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A Scriptural Diet
Food and Religion

A Scriptural Diet
  • The teaching of the Vedas; what light do... (by )
  • Deuteronomy 
  • Leviticus (by )
  • The Koran (by )
  • Al-Hadith (by )
  • The teaching of the Vedas; what light do... (by )
  • The Mahabharata (by )
  • The Ramayana (by )
  • The Bhagavad Gita, Or, The Sacred Lay : ... (by )
  • The Upanishads (by )
  • Samhita; Original Text with a Literal Pr... (by )
  • The Brahma Sutras (Of Badarayaa) with th... (by )
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The ancients consumed a diet considerably different than the foods appearing on our modern tables. Although some ingredients may be familiar, the forms in which they appeared differ from current manifestations. For instance, bread two millennia ago did not resemble the soft, spongy white loaves we buy at the supermarket, and it certainly did not come pre-sliced.

The biblical books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus outline Kashrut, the body of Jewish dietary law. It had a purpose: mainly that of keeping people from eating that which had a good likelihood of poisoning them. Scholars postulate other reasons for these laws, such as a distinct way for Hebrews to distinguish themselves from other cultures, such as the Philistines who ate pork. 

These laws led to the concept of kosher. Deuteronomy 12:23-24 dictates that the lifeblood of a slaughtered animal must be drained prior to consumption of its flesh. For those dietary laws that seemingly no longer have any basis in preserving health, the main reason for observing them lies in the simple belief that they are to be observed because it shows obedience to God.

Different foods in the Bible include olives, olive oil, pomegranates, grapes, goat’s milk, honey, lamb, and a range of herbs and spices that include anise, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, dill, garlic, mint, mustard, rue, and salt. The ancients also ate fruits, nuts, and legumes, such as apples, almonds, dates, figs, melons, pistachio nuts, raisins, sycamore fruit, beans, cucumbers, leeks, lentils, and onions. Whole grains also formed a part of the ancient diet: wheat, barley, millet, spelt. Meat, eggs, and fish make an appearance, too, although Kashrut prohibits shellfish, eggs, and pork. 
Like the Jews who adhere to a kosher diet, devout Muslims also follow a diet described by the holy scriptures of the Quran. Commandments in the Quran determine Islamic dietary law, distinguishing which foods are halāl (“lawful”) and which are harām (“forbidden”). Additional dietary instruction may be taken from the Hadith and Sunnah, libraries that catalogue what the prophet Mohammed said and did. 

The Islamic list of prohibited foods is less extensive than that of Jewish Kashrut: meat from animals that die of themselves, carrion, blood, pork, and any food dedicated to a false deity. However, in circumstances where no other food is available, the Quran makes allowances for the “law of necessity.” It’s better to eat forbidden food than to starve to death. Unlike Jewish Kashrut, however, harām food encompasses intoxicants and alcoholic beverages, which may extend to those foods to which wine, soy, or vanilla extract have been added and the alcohol cooked off.
The diversity of Hinduism makes a “Hindu diet” difficult to nail down. Foods in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Samhitas, Sutras, and Dharmaśāstras vary in what they permit and prohibit. Vedic texts conflict in favor or disapproval of meat. Hymn 10.87.16 of the Rigveda condemns all killing of men, cattle, and horses with punishment from the god Agni to punish those violate that prohibition.

The Shandilya Upanishad, Sutra texts, and Mitahara emphasize moderation in all things, including a healthy diet. In these Hindu scriptures, self-restraint is a virtue. The Samhitas discuss what and when certain foods are suitable. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika includes a detailed discussion of a proper diet. Books III, XIII, and XIV of the Mahabharata as well as the Ramayana--both classics within the Indian canon of literature--also discuss diet, as does the Bhagavad Gita, a primary text of Indian philosophy.

The strongest prohibition to eating meat comes from the Manusmriti:

One can never obtain meat without causing injury to living beings... he should therefore abstain from meat. Reflecting on how meat is obtained and on how embodied creatures are tied up and killed, he should quit eating any kind of meat... The man who authorizes, the man who butchers, the man who slaughters, the man who buys or sells, the man who cooks, the man who serves, and the man who eats – these are all killers. There is no greater sinner than a man who, outside of an offering to gods or ancestors, wants to make his own flesh thrive at the expense of someone else's. (Manusmriti, 5.48-5.52)

By Karen M. Smith

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