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What Is The Importance Of Food And Dietary Customs Within Asian Religion?

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Customs practiced within organized and unorganized religion carry deep significance that can be traced back to the foundations of religious belief. The first evidence of religious belief and practice can be found within acts of veneration to the dead during the Paleolithic Period of earth[footnoteRef:1]. Through acts of burial and graveside offering, rituals such as this one has endured for thousands of years and are continually practiced to this day. Like habits performed in daily life, religious rituals enforce structure and guidance in one’s life, as well as to reinforce and establish faith and reinforce religious doctrine. The involvement of food within Asian religion is often linked to a set of rules, beliefs, or schools that are often interpreted as doctrine or practice. Food is closely tied with a religious way of life, and dietary choices are often practiced as a means to stay closely connected with one’s faith. The commonality between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are their widely known adherence to food in relation to religious belief and practice. Food and dietary customs carry heavy significance within Asian religions due to the historical and devotional importance within religious doctrine and sacred belief.

The importance of food and dietary customs are often linked to dogma within a religious scope. Many of the beliefs practiced around food stem from teachings and rules within religious text with the intention of practice in daily life. Oftentimes, the daily practices are linked to the intention of living a more holistic and harmonious life. The Hindu term ahimsa is a clear example of a holistic life through the non-consumption of animals. Historically, Hindu doctrine comes from four different types of text: the Vedas, Upanishads, Sutras, and the Samhitas[footnoteRef:2]. Ahimsa, deriving from the sacred Vedic texts, is often defined as the minimization of the intention to harm worldly beings. While this is practiced mostly in the context of war and violence, the importance of ahimsa in the intake of animal products plays a significant role in the context of the Hindu diet. It is widely known that deep devotion to Hinduism requires a shift towards a vegetarian diet, requiring one to change diet from animal to non-animal products. An example of this comes from an excerpt in the Vedas: “the last of the great Vedic Kings, Maharaja Pariksit, is quoted as saying that 'only the animal killer cannot relish the message of the Absolute Truth'” (Turner, Hinduism and Vegetarianism). The historical significance of King Pariksit’s passage echoes the sentiments felt by practicing Hindus today: in order to find the absolute truth, or to be one with self and nature, one must abstain from the consumption of any and all meat products. Reflecting the foundations of ahimsa within Hindu text, the concept of halal and haram of Islam sprung from the laws and rules embedded within the Qur’an.[footnoteRef:3] As an organized religion, there are actions and rituals that are permissible (halal) and forbidden (haram). Food rituals of Islam are universally wide known examples of halal and haram within the Muslim population. According to the second section of the Qur’an: [2: Due to the varying perspectives and beliefs within Hinduism, there is no definitive doctrine that states what exactly Hindus should eat. Many beliefs are spread throughout all of the sacred texts, but with some doctrine clearer than others in combination with other forms of Hinduism. (Sarah Patience, Religion and Dietary Choices) ] [3: Halal and Haram do not necessarily apply to just food. Although it is the most widely known application of Islamic doctrine, it can be applied as a general set of rules that one must abide by that are mostly related to personal conduct. Examples include food, alcohol, sexual conduct, medicine, etc. (Discover Islam, Halal (Lawful) and Haram (Forbidden))]

“He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been to other than Allah. But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an, 2:173)

