Alcohol is a chemical produced by fermentation, which suppresses the central nervous system and causes intoxication when ingested. The word alcohol comes from the Arabic al meaning `the' and kahal meaning `collyrium' and was originally an alchemic term. Alcoholic drinks are usually categorized into three different types - beers made from fermented grains, wines made from fermented fruits and spirits made by distilling either beers or wines. Drinking certainly seems to have been widespread in ancient India, at least during certain periods. The Ramayana describes Ayodhya as a city pervaded with the aroma of wine and streets full of drunks staggering about. Sounds like Melbourne on a Saturday night! Four main types of alcoholic drinks are mentioned in the Tipitaka. Sura was brewed from rice or flour (Sn.398; Vin.I,205), meraya was distilled alcohol made from sugar or fruit and sometimes flavored with sugar, pepper or the bark of a certain tree (M.I,238). Majja was made from honey and asava was made from the juice of the palmyra palm or the wild date palm and could be either just brewed or distilled (Vin.II,294).
The fifth Precept which all Buddhists undertake to practice, is to abstain from consuming alcohol or any other recreational drugs. In the case of alcohol, this is mainly because alcoholic intoxication clouds the mind, while the whole rationale of Buddhism is to clarify the mind. However, drinking alcohol may also result in several other personal and social disadvantages. The Buddha says: ‘There are these six dangers of drinking alcohol: loss of wealth, increase of quarrels, ill-health, a bad reputation, making a fool of oneself and impaired intelligence’. (D.III,182). In the Dhammapada the Buddha warns, ‘The person who drinks alcohol digs up his own root in this world’ (Dhp.247). The Buddhist tradition says that if one breaks the fifth Precept, this can easily lead to breaking the others and there is some evidence that this is true. A very high percentage or crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol.