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AIDS Behav. 2010 Aug;14 Suppl 1:S8-17. doi: 10.1007/s10461-010-9727-7.

The evolution of alcohol use in India.

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  • 1National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India.


This paper traces the role of alcohol production and use in the daily lives of people in India, from ancient times to the present day. Alcohol use has been an issue of great ambivalence throughout the rich and long history of the Indian subcontinent. The behaviors and attitudes about alcohol use in India are very complex, contradictory and convoluted because of the many different influences in that history. The evolution of alcohol use patterns in India can be divided into four broad historical periods (time of written records), beginning with the Vedic era (ca. 1500-700 BCE). From 700 BCE to 1100 CE, ("Reinterpretation and Synthesis") is the time of emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, with some new anti-alcohol doctrines, as well as post-Vedic developments in the Hindu traditions and scholarly writing. The writings of the renowned medical practitioners, Charaka and Susruta, added new lines of thought, including arguments for "moderate alcohol use." The Period of Islamic Influence (1100-1800 CE), including the Mughal era from the 1520s to 1800, exhibited a complex interplay of widespread alcohol use, competing with the clear Quranic opposition to alcohol consumption. The fourth period (1800 to the present) includes the deep influence of British colonial rule and the recent half century of Indian independence, beginning in 1947. The contradictions and ambiguities-with widespread alcohol use in some sectors of society, including the high status caste of warriors/rulers (Kshatriyas), versus prohibitions and condemnation of alcohol use, especially for the Brahmin (scholar-priest) caste, have produced alcohol use patterns that include frequent high-risk, heavy and hazardous drinking. The recent increases in alcohol consumption in many sectors of the general Indian population, coupled with the strong evidence of the role of alcohol in the spread of HIV/STI infections and other health risks, point to the need for detailed understanding of the complex cross-currents emerging from the past history of alcohol use and abuse in India.

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