How Religions View Food
Giovanni Filoramo, University of Turin 1 April 2014

To achieve our objectives it will be enough to restrict research to observe that such an issue cannot be addressed in a phenomenological or informative manner, or with a degree of social-organisational comparison. What is proposed is instead a typology that identifies a number of recurrent behavioural and valorisation modalities in the relationship between religion and food. A transcultural form of behaviour and beliefs, religion, as a social group’s relationship with a dimension transcending it, is modelled by different cultures using different languages that do, however, present a number of recurrent characteristics. The first part of this paper will therefore attempt to present a typology emphasising, so to speak, a number of basic observations on this relationship between religion and food.

The second problem concerns the relationship between culture and religion. Those glancing at the bibliography for this subject will instantly notice the relative absence of historical-religious studies of a comparative kind; things change of course within the framework of specific religious traditions. The task of studying food practices and customs within a comparative perspective has mainly been undertaken by anthropologists, who, with scholars such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, Marvin Harris, Jack Goodie – to mention only the most well-known and those who have made the most significant contributions – have brought new viewpoints to this field and encouraged many research programmes, helping us better understand the symbolic and cultural importance of the physiological act of feeding oneself. 

Revisited from this perspective, nourishment is part of the ensemble of symbols constituting a group’s cultural system. Every culture establishes a code for eating behaviour that privileges certain elements, forbidding others, thus distinguishing between what is permitted and what is not, between what is pure and what is impure. Rules and practices concerning food result in a language expressing the values of a culture teaching respect for nature, the sources of social authority and life’s objectives. Rules for food are therefore required for a group’s self-definition, contributing to establishing the manner in which a group is perceived from the exterior. In this sense they are needed to define the borders of its ethnicity and to create its identity.

The ensemble of the rules in this code can be determined by a variety of factors (geographical, economic, hygienic, nutritional), but also religious ones. The second methodological challenge consists of trying to identify the role religion can play in forming this symbolic code and the manner in which it interacts with other aspects, contributing to the creation of a culture’s symbolic nourishment codes. To address this second challenge, in the second part of this paper I will therefore propose a typology of the relationship between religion and food that takes into account the religions’ specific dimensions.

The relationship between religion and food

According to a well-known saying by Ludwig Feuerbach, man is what he eats. As the complete title of his 1862 publication reminds us, The Mystery of Sacrifice or Man is what he eats, it is the critique of a book by the materialist Jacob Moleschott. In his opinion, food, the basis that makes the creation and the perfecting of human culture possible (according to Feuerbach in view of the inseparability between the psyche and the body, we must eat better in order to think better) has for millennia entwined its destinies with the practices of various religions and in particular with the most important; sacrifice, the meal with the gods and of the gods. In this sense Feuerbach was right. Religions have not only culturally valorised nourishment, but they have rendered it sacred in very different ways, regulating the use of food with diets and food taboos as varied as humankind itself, setting out rules about what the members of a given religion may or may not eat and specifying, at times in great detail, the circumstances under which certain kinds of food can be consumed or be used in religious rituals as well as in everyday life.

But what does this process involving rendering food sacred actually mean? From an anthropological and social-historical perspective, sacredness is a cultural value resorted to by different societies in order to better organise social relations. In other words, sacredness is a value linked to identity. More specifically it is what separates from the profane. For this reason, the same kinds of food, such as rice, wheat and oil, do not have a value per se, but assume different values depending on the context. They can mean death or rebirth, feed the gods or channel their power onto the faithful. In certain cases, one particular element may also ascend to become the symbol of a people’s identity. The Hopi Indians (indigenous people of the United States of America), for example, believe that the first act undertaken when they came into being was to choose an ear of corn that expressed toughness, but also the continuity of their life. Since the objective of the rituals practiced by these peoples was to provide continuity to a cycle of life, in which it was believed that ancestors called katsinas came down from the mountains to guarantee harvests, at times they would state they were in “corn”. At this point it was possible to link identification to the food considered to be the foundation of their life cycle. This identification of a people with a food is not only a characteristic of populations indigenous to North America. In Japan, every year the emperor – considered the living incarnation of the god of mature rice – is photographed so his image can be used by the media when the symbolic gesture of planting rice takes place. When in 1993 a bad harvest and other economic factors obliged the government to lower tariffs protecting local rice production from foreign competition, the violent reaction had spiritual and not just economic origins. Still today, imported rice is considered by many to be inferior and impure.

