Honey: The Cultural Differences Between Near East and West

My studies of Indian culture and history often bring me to the same place: the dissimilarities between East and West and how their respective cultural standpoints are almost a proverbial yin and yang, to borrow from Chinese vernacular.  The Chinese maintain that two polar opposites are essential to existence.  In this case, the opposites are literally on the opposite sides of the globe, adding to the distance maintained by their stigmatic understandings of  one another.  The United States and India are two very different places and attempts at understanding these two separate models of reality have largely been skewed by one’s own perception of the others cultural norms.

This is essentially the epitome of what makes researching the Near East so exciting for those in the West, particularly America.  The United States, far from the stronghold of Eastern philosophy tends to form its own allegiances to its own interests, abandoning Indian ideals that we are all part of Brahman, the soul of the world that encompasses all of existence.  Geographically stripped from a great deal of alternative forms of reality, America remains isolated in many of its own cultural norms.

To further understand the wide crevasse between the two ways of life, we need look no further than a mere teaspoon of honey.  Perhaps one of the simplest foods on Earth, honey has recently come to represent much more than the sweetness of nature to me.

I, in the United States, found myself going about my normal routine of warming up a bottle of breast milk for my infant son.  Likely, a mother or father on the Indian Subcontinent would find themselves doing much the same on a weekday morning.  While Royal (my son) and I were waiting for the milk to get up to temperature, he began to get impatient.  His cries cut me to the bone.  When he wouldn’t accept his pacifier as a substitute for his coveted breast milk, his crying grew more intense.

In an attempt to quiet the echoing cries of a hungry baby, I reached for a squeeze bottle of honey (how American!) and put the ever-so-light dab directly on the pacifier.  THIS WORKED.  The honey had quieted him like I had never seen anything quiet him before.  Of course, if I hadn’t had the bottle ready when I did, I’m sure he would’ve started up again.  Hm, I thought…this must be old world knowledge, like sugar water.  Honey is thought by many-a health nut to posses unique qualities and is widely considered to be a super food of sorts.

It was only after using this method a few more times over the course of the next month did I realize that the label warned against feeding honey to infants.  Clearly, I was a monster!  How could I?  According to the back of the bottle, honey can cause infant death.  After doing research online, I came to understand that honey can contain trace amounts of ecoli bacteria.  When these cultures are consumed by an infant, who has a remarkably undeveloped intestinal tract, they can attach themselves to the intestines and manifest lethal infections.

…Or so it is said.

In a book I’ve been reading entitled South Indian Hindu Festivals and Traditions by Maithily Jagannathan, I wasn’t surprised to find that Indians feel quite differently about infants, even new-born babies consuming honey. It should be noted that at the point I discovered this information I was merely reading the book for historical research.  Instead, I found wonderful evidence that Hindus have been using honey to welcome their children in to the world for perhaps thousands of years (with our knowledge of how old the religion itself is).  In something called a “Cradle Ceremony,” one of the important rituals among other things is “the mother tak[ing] the baby on her lap and feed[ing] a few spoons of [a] milk and honey mixture.”

I came to accept this “truth” that honey is harmful to babies lightly and as many do cultural understandings of the natural world.  Scientifically probable it is not.  But, scientific probability is not likely the culprit.  After all, my son is fine.  It’s been two months.  What, then is driving this machine?  Is it fear?  Fear on who’s behalf?  The honey producer?  The consumer?

To insist that the people of India are inferior in their understanding of the natural world or medicine would be wrong.  The people that invented the concept of the number 0 would likely resent such sentiments.  In fact, a staggering amount of medical practitioners come to us from India.  According to this article, “India [is] #1 in number of doctors practicing in [the] U.S.”  Quite relevant also is the fact that my son’s doctor is actually from India.  On our next visit I’ll be bringing this up to her to discover her opinions on honey.

Ultimately, Americans are living in a state of panic in which we must determine with relative absolutism the dangers of the natural world pose.  We are bored.  We are sue-happy.  We watch too much television.  We gossip far too much.  We swirl around medical jargon in our mouths to the point that when finally spit it out it is all but unintelligible.  We are all experts.  We are unwilling to subscribe to the ideas of a culture many consider our opposite.  All the while, both Indian and American cultures are two of the biggest players in the most dangerous game of all:  industrial and technological pollution.  It is likely that the two cultures will suffer more casualties and detriment at the hands of technology and industry than they ever would by the embrace of something so honestly produced by the natural world.  And, yet in a world where the cost of automobiles is going down and the price of honey going up, we think little of walking down sidewalks and streets fogged by tailpipes and even less of dwindling populations of bees.  It would seem East and West is not so different in this way.

UPDATE 12/27/2012:

It’s been a long time since I originally wrote this blog entry about honey and the cradle ceremony in India.  However, since its conception, I’ve discussed with Dr. “Dolly” Ubhrani, Pediatrician, mother, and Indian, who practices medicine in central Florida these concerns.  She was able to shed considerable light on the use of the traditional use of honey in the Hindu Cradle Ceremony.  To paraphrase her words, “the cradle ceremony is a traditional practice in much of India.  Because western medicine has revealed that the bacteria in honey can manifest in the immature intestines (which have difficulty digesting such a viscous material), leading to life-threatening infections in other parts of the body, including the brain.  Unfortunately, these practices are still very common in much of Hindu India.  There is a high rate of infant mortality in this part of the world and this is considered to be one of many reasons.”

In much of the developing and peripheral world, traditional beliefs and practices trump modern medicine.  While there are a significant amount of diverse explanations for this, perhaps the most important is concerning caste.  In these traditional realms, those who not only have access to, but become certified in westernized and modern medicine become closely aligned with the upper tiers of social stratification.  This undoubtedly plays a role in their interaction with those that maintain a more traditional way of life-at the lower end of India (and beyond)’s caste system.  These traditional people would rather maintain the practices of their ancestors and the enculturation they’ve received, even in some of the most dire straights.  It has become clear to them that when they are amongst medical doctors educated in the west or highly revered universities, they are talked down to, as if their very way of life (and especially their way of knowledge) is outdated, obsolete, and of little use, burdensome.

source:  Anthropology: A Global Perspective, Raymond Scupin, 2010.

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