Ahimsa - The Science Of Peace: [07] The Food

Published: 06.01.2009

One should take a balanced diet, which is helpful to life and discipline, which does not cause intoxication or negligence towards duty.

Prashna Vyakarana (2/4)

Knowledge is needed for liberation, body is needed for knowledge, and food is needed for body. As such, food has been allowed as needed.

Kshama Shraman Jinabhadra

There is nothing necessary or desirable for human nutrition to be found in meat or flesh foods, which is not found in and derived from vegetable products.

Dr. H. Kellog

A man can live and be healthy without killing animal for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And so it is immoral.

Leo Tolstoy

Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to the attainment of heavenly bliss; let him (man) therefore shun the use of meat.


The Food

This is the attitude of proper examination of any eatable before accepting and eating it. But, before examining, we should understand what is food and what is its function. Food is the fuel that makes the body-machine work. Without it, living creatures would run out of energy and ultimately die.

Every living organism depends on three essentials for its sustenance: air, water, and food. Air and water are more abundantly available and available in consumable form. Food, on the other hand, must be searched out and prepared for consumption. Food has been the most important thing pursued by human beings as well as animals since the beginning of their existence.

An animal has to eat to live, and the story ends there. But with man it is more complex. What he eats influences his capacity to keep well, to work, to enjoy, and to pursue higher goals. The general maintenance of the body is called health. The World Health Organization has summed it up in a brief definition; “Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The Jain thinkers have been very clear on this subject. They have studied in detail all aspects of human life. Knowing its importance for health, they have defined food as a balanced diet, which is helpful to life and discipline, which does not cause intoxication, and which does not cause negligence towards duty. Here again, they found that the concept of Ahimsa was not only applicable but also comprehensive.

Almost similar, but covering only the physiological aspects, is the modern definition meant for dietitians: ‘A good diet must fulfill these criteria: (1) it must furnish the appropriate levels of all nutrients to meet the physiological and biochemical needs of the body at all stages of the life cycle; and (2) it must avoid the excesses of calories, fat, sugar, salt, and alcohol associated with increased risk of diet related diseases. Giving more attention to avoiding excesses does not mean that one gives less attention to dietary adequacy. The key words in achieving the two criteria are moderation and prudence.’

The biological mechanism for converting food into the energy required for various functions of body is almost same in all mammals, but diets vary with different species. There are three broad groups into which all mammals fall according to their food intake: herbivorous, carnivorous and omnivorous. The herbivores are those having plants as their staple diet. The carnivores are those having flesh, which is derived from any life form higher than plants, as their staple diet. The omnivorous are those having a combined diet of flesh and plants.

The division between these three groups is not very sharp, as the food habits are influenced by a variety of factors like season, age, reproductive state, health, hunger, environment. The greatest number of mammals, including most primates, are herbivorous.

The balance maintained by nature in the animal world becomes evident when we see the energy cycle inherent in the food chain. Sunlight pours upon the forests, algae in the pond, plankton, etc., giving its energy, which is converted into green growth by photosynthesis. The energy retained in the structure of plants becomes a reservoir upon which the entire community depends. Thus the plants are termed producers.

The plant eaters, ranging from animal plankton to elephant, become the primary consumers. They eat plants, use some energy for their daily chores of life, and store the rest of it in the form of flesh and blood. The carnivores, ranging from the smallest fish, animals and birds to big cats and whales, kill these herbivores and consume their flesh and blood. They are the secondary consumers. When the carnivores die, part of their stored energy is consumed by carrion eaters like vultures and part is decomposed by bacteria and fungi to become simple soil nutrients. This form of energy again passes to the plants, completing the cycle of energy transfer.

There are infinite varieties of living organisms, pulsating with life activities or lying dormant, performing their specialized functions all along this energy cycle or the food chain. The exact type of food consumed depends on the adaptation of the anatomy of the particular species. This, in turn, is dependent on the ecology of the habitat.

The simplest example of adaptation of animal anatomy can be observed by studying the denture of different species of animals. Larger and sharper canines have developed in carnivores because of the need for stabbing and tearing meat. The pre-molars and molars, too, are much sharper as compared with those of the herbivores. The lower and upper sets of teeth are tapered in opposite directions because of the shearing function required to cut the meat into digestible pieces.

