What the World Needs to Revise? – Lessons from Repository of Indian Civilisation’s Thought and Praxis
Gunjan Pradhan Sinha

As we stand amidst a crisis owing to the pandemic caused by the rapid spread of the deadly corona virus, there lie shrouded in ignorance and oversight immense learning for the world from Indian Food Ethics- a discipline where ethics and food collide1. Food ethics is an interdisciplinary field that provides ethical analysis and guidance for human conduct in the production, distribution, preparation and consumption of food. Bhojana or food is one of the most important subjects treated in the Indian Dharmaśa̅stras specifying and rationalising various injunctions and taboos about food2. Right from the number of times one should consume food in a day, to causes of its defilement, etiquette and formal eating manners, these texts are rich source for not only individuals but the entire food supply chain in the modern world.

Even though India has faced various natural calamities such as famines, drought, plague and other disasters, there never ever has been a pandemic of such epic proportions as the COVID-19 and more so never has been the root cause of disaster the kind of actions that propagated the deadly virus world over. As we understand from data available, the cause seems to be a blind folded act of indulgence in the course of something as vital as ingestion. COVID-19 is a zoonosis- a human disease of animal origin3. We often forget that we eat to live and not live to eat but under the veil of gratification, principles governing human action – morality- ethics and consequently dharma seem irrelevant to certain sections of the increasingly materialistic global society.

This, is the right time to look back, re-introduce, reinforce and share the ethics of how we eat even as we pro-actively fight an apocalyptic situation that has the potential to bring dissolution at the ecological level. Even though unmarked as a separate discipline in the Indian system, bhojana dharma or food ethics has been part of the essence of Indian thought right from the era of the Vedas4 to Gandhi’s writings5 on diet and role of ahimsa in food6 in modern times. In fact, the dharmic code in the Rig Veda (VI. 30.3) includes ingestion in the various acts of reflection7 – to be undertaken sitting down with focus on the various gustatory and oral faculties at work.

In the current context, the Dharmaśa̅stras hold vital potential not only for course correction but also highlight a detailed yet logical and practical set of ethical principles regarding the sourcing of food, its preparation, its offerings, its sharing, consumption and disposal. Spanning over one thousand years, they enumerate various kinds of practices embedded in a logical and rational matrix of principles. A few prominent ones, however, find repeated mention and references, which are presented here. The Dharmaśa̅stras insist on the maxim that no action during the entire process of food consumption must be such that it creates imbalance and disharmony to anyone and thereby goes against the central ideal of Dharma. Dharmais derived from the root dhṛ and means that which upholds and sustains order of the entire cosmos.

Primarily, sourcing and consumption processes of the food should be in line with tapas (or effort to procure it), da̅na (charity or sacrifice and not just self -–fulfilling), asteya or straightforwardness in acquiring it through right means and satya or truth about oneness of all beings and respect for all life. These five virtues have been mentioned in the Chhandogya Upaniśad (III. 17)8 which counts these among the standards of purity of food at the metaphysical level.

In case food is acquired by right livelihood effort (tapas) and respect for dignity of all beings due to the belief in the Veda̅ntic notion of all are part of one Supreme Soul, then one would never undertake mindless consumption of whatever animal or plant that comes our way- such as bats, pangolins, monkeys etc. The Manusmṛti states that food should be such that one greets, honours and delights at it rather than being able to find any fault9.

Even though vegetarianism was encouraged, the Manusmṛti states that it is natural for humans to have appetite for flesh and wine and there is no sin in undertaking these, if intake is conducted in line with the permissions and prescriptions of the Dharmaśa̅stras10. In fact, Maha̅bha̅rata recommends certain meats for convalescing patients and tired people returning from long travel. However, the manner in which animals are to be culled for eating is also prescribed so that pain and suffering may be minimised.

Lack of self-control by way of the lack of ability to reign in desire to try new foods emanates from a complete disregard and ignorance of the repository of experience (empirical data) and applying the rational arguments in favour of ethical food practices embedded in the Dharmaśa̅stras and epics. By their very name, they suggest how one can inculcate practices to reach the moral universal goal of harmony at ecological and cosmological levels. Dharma clearly operates and is diaphanous in nature, if the objective is preservation, growth and prosperity of the entire world.