Generally speaking, this process involving the sacralisation of food has two functions; it encourages communication between human beings and their respective gods, for example in the form of the sacred meal so dear to the ancient people, and to encourage communication between human beings, to strengthen and cement the identity of a shared religious community. According to the anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, nourishment acts as a metaphor for the Self, which requires two interacting dimensions. Food is incorporated through its consumption. In this manner a metonymy occurs; food becomes part of oneself. Food is then consumed by people belonging to a community or a social group in which eating is regulated by a code of shared provisions and rules. In this way, the act of eating symbolically contributes to the formation of the group’s identity. This is an explanation that is set within an interpretative school of thought that one could date back to Durkheim and, even earlier, to the famous totemic meal analysed by W. Robertson Smith in in his well-known book on the religion of the Semites.

To these social processes one must then add the valorisations that individuals, in search of perfection, ranging from mystics to ascetics, can attribute to nourishment in the form of renouncing certain kinds of food or food in general for certain period (fasting and abstention, a subject I will address again later) or in the form of a symbolic valorisation of some particular kinds of food. In this manner, the analysis of the different criteria with which a religious tradition approaches food and regulates its use becomes an important element for improved understanding.

I have addressed a few basic elements that regulate the relationship between sacred food and religions. These can essentially be set out as four main themes: the sacredness of food with consequent taboos; the manner in which the symbolic systems of the different religious traditions (myths and theologies) express the use of sacred food as a form of mediation with the divine; the role played by food in practices and rituals, and finally, nourishment as a path to perfection and redemption through rules (fasting, abstention, vegetarianism).

It is useful to add that these basic observations have, over the millennia-long history of religions, resulted in an astonishing series of variations impossible to address in the time available. I have therefore decided to concentrate in this first part of my paper on two aspects: food customs and food as the path to perfection, which are today at the centre of attention in our society for various reasons. Globalisation, with its migratory processes and the breakdown of traditional borders, is in fact profoundly changing both the traditional way in which religions relate to food and the way in which secular and capitalist society addresses this problematic aspect of religious pluralism. Since as far as the great religions are concerned a series of conferences has been planned, I will restrict myself to a few general considerations useful for a comparative analysis.

Food taboos

Food taboos are present in most populations, starting with indigenous peoples. They may last for a period of time or forever, be restricted to certain kinds of food or imply radical fasting. Important occasions for activating temporary bans can be special situations such as festivities, initiation rituals, burial rites and other liminal occasions such as pregnancy. In general, in indigenous religions bans are not lasting, as instead happens in the monotheistic religions, following commandments of divine origin, not subject to the contingency of time by their nature. Furthermore, in ethnic groups this may depend on relations with the totem, which act as a discriminant to distinguish between what is allowed and what is forbidden. This generally coincides with the animal in the group’s totem, since eating it would be considered cannibalism. A first example of the social and defining role of the pure and impure categories has been studied in depth by Mary Douglas. On the other hand, the absence in these ethnic religions of a sacred law capable of regulating in a cogent manner the people’s lives, prevents one from stating that there are universally widespread food taboos. Cannibalism, the most obvious candidate for this role, can in some cases be permitted or encouraged, as happened, for example, among the Hua in New Guinea, who, when a parent of the same gender as the children died, were permitted to eat body so as to recycle the limited amount of life force that nourished the group.

As far a historical polytheistic religions are concerned, we can restrict matters to a few considerations on the Greek world, where the theme of sacred meals was central as a form of communication with the gods. The table was prepared for all those with whom there was the sacred bond of friendship, with whom common political ideals were shared. One was not instead permitted to eat with one’s enemies and hospitality was a right and a duty. Meals were originally a religious act; this characteristic was maintained by ritual banquets for the gods, the dead, for public ceremonies as well as for private banquets attended by the omnipresent gods. As known, the first part of these banquets was devoted to the meal, while the second part, the symposium dedicated to the pleasure of drinking wine, was held after those invited had performed libations and sung a hymn. In all this there were no shared specific food prohibitions that one instead finds in some philosophical-religious groups. The most famous ban was perhaps the Pythagoreans’ prohibition concerning broad beans, although recently an American doctor, a scholar of the ancient world, hypothesised that the Pythagoreans may have already discovered favism. However, probably the most persuasive explanation is that Pythagoreans were convinced that the souls of their dead ancestors lived on in broad beans.

