Jainism and Veganism: Ahimsa in the Modern World

Posted: 26.01.2011
Updated on: 08.03.2011

Dilip V.  ShahVeganism is embraced by some, misunderstood by some, and resisted by others in the Jain Community. The primary tenet of Jainism is Ahimsa, or non-violence. Bhagwan Mahavir’s message in the Acharanga Sutra is clear: “all breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away.” The central philosophy of Jainism and veganism are not only similar but also complementary and in pursuit of an Ahimsak life, Jains should respect and embrace veganism.

According to The Vegan Society of the U.K., “a vegan is someone who tries to live without exploiting animals, for the benefit of animals, people and the planet. Vegans eat a plant-based diet, with nothing coming from animals - no meat, milk, eggs or honey, for example. A vegan lifestyle also avoids leather, wool, silk, pearl and other animal products.” Donald Watson of The Vegan Society, who combined the beginning and end of the word “vegetarian,” symbolizing that veganism is the logical conclusion of the vegetarian journey to avoid animal suffering and death, coined the word “vegan” in 1944.

Vegans recognize that as an ethical matter, milk, even “organic” or “humane” milk is inherently a product of violence. Some people believe that milk production in India is still humane but the truth is otherwise. If you are not sure about this, you should visit a dairy farm or read about it in Pravin K. Shah’s My Visit to a Dairy Farm, which is archived in the Jain collection at Harvard University and can be found at http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~pluralsm/affiliates/jainism/ahimsa/dairy.htm.

The meat and milk industries are inextricably linked; they are two sides of the same violent coin. Cost of beef is subsidized by the sale of milk and leather. All livestock in a dairy farm are predestined for the slaughter house: new born male calves for veal within six months of birth and the remaining female cows by the age of five years when milk production starts to decrease. The natural life span of a cow is more than 20 years.

Dairy cows are often fed ground up fish and bone, routinely injected with hormones, repeatedly impregnated for continuous milk production and separated from their calves very shortly after birth. There can be no doubt that the production of dairy, however “humane” we may try to make it, will always involve violence to five-sensed creatures (Panchandriyas). Moreover, milk production is a tremendous burden on the environment; it takes a great deal of grain, water and energy to produce dairy products, and there are many harmful consequences of waste and pollution that result.

Some Jains point to scripture, which indicates that Tirthankaras consumed some milk products. It must be remembered, however, at that time there was very little animal agriculture and no intensive or “factory” farming. Moreover, at that time, there was not enough grain produced to feed people. So taking small amounts of dairy products may have represented the minimum amount of Himsa necessary given conditions then. Cows were treated as revered members of the family and the animals were not commodified or killed even when they stopped producing milk. But that is not the situation now. According to Jain theory, milk and milk products are considered Vigayee or Maha-Vigavee and are prohibited during Aymbil. Therefore, eliminating (or minimizing) the use of milk or milk products is not a strange or alien concept to Jains.

There are now convenient and tasty substitutes for milk, ice cream, yogurt, butter and ghee, as well as alternatives to leather, silk, wool, pearls, etc. American Dietetic Association has a position paper that explains how vegan diets help manage and reduce chronic degenerative disease like heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, obesity and others. Although vegan ideals are becoming more common among Jain youth, the older, more tradition-minded generation resists it. We have to examine our himsa footprint in everything we consume. Vegan theory is closest to Jain ideals and a step ahead of just being vegetarian. Veganism is a natural expression and expansion of our highest ideals of Ahimsa. There is no other religion or philosophy that comes closer to the Jain philosophy of non-violence as ethical veganism does. When we understand the true basis of their belief as Jiv Daya we must develop respect for their commitment and embrace vegans as our soul mates.

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