Did the Buddha permit grape wine?

In an earlier post “Why did the Buddha prohibit alcohol?” we reviewed the Vinaya literature (Buddhist monastic codes) that discuss why the Buddha laid down a precept against the consumption of alcohol. 

There are different versions of this account, but generally they all agree that a bhikṣu named Svāgata passed out from drinking too much after celebrating his defeat of a Nāga that had been terrorizing a region. Whether this really happened or not aside, the early Buddhist community, like other śramaṇa traditions, looked down on alcohol consumption and thus it sobriety was highly valued from early on.

However, Buddhists in at least one part of India were involved in wine production not so long after the Buddha died. It also seems probable that many of them consumed alcohol as well, and that it might have become not so unusual in later centuries.

Harry Falk in his paper “Making Wine in Gandhāra Under Buddhist Monastic Supervision” outlines the archaeological discoveries indicating that in Gandhāra the Buddhist monks possessed equipment for making wine, which was a prominent feature of the local culture. He also discusses how wine drinking was depicted on stūpa panels and stair raisers. He notes that "it seems that neither non-Buddhist visitors nor the heads of the monasteries were passionately opposed to the production, distribution and consumption of wine in connection with religious festivals."

Wine making had been a long-standing practice prior to the introduction of Buddhism. Falk asserts that the "age-old and non-Buddhist wine-cum-merry-making festival was so attractive that its organisation was hijacked by the Buddhist monasteries. It was also adopted by Buddhist communities further east, in Sanghol and Mathura." While he acknowledges the Vinaya strictly forbids monks from consuming any alcohol, his final assertion is that monks eventually legitimized their own participation in such activities, the monks "finding an excuse for drinking and erotic encounters by creating religious constructions which we today subsume under the label of Tantric Buddhism."

Gandhāra one will recall is in the northwest of the Indosphere, which is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is well-known for its Hellenistic style of Buddhist art, though the western influences run very deep and I would recommend anyone interested to read "When the Greeks Converted the Buddha: Asymmetrical Transfers of Knowledge in Indo-Greek Cultures" by Georgios T. Halkias (see here).

This culture of wine consumption on the part of monks possibly became prominent enough to be mentioned in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. The Vinaya is a section of the Buddhist canon which details the rules and administrative procedures Buddhist monks and nuns are to follow. Early Buddhist schools each developed their own editions, so the Vinaya that a Theravādin monk would follow would be different from this Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, which was incidentally probably used at the prominent monastery of Nālandā. It is also the monastic code used by Tibetan monks (see Berzin here).

The version of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya I'm familiar with is the Classical Chinese translation done by Yijing (635-713) 義淨 in 703. It has an account of the Buddha apparently instructing the disciples how prepare grape juice in a way that could easily produce wine.

As the story goes, a yakṣa offered grapes to the bhikṣus on the outskirts of a monastery. The bhikṣus did not recognize what they grapes were, so they asked the Buddha. He explains that grapes are a fruit of the north and are to be “made pure” through fire. This is a formal gesture that Buddhist monastics are supposed to do with food where it is disfigured or made imperfect before being consumed. The following in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Bhaiṣajya-vastu relates what happened afterward:

《根本說一切有部毘奈耶藥事》卷9:「于時葡萄食訖。由尚多殘。佛言。應可押取葡萄汁。煎汁不熟。遂便抒出。佛言。應可熟煎盛貯。供僧伽等非時漿飲。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1448, p. 39, c17-19)

At that time, the grapes had been consumed and because there were still many leftover the Buddha said, “The grape juice is to be pressed out of them. Heat the juice but not thoroughly cooking it, and then strain it.” The Buddha said, “It is to be heated and stored away, to be offered to the sangha as a beverage when it is untimely [past noon].”

