The very nature of fermented beverages and the Buddhist casuistry.
Further to the same exploits done by Svāgata, the grateful people offer their hospitality for seven days to the Buddha and all his company. One of them knew Svāgata's father. For fear of the naga demon, this snake charmer fled under another name to the city of Sravasti . There the king Prasenajit gave him the direction of his stables of elephants. Rid of the naga, he expressed his joy and gratitude. Obliged to Svāgata, he invites him to eat and drink. At first reluctant, Svāgata agree to receive alms from him, the day of his departure with the Buddha :
« Svāgata went to the dwelling place of that brahman, who prepared excellent and wonderful foods and who offered them most sincerely to Svāgata with the request that he eat until he was satisfied. Because that brahman wished to hasten the digestive process within Svāgata, he placed a small amount of elephant's liquor in his broth. Svāgata in his ignorance drank this broth. After having finished, he chewed a toothstick, bathed himself, rinsed his mouth, and left. Midway home, he was overcome by the heat of the sun and fell prostrate with intoxication on the ground. » (Ch'en 1947, 242)
This "liquor (for) elephant" is not anything else that fermented residues from beer of rice-millet. The instructions of the Arthashastra, a document from the Mauryan empire (320 ~ 185 BCE), mentions the possibility to intoxicate war elephants with these dregs from brewing (Trade of beer ferments and resale of brewer's spent grain). As the "pigeon liquor", the "liquor (for) elephant" denotes both a beer or one of its byproducts. Svāgata's host has learned this recipe at the court of King Prasenajit. The Sanskrit and Tibetan versions say « the host accidentally dipped a finger into the liquor elephant before mixing the (rice) broth », which would trigger the fermentation (Ch'en 1947, n. 183). Technically plausible.
The Chinese version differs in another important point. Svāgata drinks (or eats) beer here unknowingly. His host has itself the best of intentions. He wants to ease Svāgata's digestion who must leave the city immediately after the meal and walk all day in company of Buddha. This is an opportunity for the Buddha to analyze exactly what is meant by the prohibition of alcohol for monks, from a practical point of view.
- What is the perception of the object ? True and false alcoholic beverages, ingredients related to the brewery, color, smell, and taste.
- What for (intention) ? Quench his thirst, wanting to get drunk, to heal.
- What action ? To drink, smell, eat, do not swallow.
- The result ? Drunkenness, thirst quenched, healing, comforted suffering.
This casuistry reflects the debates between Buddhist schools about the meaning and scope of the rules of life laid down for monks. The practical details confirm that the common fermented beverages in the time of Buddha are beers :
« If the monk also drinks intoxicating liquor, it is an offense of pācittiya. Intoxicating liquor means liquor made from ferment cakes composed of grains, or spirits made from a mixture of roots, stalks, bark, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Such liquor when drunk would cause a person to become intoxicated.» (Ch'en 1947, 243-244).
A liquor made with ferment-cakes from grains, it is exactly a beer. The Buddhist texts traditionally make a distinction between surā (beer) and meraya (wine and mead). Other versions of the Vinaya are specifying that :
« Surā means: if it is fermented liquor from flour, fermented liquor from cakes (ferments), fermented liquor from cooked rice, if it is worked up yeast, if it is mixed with ingredients. Spirits means: if it is an extract from flowers, an extract from fruits, an extract from honey, an extract from sugar, if it is mixed with ingredients.» (Vinaya in Pāli, Horner, 2.385,, quoted in Ch'en 1947, n. 210).
One cannot imagine a more precise technical definition to separate beer and wine. More than 2000 years ago in India, the demarcation between beer and wine was both clear and widespread enough among the population to serve as a basis for the rules of life of Buddhist monks.
« Drinking means to swallow». Indeed, the alcoholic beverage which is not ingested produces no effect. Smelling alcohol is not forbidden. Pursuant to what we know about the "liquor (for) elephant", this is a semi-solid beverage, a fermented broth. So drinking for Buddhists, in a broad meaning "ingest some alcoholic matter", is not limited to liquid forms but also include fermented broth or brewing residues, and all kind of by-products from brewing.