Muslims are required not to consume pork products due to their use in the veneration of Allah as offerings previously, but He will forgive if consumed unknowingly.[footnoteRef:4] Due to the historical depth of this verse, the importance of food rituals within Islam (including but not limited to the consumption of pork products, alcohol, etc.) stems from the need to practice absolute devotion within Islamic faith. Although less deep of a devotional path, Buddhist belief in the consumption of non-animal products can be closely tied to those of Hinduism. Although mostly personal choice, not consuming meat is widely practiced within Buddhism due to a set of rules established within training as a follower. The Five Moral Precepts are rules that dictate how one must live on the path to Enlightenment. When Brahmans were first training during the movement predating Buddhism, these sets of rules were established as guidelines for a more wholesome life. The First of Five Precepts mandates the prohibition of taking the life of a living, soulful being. Like Hinduism, beings within nature carry a soul and breathe life into the world; taking a life with intention, no matter how small, will lead to bad karma and the inability to achieve true enlightenment. According to Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr, [4: Islam Question and Answer interprets this verse with the most clarity: Allah decreed that anything slaughtered not in His name is forbidden. One must slaughter Allah’s creatures in his name: in slaughtering pigs or other animals in a haram manner, it is going against the weight of Allah’s power. ]

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“Buddhist moral precepts are not commandments imposed by force; they are a course of training willingly undertaken in order to achieve a desired objective. We do not practice to please a supreme being, but for our own good and the good of society. As individuals, we need to train in morality to lead a good and noble life” (Urban, The Five Precepts).

The prominence of achieving enlightenment within Buddhism has carried historical significance not only into modern practices of Buddhism, but practices of attaining inner peace as well.

The notion of living a morally good life as enforced through religious ritual can often be associated with the veneration of deities and spiritual concept. In the case of dietary restrictions and culinary customs, these restrictions are applied as a means to live a more holistic life and to secure one’s profound faith. Hinduism reflects the notion of dietary restriction by veneration with the non-consumption of beef products. Cows are considered to be sacred animals as providers of supplementary food and modes of transportation; they are often seen as generous and associated with giving more than what they take. Although not directly correlated, the Hindu goddess Prithvi is often depicted in the form of a cow in mythology. Also known as Mother Earth, she is revered as generous and bountiful to the earth and its children. This portrayal, although not directly linked, provides spiritual significance to the bovine creature. As with Prithvi, the cow provides useful products that benefit Indian society. There are five main products produced by cows that are used in daily life: cheese, milk, ghee (clarified butter), dung, and urine. These products exemplify how resourceful dietary customs in Hinduism can be; these products are important not only in the cultural cuisine of India but exemplify the true reverential nature of animals in Hinduism. Those who practice Hinduism believe in the concept of Ātman, or “eternal self beyond ego” (BBC, Hindu Concepts): everything, no matter how inanimate, has a soul and breathes life.[footnoteRef:5] These same sentiments are reflected within Buddhist faith: it is required that animals are treated as sentient and living beings and respectful treatment enhances good karma for true enlightenment. As previously mentioned, all beings on this earth are sentient and living no matter how seemingly inanimate. The equal treatment of human and non-human animals plays a strong role in dietary customs within the Buddhist community. Sentience in the Buddhist context can also translate to reverence; while not explicitly worshipping animals as holy, they are revered as sacred and equal beings to humans. This same concept is reflected in the dietary customs of Islam. In relation to halal and haram, pork and other “dirty” animals have all been created in Allah’s image and must be treated the same way as other beings in Allah’s name. He loves all of His creatures, and if not consumed or slaughtered in a manner that is respectful to Allah it is considered haram. These rules equate to the respect and profound faith of Islam: if everything is respected and treated in His image, those who believe in Him are living out their truth. SENTENCE HERE. CONCLUDING SENTENCE. [5: The concept of Atman is closely related to the perception of self. According to the BBC, one must separate self as spiritual rather than as a material being. “Thus it could be said that in this world, a spiritual being, the atman, has a human experience rather than a human being having a spiritual experience.” (BBC, Hindu Concepts)]

Asian religion is often revered due to the respectful nature of others and self. Religious rituals reinforce deep faith and are ultimately beneficiaries to a more holistic life and are used as guides in one’s faithful upbringing. Food reflects the importance of faith in correlation to a better life: when specific rules and pathways are presented, it often eliminates the distractions of life and centers the individual with self and nature. While not all rules are applied to religious followers in Asia, they are guidelines that define religious experience in correlation with one’s place on earth.


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