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Jain Diet

Published: 15.01.2009
Updated: 02.07.2015
1.0 Introduction

The word diet brings to our mind thoughts of austerity, restriction and deprivation to lose weight and look better. However in Jainism, the word diet refers more to the harmonious relationship between the food we take concerning our health (both physical and mental), the environment we live in and enhancement of our abilities to perform and make our existence happy and blissful in this and future lives.

Jain term for food is āhāra. Recent literature uses the term bhojana also. Āhāra is not just eating, but the taking in or absorption of the matter fit for different kinds of bodies

gross or physical body

humans, animals and vegetation kingdom

transformable body

celestial or infernal beings and the like

and six kinds of completions called paryāpti the assimilation of molecules of matter, formation of body, senses, respiratory organs, speech organ and mind[1].

Food means taking external inputs, nutrients, and energy and bodybuilding and functioning elements by living beings. It is the most important need of living beings as without it they may not be able to survive for long time. It therefore becomes important to know Jain views on food. Food and conduct, as per Jains, have strong correlation. Here also ethical postulates, such as being healthy (to be able to perform right conduct for self purification), non violence, self control (sańyama), attitude and our thinking have strong correlation to the type and quantity of food we take.[2] Mahāvira, during his penance of more than 12.5 years is said to have taken small quantities of food and that too only 265 times.

However all living beings need external energy and nutrients to maintain the health of their physical bodies to effectively utilize their faculties (mind, body and speech) to achieve their objectives. Thus food is the primary need of all living beings. Like cotton is the basic material of cloth, similarly to practice Mokşa Mārga with right vision-knowledge and conduct as main constituents, proper diet is very important. The eight basic virtues (mulaguna) or requirements to be a householder (sravaka) have at-least three virtues consisting of abstinence from meat, honey and wine[3] while other acaryas have all the eight associated with abstinence from eight types of food containing innumerable micro living organism. To conclude the underlying principle of Jain diet can be summarized as ‘eat to live to be able to exercise self control and not just maintain the body healthy’ so as to be able to perform optimally your duties to achieve your objectives and ‘not just live to eat’.

1.1 Types of Food (āhāra) for Living Beings (Empirical Souls)

According to Jain literature[4], food is classified in the following categories, based on the manner it is absorbed by the living beings.

    • Oza’or life span determination at the time of birth is the energy the living being takes at the time of birth and this energy stays until his /her death. We hear stories of some living beings buried under debris for days together alive due to the existence of this energy.
    • Roma’ or nutrient & energy absorbed from environment directly. Every pour of the body (millions in number) is capable of absorbing nutrients from the air & solar energy similar to the process called photosynthesis in plants. The leaves absorb necessary nutrition from air and sunlight, which the plant converts for the branches, leaves, fruits and flowers. Jain texts and modern medical science emphasize and provide several means to enable us to use this type of food and minimize the need of the third type i.e. kavalāhāra.
    • Kavala’ or food taken as morsels by mouth or injected in the body by other means. Generally we mean this type of food to denote all types of food. Few people realize that solar energy, fresh air and water are essential components of food (type ii indicated above).
    • Mano’ or mental food. All the necessary nutrients needed are available in the environment around us. However our spiritual capabilities are not so advanced to use this method. Monks do develop such capabilities through their practice of Mokşa Mārga. Stories abound in Jain texts of such developments (generally Jain texts have four types of stories namely Women (stri), Food (bhatta), Kingship (rāja) and country (deśa)). It is also said that celestial beings i.e. heavenly beings (gods and goddesses) have such capabilities and their bodies are even termed as celestial body so that they do not need ‘kavalāhāra’.
    •  ‘Karmaņa’ or the absorption of karmaņa particles by the empirical soul due to its various non-self activities. These act as insulation for soul’s energy to enjoy its own nature of knowledge & bliss. These particles also reduce the efficiency of body parts to perform their function. All spiritual practices aim at stopping further accumulation of these particles on the soul and to dissociate the existing bonded karma particles with soul.

