Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 6.5 ► Jain Diet

Published: 27.12.2015

Every living being requires air, water and food for its existence. Clean air and water are more important than food, and they are still available without much effort on the individual's part and are provided by nature. Food, on the other hand, has to be gathered, prepared and consumed for sustenance. Animals eat to live and generally accept what is available, but humans, although they require food for their physical and mental wellbeing, consume socially acceptable food, many a times to satisfy their palates. Jainism believes the necessity of sound physical and mental health for spiritual progress and that the food influences the body, mind and all that is associated with our lives.

Jain seers taught of the importance of food and wrote a vast amount of literature on the subject: its definition, procurement, preparation and purity, non-violent dietary habits and the effects of food on health. Most of this work concerns the dietary regulations of ascetics, but later such details as acceptable food, methods of preservation, and time limits after which food becomes unacceptable were made available to the laity.

e limits after which food becomes unacceptable were made available to the laity. Generally, the word 'food' connotes the idea of morsels of food. Jains call it aahaara, a combination of two words (aa, meaning 'from all corners', and haara, meaning 'receiving' or 'taking in'), indicating substances injested by any method for the building the body, its vital functions and vitality, and anaahaara to the abstaining from food. Bhagvati Sutra and Prajnaapana Sutra use the following terms to describe the methods of food intake

  • aahaara: Intake of appropriate food substances.
  • oja aahaara: Intake of food by the karmic and luminous body of the soul, in the process of transmigration, before a new body is formed.
  • roma aahaara: Intake of food by the skin.
  • kaval aahaara: Intake of food by mouth (Jain, N. 1996: p.505).

Table 6.2 Classification of types, sources and methods of food intake

Types Source Methods of Intake
Morsel food Foods, drinks Mouth
Diffusable food Oil, cream, etc. Skin (by massage)
Absorbable food Air, sunlight Breathing, skin
Mental or volitional Mental activities Passions like anger and greed
Karmic food Karmic particles Activities of body, speech, mind
Quasi-karmic food Karmic particles Quasi-passions: laughter, disgust

(Dhavalaa's classification by Virasena quoted in Jain N. 1996: p.506).

Thus, according to Jains food includes commonplace food and drinks, oily substances diffused through skin, air, sunlight, and the karmic particles. Jainism and other Indian religions have laid great emphasis on the purity of food and classified it in three types:

  • Taamasika food (emotional) induces vice and the spiritual decline of an individual, includes meat, alcohol, honey, and root vegetables.
  • Rajasika food (enjoyable food) includes tasty dishes, prepared for sensual pleasure, for e.g. sweets, savoury and fried food.
  • Saatvika food (pure, nutritious food) is obtained without any overt violence, for e.g. grains, milk products, fruit, vegetables etc.

Saatvika food is advocated for sound physical and mental health. Jain scriptures describe four types of morsel food useful for taking vows of austerities such as fasting and cauvihaara (renunciation of all four types of morsel food):

  • Asan: solid, soft or liquid food by which one can satisfy hunger (grains, pulses, dairy products, vegetables, fruit, sweets, etc.)
  • Paan: liquids (drinks, water, etc.)
  • Khaadim: dry foods by which one can partially satisfy hunger (popcorn, papodam, nuts, etc.);
  • Svaadim: foods that can enhance the taste (chutneys, pickles, and spices such as cloves, black pepper, ginger, etc.) (Jain N.1996: p.509)

Jain diet

Jains are strict vegetarians; their religious life prohibits them harming any form of life, which has more than one-sense. Even while procuring plant food, they are very careful in the selection, preservation and cooking, so as to minimise violence to plants and other one-sense life. They intend not to harm any form of life, but regret having to harm someone-sense forms as they have no alternative for their sustenance. Their diet is based on the principle of ahimsaa and their carefulness and concern for living beings can be seen in their daily rituals, when they ask for forgiveness for hurting any form of life intentionally or unintentionally. Moreover, there is no single set of rules for their diet, but it is moulded according to various religious considerations, customs and traditions. Some Jains will set a numerical limit to the types of food they will eat, some will renounce certain types of food temporarily or permanently, some will fast periodically, but almost all will avoid prohibited food stuffs.

Foods which are procured by violent means and/or which harm the physical or mental health are prohibited. Cooked food kept overnight, even though it may be pure, nutritious and acceptable, is not Jain food, as it can harm one's health and can be a reproductive medium for micro-organisms.

Jains are lacto-vegetarians, they take milk and milk products. In India, it is customary to take milk from a buffalo or cow. The first entitlement to this milk is that of the infant buffalo or calf. In rural India, Jains are very careful in taking milk from these animals, making sure that their offspring's are not deprived. Urbanisation has forced them to accept milk from modern dairies, and due to the violence involved to the cows in such dairies, some Jains have become vegans.

