This tale was told to me by one of the drivers I hire occasionally. One day we started chatting about food and why certain kinds of food are banned by certain communities, especially the likes of onion and garlic for some vegetarians, even when it is well known that they have medicinal value, he came up with this story.

The driver, whose grand-father was a well-known Ayurvedic vaidya, in Allahabad, had told him that both onion and garlic were a poor-man’s insurance against all ailments. And if consumed regularly since birth, one could maintain one’s youth and keep many ailments at bay, especially those related to old age like arthritis, blood-pressure, etc. According to the ‘shastras’, the two vegetables are banned only for ascetics and not for people at large. The driver had heard this when an ascetic had come to his village. The ascetic incidentally could perform several miracles and the people of the village were in awe of him.

Anyway, according to this ascetic, once Sage Durvasa had invited many sages to his home for lunch. They got lost in the jungle and couldn’t find their way to his ashram but they were so hungry that they started hunting for whatever they could get. All they could find were some bulbs under the ground, which looked edible. These were onions and garlic. They tried it, and found it quite different and since they were starving, they consumed it in large quantities.

The sages were satiated but it was not like when they felt after a regular meal. It was a different experience. Even though they were not quite full; they went back home feeling good and ‘warm’. The next day, they realised that they had not visited Durvasa, who was known for his short temper. So they made haste to his ashram and when they managed to find it, they told him all about the previous day. Durvasa, insisted on seeing the vegetables, and the sages took him to the spot where the vegetables had been rooted out from. Upon seeing the vegetables, it is believed, Durvasa set down a condition that no ascetic should ever partake of these vegetables. The reason was that their consumption led to an unusual feeling of satisfaction and a sense of warmth which was unbecoming of an ascetic.

According to another version, during the samudra-manthan, when Vishnu as Mohini was distributing nectar to the gods, two demons, Rahu and Ketu managed to consume the nectar. But before the nectar could pass through their throats, Vishnu managed to sever their heads. And the nectar fell on to the ground which led to the sprouting of garlic and onion and thus they are shaped like drops (of the nectar that Rahu and Ketu could not consume). While the bulbs are nectar for mortals, followers of Lord Vishnu do not consume it as they have emanated from the mouths of demons. They believe that though eating garlic and onion would make them disease free and strong like the demons, their thinking and behaviour would also be influenced by them. This kind of behaviour is caused by foods called ‘tamasik’ which are not considered to be good for both the body and the mind. (“Puranic Encylopedia” by Vettam Mani under CANDRA IV, Motilal Banarsidas edition, Pg. 171)
IMAGE DETAILS: Allium sativum, known as garlic, from William Woodville, Medical Botany, 1793.