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Hindu Diet


"For the sustenance of the vital spirit, Brahma created all this animal and vegetable system ; and all that is moveable and immoveable, that spirit devours." (Mann, v. 28.)

IN the second chapter I gave a brief description of a Brahmin family at dinner, but said nothing about the composition of the various dishes which usually form the bill of fare. The Institutes of Manu, clearly show that, with various restrictions, there was, practically, as much freedom in the choice of food to the good Hindu of those days as there is to men of the most civilized nations in these modern times. In the fifth chapter of the Institutes; the ancient law-giver mentions various kinds of vegetables and animals that may not lawfully be eaten ; but these dietary rules are very much on a line with those laid down for the Jewish nation in the book of Leviticus, and the wisdom of many of them, from a sanitary and economic point of view, is very apparent to the dweller in Eastern lands. It is easy to see why " mushrooms and all vegetables raised in dung " are excluded from the dietary ; and why in a hot reeking climate " garlic, onions, and leeks " are not recommended. Again, to the Eastern traveller there is no question as to the positive wisdom of the rule forbidding the eating of the flesh of birds and beasts of prey, and of such vile feeders as the village hog. Even, however, in the laws of Manu, the permissions and restrictions are of a somewhat conflicting nature ; and, as is the case with so much that is connected with Hinduism, they present to the eye of the uninitiated manifest contradictions. Nothing can be more free and. general' than the passage quoted at the head of this chapter. We find, also the following statements :-

"Things fixed are eaten by creatures with locomotion ; toothless animals, by animals with teeth ; those 'without hands, by those to whom hands were given ; and the timid by the bold." (v. 29.)

" He who eats according to law commits no sin, even though every day he tastes the flesh of such animals as may lawfully be tasted ; since animals which may be eaten and those who eat them are both created by Brahma.

No sin is committed by him who, having honoured the deities and the manes, eats flesh-meat which he has bought, or which he has himself acquired, or which has been given him by another." (v. 80, 82.)

The restriction here is not greater than in the case of ordinary Muhammadan customs, but, further on, we find enactments which seem entirely to do away with this freedom. A general principle is laid down, and a hard and fast deduction drawn from it as follows :—

"He who injures no animated creature shall attain, without hardship, whatever he thinks of, whatever he strives for, whatever he fixes his mind on.

Flesh-meat cannot be procured without injury to animals, and the slaughter of animals obstructs the path to beatitude ; from flesh-meat therefore let man abstain." (v. 47, 48.)

On the whole, whilst there appears to have been great freedom in the matter in those far-off times, even the Institutes themselves show a decided leaning to the merit of abstaining from animal food. In course of time, these ideas have become so crystallized as to make it an absolute matter of religion to rigorously abstain from the slightest approach to eating anything even containing the germ of animal life. I remember a simple thing that occurred many years ago, soon after my arrival in India, which very much impressed this upon my mind. A Brahmin visitor in taking a cursory look round upon things in general, was struck with the nice appearance of some salt in the salt-cellar on the table. He had only known salt in its dark dirty appearance, as it is seen exposed for sale in the bazaar. He seemed much interested when told that our table salt was nothing but the ordinary native salt clarified, and he expressed a great desire to know the process. When he was told that the white of egg was an ingredient in the clarifying operation his countenance fell. Nothing so closely allied to animal life as that which bad to do with a fowl's egg could be eaten by a Brahmin. At the present day, all the higher classes abstain from animal food in every form and are rigid vegetarians. The lower classes are not so restricted in their diet ; indeed, as we go lower down in the scale of caste we find the restrictions lessen, and the dietary scale expand, until it comes to include things considered by even the least fastidious of Europeans as altogether abominable. Animal food is largely consumed by the lowest classes, when they can get it, in .any shape or form ; but even in their case, it is a question whether without it they could not equally well endure the physical strain of labour, if they could afford to procure the good vegetable food of their betters. It is, perhaps, hardly possible for the European to at all understand the loathing and disgust with which a high caste Hindu looks upon the eating of animal food. Added to this state of feeling in an intensified form, there is also the religious element, which makes it a crime of the deepest dye, in some cases even an unpardonable sin, to partake of such food. Habit, religion, national training which has become an instinct, together with climatic requirements, all point to the wisdom of the vegetarian diet of the Hindu ; and anything ought to be looked upon with disfavour which tends to alter the same for what may perhaps be a necessity in colder climes. There are, it is said, some tribes of Brahmins who may eat fish ; and I know that many of the manifold divisions of the fourth caste eat fish, mutton or goat's flesh freely. There is amongst all classes, the lowest outcasts excepted, the greatest repugnance to eating the flesh of cows or oxen. No doubt, what is now a deeply rooted idea was originally a merely economic one, arising out of the exigencies of the people ; but, in true accordance with Hindu things generally, what first arose as a necessary custom became petrified into a religious law—a law, the wisdom of which it is not difficult to see, and for the breach of which there does not seem in India any necessity. Sir Monier Williams says ;—