Dharmaśa̅stra texts (Saṅkha quoted by Apara̅rka, Vasisthadharmasu̅tra, A̅pstamba Dharmasu̅tra, Ya̅jn͂avalyasṃrti, Ra̅ma̅yana-Kiṣkindha) prescribe that one should avoid eating flesh of five nailed animals (ancestors of current day bats had five claws)11. Interestingly Gautama prohibits the intake of hairy animals especially with two rows of teeth such as hogs and snakes. Some texts also prohibit the consumption of one hoof animals such as camels or gavayas (wild cows). Manu, Yajn͂avalkya, Gautama, A̅pstamba all concur that one must not eat the flesh of birds that subsist on raw flesh (insectivores - bats, crows) such as insects or those that scratch dunghills for food. It must also be noted here that the bat is the only bird that is a mammal and an exception to its specie. There are reasons that we don't use their blood for transfusion into humans largely on account of the kind of food they ingest. By extension of logic, it is clear that human consumption of certain animals can result in the kind of pandemic that may threaten human life altogether and spawn not only health but also diplomatic, security and economic emergencies.

But at the heart of these particular injunctions are universal principles of bhojana dharma, which are more prohibitive rather than prescriptive in structure and intent. These are called doṣa̅s or flaws that need to be crossed out before food intake (mentioned by Manu, Gautama, Viṣnu, Vasiṣtha, A̅pstamba among many others)12. There is clear consensus here on the kind of food that should be prohibited or the principles that one must keep in mind while acquiring and consuming food. They serve as litmus test for what is edible and what is inedible.

Eight basic principles governing food consumption emerge here, many of which are still in practice in India but some have been relegated to the background and practically ignored all over the world due to the single minded materialism that dominates social thinking. The idea, today, is to sell food not worship it, market it, rather than focus on its innate guṇas or quality. The rationality behind virtue and morality that goes into the entire food procurement and processing chain lies ignored. Virtue is an art developed by habit and discipline and in an era where food has become over the counter product there seems no time to focus on aesthetics and ethics. Sadly, in some societies today, food is rarely even cooked at home. Even modern literature such as that written by karmic philosopher Gandhi on the subject lay untaught and unread13. The former insisted on sourcing local, making local and consuming local both for the prosperity of physical and economic health14.

Major principles that serve as guidelines but are intended more as imperatives in the Dharmaśa̅stras are ja̅tiduṣta, svabha̅vaduṣta, ka̅laduṣtanimittaduṣta, saṁsargaduṣta, kri̅yaduṣta, saṁska̅raduṣta and parigrahaduṣta. All of these contribute to the complex notion of dharma - the root, the means and the end themselves. All intend to establish and uphold dharma through dharma. Acts of indulgence and selfishness are completely negated by these principles in application especially as they mandate that the food should be such that it is worthy for offer to the Gods, even if it is meat. They are rooted in practical and rational common sense for upholding both internal and external stability, says Kane15. Almost all such principles can be found to have been violated in the current circumstantial evidence that we have on the widespread pandemic.

The first principle for identifying whether food is fit for ingestion is the ja̅tiduṣta. The Bhaviṣyapura̅ṇa16 states that the very genre of the food may make it unfit for eating -applicable both to vegetarian and non-vegetarian diet. One must not eat meat of flesh eating birds and those that are resources for sustenance of human beings such as cows, horses, elephants etc. Plants that grow in unhygienic conditions must also be not included in a healthy diet. The second principle, kri̅yaduṣta (emerging from action) states that cooked food served with bare hands or when seen by unclean person, in the presence of dogs roaming about or touched by someone eating sitting beside oneself must not be eaten. In a wet market or wild animal flesh market, action based contamination is hardly avoidable. The killing and choosing of animals such as bats and snakes involves human touch and in the presence of other living or non-living creatures that are present. Mucus exchange and cross contamination are necessary evils of the process.

The third and the fourth principles are saṁsargaduṣta and ka̅laduṣta. Saṁsargaduṣta is akin though not identical with the second one. It implies that food must not just be foul but also must not get contaminated due to contact with other objects- food, animal, hair, insects and also things such as those which cause disgust of mind (sahṛllekha) such as any faeces. This seems impossible to avoid in case consumption takes place at the site of purchase and culling. Ka̅laduṣta refers to food forbidden on account of time lapse or inappropriateness of time such as drinking the milk of a cow before ten days are completed after calf delivery. This is linked to the high hormone levels that are present in cow milk immediately after delivery that may be unsuitable for human consumption (often cited as causes of for hormone based cancer). Stale food as well as age of the meat is also a matter of concern here. Linked to this is the rasaduṣta referring to loss of flavour in food on account of various chance events.