From a comparative perspective, the Greek case belongs to a more generalised kind of religion, that of the polytheistic religions, in which there is certainly the concept of the law, nomos, that however mainly concerned philosophical reflections. Divine law, regulating the life of nature, did not deal with regulating the eating habits of humankind. These may have instead been entrusted to the sacred laws that were the foundation for life in the Greek poleis, but these laws did not usually regulate the main event in religious life, the public sacrifice. In order to find provisions concerning food, one must as the case involving Pythagoras teaches us, look to informal religious traditions such as Orphism, and hence marginal cults and practises compared to the religion of the poleis and critical of bloodthirsty sacrifices, resulting in a preference for forms of vegetarianism.

The situation changes with the monotheistic religions, such as Judaism and Islam, characterised by the presence of Divine Law revealed and passed on through the Holy Scriptures, the Torah for the Jews and the Koran for Muslims, which contain binding rules and provisions regulating the most varied aspects of the lives of the faithful, and of course including food. Respecting these rules is binding for the faithful, because they reflect God’s will. One could say, forcing matters a little, that an individual’s freedom coincides with the implementation of these rules.

We will restrict this analysis to a number of considerations on Judaism, both because Christianity was founded, starting with Jesus and then Paul, in opposition to and overcoming the food regulations contained in the Torah – a subject too well-known to revisit – and because Islam to a certain extent is part of this perspective.

To my knowledge, no religion has such a systematic and complex set of rules and food prohibitions as Judaism. For a devout Jew these provisions concerning food are part of the sacred law that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, rules that following the development of Rabbinic Judaism were extended to a include a large number of precepts, mitzvot. The world of Eden was a vegetarian world, which did not contemplate the killing of animals or eating their meat. With the pact between God and Noah in Genesis 9, this became possible, but with the prohibition to eat their blood, considered sacred because it is the seat of life. Over time, more complex rules were established, present in a number of texts but above all in Leviticus, which contains a famous series of food bans. Another fundamental prohibition comes from a passage in Exodus, which states that milk and its products cannot be mixed with meat, stating, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23,19). Other bans come from the binding element of remembrance, typical of Judaism, and hence bread must be unleavened in remembrance of the flight from Egypt, when there was no time to allow it to rise. The ensemble of these rules, called the Kasherut, is extremely complex. For example the permitted way of slaughtering animals must occur following certain rules stating that the oesophagus and  trachea must be cut completely using a very sharp knife so that as much blood as possible is lost quickly.

As applies to all legislation of divine origin contained in a written text, Jewish legislation too has been internally subjected to exegesis and different interpretations, for example, rational rules concerning the ban on eating pork (for reasons involving hygiene), or linked to different kinds of Judaism that developed, or, in modern times, to psychoanalytical or anthropological interpretations. All this should not allow us to forget that, for a devout Jew, these rules must be obeyed because they are of divine origin. Over time, these rules were adapted to the most diverse contexts and interpreted by Rabbis in more or less rigid ways. Nowadays they must address the challenges posed by technology, such as for example, whether or not the use of microwaves is permitted, or how can one establish the pureness of food containing all kinds of preservatives? In summary, the kasherut is a real system of life, which has greatly contributed, albeit with all the adaptations, to preserving Judaism’s religious identity over the centuries and throughout the many often tragic events of the diaspora.

What happens instead in the case of non-monotheistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism? Expressing a few remarks on Hinduism, one can say that here one is in the presence of a real system of customs and taboos linked to food, reflecting the complex history of the religious tradition characterised, known as the caste system. In Hinduism rules concerning food depend on the caste a person belongs to. Brahmans are traditionally vegetarians since they cannot eat anything that has had an animal life, since these are contaminated cadavers. Hence meat, fish, fecundated eggs, garlic, onions and alcoholic drinks are excluded from their diets. Lower castes instead can eat chicken, goat and mutton, while pariahs can eat any kind of meat on condition the animal died of old age or disease, because they are impure and must eat contaminated food and remain low in the place assigned to them by the caste system. In summary food is distinguished as tamasici,  suitable for people subjugated by Aryans; rajasici, for people undertaking productive or commercial activities or defending the country, and sattvici, for the pure, the priests.

This fundamental principle has been continuously reinterpreted, although some rules, such as absolute respect for cows, still stand today. It is interesting to see the interpretation provided by yogic traditions which is typically energetic, stating that eating well is a way of synchronising oneself with, and taking possession of, the cosmos’ hidden energy. In this perspective food is not considered a simple agglomerate of matter, but above all the vehicle for “subtle information” that, entering the “human system” modifies it. For this reason, in addition to choosing food, it is very important to also assess the person cooking it and their state of mind when they do so. For example, a yogini who takes a vow of chastity, in addition to avoiding rajasici food so as to not excessively excite the senses and in addition to eating in a calm environment so as not to be moved by emotions, must also avoid his food (albeit sattvici) cooked by someone dominated by strong sexual urges and excessive negativity, since they would inevitably transfer this to the food which in would transfer it to the yogini.