The Jain diet is pure, nutritious and obtained without any overt violence and it sustains their physical and mental health: consisting of grains, pulses, milk, yoghurt (curd), ghee (clarified butter), buttermilk, vegetables and fruit. The Jain seers have advised excluding the items listed in table 6.3 from one's diet, as they are produced by overt violence, and are not conducive to physical and mental health.

Table 6.3 Prohibited food items for Jains.

Prohibited Items Reasons for Prohibition
Foods produced by gross violence
Meat Violence to animals and birds, such as eggs, fish, poultry and other animal products that are considered meat. Many one- or more sense creatures multiply on the flesh of a dead animal. Meat harms one's physical and mental health
Alcohol Violence to countless one-sense creatures and harm to one's physical and mental health
Honey Violence to mobile creatures such as flies and bees.
Butter and cheese Violence to countless one-sense creatures, as butter is made from groups of one-sense creatures. In the preparation of cheese, animal products are used.
Other harmful foods
Ice crystals (ice cream) Ice is made from groups of one-sense creatures.
Poisons, hard drugs, tobacco To prevent harm to the self, one should avoid any kind of poison and refrain from smoking and taking unwarranted drugs.
Raw pickles (sandhaana bolaa) Raw pickles, preserved in brine, are a medium for the growth of countless mobile creatures. Jains advise drying pickles in sunlight for three days and then preserving them in oil.
Pulses and raw dairy products Mixtures of raw milk or milk products with pulses (dwidal) become a media for the growth of innumerable mobile creatures, hence milk or its products should be heated before mixing with pulses.
Deteriorating foods and juices Innumerable mobile and immobile creatures grow in deteriorating foods and in cooked food kept overnight. Time-expired foods, which change their taste, smell, shape or feel, harm one's physical and mental health.
Multi-seeed fruit & vegetables Eating fruit and vegetables in which the seeds nearly touch each other, such as figs, does violence to a greater number of one-sensed creatures.
Brinjal Contain many seeds and mobile creatures in their pods. They are also harmful to one's physical and mental health.
Pulpless fruit Indian fruit such as jaambu, canibora, sitaafala contain less pulp than seeds. Eating causes violence to their seeds, which are one-sense creatures, and one derives hardly any nutrition from them.
Unknown fruit Can be poisonous and may harm one's health.
Udumbar fruit Fruit such as umbaro, black umbaro, banyan, peepal and plaksha contain innumerable small seeds and mobile creatures. They are also harmful to one's health.
Root vegetables (anantakaayas) Eating causes violence to innumerable one sense living creatures, as many souls live in the body of one root vegetable. Vegetables grown above ground have one creature in each seed, fruit or flower. Jain seers have identified thirty-two types of such root vegetables, such as potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots. Mushrooms and sprouting pulses are also prohibited as they have many souls in a single body.
Other Prohibitions Scriptures include hailstones, clay, lime etc.
Eating at night After sunset, many invisible beings that grow at night are attracted to food. Moreover, eating at night affects one's physical and mental health.

The Jains distinguish different foods according to the violence involved in consuming them:

  • maximum violence involving harm to mobile creatures: meat, alcohol, honey and butter;
  • extensive violence to one-sense and to some mobile creatures: the root vegetables and five udumbar fruit;
  • major violence to one-sense beings and innumerable mobile creatures: beans or pulses with raw milk or milk products and raw pickles
  • lesser violence to one-sense creatures: grains, pulses, vegetables and fruit. It is impossible to get perfect non-violent food. Fasting is the only way to avoid violence completely, but this is impossible to sustain indefinitely. Vigilance in selecting the food inculcates Jains to accept foods that cause the least possible violence.

Characteristics of the Jain Diet

The characteristic of the Jain diet is to have simple, nutritious, freshly cooked vegetarian food that maintains one's good health and motivates the aspirer towards the spiritual path. Jain seers have observed duration and deterioration of various fresh foods, and suggested not eating it after its 'expiry' date.

Food contains immobile and mobile bacteria (and viruses), some of which are beneficial and some harmful. Bacteria in curd and panir are beneficial; hence curd and panir are acceptable as long as they have a minimal bacterial growth. Bacteria in alcohol are harmful and have maximal growth; hence alcohol is prohibited, Unless the food is chilled or cooked, bacteria begin multiplying after about forty-five minutes, and they grow in geometric progression, reaching their peak in five to six hours; then their growth stops. The same is true in, or on, our bodies.

Bacteria live for up to two days, and they can multiply again whenever sources of food are available. Some bacteria are eradicated by gentle to moderate heat, while others thrive in extreme heat. Surprisingly, the Jain seers took this into account and advised which foods to warm by slow heating or boiling, and then cooling immediately after heating.

