Ahimsa in Jainism and the Moral Imperative of Veganism

Published: 02.05.2014

Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach
…and Abolition Means Veganism!

Ahimsa in Jainism and the Moral Imperative of Veganism[1],[2]

Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is the fundamental principle of Jainism. Ahimsa Paramo Dharma - nonviolence is the highest religious duty. We can think about the concept of ahimsa in Jainism as having two dimensions: a dimension that focuses on ahimsa as a spiritual notion and a dimension that focuses on ahimsa as a matter of normative ethics. In certain respects, this distinction tracks the distinction proposed by Acharya Kundakunda in Samayasdra between the niscaya naya, the nonconventional or absolute point of view, and the vyavahara naya, the conventional or worldly point of view.

Ahimsa as a spiritual concept concerns the state of the soul, or atma, and says that we achieve ahimsa only when the atma is in a state of complete tranquility, or a state of being vitaraga, or free of attachment or aversion. If the atma is vibrating in any way, it is attracting karma, and whether that karma be good (punya) or bad (pap), there is not - and cannot be - a state of ahimsa. So if we have not achieved liberation, or moksha, we are necessarily participating in some form of himsa.

Ahimsa as a concept of normative concept focuses on not injuring other sentient beings in thought, speech, or action. Dravya himsa is used to describe the actual action of injuring a sentient being. Bhdva himsa is the intent to inflict injury. Both types of himsa result in the accumulation of pap karma. When these two sorts of himsa are combined - when a violent action is undertaken with a violent intention - the karmic result is most inauspicious.

II. Jainism and Vegetarianism

The Jain ascetic is enjoined not to commit violence against any living being, including those with one sense (ekendiryas) and that are immobile (sthavar), such as plants or those organisms that have earth, water, fire, or air as bodies. But all Jains are forbidden from himsa against all mobile beings (trasa), whether they have two (dwindriya), three (trindriya), four (chaturindriya), or five (panchendriya) senses. The five senses are: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. The mammals, birds, and fish that humans regularly consume as food all belong in the highest class of those beings with five senses - a class in which humans, who are mammals, belong as well. This prohibition is not limited to what a person does directly (krita) and extends to causing others to do himsa (karita) and to approving of the himsa of others (anumodana). This clear and broad rejection of himsa by Jainism is the basis for virtually unanimous support among Jains for not consuming meat, poultry, and fish.

III. Jainism and Veganism: The Problem

But many Jains are not vegans. Many - indeed most - consume dairy products such as milk, clarified butter or ghee, ice cream, yogurt and cheese. Many eat eggs, not usually as a separate food but as contained in cakes or other baked items. They use dairy and wool in temple worship events. They wear wool, leather, and silk, and use products that contain animal ingredients.

In order to justify vegetarianism as a morally coherent position that can inform our understanding of ahimsa, it would be necessary to somehow formulate a limiting principle that can distinguish meat from other animal products. But all animal products - including dairy, eggs,wool, and leather - involve inflicting suffering and death on mobile, five-sensed beings, with the exception being silk worms, who are considered to have two senses.[3] Some forms of production are more brutal than others and some have more death rather than others, but, under the very best of circumstances there is a great deal of suffering involved in the production of these products, and the death of animals is a necessary aspect of any industry or practice that uses animals. Jains are necessarily committed to veganism if they are to seek to apply ahimsa in its normative form in a way that is at least consistent with the recognition that eating animal flesh is a serious violation of ahimsa. Moreover, the failure of Jains to adopt veganism rather than vegetarianism as a baseline makes ahimsa appear to be arbitrary and this weakens the normative force of ahimsa as a foundational principle.

The usual response at this point is to say that some treatment of animals used in the dairy, wool, and silk industries is terrible, these products can be produced without violence in "humane" ways.

But this way of addressing the matter misses the point in two ways.

First, the issue as far as Jainism is concerned is not how violent dairy products or wool are. The issue is whether they involve violence at all. If they do, then dairy and wool involve the intentional harming of mobile, five-sensed beings. And there can be no doubt that the most humanely produced dairy and wool involve harming and causing distress to animals and killinganimals. That is, the dairy and wool industries necessarily involve the suffering and death of mobile, multi-sensed (and for the most part five-sensed) beings.

