Our food habits have been influenced by the societies we live in. Certain foods are taboo for some communities and for some kinds of food, the ancient texts set down the rules that must be followed for their consumption. We are all aware of what should be eaten and what not, either because of our parents or on account of practices that we have incorporated under the influence of a belief system.
While the story of garlic and onions being prohibited for vaishnavites is well known there are supposed to be other references where people have been advised not to consume these kinds of food.
The Padma Purana, in the Brahma Khanda, 19.10 says –
palandu lasunam sigrum alambum grjanam palam
bhunkte yo vai naro brahman vratam candrayanam caret
Meaning – O sages, one who eats garlic, onions, sigrum (a kind of plant), turnips, bottle gourd and meat, that person should observe a candrayana fast.
Certain references prohibiting onions and garlic among other varieties of food can be found in the Manu-Samhita too –
5.5. Garlic, leeks and onions, mushrooms and (all plants), springing from impure (substances), are unfit to be eaten by twice-born men. (the Brahmins)
5.19. A twice-born man who knowingly eats mushrooms, a village-pig, garlic, a village-cock, onions, or leeks, will become an outcast.
While Ayurveda gives the details of the merits of the bulbs, it also lists a few demerits which are the main causes of not consuming them for certain people. While the two bulbs are considered to be of the same family, garlic finds a special mention in the Ayurveda as an aphrodisiac. This could just be one of the main reasons, why it is prohibited to the celibates, widows and sages who are meditating. Excessive consumption could lead to a disturbance in the vows of celibacy or arouse sexual passion, amongst those who have lost their husbands, leading to transgressions, unacceptable to the society at large.
This brings me to another myth, the source of which is unknown. According to this myth, onions and garlic should be avoided by people who are vegetarians, since eating them was akin to eating meat, and that too meat of a cow, i.e. beef. According to this myth, once in the Satya Yuga, sages were performing sacrifices for the welfare of the entire universe. One of the sacrifices was the gomedha sacrifice, in which a cow would be sacrificed and small pieces of it would be offered to the holy flames. Later, on the recitation of mantra’s the same cow would emerge out of the flames as a calf.
During one such sacrifice, a sages wife was pregnant and expecting her child soon. When the sage was in the midst of the sacrifice, she had a strong urge to eat meat. She got worried, as she knew that if the desire to eat is not satiated during pregnancy, then the child is born with a defect of salivating from its mouth. She did not want that to happen to her child and so, to ensure that her urge to eat was met with; she hid one small piece of the offering with her.
Around the same time, the sage had completed his sacrifice, but he noticed that the calf emerging out of the flames had a small part missing from its left side. He went into deep meditation to find out what had happened and came to know the truth. The sage’s wife got worried and to avoid getting caught, she threw the piece of meat, far away from where she was. But the piece of meat too had acquired a life of its own. It is said, that the blood in the meat became red lentils and the bones became garlic, while the meat itself became onions. Since then, the Vaishnavites do not consume any of these, as they are considered to be non-vegetarian, besides being akin to the meat of a cow.
When I was discussing this with a person I know well and one who has strong religious leanings, he used an analogy to explain. He said that there were some kinds of food items which, even if they were beneficial for health, ought not to be consumed by everyone. As an example, he said that in ancient times wine was used in certain medicines, but that doesn’t mean that wine should be consumed by mendicants and sages.
While the source of this myth is not known, such tales only go on to justify why certain fruits and/or vegetables are not consumed by certain people, or why certain communities eat certain kinds of foods. We also have similar phenomenon at play when certain cereals, fruits and vegetable preparations are consumed on certain days or during certain festivals. While the practices usually have a seasonal significance, over time they turn into food taboos which make up the fabric of social norms among the people of a region or country.