« The penalty (pācittiya) is to be defined as before. In the instance of drinking liquor, what is the nature of the various transgressions involved? If a monk drinks liquor that causes one to become intoxicated, it is an offense of pācittiya. If the liquor is not intoxicating and a person drinks it, it is an offense wrong-doing. If a monk sees that the liquor has the color, smell, and taste of spirits and is intoxicating, it is an offense of pācittiya if he drinks it. If the liquor is not intoxicating, then he is penalized with three wrong-doings. If a monk drinks liquor that has the color and smell of spirits, and is intoxicating, it is an offense of pācittiya; but if the liquor is not intoxicating, then he is penalized with two wrong-doings. If a monk drinks liquor that has only the color of spirits and is intoxicating, it is an offense of pācittiya; but if it is not intoxicating, then it is an offense of wrong-doing. If the monk eats the grains from the brewery and becomes intoxicated, it is an offense of pācittiya; but if the grains are not intoxicating, then it is an offense of wrong-doing. If a monk eats the ferment cakes, it is an offense of wrong-doing. If a monk eats roots, stalks, leaves, flowers, or fruits, which are intoxicating, they are all offenses of wrong- doing. » (Ch'en 1947, 243-244)
The great subtlety of Buddhist logic is revealed here. Color, odor, and taste characterize the object "alcoholic food-drink". But one can be deceived as Svāgata was. The offense does not change if the object, the beverage is really intoxicating. If it is not, it is the human intention that characterizes a wrongdoing and makes the penalties varying.
The version of the Vinaya written in Pāli expresses the offenses differently :
« If he thinks that it is strong drink when it is strong drink, (and) drinks it, there is an offense of expiation. If he is in doubt as to whether it is strong drink .... If he thinks that it is not strong drink when it is strong drink, (and) drinks it, there is an offense of expiation. If he thinks that it is strong drink when it is not strong drink, there is an offense of wrong-doing. If he is in doubt as to whether it is not strong drink, there is an offense of wrong-doing. If he thinks that it is not strong drink when it is not strong drink, there is no offense.» (Horner 2.385-86, quoted by Ch'en n. 219).
A beautiful exercise in logic. Algebra, logic, and algorithmics are three Indian inventions transmitted to the West by the Arab-Persian science.
« If the monk eats the grains from the brewery and becomes intoxicated, it is an offense of pācittiya; but if the grains are not intoxicating, then it is an offense of wrong-doing. »
The sentence quoted above (Ch'en 1947, 244) is a new confirmation that the fermented beverages referred to by the Vinaya are in most cases beers brewed with grains. Otherwise, what the "intoxicating grains" could have designate ? These grains from the brewery are the brewing residues, the grains still impregnated with alcohol because the indian brewing method involves that saccharification and fermentation are 2 simultaneous processes. In contrast to the Western method, which separates the liquid and sweetened wort by saccharification on the one hand and the spent grains (brewery dregs) on the other hand, a splitting that takes place before the alcoholic fermentation. The Asian brewing method implies an alcoholic fermentation of the saccharified mass of the grains. The beer residues, after dilution and filtering of the fermented mass, are therefore still alcoholic. The grains are not intoxicating early in the process. They become intoxicating after a day or two. Nevertheless, the intention of the monk and his desire for alcohol are sufficient to characterize his fault according to the Dhamma. It is therefore the Asian method of brewing, very different from the Western method, which explains all the subtleness of the reasoning developed by the Buddhist texts and the many practical cases analysed.
