Garlic as an edible substance was forbidden in the early sangha. It seems that, at the time, many people found it to be an utterly offensive substance, and this was not limited to Buddhists. In the Vedic traditions as well we see a strong disdain for garlic, as well as onions. For example, in the Manusmṛti (Laws of Manu), which admittedly dates a few centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime, we see the following proscriptions:
5. Garlic, leeks and onions, mushrooms and (all plants), springing from impure (substances), are unfit to be eaten by twice-born men.
19. A twice-born man who knowingly eats mushrooms, a village-pig, garlic, a village-cock, onions, or leeks, will become an outcast.
The Buddhist Vinaya literature also prescribes strict rules against eating garlic, stating that it is only to be consumed medicinally, and even then there are protocols in place to prevent the garlic eater from offending his fellow monastics with his odor by becoming something of a temporary outcast.
Here I would like to look at some of the rules and regulations concerning garlic as it is found in the Indian Vinaya literature translated into Chinese (note that much Indian Buddhist literature only survives in Classical Chinese). At the same time I would like to point out that although garlic was considered disagreeable, the substance of cow dung was not. This kind of sensibility was also found in Vedic or “Hindu” traditions. This is also an interesting cultural difference to consider, given that in modern times in the West, and of course elsewhere, it is the complete opposite: garlic is fine, but cow dung is not.
To begin with, the Four Part Vinaya 四分律 of the Dharmagupta school forbids the consumption of garlic, though the severity of the offense differs according to the gender.
「若比丘尼、噉生蒜、熟蒜、若雜蒜者、咽咽波逸提。比丘、突吉羅。式叉摩那、沙彌、沙彌尼、突吉羅、是謂為犯。不犯者、或有如是病、以餅裹蒜食。若餘藥所不治、唯須服蒜差、聽服。若塗瘡不犯。」(CBETA, T22, no. 1428, p. 737, b10-14)
“If a bhikṣuṇī (nun) eats raw garlic, old garlic or mixed garlic, it is a pāyattika offense when swallowed. For a bhikṣu (monk) it is a duṣkṛta (misdemeanor) offense. For a śikṣamāṇā, śrāmaṇera (male novice) or śrāmaṇerī(female novice), it is a duṣkṛta offense. This is considered a violation. A non-violation would be if someone had an illness as such and the garlic was eaten in a biscuit. If one cannot be cured with other medicines and only by treatment with garlic will one recover, then the treatment is permitted. If smeared on a skin sore there is no violation.”
The Sarvāstivādavinaya Saṃgraha 根本薩婆多部律攝 offers the following protocol for a monastic taking garlic medicinally.
「若服蒜為藥者、僧伽臥具大小便處、咸不應受用。不入眾中、不禮尊像、不繞制底。有俗人來、不為說法、設有請喚亦不應往。應住邊房服藥既了、更停七日待臭氣銷散、浴洗身衣並令清潔、其所居處牛糞淨塗。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1458, p. 571, a10-15)
“If treating [an illness] with garlic, neither the sangha bedding nor lavatory should be used. One should not join the sangha assembly, prostrate to the Buddha or circumambulate caityas. If a laymember comes, one should not teach the Dharma. Even if requested one should not go. One should reside in a room on the periphery [of the monastery]. When the treatment of medicine is completed, remain settled for a further seven days to wait for the odor to disperse. Washing the body and clothes, making them pure, the place where one stayed is to be purified by smearing it with cow dung.”
Curiously the last eight characters as quoted in a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) vinaya commentary have one slight modification: the “cow dung” is replaced with “sweeping”.
「其所居處、掃灑淨塗。」(CBETA, X40, no. 717, p. 237, b8-9 // Z 1:63, p. 60, d4-5 // R63, p. 120, b4-5)
“The place one stayed in is to be swept and purified by smearing.”
The Chinese here becomes ambiguous. It is unclear with what substance one is to use when smearing the room. The reader is left to use their imagination, which in Ming Dynasty China would probably have meant incense or some other agreeable substance, and not cow dung, as was the case in the original text. This modification in the text is quite significant because it speaks to cultural differences between India and China. In ancient India cow dung was considered a pure substance, and even used medicinally, which the Buddha approved of according to Buddhist literature (see below).
The idea of “cleansing” a space with smeared cow dung is found in ancient Indic literature in general. For example, in the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam we see the following:
“First one should sweep and dust thoroughly, and then one should further cleanse with water and cow dung. Having dried the temple, one should sprinkle scented water and decorate the temple with mandalas.”
