A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019


Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

Here’s one explanation from an ISKON-related website. In short, it's based in a traditional belief that alliums, the plant family that includes garlic and onions, adversely stimulate emotional and sexual excitement. Some Jains, Buddhists and Taoists also follow this.

As a student of religion, I find this factoid fascinating.

But what does it have to do with the larger religion world, as 2018 concludes, that I hinted at above?

Can’t we just acknowledge this Hindu dietary quirk, the same as we might the dietary preferences of traditional Jews, Muslims or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and move on?

No we shouldn't. Not as long as tribalism remains a primary human trait, which I think it certainly will, given its close association of what we think it takes for group survival. The way our technology has conquered space and time -- and has thrown us together like never before -- behooves us to pay attention to the various human “dots,” or fine-print agenda points, and how they add up to direct human perceptions and actions.

Religious or cultural dietary codes are one more tool to help us make sense of other tribes' subtler codes.

Tribalism, in all its modern forms, refers to the religious, cultural, racial, class and political clashes seemingly erupting everywhere in our globalized era. Without making an effort to understand how all these small differences expressed in eating habits add up to create the chasms that divide us, we have no hope of overcoming them.

How is it that our globalized communications and transportation breakthroughs have Balkanized us instead of bringing us closer together? Isn't that what some promised us would happen?

Again, blame it on the fear we express through tribalism.

In case you haven't noticed folks, it’s gotten pretty bad out there beyond our individual bubbles. I for one, do not see any easing off in the year ahead.

In fact — call me an ungrateful cynic if you wish, though I’d prefer the term “clear-eyed realist” — I see things becoming worse in 2019 as populist backlashes and tribal fears grow darker yet.

I say this based on the trends I see in Europe, the Middle East, China, Russia, and in the United States under President Donald Trump.

These trends include: New rightwing populist and increasingly authoritarian governments (Europe); entrenched dictatorships that claim leftwing socialist ties but are in reality rightwing fascists (China, Russia); economic, social and foreign policy confusion (the U.S.), and the threat of larger wars growing more immediate (Middle East).

Meanwhile, climate change just keeps moving toward the day when enviro-refugees from parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America — with a degree of forcefulness we have yet to experience — demand their share of humanity’s shrinking food, water and other critical resources brought on by major weather changes.

It’s going to get way more nasty.

So consider: How will our religious leaders react? What about the various tribes of religious followers? Will we merely make thinks worse? After all, that does seem to be humanity's default position, certainly of late.

Or will religious leaders and followers figure out how to stop excelling in embarrassing scandals, and instead come up with answers for their many confused and fearful co-religionists?

Can they do it in a way that unites rather than further divides? Can they bridge, so to speak, our dietary gaps?

Of course I hope they can. I just try to avoid unrealistic optimism. 

But, OK. I guess I could relent, in this season in which much of the world celebrates the 12 days of Christmas, which for me is a recognition of humanity's desperate and ongoing need for hope and renewal, as formulated by the Abrahamic traditions' messianic ideal.

So pile your plates high in celebration of the holiday optimism that softens the human heart. Here's to all that hope, no matter what you may be eating -- onions and garlic or otherwise. Unless this is a fast day for you -- which is also just fine.

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