Animals used in dairy production are kept alive longer than animals used for meat, treated as badly if not worse, and end up in the same slaughterhouses after which humans consume their bodies. Cows used for dairy are impregnated forcibly on a yearly basis and are manipulated with hormones to produce six to eight times as much milk as they would normally produce. They are killed after about five or six years although their natural lifespan is about twenty years. The male babies of dairy cows are sold into the veal industry and most of the females are used in the dairy industry. It is an endless cycle of exploitation, suffering, and death. There is an inextricable relationship between the meat industry and the dairy issue. You cannot have a dairy industry without a meat industry. It is no coincidence that India now is the largest producer of dairy products in the world[4]at the same time that the Indian beef market is growing and India is exporting 44% more beef than four years ago.[5]

Many Jains, particularly those in the older generations who spent their childhood in India, still hold the idyllic concept of the dairy cow that grazes in the pasture, and is provided with good care and has a good life. If milk or other products come from such an animal, how can that be morally problematic? In the first place, no animal products come from such animals. Most dairy products - wherever in the world they are produced, including India - come from animals kept in intensive conditions known as "factory farming" that involve unspeakable brutality and violence. Even those animals who are supposedly raised in "free-range" circumstances, or whose products are advertised as "organic," are raised in conditions that may be slightly less brutal than the normal factory farm, but there is still a great deal of violence, suffering, and death. Small rural milk producers in India use artificial impregnation, keep animals tethered, prevent calves from drinking milk, sell calves to the meat industry (even where cow slaughter is prohibited, buffalo slaughter is not and buffaloes make up about 50% of the India dairy herd), and sell cows for slaughter after no longer than ten years.

The person who keeps only one cow on her or his property must keep that cow pregnant in order for the animal to give milk and this means that there will be a steady stream of calves. In most cases, most if not all of these calves will end up on someone's table. And whenever a calf is separated from her or his mother, there is tremendous suffering from that alone. Is a glass of milk or ghee or raita worth inflicting even that suffering? The picture of the happy cow grazing in the pasture bears no relationship to reality. The process of producing dairy - however "humane" it may be - involves himsa. The details of treatment under various systems of production and in different countries are matters of detail that go to how much harm is present in each system in each place. But all systems involve himsa; the use of animals to produce dairy itself involves himsa. There cannot be a dairy industry without the suffering and deaths of animals.

The same is true of eggs. After hatching, the chicks are separated into males and females. Because male chicks will not be able to produce eggs and, because laying chickens are a specific laying breed that are not suitable to be "meat" animals, more than 100 million male chicks are killed in the United States alone every year by being thrown alive into grinding machines, suffocated in garbage bags, or gassed. Laying hens are confined in tiny battery cages where they get, on average, 67 square inches of space, or about the size of a single sheet of letter-sized paper, to live their entire lives. Most laying hens are subjected to forced molting, where the birdsare starved for a period, causing them to lose their feathers and forcing their reproductive processes to rejuvenate, and to debeaking to stop the birds from injuring each other. Those hens who are not confined in battery cages are raised in "cage-free" or "free-range" circumstances that still result in horrible suffering. And laying hens are all slaughtered once their egg-producing capacity decreases, usually after one or two laying cycles. So if all you eat are eggs, you are still directly responsible for the suffering and death of many chickens. It is interesting to note that the Indian egg industry is growing at a compounded annual rate of over 8%, with production increasing from 75 billion eggs in 2012 to about 95 billion in 2015.[6]

The same is true of wool. Wool may be produced more or less humanely in that the farmers can be more or less gentle when shearing sheep but all shearing involves frightening the animals and the most gentle shearing involves cuts and other injuries. The farmer may or may not engage in mulesing, which involves cutting away skin from the sheep's rump in order to create a scar that restricts the skin and prevents flies laying eggs in that area. But the sheep are subjected to some level of suffering and they all end up in the same slaughterhouse. Again, wool necessarily involves suffering and death; it necessarily involves himsa. And leather is the skin of a slaughtered animal. Leather directly and necessarily involves himsa.[7]

