The consumption of alcohol has existed in human society since time immemorial. Probably all societies, at least in historically-recorded times, have had members who have used alcohol, which has been a common source of relaxation, intoxication or inebriation. In the modern world, all types of alcoholic beverages are freely available in the world market.
Most societies have placed some restraints or restrictions on the use of alcohol; because of the dangers arising from it’s over use. Some groups, particularly of a religious nature, have tried to ban alcohol altogether and have made it into a sin to consume it at all, although some members within these groups have continued to use alcohol anyway.
Alcoholism is a major health and social problem throughout the world. Such groups as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have arisen to help people to deal with alcohol addictions. Alcoholism is a major cause of motor accidents, which is a major cause of death, particularly for young people. That alcohol has a potential down side, no one, even those who drink it regularly, would dispute.
What is the Hindu view of alcohol consumption? Hinduism is a spiritual tradition that is not based upon mere faith or belief but upon an understanding of dharma, the natural laws behind the universe. So the question for Hindus is how does the use of alcohol fit in with its sense of dharma and how does it effect us karmically? Alcohol is also part of the use of intoxicants and stimulants in general, not a separate item.
Many monastic orders from India, both Hindu and non-Hindu, take various vows like celibacy. Refraining from alcohol is another such vow that most of these monks swear to. Some Hindu Tantric groups, on the other hand, use alcohol in a sacred way, either as an offering to the deity or as taken individually during certain special rituals. Relative to non-monastic Hindus, Hindu merchants and aristocrats have historically used alcohol, just as they have not practiced celibacy. Many continue to use alcohol today, without necessarily falling into alcoholism.
In monastic orders of other religions like the Christians and the Buddhists, alcohol is generally forbidden, although significant exceptions do exist. For example, some Christian monks actually have run wineries as part of their monasteries. Also, many religious traditions throughout the world have also used alcohol and other intoxicants like marijuana during sacred rituals.
There is no Hindu religious ban on the use of alcohol as there is in Islam, for example. Hinduism generally shies away from such absolute dos and don’ts and strives to deal with individual cases. Yet Hinduism recognizes that alcohol is a powerful substance that has dangers that should not be taken lightly.
Ayurveda, the medical branch of Hindu dharma, contains clearly defined views on the use alcohol. Ayurveda uses alcohol as a solvent for extracting the active ingredients of certain herbs. Tinctures are used in western herbalism in the same way. Ayurveda also prepares special herbal wines called asavas and arishtas. Herbal wines are regarded as particularly good medicines to take for a weak digestion and as relaxants for stress. Ayurveda recognizes that certain alcoholic beverages (like wine) can have health benefits, like improving digestion or circulation, but only taken in moderation.
Ayurveda also recognizes that excessive alcohol consumption can cause or contribute to physical or psychological diseases. Excess alcohol can damage the liver, make the blood toxic, and overheat the brain. Alcohol can impair our mental judgment as well as our sensory coordination. For those engaged in study, like students and college, alcohol can weaken one’s concentration and ability to learn.
Does one have to abstain from alcohol to be a Hindu? Certainly not. But to be a good Hindu one should learn to use substances like alcohol with restraint and knowledge of their potential side effects.
Are there certain Hindu sects or practices that require completely abstaining from alcohol? These do exist, but are not ordained for everyone.
So the advice to Hindu youth is to approach alcohol with caution, knowing its qualities and its possible consequences. Many Hindu youth may wish to abstain from it altogether. Others may use it on occasion or in moderation. Yet it is a matter of understanding the effects of alcohol, not simply of following a religious prohibition. We should learn the actual properties of things and act accordingly, not just blindly follow religious bans. Other intoxicants should be approached with the same care. In general, in Hindu Dharma, we should strive to live in such a way that promotes awareness, respect for others, respect for nature, and a seeking to know the truth directly for ourselves, not just according to the ideas of a book or a leader.
Young people are also inclined to experiment with things and so may want to try alcohol and see what it is. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. But one must always be careful. What we open ourselves to has certain energies we must be ready to deal with. This includes not only the substances that we take but also the company that we keep. We should always strive to be around those individuals who bring out our own higher qualities and connect us with the greater universal spirit.
The Hindu view of life and its understanding of dharma cannot be reduced to a few dos and don’ts, a set of commandments to be applied in a rigid way. The Hindu view is that we must understand each individual and circumstance in its own right. What may be fine in one case, may not work in another. Such an understanding of dharma is harder to gain than it is to simply follow a few religious injunctions or prohibitions, but that is what life is all about. In life and in nature, there are flows and currents but no rigid absolutes. The same fire that can cook one’s food can burn one’s house down. There is no substitute for awareness in all that we do.
Hinduism encourages a balanced view in which we know the good and bad, the right and wrong of how things can be used. Even religion used wrong can cause a great deal of harm, as history has so often shown and our daily newspapers often proclaim.
Author: David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
Originally published in Hindu Voice UK, 2006