A similar story is related in the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya (a different Vinaya from the Mūlasarvāstivāda), but it says nothing about heating the juice and storing it.1 However, a similar story is found in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Nidāna-mātṛkā, also translated by Yijing. The sangha is offered a basket of fruits from a yakṣa, which includes grapes. After the Buddha explains to the bhikṣus what the fruits are and how to purify them, he says that the leftovers are to be mashed into a beverage which may be consumed at will. There were further leftovers and the Buddha states, “Having boiled it store it in a jar. It shall be consumed on another day.”2

This could actually just be referring to the production of unfermented grape syrup, which was common in the Near East. However, this is not entirely certain. Ronald Jackson mentions an ancient technique of wine making that “entails concentrating the juice or semisweet wine by gentle heating or boiling. The treatment results in a loss of varietal character, but generates a caramelized or baked odor."3 Unless the juice has been boiled down to a syrup, it will certainly naturally ferment if stored in jars.

In light of Falk's discussion about wine production in Gandhāra, I am inclined to think this is tacitly referring to actual wine production. If there was a concern that the grape juice could ferment – and they would have been aware of this – then I imagine it ought to state that if fermentation occurs it is not to be consumed.

The reality is that wine consumption in the northwest of the Indosphere was quite prevalent and predated the introduction of Buddhism. Xuanzang's 玄奘 (602-664) translation of the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra states, “In the north poor men drink grape wine while in other places even the rich cannot obtain it.”4 

Xuanzang in his travelogue of India also explains the sorts of alcohol available in India when he visited in the seventh century. He states something to the effect that “śramaṇa-s and Brahmins drink grape and sugar cane beverages, but they are not called liquors.”5 The grammatical structure of the last part of the sentence is unusual (非 … 之謂也), and seems to be saying “it is not considered” or “not called” liquor. Unless the text is corrupted (and it is quoted elsewhere identically in a premodern source),6 then given that he is describing the sorts of liquors available in India, he is basically explaining that wine (and rum apparently) is consumed by śramaṇa-s (i.e., Buddhist monks), but simply called otherwise to avoid the taboo against alcohol. This brings to mind the custom in Japan, which comes from China originally, where liquor is comically referred to as “prajñā soup” (hannya-tō 般若湯).

Although the Vinaya forbids alcohol quite clearly, this does not mean this prohibition was universally upheld or even valued so highly in India. The Vinaya literature was basically in the care of a minority of literate Buddhist clerics, who clearly updated the materials when it suited them. It would be unwise to think their rules and regulations actually reflected the reality of Buddhism on the ground in ancient India.

------

Footnotes:

1《十誦律》卷26:「彼頻闍山中有一夜叉鬼。字優耽摩。舊在彼山中住。此鬼信佛言心淨。思惟。我當何物上佛。此中唯有葡萄。即取上佛。佛言。與僧作分。彼即與比丘。比丘不受言。佛未聽我曹噉葡萄。以是事白佛。佛言。從今日聽噉葡萄。時大有葡萄食飽多殘。諸比丘不知當云何。白佛。佛言。壓汁飲。若葡萄不作淨。若汁中不以水作淨。不應飲。若葡萄作淨。汁中不作淨。若汁作淨。葡萄不作淨。不應飲。葡萄淨汁亦淨應飲。」(CBETA, T23, no. 1435, p. 192, c9-19)

2《根本說一切有部尼陀那目得迦》卷10:「時彼藥叉既承信已。即送葡萄石榴甘橘甘蔗胡挑渴樹羅等成滿筐籠。命餘藥叉送彼庭中令持供養。諸苾芻見而白佛言。此北方果不知如何。佛言。以火作淨然後應食。時諸苾芻一一別淨。佛言。應為一聚但三四處以火淨之。食皆無犯。行與眾已仍有餘長。佛言。應可捼碎作非時漿隨意而飲。復更有餘。佛言。煮已瓨盛餘日當飲。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1452, p. 454, b30-c8)

