is so stated in our sacred book.” It is important to stress that in the religious context, injunctions carry the weight of sacred authorities. This, rather than empirical validity or logical reasoning, is what determines belief and behavior for the truly religious person.

Nevertheless, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have pointed out that there are ecological and medicinal values implicit in many food taboos. Often, such taboos have led to more efficient utilization of some resources, as also to the protection of some others. Food regulations also have the cultural effect of giving practitioners a feeling of belonging to the members of the group. We seldom recognize the role that food has played in traditional societies in affirming one’s cultural affiliation. Often one feels oneself to be Jew or Christian, Hindu or Muslim or Jain by what one eats and avoids at the dinner table.

There are at least two  messages in all dietary restrictions: The first is that  it is important to be discriminating in what we eat. In the pre-civilizational state   human beings chewed and swallowed whatever they could lay their hands and teeth on. This was natural instinctive response. But with the advent of what we call culture, values began to develop in human thought and behavior. These values included categorizations of good and bad, right and wrong, prescriptions and proscriptions. The ability to distinguish between good and evil, pure and defiled, sacred and the profane, has played an important role in civilization. Imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat fosters a kind of self control, enabling us to learn to restrain our basic instincts. It is in this context that we must view the rules governing food intake.

The second thing we learn from food-restriction laws is humane treatment of the creatures that are killed to satisfy our appetite. The lion pounces on its prey, as the eagle does on its, without the slightest pity for the helpless creature that is to be mangled and masticated. That animals are there for humans to feed upon is consonant with Nature’s food-chain. But as beings with a moral sense we have sensitivity for cruelty and are touched by compassion. That is why religions teach us to follow procedures that are least painful.  A central refrain in kosher and halal laws is to slaughter animals while inflicting  minimal pain.

On this last matter, there is no religion that is as respectful of and as concerned about life and creatures as Jainism. Jainism rests on the principle of ahimsa which means non-injury to any living creature. Normally we care for our family, then for our friends, then for our community, and for our nation. At the most enlightened level people care for humanity at large, for the wellbeing and peace of one and all.  

 Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, went a step beyond. He preached that we must care for all living beings, and we must not hurt or kill any animal. By all measures, and irrespective of whether this is practicable or not, the Jain principle of ahimsa is one of the most enlightened principles ever enunciated. Implicit in it is compassion for all fellow creatures on the planet. It is this idea that inspired vegetarianism in the Jain world: a determination not to kill any animal for any reason; least of all, for the satisfaction of one’s own palate and nourishment.  This has led to food abstentions that might seem extreme to outsiders. Thus Jains are very particular about how they work around flames and fire, making sure that insects don’t fall into them inadvertently. They never drink unfiltered water as it might contain small organisms. They are extremely respectful of plants. They avoid eating roots like potatoes and onions. they don’t take fermented beverages because they contain microorganisms (yeast). For the same reason they avoid putrefied food. A profound ecologically moral principle is implicit in Jain diet: namely,  that we are not the only creatures for whom the earth exists. From this recognition follows the notion that we should not hurt or kill other creatures for our own satisfaction. Practical or not, it is literally the highest mode of expression of the principle: Live and let live.

Incidentally, it is the Jain principle of ahimsa paramo-dharmah: Not causing injury to others is the highest religious practice, that led to the political movement of non-violence in the twentieth century. It inspired Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Who would have thought that injunctions on food formulated more than two millennia ago would lead to a political action principle centuries later!

With all the apparent differences, there are two elements that are common to all religions  in the context of food.  First, all religions teach charity which is essentially caring for the less fortunate.

The Buddhist Dhammapada  says: “Fools are not generous: the world of the gods is not for the stingy.” The Hindu Taittireeyaka Upanishad (III:10.1) says: “Let him never turn away (a stranger) from his house, that is the rule. Therefore a man should by all means acquire much food, for (good) people say (to the stranger): There is food ready for him. If one gives food amply, food is given to the person amply. If one gives food fairly, food is given to the person fairly. If one gives food meanly, food is given to the person meanly.”

Deuteronomy (15:11) says: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, ‘Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land’” In the Book of Job (22:5) we read: “Is not thy wickedness great? And thine iniquities infinite?… Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry…Thou hast sent widows away empty-handed, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken….”

In Luke (11:41) Jesus says: “But now as for what is inside you, be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” In other words, caring for the hunger of others is what really matters, rather than what one eats. Or again (Luke, 14:13-14), we are told: “But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shall be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee. “

The Qur’an says (2:195): “Give generously for the cause of God… Be charitable; God loves the charitable.”

The second principle that religions preach is refraining from over indulgence.  Among the negative consequences of the undervaluing of traditional religions in the modern world is a growing propensity for unrestrained self-gratification. Obesity, greed, and promiscuity follow naturally from self-gratifying callous behavior.

At the same time, religions also recognize the natural human desire for gastronomical satisfactions and gustatory delights. Outlets for this are provided in various feasts and festivals that are part of all religions. Whether in Greece or in Rome, in China or in India, the practice of celebrating at home or in groups arose in all cultures. It may be for marking the birth of a prophet, or for commemorating an  auspicious event in the tradition. On such celebratory occasions there is always a feast with an abundance of edibles, often specific to the occasion.

Food by any other name would be just as satisfying, if it is tasty, or if one is truly hungry. Food in God’s name is spiritually uplifting also.

I will conclude with  lines from the Book of Genesis (1:11-12).

“And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”

August 22, 2013

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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One Response to Food: IV. Food in Religious Traditions

  1. Dave Nelson says:

    Thanks so much, V V, for posting these reflections on Food from the IRAS Conference. I can now savor them one by one

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