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Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 6.4 ► Vegetarianism

Published: 26.12.2015

Every living being has a body which requires nourishment and energy. Jain seers considered that while it is impossible for a living being to exist without food, one should obtain it with minimal possible violence, even to one-sense beings of the plant world. The object of human life is happiness, bliss and liberation, and one cannot achieve this without a sound body and mind. One should nourish the body with food that produces minimum passions. Food from higher-sense beings produces the greater violence and passions. It has been observed that many organisms live in the bodies and secretions of animals, and hence when we use animal products, we do violence to both animals and their parasites. Jain seers have advised humans to survive on vegetarian food, with a minimum of violence to plants. The expression of non-violence in diet have made Jains the primary exponents of vegetarianism in India; they rejected the Buddhist notion that meat is acceptable if an animal has died of natural causes, contending that the dead flesh itself is a breeding ground for innumerable nigodas (micro-organisms) and hence is unacceptable (Jaini 1979: p.169).

History of vegetarianism

Since earliest times humans have existed on a meatless diet: Jains, many Hindus, most Buddhists and many other communities ate nuts, fruit, green vegetables and grains. Before the birth of modern organised vegetarian groups in the United Kingdom, some notable reformers including John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism formed a group to promote vegetarianism. In 1809 a vegetarian coalition was established in Manchester. Many reformers promoted a meatless diet until vegetarianism became formally institutionalised. In 1847, the word 'vegetarian' was coined and a Vegetarian Society was established under the leadership of Joseph Brotherton. It flourished, and eminent among its many supporters were Dr. Anne Kingsford, a leading women's' rights activist in the late 19th century, Annie Besant, long-serving President of the Theosophical Society, and George Bernard Shaw. More recently the author and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, the politician Sir Stafford Cripps, and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatheral, have supported the Vegetarian Society. In 1980, the Young Indian Vegetarian Society was formed to promote vegetarianism in the United Kingdom. Today vegetarian societies are functioning in practically all countries of the world.

Britain is one of the countries whose population is most active in promoting animal rights, vegetarianism, veganism, anti-vivisectionism, 'beauty without cruelty' and reform of factory farming methods. Since the immigration of Indian communities from India and East Africa over recent decades, vegetarian food has become yet more widely available throughout Britain. The British Medical Association, in 1995, published the results of fourteen years of research by two doctors on the effects of a vegetarian diet, and the findings, suggesting that vegetarianism increases longevity and decreases morbidity, have given a boost to the vegetarian movement. There have also been many notable promoters of vegetarianism, prominent among them were Richard Wagner, Albert Schweitzer, Leo Tolstoy, William Alcott, inventor of the 'corn flake' Dr. John Kellogg, novelist Up ton Sinclair and Greek philosophers such as Plato, Socrates and Pythagoras supported a meatless diet.

The Natural Diet of Humans

Animals can be divided into three categories according to their natural diet and corresponding anatomical and physiological systems:

  • Carnivores live largely on meat, their intestines are three times longer than their bodies, have a high concentration of hydrochloric acid in their gastric juice and small salivary glands: examples are felines and canines.
  • Herbivores live on grass, leaves and plant food: examples are cows and elephants.
  • Frugivores live on fruit, nuts and grain: examples include monkeys and the great apes.

Omnivores live on a mixture of animal and plant food and are not considered as a separate category.

Human beings, herbivores and frugivores have intestinal tracts about 8-12 times longer than the body, with much diluted hydrochloric acid in their gastric juices and large salivary glands. Their teeth are small and dull, with flat molars, whereas meat-eating animals have large front teeth (for tearing meat) and no flat molars. The anatomy and physiology of humans facilitate the digestion of plant products. Their salivary glands assist pre-digestion, dilute hydrochloric acid aids digestion, and the large intestinal tracts churn and absorb. It was only through necessity that humans began eating meat, which later became habitual, but humans cannot eat raw meat, as do carnivores, as their digestive system is ideally suited to vegetarian food.

Types of Vegetarians

The word 'vegetarian' is derived from the Latin word 'vegetare', which means 'to enliven'. Vegetarians in general do not eat meat, fish, poultry or eggs.

  • Partial vegetarians may eat fish and chicken, but do not eat red meat such as beef, pork and lamb.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs in addition to a vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarians take milk and milk products, but not eggs. Most Indian vegetarians belong to this group. Jains are lacto-vegetarians, but many devout Jains do not eat root vegetables.
  • Vegans and Frutarians live on fruit, grains, vegetables, but no milk or other dairy products.