This energy is a manifestation of the energetic vibration known as Prana, which is received by human beings and transformed. In particular, human beings can absorb Prana through their skin, by breathing it in, or through food. By nourishing ourselves, therefore, we ‘extract’ from food the Prana contained in it and introduce it into our bodies to transform it and gain energy. In particular, Prana acts on the sakra which in turn presides over various functions and organs. According to  yoginis, it is very important to devote sufficient time to chewing when eating, since in this way slim forms of energy can be correctly absorbed. Since Prana is in particular linked to the taste, or rather the taste of the food is an indicator of the presence of Prana, food must chewed until it becomes insipid.

Forms of abstinence from food

Leaving aside the great issue of taboos and provisions on food, the last observation can help us introduce the second subject I have chosen to address. In his most important book On the Process of Civilisation, the great sociologist Norbert Elias emphasised the decisive role played by “good table manners” on the formation of modern European civilisation. Although obviously due to their redeeming objectives, the great religious traditions also devote special attention not only to what they may or may not eat, but also to how the eat.

Islam, for example, emphasises the virtue of moderation and, in certain traditions, such as Sufism, table manners are a stage on the path to perfection. One interesting text on this subject is that of the Sufi Yusuf Gada, which is based on one fundamental principle, adab, the correct inner attitude allowing correct exterior behaviour. It is a fundamental principle involving moderation and discernment, which, with the necessary adaptations and variations, is also found in other religions.

These behavioural rules also include abstinence and fasting practices, which can be articulated, motivated and presented in very different ways, but generally correspond to a typical sacrificial logic, as well as ascetic preparation. One fasts at a time and in ways that are ritually and normatively established because in this way the believer indicates he is capable of renouncing one of the greatest gifts God or the gods have bestowed on him. One can fast individually or collectively as the Islamic Ramadan teaches us.

In addition to these collective forms of abstinence there is also fasting as a path to perfection in many different religious traditions. Christianity is filled with such examples. Although not totally an ascetic like John the Baptist, Christ the Jew prepared to announced the Kingdom by fasting in the desert for forty days. He thereby provided a  model that would be followed by the Desert Fathers and by innumerable ascetics. The underlying idea is not just renunciation as sacrifice, but also an ascetic exercise, a training of the will. Paul expresses this well in Corinthians 1 saying “Everything is lawful for me, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is lawful for me, but I will not let myself be dominated by anything.” ( I Cor 6,12). There is behind this also the idea of a return to an edenic condition, as well expressed towards the end of the 4th Century in a sermon by Bishop Massimo of Turin who said, “Everything the first man lost be eating, the second man (Christ) recovered by fasting, observing in the desert the rule of abstinence imposed in paradise.”

Food as the path to perfection

But like Jesus, as far as we know, Paul was not, strictly speaking, an ascetic. What is important is not renouncing food, but controlling one’s instincts and above all using food, which is a gift from God, to glorify Him.  “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.” (I Cor 1, 31). It is a subject that is also found in other religious traditions and corresponds to the idea that by eating the right food correctly one respects God’s will and makes progress on the path to perfection.

This ideal regulated the life of both Christian and Buddhist monastic communities, and it is with a few remarks concerning these communities that I will complete my presentation. The case involving monastic food is in fact useful within a comparative framework for better identifying the manner in which a religious tradition can contribute in an essential manner to the creation of its own nourishment system, regulated by a specific symbolism, and not only based on the general rule of its culture.

Following a chronological order, a first interesting example is provided by Manichean communities. These communities, which from a sociological perspective present a series of characteristics shared with later Pachomian communities, were regulated with strict laws concerning food inspired by the specific Manichean duality. In this case, purity rules had clear sociological consequences, since they were needed to found the Manichean Church, separating the Elected from the Listeners. Since the complex Manichean mythology was based on the principle of encouraging the separation and collection of particles of light taken prisoners by the shadows in a primordial struggle, meals and food rules corresponded to the fundamental redeeming requirement. The shared meal of the Elected was the entre of community life, the “table” was consumed once a day and considered particularly sacred since it was needed to purify the particles of light. This meal consisted of plants particularly rich in Light, such as melons and cucumbers, corn bread, water or fruit juices. The Listeners prepared the table following a precise ceremony and for this “charity” were cleansed of all sins committed in preparing and procuring food. By eating these elements, part of the light contained in them, the soul that according to Manichean mythology had been slaughtered, ill-treated and murdered, was forever set free from its contamination with Darkness, purified, cleansed and thereby concentrated in the Elected, who acted as a distiller.

