An Ahimsa Crisis: You Decide ► Why This Book?

Posted: 18.07.2016

An Ahimsa Crisis: Conflict Or Opportunity - You Decide 

This book is about ahimsa (non-violence), the nonviolent way of life; it is written as a dialog with my other fellow practitioners of ahimsa; especially Jains. This book is intended for lay readers and discusses how they might practice ahimsa today. It is not about the lifestyles of monks and nuns of the Jain tradition or of any other tradition.

The Jain Way of Life (JWOL) and the Ahimsak (non-violent) Way of Life (AWOL) are two sides of the same coin.

Nearly 2,600 years ago, Lord Mahavira, the last Tirthankar or “ford-maker” of Jains, laid down a very specific and detailed code of conduct for Jain laity in regard to the practice of ahimsa in their daily lives. He, through his own self-practice, preaching, and practical demonstrations also strongly objected and revolted against the prevalent practices of himsa (violence) in many customs and traditions of the day. These practices included animal sacrifices in religious rituals, slavery; especially of women, societal discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, and economic status, and pollution and destruction of the environment. Lord Mahavira made ahimsa the centerpiece of his sermons and of his fourfold Sangh (community).

The concept of unconditional ahimsa towards all life forms is the most profound contribution of Jains to India and to the world. In India, ahimsa of the Jains has played a significant role in shaping many customs and traditions, one being vegetarianism.

Since Lord Mahavira’s passing in 527 BCE, Jains, both in their lifestyle and practice, have steadfastly, zealously, and with utmost devotion, preserved this great treasure and inheritance. Over the centuries, Jains have sometimes been subjected to extreme forms of violence, but they have never wavered, walked away from or compromised with ahimsa. For example, when thousands of their temples and places of worship were being destroyed, when their monks and nuns were being tortured or when Jains in general were being discriminated against, they found refuge in ahimsa.

During the partition of India into two countries, India and Pakistan, in 1947, when many inhabitants in some parts of India and Pakistan were engaged in uncontrolled himsa, Jains too became victims of torture, looting, burning, rape, and killing. Yet even in those testing and trying times, they did not abandon ahimsa.

In fact, the Jain community may be the only living, continuous example of ahimsa in the history of humankind. Throughout the entire history of India, Jains have never been part of a problem. They have always been a part of a solution. Such is the legacy and practice of ahimsa by the Jains. One could say that ahimsa and Jains are synonymous words.

Jain monks and nuns, with their most austere life style, strict adherence to the code of ahimsa - in the case of digambra monks not even possessing the clothing on their bodies - become a living example of ahimsa even today that provokes reverence and respect in the hearts and minds of all those with whom they come in contact.

For centuries, Jains have steadfastly practiced ahimsa in their daily lives. For example, they have predominantly been vegetarian and vegan, will not use animal products in clothing,

furnishings, cosmetics, decorations, or in medicines. They have generally avoided professions and businesses in which any kind of known himsa to humans or non-humans are involved, despite the potential for profit or personal gain. They shun entertainments that involved the use or torture of animals. Because of this boundary, Jains have avoided professions such as agriculture, trading in leather, meat and meat related businesses and investments, the hotel industry (where serving meat and non-vegetarian products may be necessary), or several pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries that require use of animal based ingredients or testing on animals.

The “Three As” of Jains, Ahimsa, Anekant (non-absolutism), and Aprigraha (limiting possessions), guide the lifestyle of Jains. Not only are Jains vegetarians, but many Jains will not eat root vegetables (to avoid killing the entire plant) and not eat after sunset to avoid harm to many small insects during the night. As traders and businessmen, Jains have generally observed the highest standards of ethics, honesty, and morality. In many cases, their verbal agreements were more solid and genuine than written agreements used at the time. They preserved and protected the environment and stayed away from businesses where deforestation, burning and polluting the earth, air, and water were involved.

Jains hardly ever started wars, but many times they were the first to enlist in the military to defend their country, its honor, and culture. Frequently, Jains and Jain monks permanently changed the minds and behaviors of rulers and military generals and encouraged movement from war and fighting to peace and ahimsa. Even the 15th century Muslim emperor Akbar issued royal proclamations to ban animal slaughter during the Jain holy days, based on his relationship with local Jains and monks and their influence on him. When 17th century emperor Shah Jahan was building his famous Red Fort in Delhi, he allotted a piece of land next door for use by Jains only to build their temple (called Lal Mandir) because all the Muslim emperors knew Jains as trustworthy and peace loving people. Today, this Jain temple - still standing and in use - also houses and supports the a bird hospital for the treatment and care of injured and sick birds.