Vegetarian Diet and Health

Plants have the ability to use the energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, water and minerals from the soil to make complex compounds such as carbohydrates, proteins and fat. When a human or an animal dies, its body, whether buried or cremated, disintegrates into the earth. Plants use the disintegrated material to make the complex food compounds, which are, in turn, consumed by animals or humans, and are thus recycled. The dead plants also have similar cycle. Humans and animals derive their nourishment by consuming plants or other animals, but ultimately it is the plants that supply their nourishment.

A balanced diet is required for both physical and mental health. It should contain sufficient ingredients, which produce energy for the necessary functions of the body, to maintain the body tissues and to cater for the demands of growth, and repair of tissues after an accident, illness or reproduction. Diet plays an important role in maintaining the mind in a sound condition, and in restraining the passions. Western medical scientists and nutritionists, when discussing diet, show concern mainly for physical health. They have hardly researched the effect of diet on mental health, which is necessary to achieve the objectives of human life.

A diet containing meat, fish, chicken, eggs and alcohol, if chosen carefully, provides fine physical health, but it produces passions, which are damaging to mental health and hinder spiritual progress. Many studies have revealed that due to the myth that a large amount of proteins are required for energy and strength, the western diet contains excessive amounts of meat and eggs. The body cannot utilise these extra proteins and the excess is converted into nitrogen waste that burdens the kidneys. Meat has a high concentration of saturated fat. Eggs are rich in cholesterol. High levels of saturated fat and cholesterol are considered as major risk factors in heart disease and strokes. A meat diet may be low in dietary fibres, lack of which causes diseases to the gastro-intestinal tract. A large number of potentially harmful chemicals are found in meat. Factory-farmed animals are fed hormones, tranquillisers, antibiotics and many of the 2,700 drugs used in agriculture, some of which remain in the meat. Certain meat products may also contain harmful bacteria and poisons as in BSE, and may be diseased. Certain preservatives are also potentially harmful. Non-vegetarian food requires greater care in production and preservation compared to vegetarian food, but in spite of all possible precautions being taken, certain problems, such as the slaughtering and sale of diseased animals, are difficult to avoid.

Chemical research has shown that animal uric and uraemic toxins have effects similar to caffein and nicotine, and stimulate the passions and create a craving for alcohol, tobacco and other stronger stimulants.

The emotions produced by stress, fear and anger in animals poison their blood and tissues with toxins. Animals experience anger and fear of impending danger and death during their transport to slaughterhouses and in the slaughtering process. This fear poisons their flesh and ultimately affects the meat-eater.

Nagarkatti, a surgeon at the Bombay Hospital notes research in Japan and other countries, into breast cancers, large intestine cancer, stomach cancer, prostatic cancer and cancers of other organs; he has shown a relationship with dietary factors which points mainly to animal components of the diet acting as cancer-producing agents (Nagarkatti 1992: pp.3.31-34).

There is much misinformation on vegetarianism, for example, vegetarians lack physical strength and their diet lacks nutrients required for good health. The vegetarians argue that a vegetarian diet is based upon scientific principles: the balanced vegetarian diet provides sufficient nutrition; it is free from the poisons and bacteria and it is ideal for physical, mental and spiritual health of human beings, enhancing longevity and decreasing morbidity (Jussawalla 1992: p.3.41).

Economics of Vegetarianism

In spite of the efforts to control, the human population is growing at an exceptional rate; hence it has become imperative to produce more food to feed the growing population as efficiently as possible on the land available.

About four-fifths of the world's agricultural land is used for feeding animals and only one-fifth for directly feeding humans. Most of the fertile land devoted to cattle, which eat cereals, root and green crops, and various grains; if substituted with for crops suitable for humans would yield far better economic results. Statistics from the Ministry of Food, Government of India in Indian Agriculture in brief (1966) showed that plant food, excluding vegetables, fruits and sugar, provides on average 15.8 times more calories and 11.5 times more proteins when compared with animal foods, per acre of land (Wynne-Tyson 1979: pp.18-20). About sixteen pounds of grains and soya beans, required to produce one pound of meat contains 21 times more calories, eight times more proteins and three times more fat than one pound of meat. Statistics from the US Department of Agriculture show that 80-90% of all grain produced in the United States goes for feeding animals, and millions of acres of land are used for raising livestock. If the same amount of land was used for cereals, it would produce five times more protein per acre, 10 times more legumes, such as lentils, peas and beans, and 15 times more protein if leafy vegetables were grown (Jain P. 1992: p.3.29). There may be variations in the statistics in view of the fact that insufficient funds by various governments are allocated for this important research, but it is true to say that land provides more food if crops for people are grown rather than those for animal feed. A vegetarian diet is less expensive than a non-vegetarian one is, as plant food is easier and cheaper to grow and produce. Vegetarianism may even help to create employment through a switch to less intensive forms of agriculture, including organic farming.