2. Basis of Jain Diet

The question now arises, what is the proper diet as per Jains? We know that one type of food makes us sick and the other type makes us healthy, calm and composed. Ayurveda divides food in three types namely ‘hita’ or beneficial to the body, mita or eating less than needed and ŗta i.e. which does not depend on exploitation of others and the consumer earns his food. Jains talk primarily of the third type as the first two are corollaries of this. Jains talk of the kavalāhāra i.e. taken from the mouth or through other means introduced in the body as food. Perhaps Jain ethical texts emphasize the importance of food most for a happy life now and to move forward on Mokşa Mārga i.e. path of spiritual beneficiation to attain salvation. Basis of Jain diet can be enumerated as follows:

2.1 Non Violence (Ahińsā)[5]

Non-violence is the heart of Jain philosophy. The entire ethical practices and the doctrine evolve around minutest details of this concept. “Live and let live” and “Non violence is the supreme spiritual value” are the hallmarks of Jain doctrine. Thus Jain food also is based on the practice of this doctrine. This result in the following boundaries for what is good to eat and what is not good.

    • Total avoidance of killing of 2- to 5-sensed living beings for food. This prohibits consumption of meat, eggs etc of any kind.
    • Minimal killing of one-sensed living beings with air, water, fire and earth as body and plants for food. To live, we cannot avoid harming air, water, fire and earth bodied living beings while we can exercise control and restraint in harming the plant life. This perhaps prohibits consumption of root vegetables or plants and fruits where colonies of micro-living organism exist. Only fruits of the plants free from such considerations are prescribed for consumption.
    • The food taken should be such that it does not enhance the violent nature (like anger, aversion, hatred etc) in the person consuming the food. Excessive consumption of dry (i.e. non oily) or spicy food; consumption of animals or their products create violent feelings.
    • Exercise carefulness while preparing and taking food e.g. not eating after sunset as the subtle two- or three-sensed living beings may not be visible and to prepare the food in a clean place after carefully cleaning the food articles by known and well intentioned persons.

2.2 Non-Eating

One of the pillars of three components of Jain doctrine of Anekant namely co-existence of opposites says that eating and non-eating should co-exist to practice Mokşa Mārga. Therefore Jains lay equal importance on not eating also. The first three types of external penance[6] are:




Eating less than normal

Rasa parityāga

Giving up on specific dates and for specific periods one or more of the five types of tastes:

  • salty
  • sweet
  • oily-dry
  • bitter

Jains practicing spiritual vows keep fasts or eat once a day on 8th and 14th day of each fortnight, do the same on almost all festivals and special occasions, do not eat green vegetables during rainy season and on specified days etc. Not eating or practicing the three austerities does help the person in maintaining control over sensual desires and perform spiritual and other worldly duties more rigorously. The community glorifies those individuals who observe the maximum number of fasts during Paryuşaņa Parva.

2.3 Minimization or Annihilation of Passions

Minimization or annihilation of passions (anger, pride, deceit and greed) and maximize self-control over sensual pleasures and enhance the capability to observe the vow of celibacy (Bŗhamcarya). The five deterrents to salvation and causes for kārmika influx and bondage are[7]:

    • Perverted views (mithyātva),
    • Disinterest in observing vows (avirati),
    • Laziness (pramāda),
    • Passions (kaşāya) and
    • Activities of mind/body and speech (yoga).

Food has direct impact on all these causes. It is well known and proved by science that all types of food have good as well as bad effects depending to an extent on their nature, the method they are prepared for eating, mixing of different types of foods and the quantity of their intake. Āyurveda also talks of three broad categories of food namely


Rich or heavy to digest


Toxic causing laziness and loss of discriminating knowledge


Pure food fit for leading a healthy and peaceful life

Jain diet emphasizes the last type. Rājasika food is said to enhance laziness and disinterest in vows while tāmasika food is said to enhance passions and perverted views. Sātvika food contains all the four essential constituents of food namely food grains, edibles and water, oil, air and solar energy in essential quantities and prepared properly. In today’s terminology such types of food can be compared to balanced food having carbohydrates, proteins, salt, oil, water, air, minerals and vitamins. Similarly those food items, which are said to be aphrodisiac in effect or causes loss of discriminating intellect or cause enhancement of violent nature are to be avoided.

