Kids Corner


Taboo or Not Taboo ... That is the Question ...




With apologies to Will Shakespeare ...

The first response to the title of this essay is predictable: certainly there are no food taboos in Sikhism.

This is after all a young, modern, vibrant faith, very practical in its doctrines and sensible in its beliefs. But there is always a hooker.

What set me thinking about food restrictions was something that happened about twenty-five years ago; I have heard periodic echoes of the issue over the years. For about three months, I was the Secretary of our major, and at that time the only, gurdwara in New York. We used to meet once a month, then it became once a week.

More regular in attendance than any others were some young, single Sikhs, mostly students, living in the city. I think what attracted them was the socializing and the free community lunch that always followed the service. I could relate to that and to them. Often we would spend half a Sunday at the gurdwara and then gather at someone's apartment to shoot the breeze and solve the problems of the world.

One day a group of young friends volunteered to provide the community lunch following the weekly service. Of course, they would not prepare a traditional meal but offered to serve ham and cheese sandwiches instead. I thought it was a great idea. When I broached the management committee however, all hell broke loose. How could I think of sandwiches, I was asked? I offered pizza but the reaction was not much better. I was told in no uncertain terms that the meal must be a simple Punjabi meal - vegetables, beans, unleavened flat bread (chappaties). Rice could be added or substituted for the bread, if necessary. Accompaniment of pickle and a good dessert would round up the menu. The preparations did not have to be simple and, depending upon the host, could be elaborate, but the menu was to be strictly vegetarian and under no circumstances was it to depart substantially from the traditional Punjabi meal.

I too adore Punjabi food and more so with each passing year that I live outside a Punjabi milieu. But I wonder at the unwritten code on food proscription that seems to operate at Sikh gatherings. Where in Sikh history or theology does it say that all meals are to be vegetarian or prepared in a particular way? And following religious services at homes I have partaken of community meals which were so extensive and elaborate that they would rival the spread at the fanciest restaurant.

Such a feast raises the obvious question: Is that what the Guru intended when he initiated the concept of a community meal (langar) following a religious service?

History provides us some sensible ways of looking at what we believe and what we actually do.

Indeed Sikhs observe no food taboos as are found among the Jews, Muslims or Hindus, among others. Of the two dominant religions in India, the Hindus eat no beef while the Muslims will not come near pork. The Sikhs find common ground by finding both kinds of flesh acceptable. It is true nevertheless, that a great majority of Sikhs do not eat beef since many of them come from a Hindu background. In fact in Punjab, before India was partitioned in 1947, neither beef nor pork was easily available in deference to the strong beliefs of the two majority religions. Also many if not most Hindus are obligatory vegetarians. Observing Jains eat no eggs or onions either.

Consequently, most Sikhs never acquired a taste for either beef or pork but are content with chicken, mutton or lamb. Landlocked Punjab does not have much of a variety in fish, but it is enjoyed in the limited quantity that it is available.

Throughout Sikh history, there have been movements or subsects of Sikhism which have espoused vegetarianism. I think there is no basis for such dogma or practice in Sikhism. Certainly Sikhs do not think that a vegetarian's achievements in spirituality are easier or higher. It is surprising to see that vegetarianism is such an important facet of Hindu practice in light of the fact that animal sacrifice was a significant and much valued Hindu Vedic ritual for ages.

Guru Nanak in his writings clearly rejected both sides of the arguments - on the virtues of vegetarianism or meat eating - as banal and so much nonsense. Nor did he accept the idea that a cow was somehow more sacred than a horse or a chicken. He also refused to be drawn into a contention on the differences between flesh and greens, for instance.

History tells us that to impart his message, Nanak cooked meat at an important Hindu festival in Kurukshetra. Having cooked it,  he certainly did not waste it, but probably served it to his followers and ate himself. History is quite clear that Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh were accomplished and avid hunters. The game was cooked and put to good use, to throw it away would have been an awful waste.

Sikhs also do not respond to the Semitic commandment on avoiding animals with cloven hoofs. And one Semitic practice clearly rejected in the Sikh code of conduct is eating flesh of an animal cooked in a ritualistic manner; this would mean kosher and halal meat. The reason again does not lie in religious tenet but in the view that killing an animal with a prayer is not going to ennoble the flesh. No ritual, regardless of who conducts it, is going to do any good either to the animal or to the diner. Let man do what he must to assuage his hunger. If what he gets, he puts to good use and shares with the needy, then it is well used and well spent, otherwise not.

The community meal (langar) that the Sikhs serve in their gurdwaras has several purposes. Much of India even now is bound in traditions of caste. In the Hindu caste system, the high and the low castes do not mix socially, do not eat from the same kitchen. The food of a Brahmin is considered defiled if the shadow of an untouchable or a Muslim falls upon it.

Sikhism set out to break these barriers. In the gurdwara, the meal is served to people who sit in a row. You may not chose who to sit next to; it may even be an 'untouchable'. You may not ask to be served by someone special. The food is prepared by volunteers from the community in a community kitchen. Men, women and children, rich and poor alike, work together to cook and to serve.