3 Ronald S. Jackson, Wine Science: Principles, Practice, Perception (Academic Press, 2000), 400.

4《阿毘達磨大毘婆沙論》卷12:「北方貧人飲葡萄酒餘方富者亦不能得。」(CBETA, T27, no. 1545, p. 60, c4-5)

5《大唐西域記》卷2:「沙門、婆羅門飲蒲萄、甘蔗漿,非酒醴之謂也。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 878, b5-6)

6《四分律名義標釋》卷14:「沙門。婆羅門。飲蒲萄甘蔗漿。非酒醴之謂也」(CBETA, X44, no. 744, p. 512, c11-12 // Z 1:70, p. 309, b1-2 // R70, p. 617, b1-2)

7 Gregory Schopen, “The Good Monk and His Money in Monasticism of 'the Mahāyāna Period'” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited), 1-2.


8 Quoted in Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 18-19.

4 comments :

Jayarava Attwood said...

This is great. I'll have a look at the Falk paper. In the meantime a couple of thoughts occur to me.

I find the conclusion that the grape juice would automatically ferment less convincing (my degree is in chemistry, but I've also brewed my own beer). Heating kills yeast. It wouldn't have to boil, just be hot. 70-80 degrees for 10 minutes would kill most yeasts and many bacteria. In fact this is why we heat-treat milk and fruit juices.

Also beyond a certain concentration sugar acts as a preservative (it's a powerful oxidising agent that has been used in combination with various fuels in rockets). My mother made "preserves" of various fruits by boiling them up with sugar. Granted the instruction is not to cook thoroughly, but what does this mean in practice?

Perhaps I missed it but what is the connection between the concentrated juice you mention and the festival in which wine was drunk? You seem to suggest that the "wine" was taken after midday - effectively on an empty stomach. Not recommended! Whereas concentrated grape juice would be a quick way to get sugar and tannin into the system (like sweet tea).


I also like the term Indo-sphere, because it allows that the influence of Indic culture outside the subcontinent. Perhaps it also accommodates those places on the subcontinent which remained outside the influence of the Ganges Valley cultures for quite a long time. Tamil Nadu was for a long time outside the Indo-sphere, i.e. was a distinct culture with its own literary traditions for example.

Indrajala said...

Hi Jayarava.

In the Near East there was indeed the practice of boiling grape juice to the point it could be stored in jars over a period of time without fermenting, though it isn't certain if this is what the text is instructing.

The grape juice, even if heated, would still be prone to natural contamination from yeast in the air or in the jars. They would have been stored at room temperature, too.

Again, the text is unclear (and Yijing's Chinese translation isn't precise). That ambiguity might have been intentional.

There's nothing too objectionable about suggesting it is simply talking about preserving grape juice for later consumption. However, in light of Falk's discussion of Buddhist monastics involved in wine production, it seems plausible to suggest the monks probably did not object to consuming it, at least in that region of the Indosphere.

I'm basically pointing out that the festival saw monks involved with wine production, so given that cultural background, what would have stopped them from producing and consuming their own wine, which is what the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya could be speaking about. The Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was from that corner of the Indosphere originally as far as I know.

Xuanzang's remarks only leads to further thoughts that maybe the sangha in India by that time (7th century) was free to drink wine (and rum?) while calling it something else.

Merle Langlois said...

Kind of too bad they were drinking. There is something to be said about following along with the dominant culture too much. I don't know much about the Indian Mahayana, every author I read translating sutras always remarks on how little we know about that era. Sometimes I get the feeling that Indosphere Buddhism dwindled partially due to how sleazy it became.

I love your blogs by the way Indrajala, they are just what I need at this point in my life. I'm actually practicing meditation now and doing a lot of reading as well.

Indrajala said...

There's a really good book I can recommend about the downfall of Buddhism in India:

Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India

Giovanni Verardi

Part of the reason Buddhists declined in India was because of its ongoing conflict with Brahmanical traditions which increasingly attacked Buddhism.