I never really thought about the way diet impacts spirituality until I was older. My family always ate meat, but to different degrees and of different varieties. Even my family members in India ate meat for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t always like that; when my mom was a child, they barely had enough money for a full plate of rice much less a costly portion of meat. In any case, the people of Kerala tend to eat much more fish than meat because of its coastal location. I suppose it was not until later in life that I began to realize how many more Indians were vegetarians, or at least non-beef eaters, than I had once thought.
When considering the role of food in religion, consuming animals is a major aspect. Technically, Hinduism dictates complete vegetarianism, but over time and with migration/Westernization, Hindus have started to eat meat as well. I find that this is not the case for coastal inhabitants, including Bengalis who are known for their love of fish. A huge taboo for Hindus is eating beef since Hindus consider the cow to be a sacred animal. Lord Krishna is known as a cowherder, and in paintings he is often pictured near a cow. More practically, cows are a source of nutrition in the form of milk and butter, and thus these are often used in religious rituals.
Hindus aren’t the only ones with dietary restrictions; Muslims and Jews are restricted from eating pork. The pig is viewed as an unclean animal. Aside from pork, all food and drink must be halal for Muslims to consume them. Jews may follow Kosher, a diet about which I know only a few small details (such as not being able to combine meat and dairy in one meal, and bacon-wrapped shrimp is probably a big no-no). Like Hindus, followers of Budhism, Jainism, and Sikhism tend to be vegetarians or vegans because of the Dharmic principle of ahimsa, or non-violence. Along these lines, many Jains and Buddhists also do not eat root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions) because uprooting these vegetables is seen as killing the plant. Other restrictions exist against strong or pungent foods, such as garlic, because of their tendency to excite the senses. For various reasons, all of these religions have formulated certain dietary rules. I am willing to bet that the true reasoning was actually practical and possibly even a matter of food safety, but over time it became entwined with religious practice to currently define part of one’s religious or spiritual identity.
I don’t disagree with those who choose to follow dietary restrictions for whatever reason. I feel that if someone chooses to give up a certain food for the purpose of strengthening their spirituality, that is a wonderful way to do so. I don’t, however, consider one to be more spiritual than another simply because of the food choices they make. I don’t consider a person who is raised a vegetarian to be making much of a sacrifice if they have no desire to eat meat. I have friends who have decided to follow a Kosher diet or give up pork/alcohol or to take up vegetarianism in their adult lives as a conscious decision to be closer to their religion. I respect them greatly for this because permanently changing one’s lifestyle in such a drastic way is truly a challenge. If dietary restriction is more a lifestyle and not particularly related to one’s spiritual experience, that is fine too, so long as it doesn’t lead to a sense of self-righteousness (i.e. “I am a better Hindu than you because I don’t eat meat.”) I am a firm believer that the food choices one makes does not guarantee that they are a “good” or “bad” [insert religious identity here]. Rather, we are good by virtue of our everyday actions, our treatment of others, our capability for compassion, and our acceptance of all human life (regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc).
I have Hindu friends who eat all meat except beef. I have Hindu friends that eat all meat including beef. I have Hindu friends who eat no meat, but eat eggs and dairy products. I have Hindu friends who are pure vegans. I have a Hindu friend who abstains from both beef and pork because his grandfather ate this way so as not to offend the Muslims he lived amongst. I have a Hindu mom who will not touch pork because she finds it filthy, but will eat a burger. I know a Hindu man who loves beef but felt the right to get angry at me for thinking that menstruating women should be allowed to pray in a temple if they want to. I have Muslim friends who abstain from alcohol and pork, and I have Muslim friends who enjoy each in moderation. I have Jewish friends who follow a Kosher diet, and Jewish friends who eat whatever delights them, whenever it delights them. The common thread here is that I consider them all to be friends, and absolutely wonderful people. I also know people follow strict dietary guidelines for religious purposes, but are completely abhorrent and unethical human beings.
Eating habits can be counter-productive to spirituality as well. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life delves into how our eating habits affect every aspect of our lives, from health and physical well-being to spirituality and inner peace. For me, trying and enjoying new food is a pleasure and an adventure. For many, respecting animal rights and standing up against the abuse and mistreatment of farm animals propels them to change their diets. No matter what the reason, I feel it is each person’s personal decision and rather than judge each other, we should attempt to understand their reasons for or against consuming certain things. In our global society ridden with so many cultural misunderstandings, this is increasingly important. What are your views on dietary restrictions, religious and otherwise?