Eggs in Hinduism
An egg appeared very early in Hindu mythology, as one of the first elements of its cosmogony. Prajāpati (the demiurge) emerged from an egg, or, according to other myths, the Earth and the sky arose from it. Since then, the importance of eggs seems to have faded. Later texts only feature criticism regarding consumption and trade of eggs. This was the situation until modern times, with production of eggs growing continuously from the 1980s, in response to the new lifestyles of the middle classes.
The egg (‘aṇḍa’ in Sanskrit) appeared very early in Hindu mythology as one of the first elements of its cosmogony. The progenitor Prajāpati, the ‘Lord of creatures’, emerged from an egg. The Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa, written between the 10th and 7th centuries BCE, is one of the most important Vedic texts. It relates and explains the main Vedic rites and hymns, and describes the origin of the world: “Verily, in the beginning, this [universe] was water, nothing but a sea of water. The waters desired: ‘How can we be reproduced?’ They toiled and performed fervid devotions, when they were becoming heated, a golden egg was produced. The year, indeed, was not then in existence: this golden egg floated about for as long as the space of a year. In a year’s time, a man, this Prajāpati, was produced therefrom.” (Eggeling, 1979). In another hymn in this same text, it is Prajāpati who created the waters and then entered them with the help of véda (knowledge), from where the egg developed. Its embryo gave birth to Agni – the god of fire, the origin of all sacrifices – and its shell became the Earth.
Linked to the ‘brahman’ – the essential energy, the absolute principle – ‘the cosmic egg’ is also referred to as ‘brahmāṇḍa’. As a source of life, it brings male and female principles together. Divided into two halves – the sky and the earth – it represents the whole of the universe, as in this passage from one of the most famous Vedic ‘philosophical lessons’: “In the beginning this world was merely non-Being. Then it existed. It developed. It turned into an egg. It lay for a year. It was split. One of the two eggshell parts became silver, the other gold. That which was silver is this earth. That which was gold is the sky. The outer membrane became the mountains. The inner membrane is the clouds and mist. The veins are the rivers. The fluid within is the ocean.” (Daniélou, 1964).
However, apart from this central place in Hindu cosmogony, eggs apparently played no role in sacrificial rituals, despite the importance of such rituals in Brahmanism. Food used for Vedic oblations and libations usually consisted of dairy products (‘ghee’, milk, cream, curds), meat (particularly goats), or ‘soma’ the juice which served as an elixir of immortality in sacrifices. After the Vedic episode, the mythological importance of eggs seems to have ebbed and the few mentions in later texts mainly concern their prohibition or criticism of those who traded eggs.
It is a well-known fact that vegetarianism holds an important place in Hinduism, but not all Hindus are vegetarians. Even among the castes that respect this diet, mainly those of Brahman origin, the list of permitted and forbidden foodstuffs can vary considerably from one region to another, from one caste to another, with the exception of the widespread taboo with regard to beef. The consumption of eggs is no exception. Just one in ten families eats eggs in Rajasthan, while six or seven out of every ten families eat them in Goa or in West Bengal. Many Brahmans refuse meat but do not hesitate to eat an omelette or another dish containing eggs.
The increase in the consumption of eggs in India over recent decades is nevertheless an indication that, beyond the simple growth in population, this product is becoming increasingly important in the diet of Indians, especially among the urban population. According to FAO figures published in 2009, consumption rose from 0.7 kg of eggs per inhabitant per year in 1980, to 1.8 kg per inhabitant per year in 2005. The low cost of this foodstuff, its high protein content and the fact that chicken and its derivatives are not taboo in any religion, explain the interest shown by the urban middle classes as, like in other Asian countries, their dietary habits increasingly favour animal protein.
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Daniélou, Alain. 1964 The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism. The Princeton Bollingen Series, Bear & Co., Chāndogya Upanisad 3.19.1-2. , page 248.
Eggeling, Julius. The Sátapatha-Brāhmaṇa: According to the Text of the Mādhyandina School. The Sacred Books of the East Series. Delhi; Patna [etc.]: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. En ligne Satapatha Brahmana Part V (SBE44), Julius Eggeling tr. , http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbr/sbe44/index.htm, visité le 15.03.2017).
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