" Happily for the Hindus, the cow which supplies them with their only animal food—milk and butter—and the ox which helps to till their ground were declared sacred at an early period. Had it not been so, this useful animal might have been exterminated in times of famine. What is now a superstition had its origin, like some other superstitions, in a wise forethought."1

At first sight it may seem to the stranger that the dinner table of the high caste Hindu is dreadfully lacking in variety and quality. There are no steaming joints, nor any of the infinite variety of roast and boiled and stewed and fried that go to make up the daily fare of the well-to-do European. To those, who have some intimate knowledge of the dairy life of the Hindu gentleman, there seems little room for pity ; for there is an infinite variety of pickles, chatneys and sauces—the sweet, the sour, the bitter and the pungent—which go to form the chief variety of excellent appetizers. These are prepared by the females, who set as much store on their recipes and take as much personal interest in the actual preparation of them, as our grandmothers in England did before the days of general providers. The secrets of the still-room enter as largely into the education of the Hindu girl, as they did in the olden days with our own forefathers. When females meet for a chat, the conversation is largely taken up with this all-important subject. This is natural, as the good opinion of the master of the household can be influenced by the dinner table in India as in other countries.

There are various kinds of dhal and also different modes of preparing it. This dish is a kind of pease-pudding made of various pulses, and it is used very much in the same way as rice is to form the medium for partaking of the different delicacies. In other parts, wheat and other kinds of grain are used instead of rice as the foundation article. Vegetables of many kinds, including the numerous gourds, go very largely to form the curry ; and above all and without which everything else is as nothing, there is the highly prized ghee, or clarified butter. This article enters, more or less, into the preparation of almost every dish ; and is employed freely according to the means of the family. After the meal, curds are poured over the rice and eaten with suitable pickles or chatneys just as pudding and sweets are in Europe. This dish is always the last one of the meal, and when cakes are eaten, of which there are a great variety, they are taken just before the dish of curds is introduced. In the preparation of these takes and sweets of many kinds, the females pride themselves on their proficiency, and at festive seasons such things are largely in request.

The well-formed limbs and well-nourished body of the average Hindu gentleman show that the Hindu dietary, though wanting in what we may consider substantial dishes, is well suited for all those purposes for which food is a necessity. The Hindu law-giver, having in view the proneness of man's animal nature to over-indulgence, and also, perhaps, being personally acquainted with the highly spiced, appetizing dishes of the East, is careful to say,

" Excessive eating is prejudicial to health, to fame, and to future bliss in heaven ; it is injurious to virtue and odious among men ; he must for these reasons, avoid it." (Manu,57.)

This description applies, primarily, to the higher castes and well-to-do Hindus ; but, with a few changes, it is true of the habits of all respectable classes. The chief difference lies in the number and variety of the pickles and chatneys, and the manner in which they are prepared, and also in the fact that the Sudras partake of animal food. Even by these, however, particularly in the villages, animal food is not regularly eaten ; the main reason being, as far as country folks are concerned, that it is not often procurable. There are no butchers' shops in the villages, and it is only occasionally, as at some festive season, that a sheep or goat is slaughtered for food. Fish is more used when procurable. Fowls and eggs are eaten oftener than meat ; but even this is chiefly at the entertainment of friends. The Brahmins are noted for their good cooking ; and this, as a rule, is done by the females of the household, not by servants. On important festive occasions, when the labour involved may be too heavy for the regular household, male cooks, friends or relatives give their help ; or professional cooks are employed, care always being taken that the rules of caste are not infringed. Fruit is sometimes taken after meals as a dessert. Betel is usually taken after every meal to aid the. digestion.