Bacteria require air, water, food and the right temperature for growth. Cooked foods containing water and vegetables are a good media for the growth of bacteria, but waterless foods like sugar, salt, oil, and ghee are poor. Hence, Jains do not keep watered, cooked food overnight. They evaporate the water by heating and drying the food, which is why raw pickles are dried in the sun for three days and then mixed with oil. Chapatis can be kept overnight or longer, if they are dried by heating. All food should be kept covered and long-lasting foods such as pickles are kept in airtight jars.

Food deteriorates over time, and Jain literature prescribes time limits for different foods, taking account of the climate, but the duration may be altered to take account of modern equipment. Deteriorated food is prohibited. Vegetables such as mustard, cress, and watercress are prohibited during the monsoon season, and certain fruit such as mangoes are not eaten after mid-June (aadra constellation), due to the growth of mobile beings in them. Table 6.4 lists a few examples of the duration for foods commonly used during the Indian winter, in summer it could be less.

Table 6.4 Time limits for food items in the Indian winter.

Watered cooked food 6 to 12 hours
Fried food 24 hours
Curd 2 days
Sweets 1 month
Flour 1 month
Sugar 1 month
Dried chapatis 1 month
Boiled water 4 to 7 hours

When the taste, smell, shape and appearance of the stored food changes, it is rendered unacceptable. Occasionally the food becomes tastier, if kept overnight, due to bacterial growth, but it is unacceptable, as there is more violence in eating such food.

Contamination of food

Food can be contaminated by the atmosphere, storage, utensils, clothes and handling, hence, food should be kept covered; storage places, utensils, clothes and hands should be kept clean while cooking and handling food.

When accepting food, ascetics ensure that the person who offers the food observes: purity of mind: giving food without any ill will towards the recipient; purity of speech: maintaining pleasant and honest speech; purity of body: having a clean body and clothes; and purity of food: food is fresh, serving utensils are clean, and the kitchen and serving are orderly.

Jain seers advise on the methods for keeping food like grains, milk, curd, refined butter, oil, sugar, spices and vegetables pure, and suggest a protocol for handling food, cleanliness for the kitchens, utensils and the individual concerned.

Eating habits

Jains avoid root and other prohibited vegetables, but there is some controversy among vegetarians about whether milk is an animal product. Jains believe that the bacteria in milk are similar to those found in vegetables and, if milk is obtained by non-violent means and is surplus to the needs of the calf, they see no harm in drinking it. They will not accept eggs (fertilised or unfertilised), as their bacteria are similar to those in meat. Jains eat two to three times a day, and their typical daily menu would be as follows:

  • Breakfast: Milk, tea, one or two items from khakhara (dried chapatis), puri (fried small chapatis) or other savouries.
  • Lunch (main meal): Chapati or puri, vegetables, pulses, rice, daal, popodam, pickles, fruit, curds or buttermilk, but there may be additional savouries, sweets and regional dishes.
  • Dinner (light meal): Bhaakhari or dhebaraa (chapatis), vegetables or pulses, or khichadi (mixture of rice and daal), or kadhi (buttermilk sauce).

Many types of dishes are served at parties, feasts or when entertaining guests. Jains prefer to eat home cooked meals, as they guarantee purity.

Svetambar ascetics eat twice a day; they accept a small quantity of food from several homes, so that donor is not inconvenienced. They will not accept any food, which has been cooked especially for them, as they eat to live and not to satisfy their palate, and the food from different homes is mixed together in their bowls. They take the offered food to the upashraya and after showing it to their preceptor, share it with other ascetics. Digambar ascetics take meals only once a day, and accept the food in a standing posture, from a variety of donors congregated at one home and reverently offered to them. They accept the food with the palms of their upturned hands acting as a bowl. In order to minimise violence, most Jains do not eat green vegetables every third day, which the Jain calendar considers as auspicious. Some fast on average twice a month, and also take vows not to eat certain acceptable foods for a certain period, which aids their self-control. Jain food is very tasty, nutritious and has a very varied repertoire of dishes. The dietary habits of Jains - eating regularly and slightly less than the capacity of one's stomach, avoiding eating at night, taking only acceptable foods and periodic fasting - keeps morbidity to a minimum. Jains do eat manufactured or processed foods but take care that they do not contain animal products. The pressures of modern life and business activities have made many Jain laypersons somewhat relaxed about eating root vegetables and eating at night, though they see the value of not eating at night and avoiding prohibited foods.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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  1. Anger
  2. Body
  3. Digambar
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  5. Ghee
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  7. Jain Calendar
  8. Jain Food
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  10. Soul
  11. Sutra
  12. Svetambar
  13. Violence
  14. Virasena
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