Nutritional values of a vegetarian diet

A vegetarian diet is very healthy and has high nutritional value, provided it is balanced. Vegetarians in India (and now in the West) cook a variety of attractive, tasty dishes. A vegetarian diet is inadequate only if it is low in energy or contains too high a proportion of cereals and starchy foods. Vegans may require a weekly supplement of 0.5 mg vitamin B12.

Calorie requirements depend upon factors such as weight, age, sex, and activity. The World Health Organisation recommends 2,800 calories for men and 2,400 calories for women per day for moderately active persons, although these figures may vary during pregnancy, lactation and child growth periods, when additional calories are required. Cereals, starches, sugars, fats and oils are major sources of energy. Fruit and vegetables also provide some energy.

Proteins are supplied by cereals such as wheat, barley, maize, rice, rye, millet, fruit and leafy green vegetables, and also dairy products. The World Health Organisation recommends the protein requirement for an average male adult of 70 kg body weight to be 40g of good quality protein per day, although many people still believe the higher figure of 100g, set in the 19th century guidelines, is valid.

The eight essential amino acids (tryptophane, methionine, theonine, leucine, lycine, phenylamine, voline and isoleucine) can be obtained from proteins in a balanced vegetarian diet. Two more, histidine and anginine, are important in childhood and are also available from a vegetarian diet.

Years ago proteins were divided into 'first class' (animal proteins) and 'second class' (plant proteins), but this arbitrary classification has been discarded by modern nutritionists, as it is generally accepted that no one protein source is superior to a combination of protein sources. One-gram of.protein provides four calories of energy (Barkas J. 1975: p.168-170). Table 6.1 gives the calorific and protein content of the usual foodstuffs.

Table 6.1 Calories and proteins from different foodstuffs.

Foodstuff (Approx.) Grams
for 100 calories
Grams required
for 10g proteins
Cereals 30 100
Pulses 30 40
Oilseeds 20 40
Milk 125 300
Leafy vegetables 200 250
Starchy root vegetables 100 500
Other vegetables 250 500
Fruit 100-200 1200
Animal foods 70 40
Eggs 60 75

(Appendix 2 details the nutritional values of the major vegetarian foods, both western and Indian, and Appendix 3 shows the caloric values of most Indian vegetarian foods.)

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy. One gram provides four calories of energy. The main sources are the wholegrain cereals, breads, cornmeal, root and leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, barley and rice. Excessive energy provided by carbohydrates is converted into fats.

Fats produce heat and energy and the surplus is stored in the body. Vegetable fats consist mainly of polyunsaturated fats and contain no cholesterol. They are easily digestible. One gram of fat provides nine calories of energy.

Minerals and vitamins are found in vegetables, fruit, milk products, some cereals and nuts. Minerals are necessary for the regulation of certain body processes and growth. Vitamins are necessary to maintain health and protection against specific disorders. The main sources of both are green vegetables such as cabbage, sprouts, green peas and watercress, carrots, cauliflowers, cheese, butter, margarine, oatmeal, yeast, lemons, oranges, blackcurrants and other fruit.

Vegetarian diet plans for reducing weight, lowering cholesterol and other diseases are helpful. They are very useful, but if one eats a well-balanced vegetarian diet and takes regular and moderate exercise, it is generally believed that one will keep in excellent health.

Jains argue that meat eating should be avoided for spiritual reasons as the eastern faiths believe that demerit will be accumulated equally on whoever kills, prepares, sells and eats meat, and that there is no escape for anyone who aids and abets the animal slaughter industry. Jainism seems to be more or less a compaign for vegetarianism to many people in India. During their wanderings when Jain ascetics find influence on the people, first thing they seek to effect is vegetarianism. Jain organisations set up travelling exhibitions to persuade people to accept vegetarianism by displaying the nutritional benefits of the vegetarian diet and the karmic consequences of eating meat (Laidlaw, J. 1995: p.99).

The Manusmruti states 'All supporters of meat eating are sinners'; and from the Bible, Genesis (1: 29) 'Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed - and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat'; Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, claims 'my disciples do not take meat and wine'. Buddha says, 'meat is food for sub-human beings'. Mahatma Gandhi has said, 'spiritual progress demands: we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants' (Mehta N. 1992: p.3.24).

Thus Jains advocate vegetarian food for spiritual, health, economic, animal welfare and environmental reasons. Jains are lacto-vegetarians; they have special food habits and their health compares well with that of members of other communities. We will discuss the Jain diet in the next chapter.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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