Second, even if, in some perfect world, dairy, eggs, wool, and leather could be produced without violence, this is not that world. These products are not available to anyone at the present time. I have had many Indian people tell me that milk could be produced without harming cows. But these people all live in Los Angeles or New York or Mumbai. And, even if dairy products could be produced without harming cows, which is not the case, these people have no access to such products today. They often say that they buy only "organic" milk. But "organic" only means that the cows are fed organic food and are not given antibiotics and growth hormones but they are still exploited, impregnated forcibly, slaughtered around 5 years of age, many times kept in small restricted areas, and their newborn calves are taken away for veal. In fact, cows involved in "organic" milk production may suffer more because farmers are not able to use antibiotics to address mastitis infections; instead, the cow is usually just taken out of production until the infection subsides. But this means that the cow has to suffer with the infection. Even the consumer of milk from the small Indian dairy cooperative cannot buy milk free of himsa. Again, some dairy may involve less himsa; some more. But all dairy involves some himsa. All wool - even the most "humanely" produced - involves some himsa. And as we cannot get the skin of a dead animal without the animal being dead, all leather involves himsa. Although some leather might come from animals who were not slaughtered as part of the meat industry, such supply could, in reality, constitute a minute portion of the market. IV. Jainism and Veganism: Explanations That Do Not Work

To their credit, most Jains accept that, as a factual matter, there is harm to animals inherent in the dairy, egg, wool, and leather industries. They usually rely on one of four arguments to justify that harm. None of these arguments works.

First, there is the argument from tradition. Some defend the use of animal products because it has been traditional to use dairy products or wool or leather. But tradition can no more suffice here than it can in any other area of human conduct. If Jainism stands for anything, it represents the notion that ethical principles are a matter of rational thought and careful consideration. It is precisely when we have been lulled into complacency by tradition that we must be most conscientious.

As part of this appeal to tradition, some Jains say that the Tirthankaras, or the human beings who have achieved omniscience and who teach it to others, never condemned the consumption of dairy as involving himsa and that some ancient texts contain references to ghee or other dairy products being present on auspicious occasions. But this is like using the Bible as an authority to justify homophobia or capital punishment. The important books of most religious and spiritual traditions are full of all sorts of inconsistent ideas and matters that the most fundamentalist believer does not accept. So the fact that there may be references in Jain scriptures to dairy is irrelevant. The fact that dairy was consumed by Jains thousands of years ago is irrelevant. The point is that Jains regard ahimsa as the foundational and defining principle of their tradition and ahimsa prohibits the intentional infliction of suffering and death on mobile, multi-sensed creatures. The only question for the Jain is whether the conduct in question - consuming dairy or wearing wool or leather - involves inflicting suffering and death on mobile, multi-sensed beings.

Second, there are some who say that we cannot live a perfect life so it is acceptable for us to eat dairy or to use other animal products as a "compromise." Jainism certainly recognizes that, with the exception of the omniscient who have gained liberation, we cannot avoid all violence if we live in samsara, the material world. That is the primary problem with samsara; our existence necessarily adversely affects others. But if our inability to avoid all himsa means that we can eat dairy or use wool, which involves inflicting injury and death on five-sensed beings, then it must mean that we can eat flesh as well. That is, there is no limiting principle that would allow us to distinguish between dairy and wool or leather, and flesh, or indeed, from any form of violence. If we cannot avoid all violence, and, therefore dairy, egg, wool, and leather are morally acceptable, then why just dairy, eggs, wool, and leather? Why not meat? Why not robbery or assault? Or murder? So this justification for nonveganism also fails.

The third and most frequently used justification involves the principle of anekantavada, or what has come to be known as the Jain "doctrine of relativity" that no position on any issue can be absolutely true because all positions can only reflect a particular perspective. When I have discussed the need to eschew dairy, wool, and leather, I have had Jains say to me that the principle of anekantavada means that I cannot say that it is immoral to consume or use these items; all I can say is that it is immoral from my perspective. Any such argument must fail.

The doctrine of anekantavada concerns ontology, or the nature of existence, and has nothing to do with moral issues. The doctrine developed historically as a way of mediating the dispute between Hinduism, which emphasized the permanence of things, and Buddhism, which emphasized the impermanence of things. The Jain doctrine of anekantavada says that dravya or substances, including living and non-living, material and non-material, are permanent in that these substances possess certain gunas or qualities. However, matter is a constant state of changing; the paryayas modes or states of matter are always in flux. So existence is both permanent and impermanent and no one can have complete knowledge of a substance because that would require knowledge of all modes of the substance, which only the omniscient can know. Non-omniscient beings can only have partial knowledge of the substance depending on standpoint or perspective. But as we can see, this doctrine has nothing to do with morality. The doctrine of anekantavada simply cannot be used to stand for the proposition there is no absolute truth so we cannot say with any certainty that consuming dairy or wearing wool or leather is morally wrong as involving himsa inflicted on mobile, multi-sensed beings. Indeed, if this interpretation of anekantavada were even possible, it would make any assertion about ahimsa - from eating meat to human genocide - subject to a relativist interpretation. But the Sutras contain the wisdom of the Tirthankaras and, in Akdrdhga Sutra, it is written: "All breathing, existing, living sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away." That is clear; it does not admit of any relativist interpretation.