The earliest coenobitic monasticism, the 4th Century Pachomian form in the Egyptian desert, identified in control over food production, in particular bread, and its regulated consumption, not only a concrete manner of applying the rules and precepts of coenobitic life, but also one of the ways of more effectively controlling conflicts always present in a shared life. The place where food was made, the kitchen, paradoxically became the monastery’s most sacred place. It was therefore a dangerous place if one did not respect the rigid rules regulating the production and distribution of food. It is no coincidence that the Desert Fathers’ Apoftegma reports many episodes concerning the dangers posed by this place. The brothers met around the stoves – and being together always posed a risk – to cook the bread, a vital resource for the community, but there they also fought a daily battle against the temptations of greediness, renewing their renunciation of a sense of possession, exercising patience to battle the inevitable conflicts and, vice versa, maintaining the necessary detachment – an extraneousness typical of this monasticism – from excessive reciprocal familiarity.

The same level of attention and the same control and symbolic use of the main stages of the nutrition process (production, distribution, consumption) can be found in Japanese Tendai and Soto Buddhist monastic traditions, some of which are also present in Italian Zen monasteries. In this kind of monasticism there is an important figure, the tenzo, responsible for preparing food for the monks. This figure, not strictly speaking a cook but a very discerning teacher, must, through the preparation of food, assist in the search for the path to perfection. Hence he must carefully serve different food that is appropriate for each occasion, allowing each monk to practice his life without hindrance. To achieve this, the tenzo must  – like our great cooks – start work the day before, procuring the appropriate food (rice, vegetables and other food) each day. He must then prepare the food treating it as his most precious possession, as if preparing to present it to the emperor. While in the past he was responsible for every single phase, nowadays there are also assistants who help him in a task that involves nourishment, but is also and above all spiritual. The same loving dedication must also be shown to those to whom the meal is presented. One must not attribute excessive importance to the ingredients or to the skill of the cook. What matters is experiencing gratitude for all that is implicit in a meal. A verse in the five contemplations (Gokannoge), recited before eating says, 

“Let us reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us. When we reflect on those who grew the food, those who transported it, and the tenzo who spared no effort in preparing it for us, a small bowl of simple boiled vegetables becomes replete with the limitless taste of Dharma.”

Food, religion and social justice

I would like to conclude addressing a subject that returns us to modern time and that I believe is very important. The relationship between food, religions and social justice. There are in fact religious communities that have made their community kitchens a possible place of social justice, a temporary one of course – lasting as long as a meal – but that, due to powerful symbolic implications – ends up also influencing the everyday behaviour of the faithful. I will present just one example, concerning a typical religion of immigrants, increasingly present in Italy, the Sikhs.

Following a complex history in the course of the 20th Century, the Sikhs, about 20 million living mainly in the Punjab, in northern India, experienced a significant level of emigration. Today there are between 30,000 and 60,000 in Italy, especially in the centre-north, with about forty temples, Gurdwaras. The two characteristics of a Gurdwara are the congregation, the ‘Sangat’ and the ‘Langar’ or community kitchen, created on the basis of the traditional rules of a certain Hinduism, that of the Sikhs, in which all dependence on substances such as alcohol, tobacco etc is forbidden. Furthermore, they cannot eat any kind of meat, fish or eggs. This community kitchen is created to provide food for all the believers, the pilgrims and also for visitors. It is a symbol of equality and brotherhood. It is a place where people from all social classes, wealthy and poor, educated and ignorant, share the same food sitting together in one row. These kitchens are funded with contributions from all Sikhs.

The Sikh ideal of a shared eating place bringing together all believers and non-believers, is a noble idea that – reminding us of a more prosaic subject in which religions nowadays prove the importance of the public presence, that of school cafeterias and the need to bear in mind the eating customs of children from different religious traditions – helps us understand the contribution religions can make to a society such as ours, undergoing profound transformation, so divided, fragmented and conflictual, and the victim of dangerous trends of all kinds. A utopic perspective indeed, that of a sacred community kitchen as the place for possibly overcoming divisions, but all the same a place for the mind and the body towards which one should move, in the hope that debate and dialogue between the various religions and their traditions, also those linked to food, can become a reason for hope and not for conflict.

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Translation by Francesca Simmons