In the case of herbivores, the teeth are adapted for grinding function. In the case of rodents the incisors are long, overgrowing and self-sharpening, to facilitate the function of gnawing; the canines are completely missing. Other parts of the animal body are also suitably adapted to the type of food available in its habitat. The tongue, the nails, the eyes, and even the digestive organs, all have evolved according to specific needs.

It is not only the physical anatomy that adapts; the mental faculties and attitudes, too, develop accordingly. The problem of obtaining food is more complicated for carnivores, as they have to search their food from among mobile living beings capable of offering resistance or running away. The flesh eaters, as such, develop greater cunning and ferocity. The cat family is the most efficient of all carnivores.

Man, the unique animal perched on the top rung of the ladder of mammalian evolution, does not fall under the category of carnivores. His body has not been equipped with the natural tools of a carnivorous animal. The teeth, the nails, and the tongue are not those of a flesh-eating animal but those of a plant-eating animal. He does not have the natural ferocity, cunning, and offensive instinct of true carnivores.

Even according to the theory of evolution, man has evolved from some extinct species of ape. All primates, living and extinct, share a characteristic structure of ear and molar teeth adapted for eating vegetable material. The staple diet of all apes and monkeys, excepting a few, is a selection of fruits and leaves. The largest of apes, the gorilla, lives entirely on vegetation. The study of early skeletons of ape-man, homo-erectus, and early homo-sapiens reveal that the teeth of all these were small and rounded. They were not structured like shear blades, as in the case of carnivores. Becoming hunters and meat eaters has been need based and not natural for humans. To man, eating vegetables came naturally and eating meat had to be learned.

As discussed earlier, according to the Jains, besides the gross and visible forms of life, there exist an infinite number of microscopic and sub-microscopic living organisms, which are widely distributed in nature. As such, destruction of some or other form of living organism is inevitable when any food is prepared for human consumption. It may be of plant origin, mineral origin, or animal origin.

We have to consider the quality of life before it is destroyed for human consumption. It is not that by discrimination we are doing something commendable from the viewpoint of practicing Ahimsa. The tarnishing of soul is certainly there, but by discrimination we are choosing a lesser evil.

Man’s primary duty, as is the case with all living beings, is towards maintaining his body and health so that he can continue to live and indulge in higher individual pursuits towards purification and liberation. He has to eat regularly, and the food has to be nutritious. Following the path of Ahimsa, he has to be much more choosy. He has to select his food with care, keeping in view that the food is not obtained by wantonly destroying any life forms, as far as practically possible.

Since we must destroy some life in order to live, it is better that that life is from the lower levels; that is plant life. This is acceptable because at the lower level, the life process is more cyclic and involuntary as compared to that at higher level. Life and death at lower levels are much rapidly acted upon, not individually but as progressive evolutionary process.

Another and more important factor is judging the effect of a particular food on our own physiological and psychological systems. Broadly speaking, there are three types of foods according to their effects on the body: one that excites physically and mentally, one that imparts lethargy, and one which is purely nutritious without any side effects. There are a variety of combinations of all these properties in different degrees in all types of foods. One has to be cautious in selecting a combination, from the available eatables, so as to produce minimal undesired effects.

In this age of technological achievements, synthetic products have been produced where hardly any living organisms, as stipulated in traditional definitions, are involved. According to the traditional norms there should be no harm in consuming L. S. D. as no destruction or harm to any form of life is involved. A little rational thinking would show that the real object behind rejection of a certain eatable does not end at preventing more destruction of some particular form of micro-life. In fact, the determination of the harm it causes to the consumer is of primary importance. If a food is not obtained by destroying life, but after eating it pushes one towards irrational and destructive behaviour, it should be considered even worse.

Negation of flesh eating is based on both of these reasons. All animal forms are recognized as individually conscious components of society in its broader definition. Killing for one’s own benefit is certainly violence and as such should not be committed. Besides this, meat is much more prone to decay and carrying infection as compared with plant-food. And the worst part is that, as compared with vegetables, the decay is much less visible and detectable in meat. It is otherwise also less suitable, as it induces excitement and other harmful effects to body and mind.

The use of synthetic chemicals in form of pesticides, herbicides, weedicides, fertilizers, preservatives, additives, medicines, disinfectants, etc. is continuously increasing. The residual quantities of all these chemicals administered on plants, animals, and foods is carried to humans mainly through meat and partially through plants.

