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Food and religion

Food and religion. Religions, as systems of control and protection which were tested for efficacy (originally) in straightforward terms of natural (evolutionary) selection, have as profound a concern in relation to food as they do in relation to sex. Consequently, the ways in which food is related to religious ideas and practices are extremely complex and varied—as in the following examples.1. The rejection of particular foods. Such taboos frequently operate on a social level also, defining the boundaries around the particular religious group.2. The association of abstinence with spiritual practices: asecticism frequently extends to diet.3. The structuring of food according to religious categories: these can be categories of people, as in the Hindu caste rules or monastic observance; or they can be categories of time, as in yearly patterns of FESTIVALS AND FASTS such as Lent or Ramaḍān.4. The use of food in religious ceremonies: food is one of the commonest forms of religious offering.5. A vital means through which women have secured their own identity, and also degrees of control, in a male-dominated world.


Hindu food rites are embedded within a larger hierarchy of caste and purity. Uncooked food (i.e. untransformed: raw, unmixed, dry, unpeeled), since it has not yet taken on the qualities of the preparer, is broadly acceptable from the hands of all, regardless of caste. Pakka food, i.e. cooked in clarified butter, one of the products of the cow and therefore relatively resistant to pollution, can be accepted from a relatively wide range of people. It is thus the food of feasts; in distinction to kakka (baked or cooked in water) which is only acceptable from someone of similar or higher caste. Vegetarianism in India both relates to concepts of purity and to the wider development of the ideal of ahiṃsā. Among meats, beef is the lowest regarded, and is consumed only by Untouchables and non-Hindus like Muslims, who often act as butchers.


The diet of most Sikhs is Pañjābī, i.e. spiced vegetables, pulses, and the staple wheat chapātīs, plus dairy produce. Beef is avoided because of Hindu influence. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh forbade amritdhārī Sikhs to eat halal (see AL-HALAL) meat. The Gurū-kā-laṅgar is vegetarian. See also ALCOHOL; NĀMDHĀRĪ.


The Buddha's advice concerning dietary habits is addressed primarily to those who have embraced the monastic life rather than to lay society. An important principle underlying Buddhist monasticism is that monks should be dependent upon the laity for alms and should go out daily into the local community to beg for food.

The general principle is that monks should accept with gratitude whatever they are given and not be selective in preferring or rejecting particular dishes. In Theravāda Buddhism there is no prohibition on eating meat, providing that the monk has not seen, heard, or suspected that the animal was slaughtered specifically on his behalf.

Under the influence of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which stressed the virtue of compassionate concern for all sentient beings, vegetarianism came to be regarded as the most appropriate diet. Beyond that, the Buddha had clear views on the importance of both psychic and material food (see ĀHĀRA), and urged moderation.


In Judaism the fundamental division is between food that is kasher (see DIETARY LAWS), fit, and that which is terefah, unfit. The categories are defined in Torah, though they receive greater elaboration and definition in Talmudic writings.

There are rules concerning slaughter (sheḥitah). For meat to be kasher it must be slaughtered according to the prescribed ritual rules of sheḥitah. Performed by a ritual slaughterman (shoḥet) it involves complex regulations, part of which at least aim at the removal of blood from the carcass.


Quranic food rules express a simplified form of Judaic rules. The Qurʾān defines which foods are lawful, halal, and which unlawful, haram. The unlawful include blood, pig meat, carrion, and the meat of sacrifices. The rules around Islamic slaughter (see AL-HALAL) broadly follow the Jewish form.


The central rite of Christianity is a food rite (eucharist), although one whose meal-like aspects are varyingly stressed. Dominant Christianity contains no explicit food taboos, though monastic observance—in general the avoidance of meat, particularly red meat—and the patterning of fast and feast days, extended to the laity in Friday fasting, draws on a more pervasive structure of meanings.

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