Why no onion or garlic?

A Frequently Asked Question

No onion or garlic?
Q. Why are onion, garlic and related "pungent" plants excluded from a Buddhist vegetarian diet?
A. Because the scriptures followed by Buddhist vegetarians warn against them.

The Shurangama Sutra

The Shurangama Sutra, Volume 7, Part One, discusses the process of overcoming the basic cause of random thoughts that fill the mind and eliminate attentiveness:1 ...Beings who seek samadhi should refrain from eating five pungent plants of this world.... If these five are eaten cooked, they increase one's sexual desire; if they are eaten raw, they increase one's anger.

[Note: The scriptures do not warn against all pungent plants, only those in the malodorous garlic/onion family. There is no advice against ginger, for example.]

If this simple, straightforward rationale fails to sway the samadhi-seeker the Sutra, like many other religious texts, makes its point with no lack of imagery: Therefore, even if people in this world who eat pungent plants can expound the twelve divisions of the Sutra canon, the gods and immortals of the ten directions will stay far away from them because they smell so bad. However, after they eat these things the hungry ghosts will hover around and kiss their lips. Being always in the presence of ghosts, their blessings and virtue will dissolve as the days go by, and they will experience no lasting benefit...

People who eat pungent plants and also cultivate samadhi will not be protected by the Bodhisattvas, gods, immortals, or good spirits of the ten directions; therefore, the tremendously powerful demon kings, able to do as they please, will appear in the body of a Buddha and speak Dharma for them, denouncing the precepts and praising lust, rage, and delusion.

When their lives end, these people will join the retinue of demon kings. When they use up their blessings as demons, they will fall into the unintermittent hell.

Ananda, those who cultivate for Bodhi should never eat the five pungent plants.

In short, the scriptures warn that pungent plants are to be avoided because obstacles to the spiritual path increase when they are eaten.

Finally, it should be noted that the authenticity of the Shurangama Sutra is currently a subject of academic debate. Some scholars assert that the work was not brought from India, but fabricated by Chinese.

Other views

Jainism

Note that although there are some strong similarities to the Jain vegetarian diet, the Sutra's rationale is different from the advice against eating any root vegetable, given in Jain religious books. This advice is based on the principle of minimizing violence to living beings: root vegetables are classified as possessing multiple plant souls.

Traditional Chinese medicine

The Sutra's assessment of the pungent plants has parallels in traditional Chinese medicine. According to the book Chinese System of Food Cures:2

  • Pungent foods induce perspiration and promote energy circulation.
  • Chive seed is an important herb in Chinese herbal remedies, normally used as a "yang" tonic: a tonic used to treat impotence and sexual weakness, among other things, by increasing the energetic capacity of the testes.
  • Garlic helps to eliminate the strong smells of meat or fish.

Yogic theory

Yoga master Sri Swami Sivananda, while advising spiritual aspirants to maintain a yogic diet, claimed: Rajasic food distracts the mind. It excites passion...Onions and garlic are worse than meat.3

Islam

References in Islamic texts regarding the disturbing effects of strong-smelling pungents can easily be found online, for example: It is reported that [once, when] the Prophet (pbuh) sensed the odor of garlic in the mosque, he said: Whoever eats of this tree, he should not come near us in our mosques – distressing us with the odor of garlic – till its odor subsides; for the angels too are distressed by things that distress humans.4 It is narrated that Omar ibn Al-Khattab addressed people on a Friday and in that address he mentioned the Prophet of God. In his address, he said: People, you continue to eat [from the fruits of] two trees, which I see as vicious [in their stench]. It is this onion and garlic. Indeed, I saw the Prophet (pbuh), when their odor was sensed from a person, he directed him to exit to the Baqee`. Therefore, whoever eats of these should kill their stench by cooking them.5 These narratives are interpreted as directives regarding social etiquette: i.e., consider your neighbor before plunking down next to him in prayer while reeking of garlic.

Prayer at Delhi mosque, c.1910
"OK, who's the wise guy that's been eating raw garlic?"

Folklore

A legend (sometimes said to be early Christian, sometimes Islamic) tells that when the devil was cast from Eden, garlic sprang up wherever his left foot stepped and onion where his right foot touched.

Popular folklore around the world is that garlic's powerful smell provides protection against evil, sorcery, or vampires. But for that purpose it is usually to be hung up or worn - not eaten (Ulysses' defense against Circes in Homer's Odyssey might seem like an exception, but the popular belief that the plant that saved him was garlic is a misconception).

Further reading

Obviously, more online resources are available now than when this was firsted posted (pre-Wikipedia era!).

While updating this, I came across Why Ayurveda, Yogic & FODMAP Diet Recommends No Onion No Garlic? - that covers more ground and in greater depth than that presented here, and with lots of links to even more information.

References

  1. Pages 33-41, "The Shurangama Sutra - Volume Seven", Published and translated by Buddhist Text Translation Society
  2. "Chinese System of Food Cures: Preventions and Remedies", Henry C. Lu, Sterling Publishing Co., 1986
  3. "Kundalini Yoga", Sri Swami Sivananda
  4. "The Prophet’s (pbuh) Special Position With Reference to Eating Garlic, Etc…"
  5. "Narrative regarding Eating Garlic, Onion and Leek in Cooked Form"