Food Taboos in Ancient Religions

By Ms. Isha Gamlath

Senior Lecturer Dept. of Western Classics, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka


Abstract - Certain types of food were taboo in several ancient religions, both eastern and western. This paper takes Buddhism and Jainism for the eastern religions and ancient Greek religion for the western to examine their food taboos. Buddhism - Sanskrit Buddhism literature mentions a rigorous taboo on flesh - eating while it does not in the Pali texts. Chapter 8 of Lankavatara Sutta published in Sanskrit records that any follower of Buddhism whether monk or layman should never eat meat or fish. The flesh of dog, ass, camel, horse, bullock and humanbeings are uneatable. Buddha resents the fact that even such uneatable flesh is sold as lamb in the streets.

The following are reasons for the taboo on meat:
1. Flesh is formed of blood and sperms and therefore uneatable.
2. Flesh is eaten only by savages.
3. It smells bad like a corpse.
4. It gives pain to creatures.
5. Hunters and fishermen frighten dogs. They should be avoided. This has a parallel in Porphyry (Vitae Pythagorae, 7) where Pythagoras bids his disciples to avoid hunters and butchers on the ground that they were defilers.
6. It hinders the acquisition of liberation or nirvana.
7. The Vinaya Pitaka (1.218-237) has a taboo on the following flesh: Elephant, horse, dog certain small animals and humanbeings but there is on taboo on fish. In viii. 172 there is no mention of a taboo on meat as long as one does dot hear, see or know that an animal is being slaughtered for his or her consumption.

The following are consequences of eating meat:
1. Flesh eater is prone to diseases - worms, leprosy, insects and stomachaches.
2. In their next birth flesh eaters will be born as lions, tigers, wolves, hyenas, cats, jackals and owls.

The best food fit for a Buddhist according to Lankavatara Sutta were: 
Rice, barley, wheat, pulses of moonga, urad, masura, ghee, oil, milk, raw sugar, guda, sugar, coarse sugar etc.
There is a dispute whether Buddha himself died of consuming sukaramaddawa, (Mahaparinibbana Sutta) which has seversl interpretations - pork, tender pig or food made of some delicacy etc.

Jainism - Ahimsa or non- violance is conspicuous in Jainism. Ahimsa is the basis on which lies the Jain taboo on flesh. Jain householders try their best not to injure any living being (Purusarthasiddhupaya, 75, 77).

They refrain from any form of himsa or harm to animals - sacrifice, hunting, entertainment, digging wells, preparing clothes, constructing houses, gardening. Jain saints follow the following rules very strictly for fear of causing himsa to livingbeings: They,

1. Inspect the ground they walk.
2. Never walk at night for fear of harming life.
3. Do not walk on grass.
4. Never pluck leaves from trees. (sravakachara,7/6)
5. Never drink liquor which could contain microbes.(ibid. 6;3)
6. Never eat at night because when a lamp is lit microbes and tiny creatures fall in to food.(ibid. 133)
7. Never eat flesh of dying bullocks and buffaloes for microbes and germs are in their flesh. (ibid. 66)

Greek Religion - A taboo on food prevailed among a minority of Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Among them the Orphics, Pythagoreans, Empedocles, Neo - Pythagoreans, Neo - Platonists are outstanding. The taboo on meat eating lied on a general reason. It was the belief in the transmigration of souls or in short the possibility of the soul to incarnate in different human and animal bodies. Apart form this general reason there were a number of particular reasons for imposing a taboo on meat and favouring a non- meat diet. Among these particular reasons are:
1. Mystical reasons
2. Religious reasons
3. Impurity of some animals
4. Hygienic reasons which was why the Cynics and Epicureans and many others favoured a non- meat died.

Pythagoras, the well - known vegetarian of antiquity is known to have imposed particular bans on the following food.
1. Certain parts of an animal body as liver, brain, heart, womb were taboo. (Aristotle, Rhetoric, B23 139814)
2. Certain animals as white cocks, sacred, fish, red mullet, blacktail, sea anaemones, eggs, oviporous animals were taboo (Aristotle, Metaphysics, A5 986a 30)
3. Certain types of fish erythrinos, blacktail, sea nettle, sea anaemones (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistes, 7. 301C)
4. Taboo on plough oxen and ram(Diogenes Laertius, viii. 20)
5. Avoidance of lamb (Diogenes Laertius; viii. 9)

There is confusion whether Pythagoras was a total vegetarian or not. In some later sources it is mentioned that he consumed a diet of bread and honey (Athenaeus, ii 47a = fr.27) while in some he did delight in the flesh of piglings and sucking kids (Diogenes Laertius, viii. 20)

In most Greek mysteries certain types of food were taboo :
1. Bloodshed of any kind was taboo at the Eleusinian mysteries
2. Red mullet was taboo at Eleusis and the sanctuary of Hera in Argos (Aelian, De Naturam Animalium, 9.51,65)

The Golden Age was an abstract age where the inhabitants were vegetarians. It is stressed by both Greek and Roman writers: Hesiod, (Works and Days 109-121) Cicero (Tusculan Disputations, 1,10-21; De Officiic, 11.5 fr. 67) Aratus, Phenomena, 96-136; Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 1, 8; Ovid, Metamorphoses, 76-215; 11,17 Of a similar nature were the Hyperboreans, Thulians, Scythians and the Abioi who drank only mare's milk. Their mythical nature is very vague however all these nations contribute to the idea that a taboo on flesh existed in ancient times.

Bibliography : Lankavatara Sutta translated to Chinese, Bunyin - Nangio, Kyoto, Japan, 1922. Vinaya Pitaka, edited by Hermann Oldenberg, Pali Text Soceity, Oxford, 1993 

Prashad B. S.

A Comparative Study of Jainism and Buddhism, Sri Sathguru Publications, India, 1982


Aristotle's Metaphysics, a revised text with an introduction and commentary by W. D. Ross, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1958, De Rhetorica, translated under the editorship of W. D. Ross, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1952

Diogenes Laertius

Lives of Eminent Philosophers, translated by R. D. Hicks, Loeb classical Library, London, 1950



Isha Gamlath (Senior Lecturer), Dept. of Classics , University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, E-Mail :


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