The other major principle repeatedly highlighted is the parigrahadusta. It refers to food that belongs to another individual and is infective or defective in some way. This can be directly applied to the consumption of certain animals, the consumption of which has given the world one of the worst diseases in history such as the mad cow disease, SARS, Swine Flu and the apocalyptic COVID-19. This negative principle also includes in it food touched by soiled hands and also that comes from certain type of households or individuals where the standards of living may not be up to the mark.

Bha̅vadusta in earlier texts refers to intake of food that may not be suitable to someone due to natural causes and nature of profession. Natural causes include what modern day dietetics refer to as allergies or adverse physiological responses and the latter to a situation where clarity of mind is required and the person appears inebriated or under the influence of intoxication at work. Of course, we know that formal action can be taken against such persons according to rules set by personnel and human resource guidelines.

Nimittaduṣta refers to prohibition on eating food on witnessing something gory or despicable during the process of eating. In modern science there is evidence that suggests that digestive acids pump up but insulin production gets inhibited and food may not go through the correct process of digestion when one is watching for instance a ghost movie or eating while witnessing violence on the street17. Thus, ingesting food in the middle of a wild animal market where animals of all kinds are butchered and served violates this very principle which is based on reasons of science.

Saṃska̅raduṣta and parigrahaduṣta are two more prohibitions that stress on the healthy process of eating. The former stresses on purification rites and implies that food which is fit to be served to Gods is fit to be served for humans. Further, the food must have gone through such purification that it suffers no kind of contamination physical or intentional. The latter talks about food that itself is good but should not be eaten because it is owned by people or served by people indulging in malpractices such himsa (violence), steya (stealing) etc. It forbids eating from the house of a thief, miser or even rouge. The site of a wet market where wild animals are traded and culled both legally and illegally seems the perfect hotbed for the prevalence of these doṣas.

Some of these principles in their modern avatar are followed in part at least in certain sectors such as pharmaceuticals, restaurant certification, and quality standards maintenance among others. However, public morality does not absolve us from the duty of following principles and imbibing them as a part of our private moral response to the society we live in. Dharma or order or sustenance, depends on the actions of all variables that are part of that order. The reason why Indian system of thought simultaneously talks of public and private morality and does not draw a sharp distinction between the two is on account of the holistic understanding of human existence and sustaining order in the cosmos to the benefit of all.

These principles are conceptual constructs intended to govern one of the most basic appetites of man and not to exercise it in a controlled and ordered fashion. That is order for the sake of order. Dharma in praxis is dharma in process and reality.

Whatever we may do after the pandemic is over, the world will no more be the same place. In case deficit of trust has to be countered and integrity established, these principles need to be seen as an essential back bone in the arena of food ethics. The modern West has developed a separate discipline called Food Ethics unlike in the past three decades or so. Indian Philosophical thought, however, presents us with a goldmine of universal ethical principles that sustain a way of life for prosperity and peace since thousands of years. There are learnings from them and they are yet open to debate, dialogue and application in a constantly changing world where order is being challenged. They retain the flexibility to adapt time sensitive particulars due to the very universal nature of their logical format.

  1. https://rockethics.psu.edu/initiatives/bioethics/programs/food-ethics/what-is-food-ethics
  2. P V Kane, History of Dharmaśa̅stra, Vol II Part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Pune- 1997), pp.757.
  3. https://www.bats.org.uk/about-bats/bats-and-disease/covid-19-and-bats
  4. Ibid pp.758.
  5. M K Gandhi, Diet and Diet Reform, Ed.BharatanKumarappa, NavajivanMudranalaya, Ahmedabad -1949
  6. M K Gandhi, The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism,NavajivanMudranalaya, Ahmedabad -1959
  7. P V Kane, History of Dharmaśa̅stra, Vol II Part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Pune- 1997), pp. 758.
  8. Ibid pp. 757.
  9. Ibid pp. 762.
  10. Ibid pp. 779.
  11. Ibid pp. 777.
  12. Ibid pp. 771.
  13. M K Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, Navajivan Trust (Ahmedabad: 2000), pp. 53
  14. M V Nadkarni, Ethics for Our Times- Essays in Gandhian Perspective, Oxford University Press (New Delhi-2011)Chp 3, pp. 80-97.
  15. P V Kane, History of Dharmaśa̅stra, Vol II Part II,Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Pune- 1997), pp. 785-786.
  16. Ibid.
  17. https://www.healthline.com/health/adrenaline-rush#causes

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Photo: Rock Carvings Hampi Vitthala Temple Complex. Photo Credit: Gunjan Pradhan Sinha

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