This is also where young and old, children and adults, learn the concept of service. The food is available to all; kings and the homeless have partaken of it. Emperor Akbar who ruled India in the sixteenth century enjoyed such a meal. In this country, most gurdwaras do not have langar service operating all day but one that serves only one meal at the conclusion of a service. Therefore, whatever food is left over is either carted home by those who wish, or is delivered to a center for the needy.

In the sixties many hippies trekking through India found gurdwaras an easy place for a quick and free meal; countless homeless people enjoy this Sikh hospitality every day. It is a way for the ordinary Sikh to thank God from whom all blessings flow. Service to the needy and sharing one's blessings with others is a cornerstone of the Sikh way of life and it starts in the community kitchen. It is a recognition of the principle that even God has little meaning or relevance to an empty belly. The prayers of the congregation and their spirit of service make the meal special, not the variety in the menu.

The usual menu in a gurdwara is simple - one vegetable, some beans, a handful of rice and one or two pieces of flat bread (chappaties). This is what the poorest people in Punjab eat. The ingredients are what the simplest home in Punjab would have. Fancier dishes are avoided even if one can afford them for the purpose is not to instill envy in others or to show off one's own riches. If meat is avoided, it is not because of any canon but because the menu should be such that everybody can afford and anybody can eat; something nobody will have any compunctions or reservations about.

Remember that gurdwaras are open to all and often frequented by Hindus and Muslims alike. The menu for the langar at the gurdwara has to provide the least common denominator in the local cultural tradition.

I have heard there are a few, rare gurdwaras in India where meat is served at times. I emphasize that such gurdwaras are few and in them, service of meat is rare. I suppose the practice started sometime ago for certain historical reasons and has continued. No harm in it as long the people coming there are aware of it.

It is not a matter of Sikh doctrine but of consideration for others and common sense. Some historians contend that meat was often served in langar at the time of Guru Angad. History has it that Guru Amar Das, well before he became a Guru, visited Guru Angad. On that day, some Sikh had donated a large quantity of fish which was being served in the community meal. Amar Das had been a devout Hindu and a vegetarian until that time. Some historians say that he was somewhat squeamish about it but, now that he had become a Sikh, accepted the fish as a gift from the Guru's kitchen.

Others suggest that Guru Angad, knowing full well that Amar Das was a vegetarian, directed the sevadars not to offer him the fish. Considering the love of nature and of God's creation in the writings of the Gurus, wanton killing of animals would not be condoned, not would be their ritual sacrifice for gustatory satisfaction or otherwise.

There are other benefits to a simple but sufficient lunch after a service. The attendees know that they do not have to rush home and feed the kids or themselves. The mind is not distracted by the chores waiting at home; time off from them is a welcome respite, however brief. One can relax and enjoy the service single-mindedly.

Hindus have often debated if what you eat determines your spiritual status. Sikhs do not believe that. With such practical and liberal reasoning, some strange and unorthodox practices can also arise. Khushwant Singh speaks of a gurdwara in Australia which serves beer with the food. Given Sikh history and teaching, that just wouldn't do.

In his many writings, Guru Nanak offered only two criteria for food taboos, both are based on common sense. Anything that will harm the body or mind is to be shunned. And all things edible are available and permissible in moderation.

Over the years, I have seen many variations on the theme but to discuss and debate unnecessarily what to eat or not to eat in Sikhism is to transform what a modicum of intelligence and common sense can easily resolve into a mesh with the complexity of the Gordion knot.


[This article was first published as an essay, "Food Taboos", in Sikhism: A View With a Bias, by I.J. Singh, The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 1998.]

March 10, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Bangalore, India), March 10, 2010, 11:56 AM.

In the long run it is better if we become autotrophs (that is, organisms capable of synthesizing their own food from inorganic substances). Technologically, we must marry up human and plant genome and modify it to form a neo-human. This way we won't need to kill any thing and invite the wrath of different gods ... and vegetarians!

2: Aryeh Leib (Israel), March 10, 2010, 12:25 PM.