There is an account of the Buddha prescribing a form of panchgavya (otherwise called cowpathy in English) in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Nidāna Mātṛka根本說一切有部尼陀那目得迦 as follows:
「佛言: 有無齒牛食噉糠麥、後時便出其粒仍全。用此為麨、非時應服。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1452, p. 427, b18-20)
The Buddha said, “Have a toothless cow eat husked wheat. Later it will then eject the grain still whole. Use this for roasted flour and take it when it is untimely.”
“Untimely” here refers to the time between midday and dawn when a Buddhist monk or nun normally fasts. Here the roasted flour is probably something akin to Tibetan tsampa, which is roasted barley flour that is made into something like porridge with butter tea (it is still consumed by Himalayan people today).
It might seem odd to most modern people that garlic could be considered so offensive, yet cow dung as pure. Again, this is a large cultural difference, and demonstrates how subjective the “purity” of substances can be across the cultural spectrum of humanity. We might think garlic as generally agreeable (at least in cuisine) while thinking cow manure rather repulsive. In the Buddha’s time it seems to have been the complete opposite. Cow dung is one of the “five pure products” (pañca-gavya) of a cow, which includes urine, dung, milk, cream and butter.
Incidentally, in present day India you can still see plenty of people in the countryside making discs of dried cow dung with which they heat their homes and cook their food (as seen here on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi in a photo I took in 2011).
As I was informed when I visited the ruins, even the kitchens of the great Nālanda Monastery in ancient times were fired with dried cow dung. It is quite a versatile substance, though I hear burning it is bad for the eyes and causes vision disorders after extended periods of time.
To dispel any doubts that this rule against garlic was limited to just one sect, we should note that the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya 摩訶僧祇律prescribes a nearly identical protocol for taking garlic medicinally. This text is thought by some scholars to be the most ancient rendition of the Vinaya available to us, which at the very least in this context would suggest that there truly was a garlic prohibition in the early sangha, and that this was not a later development.
「服已應七日行隨順法。在一邊小房中、不得臥僧床褥、不得上僧大小便處行、不得在僧洗脚處洗脚、不得入溫室講堂食屋、不得受僧次差會、不得入僧中食及禪坊、不得入說法布薩僧中。若比丘集處一切不得往、不應遶塔、若塔在露地者、得下風遙禮。七日行隨順法已、至八日、澡浴浣衣熏已得入僧中。」(CBETA, T22, no. 1425, p. 483, b29-c7)
“When the treatment is completed, for seven days one will abide by [the following] rule. Stay in a small periphery room [of the monastery]. One must not lay on the sangha mattress. One must not use the sangha lavatory. One must not wash one’s feet in the sangha feet washing area. One must not enter the bathroom, lecture hall or dining hall. One must not [attend] offering gatherings based on seniority. One must not join the sangha assembly when eating the midday meal, or in the meditation hall. One must not join the monks when the Dharma is being taught, or precepts are being recited. If the bhikṣus assemble together in one place together, one must not go. One should not circumambulate stūpas. If a stūpa is on open ground, one must carry out prostrations downwind far from it. Having followed the rule for seven days, on the eighth day one bathes, washes one’s clothes and scents them before being allowed to join the sangha.”
In the modern West, I suspect a lot of Buddhists are apathetic when it comes to dietary restrictions beyond vegetarianism, which is seen favorably but is by no means universal. Not many people are aware that garlic was strictly forbidden in the early sangha, let alone onions, leeks, shallots, and even brewer’s yeast and lees (the leftover grain from after brewing alcohol). The latter two are described as capable of intoxicating people; thus, they were forbidden. However, these dietary restrictions apply to formally ordained renunciates as per the vinaya (monks and nuns), so it is not really relevant given that in the Western world there are so few bhikṣuṇīs and bhikṣus, though this could change in time. One issue I see, though, is that dietary considerations and formal protocols as outlined above are generally seen as secondary, even unimportant, in modern spiritual practice. This is unlikely, in my opinion, to be given much consideration. We maybe can’t expect someone to go into solitary retreat for a week because they ate some garlic, and then cleanse their room with smeared cow dung. The Buddha actually provided a caveat in this respect as recorded in the vinaya of the Mahīśāsaka school 彌沙塞部和醯五分律:
「雖是我所制、而於餘方不以為清淨者、皆不應用。雖非我所制、而於餘方必應行者、皆不得不行。」(CBETA, T22, no. 1421, p. 153, a14-17)
“Even if it be something that I have prohibited, if it is not considered pure [conduct] in other lands, then none of it should be adopted. Even if it is not something that I have prohibited, if something must be carried out in other lands, then it always must be carried out.”