The Indian Caste System & Food

The relation between people and food in India extends to the caste system that still prevails in the country. Members of the highest priestly castes, the ‘Brahmans’, are said to be vegetarians and thus restrain from eating meat, which for them is impure as well as inedible as it is a result of brutality and death. A Brahman born of Brahman parents maintains his inherent purity only if he remains a pure vegetarian and eats food prepared only by people of a suitable rank. If a Brahman were to eat meat or commit other contraventions of the severe dietary codes of his caste, he would be considered deeply polluted and would have to undergo various purifying rites and payment of fines imposed by his caste council in order to restore his inherent purity.

The high-ranking Warrior castes, better known as the Kshatriya on the other hand are typically said to consume non – vegetarian food, which to them is considered appropriate as per their traditions of courage and physical strength. Here it must be noted that as per the mythological epic, ‘The Ramayana’, Ram who is considered to be a mortal form of god on Earth, also belonged to a Kshatriya family.

The food orientation of Ram has often been debated. While some people believe that Ram from the very beginning was a vegetarian, others debate that originating from a Kshatriya family Ram was bound to follow a non-vegetarian lifestyle.

The following shlok from the Ramayana, suggests that before leaving for his 14 year ‘vanvaas’ Ram said, “I shall live in a solitary forest like a sage for fourteen years, leaving off meat and living on roots, fruits and honey”. This indicates that though after leaving for the forest Ram decided to adapt a vegetarian way of living, while living in the confides of his palace in Ayodhya he may have very well been a meat eater.



Coming back to the Indian caste system, it is observed that the preservation of purity is associated not only with the intake of food and drink in terms of its nature but also in terms of who has cooked or even touched it. This phenomenon is commonly seen among Hindus, but other religions also abide by these ideologies to contrasting magnitudes. In most cases a person risks pollution, as well as is threatened to lowering his own status if he accepts beverages or cooked food from the hands of people of a lower caste status than his own. But ironically his status will not be affected if he accepts absolutely raw foods, such as uncooked grains, fresh unpeeled bananas, mangoes, and uncooked vegetables from anyone regardless of one’s caste. Also, toasted or parched foods, such as roasted peanuts, can also be accepted from anyone without ritual or social reactions.

Disparities on the basis of caste do not restrict to just food but even water. Water served from an earthen pot may be accepted only from the hands of someone of a higher or equal caste, but it is surprising that the same water when served from a brass pot may be accepted even from someone slightly lower in the caste hierarchy. Exceptions to this rule are Waterbearers, who are employed to carry water from wells to the homes of the prosperous and from whose hands members of all castes may drink water without becoming impure, even though a Water bearer too belongs to a low caste.

Primeval Hindu food laws, said to have derived from ancient scriptures. One of these scriptures is the Dharmashastra or the ‘science of dharma’, a set of texts which teach the endless unalterable dharma found in the Vedas. The Dharmashastras set rules for the entire society, so that each person might live according to dharma. It is believed that in the socio-religious context dharma upholds private and public life and establishes social, moral, and religious order in an individual’s life. These texts are credited to rishis or sages. Manu was the most important of these and his Manava Dharmashastra (Laws of Manu) is the most famous of the texts. It is also called the Manusmrti. It is in the form of the dharma revealed by Brahma to Manu, the first man, and passed on through Bhrigu, one of the ten great sages.

Chapter 5 of the Manusmriti states the following laws that according to the text one must follow in order to lead a sustained life:

• Garlic, leeks and onions, mushrooms (all plants), spring from impure substances and are hence unfit to be eaten by men.

• One should carefully avoid red excretion from trees and juices flowing from incisions, the Selu (a fruit), and the thickened milk of a cow (which she gives after calving).

• Rice boiled with sesamum, wheat mixed with butter, milk and sugar, milk rice and flour-cakes which are not prepared for a sacrifice, meat which has not been sprinkled with water while sacred texts were recited, should not be consumed.

• The milk of a cow (or other female animals) should not be consumed within ten days after her calving, that of camels, of one-hoofed animals, of sheep, of a cow in heat, or of one that has no calf with her,

• The milk of all wild animals excepting buffalo-cows that of women, and all substances turned sour must be avoided.

• Among things turned sour, sour milk, and all food prepared of it may be eaten, likewise what is extracted from pure flowers, roots, and fruit.

Read more in the English translation of the scripture – Manusmriti 

The Dharmashastras state that food is the soul of life, from which things are disclosed. It says, “Everything is centred in food, the evil deeds of man resort to their food. Whoever eats the food of another partakes of that man’s sin.” This is the reason why there are such complicated restrictions associated with the Indian society in terms of food.

On thorough study of these scriptures, one may come across the suggestion of many regulations associated to food that are very vague in nature. An example of this can be seen in the Manusmriti where Manu in a verse says that one should face east when involved in food related activities.

Food in India plays a useful role in the concept of life for Hindu society. Manu goes on to tell which direction, when eating, promotes which asset in life. Someone facing the south would eat food that would lead to fame, as one who faces west eats food to produce wealth, and so on. It was also instructed that one who is about to eat food should greet the food when it is served to him. In performing this act, he should pay honour to it, and never find faults in it.

The production, preparation, exchange and consumption of food have very meticulous methods of implementation. In India all the aspects of food are directed keeping in view the protection kinship, purity, ritual, ethical values, and social stratification, each of which play a significant role in the Hindu society.

Food plays a vital part in explaining the Hindu ideology of the universe and creation itself. Ancient creation stories portray the creator god of the Brahmins as the creator as well as the actual food for his creatures. Food was held in high esteem, according to the Dharmashastra, from the very beginning. Manu said, “From the sun comes rain, and from rain food, and there from the living creatures derive their subsistence.”


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