Food in India

As the extensive literature25 proves, the significance of food is evident throughout the subcontinent and has probably never escaped any observer’s notice. The elaborate development of the oppositions to which food orders are subject, sum- marizable in the opposition between the curse of food and the blessing of food, is especially striking and can be clearly seen in the examples of Jainism and bhakti devotion to Krishna. For the devotees of the incarnate Krishna, the god can be directly experienced through food and ritually manifests himself in the “food mountain” (annakut) (Toomey 1992). Experiencing the love of the god - who in turn experiences the love of his devotees (Toomey 1992; Fuller 1992, 157) - and dedicating oneself to him, including precisely through the sharing of food (prasad), are the way to salvation for these believers. For Jains, in contrast, eating leads to the accumulation of karmic substance and hence to imprisonment in the cycle of rebirth. With every bite, as it were, the individual moves further from the goal of liberation, while the way to salvation consists in not eating, in hunger, and in fasting, hence in asceticism. Unlike Krishna, the holy beings of the Jains - the ford makers - are not present and do not demand sacrificial offerings; prasad plays no role among the Jains[1] [2] [3] (Jaini 2000). The synthesis of these contradictions can be seen in the Aghori ascetic, who neither eats with devotion nor with disgust, but rather eats what is disgusting, dissolving with his alimentary code the order of time and the cosmos and thereby in fact every form of differentiation (cf. Parry 1982,100f): “The ‘true’ Aghori is entirely indifferent to what he consumes, drinks not only liquor but urine, and eats not only meat but excrement, vomit and the putrid flesh of corpses” (89).

A survey of the literature further reveals a predominance of studies on the Hindu food complexes and an almost complete lack of comparable work in tribal contexts. Except for one essay on the dairy production system of the Toda of South India2? (Walker 1992), I am aware of only one study, an article by Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi (1975) on “Food Avoidances of Indian Tribes.’^8 The author takes the trouble to evaluate the remarks on food customs scattered in a variety of monographs. Nevertheless, the result is a schematic and encyclopedic list of negative, positive, and ambivalent attitudes of different tribal groups toward different foods, attitudes that are relatively meaningless when removed from context and lined up next to one another.

One reason for this academic “avoidance behavior” may be that the food of the tribal groups is generally not remarkable for its culinary refinements, leading observers to assume its relative insignificance. This deduction stands contrary to Mary Douglas’s (1977,1) recognition that “gastronomy flourishes best where food carries the lightest load of spiritual meanings,” a supposition that would nevertheless be just as erroneous as its opposite were it elevated to a dogma. In addition, the lack of literature on this subject probably also has to be seen in connection with the devaluation of the diet of tribal societies within India. In my experience, the inhabitants of the plains - without knowledge of the actual menus - consider the foods of the tribes to be scarcely edible, and the possibility of the consumption of beef, rats, and pork is presumably a disincentive for the majority of Hindus and Muslims to take an interest in the tribes’ alimentary codes and perhaps also makes it difficult for many of them to live among them.

Studies on food in India refer in their theoretical approach to the general debates in the discipline, even if the specific social contexts lead to particular areas of emphasis. In what follows I will briefly discuss three related areas that are relevant to my work: a) food and social structure or status (caste), b) food and communication, and c) ritual and food.

  • [1] The insignificance of sacrificial meals and activities applies especially to ascetics and to alesser degree to laity, for whom the veneration of images is also certainly relevant (Cort 1992). InJain doctrine, only human beings are generally considered capable of salvation (because capable of asceticism). Due to their hedonism, the gods can attain this goal only by way ofincarnation as human beings (Andrea Luitle, personal communication).
  • [2] Unlike the Toda, most of the Central Indian tribal groups consume no milk products, butrather the milk’s source, the opposite of Hindu practice (cf. Pfeffer 1993a, 221; 1993b, 31).
  • [3] Two studies (Rao and Rao 1977; Roy 1978) of alcohol consumption and its cultural andalimentary significance in tribal contexts should nevertheless be mentioned.
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