Monday, March 8, 2010

On The Food Habits of Bengali Brahmins

Food Habits of Bengali Brahmins


In this article, I make some general observations about food habits of Bengali Brahmins, although they might differ on a case by case basis. 

Like I have mentioned earlier most Bengali Brahmins especially those residing in West Bengal are non-vegetarians and fish is a staple diet. In fact, traditionally fish is not considered non-vegetarian by us. After fish, mutton has been the most popular dish - however owing to it's high price, its consumption is low. After mutton, it was duck's egg which used to be a popular egg item.

Chicken (and eggs of hen) was not popular and in fact is still not popular/ not consumed in many Bengali Brahmin families. The reason is historical and has to do with the fact that hen farms/ poultries were owned by Muslims and hence Hindu's had religious reservations against consuming such items. However, in recent times chicken and eggs have come to be accepted unilaterally across all Bengalis.

Now let us see what our traditional texts have to say on the food habits of Bengali Brahmins (from http://tanmoy.tripod.com/bengal/food.html).

... According to brhadddharma purANa, the rohita (rui), shaphara (pu~Ti, shapharI), sakula (sola) etc. white fish with scales are allowed for brahmins. jImutavAhana mentions oil from illisa (ilisha, ilsA) as commonly used. However, fish that live in holes or in mud, fish whose head is shaped like a snake's (e.g. vANa), those that look ugly and those that do not have scales were not allowed for the brahmins.

Snails, crabs, chicken, crane, duck, dAtyUha (cAtaka), camel, cow, and pigs were considered inedible by the upper caste, though no doubt at least snails, crabs, chicken, and various kinds of proscribed fish and birds were eaten by the common people.

However, there are certain Vaishnava families who are vegetarians. There are some Bengali Brahmins who are vegetarians either by choice or becuase of some religious oath. Some people are in fact pure vegetarians and do not even eat onions and garlic. A few Bengali Brahmin families who migrated from Bengal to places like Benares (Varanasi), Allahbad or other parts of India are also vegetarians.

Brahmin Image: Image Source - www.drikpanchang.com

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Thanks for your time. Please feel free to leave your comments and do share this post with those who might find it useful.

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay | Mkerj | Hoorayforlife | The Tiny Man | The Advaitist

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18 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. But my questions is why is it so and why it is different from other brahmins.

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  2. SriSriTaraSaranam.

    My dear friend - since I am not aware of your name, I shall just refer to you as my friend.

    First of all thank you very much for your query and let me see if I can address your query.

    Food habits of any group of people are a product of availability, physical environment and religious beliefs. In a coastal place like West Bengal where fish used to be available in abundance, the brAhmanas of Bengal embraced fish eating given its availability, wide variety and taste. You must keep in mind that the brAhmanas of Bengal comprised 3 distinct categories - the original sAraswata brAhmanas (sapta-satis) who migrated from Saraswati river, the Kolancha/ Kanauj brahmins and the vaidikis. A majority of ancient bengali brAhmanas are migrants from western India (not necessarily Kanauj) - so although their food habits might have been different initially, with the passage of time and change of scenery that comes with migration, they absorbed local food habits.

    Now the question is, was it legal for a brAhman to eat meat (meat of fish)? The logic that our ancestors came up with was that they were not killing the fish - they merely took the fish out of water and the fish then died on its own accord due to lack of water - in the same way that flower or a fruit dies when it is plucked from the tree. And hence some people also referred to fish as "jala pushpam" (flower of water). And in this way fish became a staple diet.

    Eating meat came much later - as a result of Muslim conquest and destruction of Bengali Hindu culture especially when brAhmanas were persecuted by the Muslim rulers. By the time the British came to India and settled, many brAhmanas had started eating meat. Initially, people ate only goat offered as sacrifice to God (which was just an excuse however). brAhmanas did not eat chicken as poultries were owned by Muslims.

    Later however, all bengalis including brAhmanas moved towards a similar kind of food habit especially after the godless communists came to power.

    I hope this somewhat answers your question. Even Kashmiri Brahmins eat mutton and chicken, some GSB (Gauda Saraswata Brahmins) eat fish, Nepali and Assamese Brahmin eat chicken, fish and mutton - which again is a product of the factors I have alluded to above (environment, culture and availability).

    Thanks - Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay

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  3. Thank you very much for your response and this answers my question. I found your articles very informative and I would love to read all of them whenever I get time.