Let's begin by clearing away some prevalent misconceptions, at least, as regards Jewish dietary laws (I'm in no position to speak for anyone else), which have less to do with the menu than with the diner him/ herself. These laws have nothing to do with health considerations, although that's a relevant topic in and of itself, and nothing whatsoever to do with "ritual", in the pejorative sense that this word is modified by the terms, "empty" or "meaningless". On the contrary, when one employs the dictionary definition of "ritual" as "the prescribed order of a religious ceremony"... well, how free is Sikhi of this sort of "ritual"? But, we're getting off track (or, are we?). In short, the laws of Kashrut ("kosher", meaning, "fitting") represent those sections of Torah law known as "Hukim" (and I don't think it's by chance that this word brings to mind the term "Hukam"), i.e. commandments of G-d that make no rational sense to the human mind, but are obeyed precisely because of their source in the Divine Mind - infinitely greater than our own limited understanding. As a contemporary once put it, "There's nothing (intrinsically) wrong with non-kosher food, but there is something wrong with the Jew who eats it!". I have seen numerous cases here and on other Sikhi-related sites where people have defended their adherence to the Panj Kakkar, even though they aren't mentioned in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, with the argument that Guru Gobind Singh ji's having mandated them is quite enough reason itself for accepting them. By the way, kosher animal slaughter (a single knife cut which immediately severs the trachea and esophagus and the carotid artery, causing the animal's instant unconsciousness) resembles, if I see it correctly, nothing so much as "Jhakta", with which even Guru Nanak appears to have taken no issue. Also, the animals we do eat (wild or domesticated) are distinguished by the presence of both cud chewing and cloven hooves. I can't fault the good Dr. Singh for failure to know something of which the overwhelming number of contemporary Jews are unaware! This goes as well for the mention of "the Semitic practice of eating flesh cooked in a ritualistic manner". No such thing exists in Judaism, to my knowledge. One practical purpose of Jewish dietary laws is to make a separation between Jews and non-Jews. Eating together (as Langar demonstrates) creates a strong and intimate bond that can lead to excess familiarity ... and intermarriage - a problem with which the Sikh Diaspora is also becoming increasingly familiar. By the way, the vegetarian fare of Langar would still be completely unacceptable to Torah-observant Jews for a different reason; a prohibition on consuming food that hasn't been scrupulously checked for the presence of insects or worms - the consumption of which is much more seriously forbidden than that of pork. So sorry, I'll have to pass on the degh - not because it looks anything but delicious - but, as Maimonides put it, "My Creator has forbidden it to me - so, what can I do?"

3: Ikjot (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), March 10, 2010, 5:25 PM.

I am fed up with all these people saying that the Gurus were not against meat-eating. They come up with foolish evidence like "the gurus hunted animals, thus, they ate meat". In this case, the gurus hunted only those animals who were once devout Sikhs of the gurus, and, therefore, freeing them from the cycle of rebirth. As for Sikhs not being allowed to eat meat in which the animals were tortured before death, all the meat in stores across the world comes from animals who were tortured to death (halal or not). All I'm saying is that people who think that Gurus were not against eating meat, are sadly mistaken and are only thinking about their own wants.

4: Gultar Kaur (Coventry, United Kingdom), March 10, 2010, 5:45 PM.

I love Ikjot's explanation - convoluted though it is. So, let me see, we meat-eaters are actually freeing former devout Sikhs from the cycles of birth every time we sink our teeth into a hamburger? Wow! See ya later! ... I'd better grab a Big Mac before the store closes.

5: Sunny Singh Garcha (London, England), March 11, 2010, 7:30 AM.

To Ikjot, what is your definition of torture? I'm guessing when our Gurus hunted/ killed animals (using the jhatka method) the animal suffered some pain, albeit only momentarily. Today's world does not permit nor make it practical to grab a bow and arrow and kill an animal. But we do have supermarkets, butchers, etc. This meat comes from abattoirs where the animal is killed using a bolt/ electric stunning method. It is a relatively short-ived pain, probably more effective than the methods used in the times of our Gurus.

6: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), March 11, 2010, 10:08 AM.

I find it ironic that we should have had a slew of articles (including this one) just to remind ourselves that only fools wrangle over food taboos!

7: Karan Singh (United Kingdom), March 12, 2010, 12:28 PM.

Only Guru ji can liberate souls ... so Gultar Kaur ji, by eating that Big Mac, you are not going to liberate anyone - you have to be liberated to be able to liberate! Also, I never knew McDonald's started to sell jhatka meat. If your going to eat meat, then stick to the maryada as accepted in the Sikh Rehat Maryada or, better still, don't eat it at all. [Editor: One thing is for sure, emerging out of the entire dialogue in the last two weeks - eating meat gives you a sense of humour!]

8: Babjeet Singh (San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.), March 12, 2010, 12:52 PM.

Working solely among non-Sikhs, I notice everyone intuitively considers people who are vegetarians to be more spiritual than non-vegs and hold them in higher regard - this is among completely non-spiritual people. Don't know how anyone who relishes eating the flesh of brutally slain beings can be a spiritual person - i.e., a Sikh. It's very simple. I too eat meat but am cutting down.

9: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), March 15, 2010, 4:51 AM.

Hello, IJ. I believe this is a topic that can be used by the non-vegetarians and the vegetarians for endless debates. However, the maryada of Guru's langar is well practiced by the majority in the manner known to one and all. So I believe and also feel that we in all our humility should continue to do the same. If you desire to be a non-vegetarian, then let that be your personal affair and confined to your home and kitchen or your circle. Perhaps by opening this topic, we are inviting unnecessary debates for the two sides to justify themselves inconclusively. I am sure none can influence an established practice as it has attained an acceptance and with it an established status. So we should not in anyway influence with our limited sights.

10: Karnail Singh (Bidston Wirral, Merseyside, U.K.), March 15, 2010, 10:30 AM.

I don't want to confirm that I am a moorakh by getting involved in eating/ non-eating of meat - but I can't resist telling you a small story. My daughters were taking their two nieces for a walk. The younger 4-year old was seen to walk over some ants on the pavement. One of my daughters said: "Mind the poor ants"! The 2-year older niece some distant ahead on hearing this, turned around and said: "YEERR RIGHT, MASSI, BUT YOU EAT MEAT"! It does make one think.

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