The Tibetan versions have translated "brewer's grains" by sbeń, corrected by Ch'en to sbań which means malt in tibetan (Ch'en 1947, n. 216). But nobody can become intoxicated with sprouted grains. And the Tibetan text continues : « If one eats the residue left over after the beer has been brewed, it is a wrong-doing » (Ch'en 1947, n. 217. It is not necessary to assume a distillation as Ch'en does to explain the existence of alcoholic grain residues. So Wine is amended into beer, distilled into brewed in the quotation of Chen's excerpt). This text tells about nothing less than grains as leftovers after the alcoholic fermentation during a beer brewing process.
« If a monk eats the ferment cakes, it is an offense of wrong-doing »
Again, these cakes-ferments exist only in the brewing process in India. They are of no use if the text was speaking about wine or mead. These brewing ferments, dried in pellets or small cakes, are not alcoholic. But there is one intention, in the desire of the monk, that they could be alcoholic.
Another analysed case this time concerns the ingredients used to make wines.
« If a monk eats roots, stalks, leaves, flowers, or fruits, which are intoxicating, they are all offenses of wrong-doing »
However, note here the roots as sources of intoxication cited by the Pāli version of the Vinaya. These roots are in most cases starchy. We have here a clue of the brewing of beer made from taro or yam in antiquity on the Indian subcontinent, as it is a text of Indian origin written in Pāli.
Then come the case of vinegars made from alcohol and that of alcoholic beverages evaporated by cooking or cooked intoxicating grains that have lost their alcohol:
« The Buddha said to the monk : "If you consider me as your teacher, no intoxicating liquor is to be drunk by yourselves or to be given to others, not even to the extent of dripping it into the mouth with the tip of a reed." If a monk purposely violates the rule, it is an offense of transgressing the law. There is no offense however, if a monk drinks vinegar which has the color of liquor. Likewise there is no offense if the liquor is cooked [as in cooked food]. If a physician prescribes that liquor be held in the mouth or smeared on the body, there is no offense. Also there is no offense in a wrong-doer for the first time [var. in one afflicted with madness or disturbance of the mind, or one tortured by pain]. » (Ch'en 1947, 244)
Vinegar comes from the conversion of the alcohol. We shall see, other religions having banned alcohol will ask the same question. Cooking liquor in the kitchen causes evaporation. In its time, Buddhism has a perfect knowledge of the technical processes of this world. Vinegar contains no alcohol.
The last case is the medical use of fermented beverages, especially Indian beer, which has a high percentage of alcohol (see brewing method):
« If a physician prescribes that liquor be held in the mouth or smeared on the body, there is no offense. »
After the injunction of the Buddha, Svāgata does not drink a single drop of beer. His previous addiction makes however ill to risk death. The Buddha suggests to allow Svāgata to smell a jar of beer. Remember, smelling the alcohol is not swallowing it, a wrong doing but not a serious offense. That is done, without any change for Svāgata's health. The Buddha then allowed to give his disciples a little beer impregnated into porridge or soup. No improvement. The Buddha, or a doctor, finally allows his disciple to put some beer in his mouth. Svāgata recovers and can get rid of his drinking habits gradually (Ch’en 1947, 297). This event forces the Bouddha to temper the alcohol ban, at least for exceptional and derogatory circumstances.
« Also there is no offense in a wrong-doer for the first time [var. in one afflicted with madness or disturbance of the mind, or one tortured by pain]. »
The Buddhists do not ignore the temporary oblivion offered by the fermented beverages, or their analgesic benefactor effect. Especially since the beers brewed with the method of the amylolytic ferments are more alcoholic than beers made from malted grains.
 Capital of the kingdom of Kosala, one of the largest Indian cities at the time of Buddha who preached and lived there a long time. Buddhaghosa told that 5.7 million households lived in the city and its surroundings.
 Ch'en Kenneth 1947, A Study of The Svagata Story in The Divyavadana in Its Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and Chinese Versions, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 9, 207-314. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2717893
 Horner I. B. 1940, Book of the Discipline 2.382-386.
 Mo-ho-sêng-ch'i Lü, Vinaya of the Mahāsang-hikas, Taishō.