Surrounded by a majority Hindu community, Jains adopted several Hindu rituals to assimilate and live with them in harmony and peace. Even today, most Jain milestones, such as the birth of a child, marriage, or death ceremony, are conducted by Hindupurohits.

In India, Jains have been the biggest philanthropists (as part of the practice of ahimsa) by establishing thousands of animal and bird shelters, hospitals, leprosy centers, schools, orphan care centers, and by running free medical facilities, eye clinics, the famous Jaipur Foot for prostheses, and the donation of hearing aids, wheelchairs and clothing to the sick, handicapped, needy, and poor. They are generally one of the firsts to show up to help at natural disasters such as famines, earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. For example, many Jain doctors in North America travel to India and African countries every year to provide free medical care.

Given instant connectivity in communication, commerce, and travel today, the world has indeed become a global village. But this interconnectedness foregrounds many important issues involving pluralism, democracy, ecology, terrorism, violence, nationalism, human rights, disease prevention and treatment, and other health matters.

Also, complications that arise in areas of the environment, law, business, and medicine, (including organ transplant, cloning, stem cell research, genome research, abortion, and the spread of new diseases), food production, transport, space initiatives, and conflict at the local and global levels - all of these places of possibility and connection have created new environments. Unfortunately, some of these challenges are now shaking the very foundations of ahimsa within the Jain community - the very ahimsa they have treasured and preserved intact for several thousand years.

For more than five years, I have been speaking frequently with Professor Gary Francione, distinguished Professor of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA about practical ahimsa. Gary is not only a Jain but is also passionate about ahimsa. In July 2009, I had a chance to meet Gary for the first time. I spent three days with him at the JAINA convention in Los Angeles, California, where he gave a soul-searching keynote speech on ahimsa and ecology. In the same year in October, I listened to his keynote speech at the opening of JVB Preksha Meditation Center in Houston, Texas. Both of his speeches created waves of emotion in me. They, and the ensuing phone conversations with Gary, helped convince me that there is an ahimsa crisis. This book is a result of that sad realization.

Several other friends have kindled this fire within me - among them Narendra Sheth in San Diego, California, Pravin K. Shah in Raleigh, North Carolina, Fakirchand Dalal in the Washington, D.C. area, Dilip V. Shah, a past president of JAINA, and Professor Glenn Paige in Honolulu, Hawaii.

I was born and brought up in a religious, moral, and non- ritualistic Jain family near Delhi, India. I have also lived in the United Kingdom and the United States for the last 49 years. Since my twenties, I have been connected and intimately involved with a large number of Jain organizations and institutions in India, the US, the UK, France and Canada, either as a member, founder, co-founder, member of the executive committee, or chairman and president. I was the national secretary (four years) and president (four years) of the Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA) as well. Throughout this work, ahimsa has remained central and North Star to my endeavors.

During my life, I have visited many Jain centers - not only in the aforementioned countries, but also in Dubai, Belgium, Singapore, Thailand, and Australia - and have participated in their varied activities and celebrations. I have been fortunate in meeting and interacting with practitioners from all four components of the Jain sangh (sadhus, sadhvis, shravaks, and shravikas), Jain acharyas, Jain community leaders and also several hundred Jain youth throughout the world. I have observed firsthand the practice of ahimsa as a Jain and from within the Jain community. Most of my stories in this book come from India (that is where 98% of Jains live) but there are others that I have observed in the US and other places where I have been living for past many years.

This book is a recollection and compilation of many of my own observations, reflections, and reactions from these experiences and relationships. In addition, I have included some incidents that were told to me, or that I learned from the media. I believe the stories are correct, though I cannot vouch for their complete accuracy. It may very well be that what I heard or observed may not be what actually had happened. But I want to assure readers that I have not intentionally made up any of these stories, and all of them speak to what I have learned, and what observations I have to offer about the importance of ahimsa.

In this book, I have tried to cover the topics of himsa and its practices, which consist largely of items we put in our mouths (food, drink, medicine) but also deal with issues beyond thali (our food plate). The majority of the book deals with macro (sthool) issues of himsa as opposed to micro (sooksham) himsa towards all five-sensed life forms - human and animal.

The terms “non–vegetarian” and “vegetarian” refer to what is on one’s food plate - that is, what one puts in one’s stomach through the mouth. A non-vegetarian’s food plate contains flesh of any living being that moves, swims, or crawls. A vegetarian does not eat flesh of animals, fish, or poultry but may or may not eat eggs and dairy products. Beyond these two food habits there is another life style called veganism. Veganism, as a terminology and a lifestyle, refers to those who use no animal or animal-based products for food, medicine, clothing, body beautification or decoration.