Hindus are water drinkers, but milk and buttermilk are freely drunk when procurable. A simple drink is also made of water sweetened with jaggery (sugar in its unrefined state) and flavoured with pepper ; but this is more of a sacred drink and is not ordinarily used. The Panchamas or outcasts, and also some of the lower of the numerous classes of Sudras, largely drink intoxicants, chiefly toddy and country arrack. Amongst respectable Hindus the drinking of intoxicants of any kind is considered most degrading. Although there are a few, comparatively very few, and these chiefly the dwellers in towns and cities, who are becoming addicted to drinking habits, it may still be said that real Hindus are a nation of water drinkers. Here is a nation composed of men who have proved themselves capable of enduring great physical fatigue, who are clever, hard-working mechanics and laborious cultivators of the soil, and numbers of whom rank in the first class as learned pundits, brave warriors, and clever statesmen, and these men have for ages been a nation of water drinkers.

The higher classes of Hindus generally have only two meals a day, the midday meal, which may be taken earlier if circumstances necessitate it, as in the case of business men and officials who have to p to office, and the evening meal or supper. The supper is usually taken very late in the evening, shortly before retiring for the night. A good orthodox Hindu should take no food or drink of any kind before the midday -meal ; but, as a matter of. fact, it is becoming a custom for a light breakfast to be taken earlier in the nay: This is not, strictly speaking, in accordance with the Shastras, but the custom is tolerated. With the Sudras and the Panchamas it is an invariable rule to have a light breakfast in the early morning, when poverty does not. prevent it. This meal usually consists of cold rice which has been purposely left over from the supper of the previous evening. It is eaten just as it is, simply flavoured by a little salt ; but, when it can be had, a morsel of broiled salt-fish, or a broiled chilly, or an onion or bit of cocoanut may be taken by way of relish. This cold rice is mixed up with a little butter-milk, or the cold conjee of the night before, that is, the water in which the rice has been boiled and which forms a kind of thin gruel.

When on a journey or otherwise away from home, the high caste .Hindu has to undergo many inconveniences, and must often suffer much from the pangs of hunger ; but even travellers have various ways and means of obtaining food. Hospitality is universal, and the traveller is always sure of ungrudging entertainment from those of his own caste, whose hospitality he may lawfully accept. This duty of entertaining guests is laid down by Manu, as of prime importance. In treating of the duties and obligations of house-keepers he says :—

" No guest must be dismissed in the evening by the housekeeper; he is sent by the retiring sun; and whether he come in fit season or unseasonably, he must not sojourn in the house without entertainment.

Let not himself eat any delicate food, without asking his guest to partake of it ; the satisfaction of a guest will assuredly bring the house-keeper wealth, reputation, long life, and a place in heaven." (iii. 105, 106.)

Connected with many of the choultries, or public lodging places, are means for providing meals for travellers according to their caste. In the towns and in most large villages there are houses of entertainment for different classes where food is given on payment. Certain kinds of food may be taken without -undergoing the usual ceremonies. A. broad division is made of things cooked in water, and those cooked dry, or with ghee or oil. " It is the water that makes the mischief," as - a- Brahmin friend said to- me when talking on the subject. Sweetmeats and certain kinds of cakes, and parched grain and rice broiled and cooked in ghee, and fruit may be eaten at any time and in company with other castes, without changing the dress, or bathing, or undergoing any other of the various ceremonies that have been already described.