    I am Sakti Prasad Bagchi (Bengali Brahmin). You may know more about me at http://straydog77.wordpress.com

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  4. i wish to say ,to all ...plz plz be pure vegiterian

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  5. dear bengali friends.......really really BE VEGETARIAN......YOURS

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  6. नमो नमः भ्रातृ नीरज

    जय श्री राम !

    Thank you for your comment and for the very nice suggestion. We the Bengali Brahmins shall definitely think about, ponder on the matter and act upon it based on a common consensus. But we cannot go against our holy purana which permits us too eat non veg - बृहद्धर्म पुराण.

    In the mean time we request all the Indian vegetarians to stop drinking milk and eating butter, ghee, paneer and become true vegans. By drinking milk one is depriving the calf of its share and indirectly killing it. In fact, milk is completely non-vegetarian.

    Let us Indian unite and all become vegans !!!

    Jai Guru!

    शुभोदीप मुखोपाध्याय

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  7. I am a Tamil brahmin and all the brahmins in Tamilnadu are pure vegetarians. We don't even eat eggs. Milk and its by products are not considered as non-vegetarian by us.

    Can you please tell me as to which sect of Bengalis are pure vegetarians?. Can we distinguish them by their names?

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    Replies
    1. Dear RVR,

      Thank you for the comment.

      Unfortunately this concept of "pure vegetarian" is very fuzzy. Even among Tambrams, I have seen many Iyengars (esp the Vadagalai) who consider mushroom as non-vegetarian - whereas I have seen others including Iyers, some Smartas and Tenkalai Iyengars who don't consider mushroom non-veg.

      About the second point, we cannot distinguish Bengali Brahmins by names - we distinguish them by their surnames. Typical Bengali Brahmin surnames are:
      Radhi Sect - Mukhopadhyay or Mukherjee (bharadvAja gotra), Bandhopadhyay or Banerjee (shanDilya), Chattopadhyay or Chatterjee (kAshyapa), Gangopadhyay or Ganguly (suvarNa), Ghoshal (vatsa)
      Varendra Sect - Sanyal, Bagchi, Maitra, Kanjilala
      Pirali Sect - Thakur
      Other titles are - Bhattacharya, Chakrabarty and less commonly Goswami, Acharya, Shastri
      Among Roy Choudhuri, Chaudhuri,Ray, Mazumdar - some may be Brahmins

      Any of them might be vegetarians - there is no specific rule - depending on their own free will - some also become vegetarians when they get dikShA.

      There are typically three sectarian divisions - vaiShNava, shaiva and shAkta - which again has no link to surnames. Moreover, Bengali Brahmins unlike the sectarian southern Brahmins, but similar to smArtas of South, believe in worship of 5 deities - gaNeSha, sUrya,durgA, shiva, viShNu - apart from the kula-devatA : आदित्यं गणनाथञ्च देवीं रुद्रं यथाक्रमं । नारायणं विशुद्धाख्यमन्ते च कुलदेवतां ॥
      That is a Mukherjee can be either vaiShNava, or shaiva or shAkta. Similarly for others.

      So in short there is no sect or surname which is pure vegetarian - only certain people are and they may belong to any of the sects/ surnames/ divisions. However, it is probable that viShNu followers have a higher probability of not being vegetarians - but there is no empirical evidence in this regard. In my case, we have a vaiShNava tradition many centuries old - we worship shrIdhara nArAyaNa as shAlagrAma shilA (what Tam-Brams called sAligrAma) - but that doesn't mean we are vegetarians - the last pure sAdhaka is my family was my great-great garndfather shrI anukulchandra mukhopAdhyAya who ate only twice a day and that too only rice, curd and boiled vegetables his entire life.

      In short, there is no way of determining, among Bengalli Brahmins who is veg or non-veg unless you specifically ask them. Thanks once again for the question.

      Hope this clarifies.
      Thanks,
      Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay

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  8. Please join brahminsforum.com and participate in the discussions.

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  9. Thanks for the information. My father is a Bengali Brahmin (Banerji) and I always thought it was bizarre that they ate meat and seafood--especially considering my maternal line is Sindhi kshatriya and strictly vegetarian. As you pointed out, it is up to the individual and family to make their dietary choices. I know that my paternal grandmother's family (Mukherjee) was strictly Vaishnav and had extreme and extensive rituals concerning hygiene, with a full bath and clothes change following a trip to the restroom.