In this book I have moved beyond these three lifestyles to discuss the ahimsak (completely nonviolent) way of life, which includes not only veganism but also ahimsa beyond food and adornments. An “Ahimsak Way of Life” (AWOL) practitioner strives to practice ahimsa in everything, consistently, both inside and outside the temple or place of worship.

The bottom-line message of this book is to encourage the reader to become and live as an ahimsak - this is something to which we all must aspire. I am not at all saying that being a practitioner of ahimsa only up to the level of thali is bad, but we should not stop there. We all must go beyond thali. Living an ahimsak way of life, I submit, is practical and also truly Jain.

In this book, I have also emphasized the phrase “you decide,” quite repeatedly. Here, I am not at all defining or laying down a code of conduct for each and every Jain to follow. On the contrary, the practice of ahimsa and the extent to which one follows it is always an individual choice that depends upon one’s own circumstances, place, time, and geography. That is why I have used the phrase “you decide” to emphasize that it is your choice and not someone else’s absolute dictum.

I am compelled to write this book because I feel that the practice of ahimsa is slipping within the Jain community. We must take hold of ahimsa again and help the philosophy and practice of ahimsa to flourish everywhere - within Jainism and beyond - to the wider world. That way, we will have many Mahatma Gandhis all around us!

A few final words of introduction: Please note that most of my reflections are about himsa committed by human beings to other human beings as well as to other five-sensed non- humans. Only a small portion of my stories in this book pertain to creatures that have fewer than five senses.

Please note that this book is not intended to be an academic work. It is simply a narrative by one individual with inquisitive eyes and a reflective mind.

For the sake of simplicity I will use the words “he,” “him,” and “his” rather than “he/she” and “his/her” but keep in mind that I mean both men and women.

In this book, I draw upon many real stories, case studies, and observations I have made during my time in India and in North America. The use of stories and case studies is a powerful technique frequently employed by preachers and professors. In fact, one major category of Jain literature is called Kathaanuyog (meaning “full of stories and happenings”). Stories and case studies convey a message much more clearly and effectively than does a theoretical text, because readers can relate incidents and events to their own lives.

In the following pages, I frequently mention myself, my relatives, and my close friends, but not because of vanity. Some of the stories I share are very personal and intimate. I do not mean for them to sound self-serving and arrogant on my part or accusatory or condemning of others. I am no paragon of perfection in thought, word, or deed. Like all of my fellow humans, I have flaws, weaknesses, and shortcomings. And I have committed much himsa, though mostly unwittingly and out of ignorance. But upon learning of my mistakes, I have constantly and as humanly possible, strived to change, make amends, and apologize for committing himsa.

I am not a successful role model, either. Despite frequent discussions about ahimsa, I have not influenced even a single person in my own household to become vegan or a follower of the broader aspects of ahimsa.

nterestingly, the one person I recall upon whom my words have had an effect is a non-Jain. About five years ago, I was visiting with a classmate from my college days in India. During our conversation, he told me that he is a vegetarian and eats meat rarely. I responded, “Either one is pregnant or not pregnant. There is no such thing as half-pregnant or partially pregnant.” He thought about it and after a few days called me to say that he has decided to become fully vegetarian.

Yes, it was easy to preach to him. But it is harder to walk the walk myself. Since I am vegan only 95% of the time, I cannot claim to be a complete vegan either. I am trying to be, but sometimes my willpower weakens. I don’t let my downfalls discourage me. I pick myself up and keep walking on my journey toward observance of ahimsa in all aspects of my life.

Whether the stories are mine or from other sources, all are reflections of how ahimsa is practiced - or not practiced - within the Jain community today. Readers may find some of the stories gruesome, but rest assured that they are not fabricated or exaggerated. I apologize for not naming all of my sources; sometimes I have forgotten the name, other times it is best left unsaid.

While writing this book, I sought the views of some of my friends about what I was writing. Quite a few were disappointed that my book was not about ahimsa as a philosophy. They were expecting a theoretical and academic book and not this critical and honest reflection. Several other friends warned me that many Jains will feel hurt and may even accuse me of seeking to injure their feelings. In fact, they advised me either not to write this book at all or that I should write something “feel good.”

However, I feel strongly about ahimsa and what is happening within my Jain sangh. This is not healthy. I feel hurt and that is the impetus of this book.

If some readers feel hurt by anything I have written, that will amount to himsa on my part. I sincerely say to them “michchhami dukhadam,” (I ask for unconditional forgiveness). If, on the other hand, this book fosters open, honest, rational, and critical discussions within the Jain community, I will feel myself very blessed.

I trust readers will reflect on the message and not on the messenger.

Thank you, Jai Jinendra, and Dhanyavaad.

Sulekh C. Jain
Houston, Texas, USA
December, 2014

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