India’s Boozy Legacy: Alcohol And Ancient Times

India’s history with alcohol is long and varied and although today its been demonised and banned in areas throughout the country, it was once the focal point of all revelry, celebration and sometimes even worship. In ancient India, interest in alchemy was on the rise and the purification of metals required alcohol to be carried out successfully. It was a solvent and a preservative and also had antiseptic properties to help. 

The Charaka Samhita is one of the most exhaustive works we have on the medicinal sciences of that day and it has unbelievable detail about alcohol and its consumption in the common world. Although a lot of the book has been destroyed or lost to the ravages of time it is still essential in piecing together information about daily life in Ancient India. The book didn’t have a single author but many sages that contributed to its creation over time. It goes by the name Charaka Samhita because he along with another sage, Dridhbala, was one of the last to make additions to the text.

In over 120 chapters it discusses in great detail the different symptoms, ails and cures that the human body could commonly endure. The chapter that mentioned alcohol names it as a toxin in any form and that for its consumption, one has to prepare the body accordingly. There was a time, account age, diet, constitution, season, time of day, state of mind, and the doshas (Vedic classification of a mix of physical, mental and emotional characteristics derived from the natural elements earth, air, water, fire-that make up our conscience). 

They believe that not following certain protocols would be subjecting the body to misery and a body that was not in a state of balance would give an illusion of happiness but would crumble both mentally and physically in the long run. Sounds like quite the hangover. 

But the texts don’t stop here, they have a detailed explanation of when to drink and how to wean off the substance should someone appear to be addicted. Although a lot of what they decree is very logical there are some strange additions such as the idea that drinking alcohol with mango juice is ok, except for during the summers and the rains – which is precisely when mangoes were in season. Or perhaps that was their roundabout way of deterring you from alcohol altogether.

The Charaka Samhita also details recipes for tinctures made from alcohol that was administered in small amounts after meals or as curative and preventative potions that were called arishtas, some of which are used to this day. In modern Ayurveda too there are some thoughts on alcohol and the key to correctly imbibing is always moderation. So for balancing the Kapha dosha, and achieving peace some suggest distilled alcohol such as scotch, bourbon, vodka, gin for the Rasa (taste) of Katu (pungent), and the Gunas (qualities) of Usna (hot), Laghu (light) and Ruksa (dry) which are the opposing and therefore balancing properties for Kapha Dosha. 

Many examples of alcohol being tied to ancient India can be found sprawled across history books and although in recent years our relationship with the substance is on the rocks (pun intended) we need only look back down the years and realise that there is a rich and beneficial relationship that can still be salvaged.