Fourth, some argue that it is inconvenient to practice veganism. Convenience cannot be the touchstone. No Jain would think that considerations of convenience justified eating meat, poultry, or fish. If, as I and others maintain, dairy, eggs, and other animal products involve himsa inflicted on innocent mobile beings, then convenience can similarly not serve as a moral justification. But having said this, it is certainly no more inconvenient to be a vegan than it is to be a vegetarian. There are a variety of delicious non-dairy "milks" (soy, rice, and almond) available and these can be used for cooking and in beverages. There are delicious vegan "butters" made from soy that can substitute for ghee. The range of vegan clothing has increased dramatically in recent years and it is now easy to avoid the use of animal products for clothing. V. Conclusion

The issue of veganism is not merely significant; it is crucial for Jainism. If Jains do not embrace veganism, then their rejection of eating animal meat is simply arbitrary. We cannot make a coherent distinction between meat, dairy, and leather in that all involve the intentional infliction of suffering and death on mobile, multi-sensed beings. To say that ahimsa prohibits one but not the other makes ahimsa meaningless as a normative principle because the principle would not even pertain to all situations that are substantially similar. That is, it is one thing if a moral principle covers situations x and y but a distinguishing feature makes situation z different from x and y in some relevant way and there is a question as to whether the moral principle still covers situation z. But if x, y, and z are all relevantly similar, and the moral principle is interpreted to cover situations x and y but not z, then the moral principle is being applied in an obviously arbitrary way. A moral principle that cannot rule out instances of conduct that are substantially similar is necessarily weak because it does not include any limiting principle.

In this regard, I will recount an incident that occurred when I was giving a lecture on animal ethics at a university and I was explaining that I objected to animal exploitation in part because of my commitment to nonviolence. A student pointed out that the Jains, who made nonviolence the central focus of their spiritual tradition, did not think that dairy foods or eggs other animal products, such as leather or wool, involved violence. The student asked me to justify my understanding of nonviolence as including dairy, eggs, wool, and leather in light of the Jain view that these did not involve himsa. He pointed out that the Jains must have some principle that distinguishes these other animal products from meat, which is prohibited by ahimsa. I responded that there was no distinguishing principle. He replied that ahimsa must then be an arbitrary notion. He was correct. And because a non-Jain student can see the oblivious flaw in the prevalent understanding of ahimsa, that is a signal to Jains to rethink an interpretation of ahimsa that is so clearly arbitrary.

Finally, I recall visiting a Digambara temple once and there was a sign at the entrance of the main area of worship that read, "No leather allowed." I asked a Jain friend who was with me why leather was prohibited inside the temple. He said: "Because of himsa." I remarked him that it was odd that Jains thought that it was morally acceptable to wear something outside the temple that was prohibited inside the temple. He had no answer.

That is because there really is no good answer.


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  1. Acharya
  2. Acharya Kundakunda
  3. Ahimsa
  4. Ahimsa Paramo Dharma
  5. Anekantavada
  6. Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach
  7. Atma
  8. Body
  9. Buddhism
  10. Chitrabhanu
  11. Crore
  12. Dharma
  13. Digambara
  14. Dilip Shah
  15. Dravya
  16. Ghee
  17. Gunas
  18. Gurudev
  19. Gurudev Chitrabhanu
  20. Himsa
  21. Hinduism
  22. Jainism
  23. Jina
  24. Karma
  25. Kundakunda
  26. Moksha
  27. Mumbai
  28. Naya
  29. Niscaya Naya
  30. Nonviolence
  31. Omniscient
  32. Panchendriya
  33. Pap
  34. Pramoda Chitrabhanu
  35. Punya
  36. Samsara
  37. Soul
  38. Space
  39. Sthavar
  40. Sulekh Jain
  41. Sutra
  42. The Economic Times
  43. The Times Of India
  44. Times Of India
  45. Tirthankaras
  46. Trasa
  47. Trindriya
  48. Vegan
  49. Veganism
  50. Vegetarianism
  51. Violence
  52. Vyavahara Naya
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