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  10. Hi Shubodeep,

    Regarding availability, fish is available in abundance along the entire coastline of the country. But Brahmins in other states (apart from Saraswat Brahmins of Karnataka) don't eat fish or any sea food. Religious beliefs sounds like a more plausible reason. The Shakta traditions of Bengal?

    Also, Brahmins from Andhra (both smartha's and vishnavas) consider mushroom to be non-veg.

    - Satya

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  11. You know due to a recent discussion by few of us Bengali Brahmin in an international blog-Indian/Chinese IQ puzzle(where we commented)many American's are asking/searching in Google about Bengali Brahmins or whether they are equal to Ashkenazi Jewish or not because IQ average of Bengali Brahmins are within 110-122(highest for Kulin Brahmin like us)while the Ashkenazis have got around 113-115.

    I must also say that our vaidya Brahmins(who were Brahmin but started research in medicine) are equally smart(may be slightly lesser than kulin Brahmins).Amartya Sen,Sir Partha Dasgupta,physicist Ashok Sen all belong to this category.

    In India all Brahmins are vegetarian except Kerala and Bengal...may be that's the reason of our intellect because I know Judaism encourage meat eating just like white people in colder climate also take vast amount of meat.

    In term of population in west Bengali Brahmin/Vaidy's are doing lot better than Ashkenazi because in 2008 Bengali Hindus were 30K in Us and UK each among them only 25-30% may be Brahmin/vaidya.

    From that population we have produced two world famous Economist,famous Biologist Anandamohan Chakraborty and more than 100 Us patents in invention.

    So far most of our scientiofic luminaries wee Kulin Kasyastha such as J.C Bose,S.N BOse.Amar Bose while IVF pioneer subhas Mukherjee(who missed Nobel in 2010 because of his death in 1981 thanks to his peers and idiot politicians of Bengal/India was kulin Brahmin.Anirban Bannerjee who has won Nobel laureate signature award in Chemistry is also Kulin Brahmin.If Bengali Brahmin/Vaidya or Kulin Kayastha migrate in more numbers to west then we will produce many more world class inventor/Nobel laureates.

    FYI:Population wise Bengali Hindus have highest(more than 100 Us patents per 10,000 population)Us patents than any other immigrant group here in US(beating Japanese/Ashkenazi Jew or even higher than native white).

    So my suggestion Bengali Brahmin/upper caste please come in more numbers to US/UK if you want to do something special because it's impossible to produce any creative work either in Kolkata(although this city has produced more laurels than many 1st world's city) or other parts of India which have not produced any single Nobel prize from their home or any world class inventor.

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    1. One correction in the above section:In terms of population in US/UK Bengali Brahmin/Vaidya are doing better than Ashkenazi or lot better than whites.

      There are 3 American Hall of inventor from Bengali Hindu community-Amar Bose,A.Chakraborty,Bedabrata Pain.While there are 2 Pulitzer winners(both are Brahmin and one of them is woman)and total of 13 Grammy awards by Brahmin Ravishankar and his daughter Nora.Bikram ghose/dhruva Ghose are also two other Grammy winners from Kolkata but they are from Kayastha.One thing is special here in Bengal is that here Brahmins from Sena/Pala dynasty have mixed with other upper caste which is why Bengal produces so many intellectuals outside Brahmin community.

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  12. In Hindu Dharma,non vege is allowed.'Only veg' concept has came from Jain Pantha

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    1. Thank you Sir for a very interesting observation! Much appreciated.

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  13. can I get the web link related to बृहद्धर्म पुराण. thanks

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  14. Sampan ChakrabortyMarch 31, 2016 at 6:22 PM

    Bengali Brahmin living in USA have 5000 population and from that population we have 1200+ patents which is the best stat in the world.In USA we've also won 2 Pulitzer prizes and 14 Grammy awards(Ravishankar & his daughter Nora Jones).

    I wrote about it at Indian/Chinese IQ puzzle and since then people across English speaking countries follow me on twitter.

    Here are some inventors:Arpan Chakraborty(190 patents)
    Amit Chakraborty(113 patents)
    Soma Chakraborty(96 patents)

    Also there is a Nobel laureate signature award winner named Anirban Banerjee of Harvard.

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