Ramakrishna compared the ego to an onion. If you peel away an onion’s rings the way spiritual experiences strip at the ego, after all the layers are gone, there is nothing— no central core with an egoistic structure, and no onion either, just a void, and no barrier remaining to a union with Brahma.
I peeled an onion, a semi-flattened, saucer-shaped, Italian, cipollino Bianco di Maggio. After tearing eight layers away I was left with a tiny, pearly white, teardrop-shaped piece of bulb. I broke it open — layer number nine — and nothing remained but tears in my eyes from the oxidized sulfur compounds released from the onion’s tissue by my violence. Am I having a deep and metaphoric experience, I wondered, or have I just wasted an onion?
I gathered up the curled, juicy onion pieces and tossed them in a bowl of cool water so they couldn’t oxidize any more and turn bitter. Onions may be cheap and ubiquitous, but they are not easy to grow, at least not organically, so I didn’t want to waste even one. I’ve shed more tears over the trials of growing onions than I ever have from slicing them.
To yield well, an onion bed must be kept completely free of weeds because onions are shallow-rooted and the plants can’t tolerate much competition. Without recourse to herbicides and soil fumigants, organic onion culture can entail costly hand-weeding once the plants are too large for mechanical cultivation. Onions grow slowly, too, giving weeds lots of opportunities to sprout. And onions are hungry for fertilizer and thirsty for water. If a farmer expects a decent yield then he or she needs to sow onions where they will receive full sun and perfect drainage. It is fair to say that onions are among the most self-centered and egoistic of the garden vegetables. Am I what I eat?
Sourdough bread sat on the table in front of me next to a cube of butter. My tearful meditation had leftme feeling a void at my core. So I spread some butter on the bread, and poured the bowl of onion shards into a colander and shook it to drain them. “Would Ramakrishna approve?” I asked myself as I cobbled the buttered bread with puzzle pieces of raw onion and sprinkled them with a pinch of salt.
Not everyone appreciates onions. Some religious traditions in Hinduism hold that Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas— or the priestly, warrior, and professional classes— should avoid “hot” foods like onions that lead to lustful thoughts. Jains supposedly don’t eat onions either, and neither did the priests or royalty of ancient Egypt. The slaves who built the pyramids ate onions though, both raw and cooked, and with great frequency. I bit into my sandwich and enjoyed it. I must not have been Cleopatra in a past life. But that’s ok; some of us have to be peasants.
Funny how the onion that Ramakrishna saw as a perfect metaphor for the illusion of individuality and the nothingness of the void should have been seen by ancient Latins as a symbol of wholeness. Our words “onion” and “union” share a common Latin root in unio, meaning unity. The successive layers of an onion wrapped up in a single round bulb do suggest unity, especially when compared to their cousins in the Lily family, the multi-cloven garlics.
Onions are like the spicy, girly, back-up singers whose role on stage is to sway back and forth and coo the sweet harmonies that allow some hunky but mediocre lead singer to sound good. What cuisine hasn’t been sweetened and enhanced by onions? Where would we be if onions didn’t add zest to American potato salad, or sugar to Pakistani dal, or bind together Chinese dumplings? If ancient Egyptian priests, Jains, Brahmins, warriors and Vaisyas can’t share in my onion harvest, that just leaves more for the rest of us.
I swallowed the last bite of my onion sandwich and felt full for a moment— full of onion, full of thoughts about the onion-eating pyramid builders that came before us. Peeling onions and looking for an ego can leave anybody feeling hollow and teary-eyed. So if you’re feeling empty and blue, cut an onion, cry a little, and forget your worries as you prepare a meal you can share with friends. Soon people will be talking, glasses will be clinking, and the hot, spicy lilies will be shaking their hips and harmonizing in the background. What did those ancient Latins used to say? “E Pluribus Onion?”