In a study, conducted by Agriculture Department of Florida, U. S. A., for 18 months, it was found that 30% of the available quantity of eggs contained D. D. T. Of course, the use of D. D. T. is obsolete now, but the study confirms the role of eggs in carrying the residual chemicals to humans. Similarly, the increasing ineffectiveness of many antibiotics on human diseases is attributed partially to needless consumption of these antibiotics through residual quantities in the meat. Extra doses of antibiotics are being given to livestock to fatten them up.

Recent observations and recommendations by Peter Greenwald, director of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at National Cancer Institute, U. S. A., would be helpful in convincing people towards building an attitude against eating meat. He says that diet may be related to as much as thirty five percent of all cancer deaths in the United States, and he recommends, ‘Eat less but eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole grain cereals. Cabbage, Brussels, sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower and all of the mustard family may help prevent cancer.”

Saturated fatty acids in eggs cause high cholesterol count with advancing age. Excessive flesh-eating in the long run causes increased acids in the body; lack of fibrous food causes indigestion due to slack intestines and may be one of the causes of cancer, high blood pressure, hyper-cholesterolemia, and many other problems.

The epidemiological studies by some British clinicians showed that the rural Africans who had a high fiber intake, the main source of which are vegetables, had a low incidence of diverticulitis, irritable colon, hiatus hernia, hemorrhoids, cancer of the colon, coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, dental caries and gall stones. That is the reason doctors have started emphasizing lately the importance of including ample vegetables in the normal diet.

The reason traditionally emphasized, for abstaining from alcohol, many drugs, and certain vegetables is that many living organisms are generated and destroyed during the process of manufacturing. It seems to be out of place since, no matter what one eats or drinks, the number of living organisms destroyed is always infinite, and in infinites there can be no distinction on the basis of quantity or numbers.

The real reason behind abstaining from alcohol is that it numbs the senses and faculty of reason making one act irrationally. An irrational person is capable of committing any sort of violent act. Also, numbing of mind affects the vitality of soul, and so it is the highest grade of violence.

If properly defined, this reason would explain the purpose behind abstaining from many of the eatables mentioned in the Jain canons. Anything that produces any form of toxicity or toxic derivatives, at any stage of its consumption or absorption into the body, should not be consumed at all. If this definition were accepted, it would help modern people to understand and observe Ahimsa conduct much more easily and sincerely.

A common question raised by many is whether the flesh of animals that die naturally or are killed by others could be eaten? This question is born out of the belief that when you are not involved in the act of killing, there should be no harm in eating. Perhaps this question can best be answered by other questions: ‘Should one eat flesh of a fellow human being, once he dies naturally or is killed by someone else?’ and ‘Are we carrion eaters?’

Taking food becomes a matter of habit. Once the natural revulsion towards anything not good for human consumption is removed, the formerly unwanted things are consumed indiscriminately. This tendency towards unrestricted eating encourages others to indulge in providing such food for commercial gains, and the process continues unabated. Whether you kill or not, if you consume, others will kill for you; and that is equally undesirable and violent. Moreover, even natural death does not alter the toxicity of meat.

Selection of proper food and eating in proper quantities is very important for physical and mental health. In the long-term social context, it is all the more important, as deviations from it adversely affect the health of not only the adult population but also the younger generation on whom the future of humanity depends.

Once the basics guiding the discipline of eating habits are understood all the other rules relating to food automatically fall in their proper place. There is nothing against adapting habits/rules depending on the social and other variables. Not eating at night, boiling and filtering water etc. never formed the basic conduct of the Jains. They are mere minor corollaries, and importance should be given to them only when and where necessary; no more, no less. These are basically circumstantial applications and should be much more pliable then their existing rigid and stagnated form.

From the viewpoint of individual pursuit of purification and liberation, the simplest and complete definition of Ahimsa conduct pertaining to food is that the food should be nutritious to the body without disturbing, at any stage or in any way, the mental equanimity needed on the path of purification.


Prakrit Bharati Academy
D.R. MEHTA, Founder & Chief Patron

First edition: 1987
Second enlarged Edition May: 2004
Third Edition July: 2008

© All rights reserved with the author

Printed at:
Raj Printers & Associates, Jaipur, India

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Body
  3. Discipline
  4. Ecology
  5. Environment
  6. Equanimity
  7. Jinabhadra
  8. Kshama
  9. Shraman
  10. Soul
  11. Violence
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