22.) On Hinduism Dining Its Troubles Away

One wonders whether Hindus noticed this about themselves or not. It is very likely that, if they had the gift Robert Burns yearned for: “To see ourselves as others see us,” they might well have—that their eating habits tend to be noteworthy. And this stands out in the three main phases of Hinduism (should the term be distinguished from Vedism)—in classical, medieval and modern Hinduism.

The evidence from the period of classical Hinduism is provided by the account of Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador to the Mauryan court from about 302 to 300 B.C.[1]

Indians lead happy lives, being simple and in their manners frugal. They never drink wine except at sacrifices. Their beverage is prepared from rice instead of barley, and their food is principally rice. The simplicity of their laws and their contracts appears from the fact that they seldom go to law. Their houses and property are for the most part unguarded. These things show their moderation and good sense, but other things they do which one cannot approve – that they always eat alone, and that they have no fixed hours when all take their meals in common, but each one eats when it pleases himself. The contrary custom would be better for the interests of social and political life.[2]

The evidence for the medieval period comes from the following description of Albīrūnī. While remarking on the attitude of the foreigners, he writes:

They call them mleccha, i.e., impure, and forbid having any connection with them, be it by intermarriage or any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them, because thereby, they think, they would be polluted. They consider as impure anything which touches the fire and water of a foreigner; and no household can exist without these two elements. Besides, they never desire that a thing which once has been polluted should be purified and recovered, as, under ordinary circumstances, if anybody or anything has become unclean, he or it would have strive to regain the state of purity. They are not allowed to receive anybody who does not belong to them, even if he wishes it, or was inclined to their religion. This, too, renders any connection with them quite impossible and constitutes the widest gulf between us and them.[3]

The evidence from the beginning of the modern period is provided by The Private Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai (1709-1761), from which we learn that “when his arch rival, a convert to Christianity, gave a public feast for Hindus and Christians alike, Ananda Ranga’s sense of propriety was offended.”[4]

One factor seems to underline these otherwise diverse accounts – that Hindus have trouble dining in company: be it among themselves, or with Muslims or Christians. Could it be that the way of establishing both intracommunal and intercommunal harmony in India may be as simple as that – let all of us eat together?


[1] H.A. Kanitkar and Hemant Kanitkar, Asoka and Indian Civilization (St. Paul, MN: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1980) p. 23.

[2] Ibid., p. 23-24, emphasis added.

[3] Anslie T. Embree, ed., Alberuni’s India (New York: W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 1971) p. 19-20.

[4] W.M. Theodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition (New York and London: Colombia University Press, 1958) Vol. II, p. 6.

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5 Responses to “22.) On Hinduism Dining Its Troubles Away”

  1. Prof.Mallikarjuna Rao Says:

    It makes an interesting reading. Why make a virtue of communal dining?During the pilgrimages, yagnas and such other social occasions people dined together.

  2. pandita indrani Says:

    This profile should not stereotype the Hindu. As Prof Rao said, we do eat together in community gatherings.
    Most vegetarian Hindus would find it unpalatable to dine next to non-vegetarians, especially those for whom vegetarianism is an ethical and spiritual mandate.
    I do agree, however, that within the home, we generally eat when we feel the need to do so, even today.

  3. Dr Nishith N Dhruv Says:

    The observations of the famous visitors sound strange. Witness the community dining on the occasions of marriage and other social cermonies – from birth to death – when we all eat together. Even within the confines of home, our experience is that we eat together, the female folks usually after the male members have finished. With the growth of nuclear families with female members also doing jobs the situation may appear different. However, dining with members of other castes & religions might have been uncommon and a taboo in those days. While dining with others is quite in tune with the central theme of Hinduism which treats all men alike, it is not the panacea for the evils of intra-communal and inter-communal discord. Which other country but India and which other organised religion but Hinduism has built a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual milieu where collective co-existence is a constant endeavour and a constant celebration?

  4. vivek iyer Says:

    In Rg Veda it is mentioned that only sin is to eat alone. However, due to fear of poison and black magic communal dining decreased.
    People of older generation, if property dispute was involved, feared poisoning by their own in-laws and other relatives.
    Another point has to do with loss of esprit de corps among Hindus. Take the following example, around 1750 Dupleix, French Governor of Pondicherry, to please his wife, orders levelling of Temple and Mosque. Hindus complain to Ananda Ranga Pillai (the dubash). He says, Governor knows that talking to you will only lead to your egging each other on, making exaggerated demands, but that violence will leave you each running separately for cover. At least go and remove the sacred items before they are desecrated.”
    The mosque however was spared. Why? The Muslims were ready to fight.
    Muslim and European soldiers ate together. They developed brotherly feelings and showed esprit de corps on battle field.
    Hindus had exactly same propensities, but this was artificially weakened by an upbringing which emphasised- ‘don’t touch, don’t taste’. Ultimately, Muslims also became decadent, obsessed with khalis/najis- and just sitting in their homes with a holier than thou attitude. British and other Europeans also became paralysed by class and race prejudice. Thought of having to dine with ‘inferiors’ was enough to have them renounce Empire and run back to their native shores.

    The foolishness of Vegetarians- who believe their eating does not deprive other animals of life (even if they are economists and understand the concept of opportunity cost)- and the foolishness of those who consider some animals cleaner or dirtier ( a foolishness I share, I would not be happy to sit next to a person who is devouring live cockroaches)- alas, all this foolishness is perhaps ingrained. Perhaps the truth is we are not fit to eat together, we are not fit as a species to receive a common salvation, but must hunker down in secrecy to devour our meal alone.

  5. Countertop Water Filter Says:

    These are some interesting thoughts. You brought up some important ideas that I had not thought of before. I will check back to follow if you write any more updates.

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