The lowest classes or the outcasts are not troubled by any of the dietary rules which are so rigid in the case of the higher caste people. The members of the Südra caste partake of animal food. Indeed, some of the lowest classes of that much-divided and subdivided caste eat almost anything and everything that comes in their way. The Yerukalas, for instance, a gipsy tribe who live by making wicker baskets and the like, will eat rats, cats, the village pig and almost anything they can get ; and yet, strange to say, they are not looked upon as unclean in the same way as the Panchamas are considered to be. They are even allowed to draw water from the caste wells, a privilege that is denied the outcast, who must not even go near or look into a well that is used by caste people. The broad line of division that marks off the despised and hated Panchamas from others, is the fact that they eat carrion. The carcases and skins of all the cattle and other animals that die of disease or old ' age are the perquisite of the Panchamas, who consume the flesh and tan the skins into leather. Anything more disgusting than this practice of eating carcases it is impossible to conceive ; and so it is no wonder that those who indulge in it are hated and despised as unclean. The hamlets of these people are surrounded with bones, and the carcase of some buffalo or bullock that has died, perhaps, of disease or of old age, may often be seen lying near ready to be cooked and eaten soon. Anything more revolting it is impossible to imagine than a group of these people squatting round some such object, watching the skinning and cutting up process and waiting for the dividing of the sickening flesh. The picture is generally rendered all the more horrible by the sight of crows and vultures and village dogs waiting for their turn for a morsel. True, the lot of these people is hard ; they often suffer from hunger and are glad to get any thing to satisfy their appetite ; but such feeding seems to bring them down to the level of the birds and beasts of prey and it must tend to brutalize and degrade. These despised people have, as a rule, extreme poverty as some excuse for this custom ; and perhaps, to their way of thinking, such food is a welcome addition to the miserable meals of pulses or rice, eked out with a few chillies or other cheap condiments, with now and then a morsel of half putrid dried fish, by way of relish. Amongst the very poor also even such meals as these are by no means always plentiful and regular. Often but once a day can the pangs of hunger be appeased. A large number are in a chronic state of hunger. Thus it is a festive time to many when a carcase falls to their share ; and they cannot understand our abhorrence of such habits. Such is the power of custom that many of these classes who have risen by hard work and thrift, and are able to afford better food, still indulge in these horrid feasts, when opportunity occurs. The missionaries have wisely made it a hard and fast rule amongst their converts that the eating of dead cattle shall be absolutely given up; and it has become a distinction between Christians and heathen of these classes, that the former do not indulge in this debasing habit. In this way Christianity has had an elevating influence, raising men and women from habits disgusting and degarding and placing them on a higher level of manhood.

It may be asked why Englishmen should not be allowed to use caste wells, when flesh-eating Hindus and Muhammadans are allowed this privilege. The answer is that they employ low caste servants and also have their food cooked by them. When the Muhammadans came to India they were wise enough only to employ caste men as servants and cooks, hence they themselves have always been treated as caste people. The English, on the contrary, from the first, employed Pariah servants, and hence they also are treated as outcast ; food cooked by such servants being of itself unclean and defiling. There may have been reasons why the first English settlers did not follow the example of the Muhammadans in this matter ; perhaps necessity compelled them to adopt the course they did, or it may have been merely a result of cynical indifference to the fancies and superstitions of others. It would certainly have been a great gain if the English had been regarded as caste men, in the same way as the Muhammadans are. Then those of the natives who embraced the Christian religion might possibly have been elevated to the same privilege of position. It is not that caste, or anything approaching to it should be encouraged amongst Indian Christians : still it is a most lamentable thing, whatever may have given rise to it, that, although a Muhammadan may draw water from any well and in various other respects is treated as on an equal social footing with respectable Hindus, an Englishman is not allowed the same privilege. The lowest Panchama also on becoming a convert to Islam, is at once allowed all the privileges of his co-religionists. Not only, however, is the Englishman treated as on the same religious level as the Panchama, but in the event of a high caste Brahmin becoming a Christian, even though he may not depart in the least from his former habits as regards diet, he, by the very fact of his change of religion, is made at once to descend to the lowest level in the estimation of his countrymen and is treated as an outcast.

In going over this subject it is impossible not to have been struck with the difference, in this respect, between Hinduism with its rigid rules and regulations and the religion of Christ with its broad holy freedom, and its care for the weakness of others. The Prophet of Nazareth, in contradistinction to the laws of Manu, teaches :-

"Hear, and understand. Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man : but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and they defile the man." (Matt. xv. 11, 18.)

And St. Paul, whilst upholding the broad freedom of the laws of his Master, in the same spirit of charity and carefulness for others which Christ so eminently taught and practised, is careful also to admonish that this same freedom is not to be employed to override all the prejudices and weaknesses of others, but is rather to be used for their good :—

" I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself ; but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.

But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died.

All things indeed are pure ; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.

It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.

If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend."

( Originally Published 1908 )

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