3.0 Preparation and Preservation of Food

The manner of preparing the food for consumption, and the quality and edibility (i.e. shelf life in modern parlance and before the food articles become stale or infested with germs and other bacteria) are very important considerations for Jains. This is also true today as the mass producers of ready made foods and food articles (FMCC MNCs) go a long way in enhancing the shelf life of food items by adding preservatives and packing in inert containers all products and indicate shelf life of the product. A typical list of food items and their shelf life as per Jain texts is given in section 6.0 later.

Similarly the person who prepares and serves the food assumes significance in Jain way of life. Desirable attributes of the person[8] for preparing food for the monks:

    • Awareness of the needs and limitations of the monk/nun for whom food is being prepared.
    •  Should be free from any expectation of worldly benefits / pride / anger /indifference towards the monk /nun while preparing the food.
    • Should be knowledgeable about the qualities, limits and desirability of various ingredients for food e.g. the shelf life, the ingredient being free from living beings, their beneficial and harmful effects on mind /body and speech etc.
    • Should be in a happy mood and be with pure mind, body and speech
    • Offer respect to the monk/nun while serving etc.
    • Pregnant or nursing (lactating) women or those having menstrual period; sick or old persons, children, scared or incapacitated (blind/lame etc) persons are not allowed to serve food to the monks and nuns.
The kitchen should be clean, well lighted (preferably by sunlight), ventilated and protected (free from mosquitoes, flies, dust etc) place. All the ingredients used should be first manually cleaned (sorting), checked for their suitability (i.e. within the time limit prescribed and free from living beings of any kind) then washed and used. The water to be used should be strained and boiled before use. Similarly the persons cooking, utensils and the place etc should be clean.
  • For the householders, the above principles are kept in mind and forms the basis while relaxing these restrictions depending upon
  • Life style like joint family/nuclear family or single working person.
  • Professional needs of working hours.
  • Place of stay.
  • Kitchen facilities at home fitted with all possible modern kitchen appliances.

As examples, the food prepared by domestic help under the supervision of a family member, the food from vegetarian restaurants; enhancement of shelf life of food with the availability of modern appliances like refrigerators and freezers, water purifying systems (like RO), food articles being made and sold by large corporations, legal restriction imposed by government on labeling the food for its content, use of preservatives for enhancing shelf life etc can be acceptable for adoption. Most of the Jain texts found in temples and homes having pujās (devotional hymns)9, sāmāyikas (meditation hymns) and āvaśayakas (essential duties o householders) have a list of edible things, the impact of their mixing with each other and their shelf life. Section 6.0 gives some sample food articles and their shelf life.

4.0 Vegetarian diet

The Jain diet is claimed to be strictly vegetarian, perhaps vegan but relaxed to contain dairy products also (lacto vegetarians). Most of the restaurants and other high-end restaurants and food serving organizations present special Jain menus i.e. vegetarian food without root vegetables like onion, garlic, potatoes etc. However certain root vegetables like turmeric, ginger and garlic in dried and powdered form are acceptable for their medicinal qualities. Animal products or those products made by using even small quantities of animal products are forbidden (e.g. processed cheese using animal based rennet, cereals or medicines using honey / bone ash or other such things, ice creams using eggs). Here again the method of preparing, consuming sātvika food in limited quantities and times and eating before sunset or after sunrise, so as to avoid contamination of food with mosquitoes and insects are emphasized.

5.0 Modern medical Science, economic and ecologic Views on Jain Diet *

We see a significant movement in the world towards adopting vegetarian food and giving up meat eating or even animal based products based primarily on health considerations. Everyday we find new medical reports identifying illnesses correlated to eating meat and poultry products.

Similarly a number of studies support economic considerations for being vegetarian and resource constraints in supporting meat-eating habits. On the ecology front also, recent researches on production of meat or other animal products show detrimental effect they have on our land and water resources besides harm to the air quality and the ill effect of consuming animal products.

*)The Food Revolution by John Robbins
  • Medical:
    • Dr Dean Ornish in the foreword to the book ‘The Food Revolution’ by John Robbins says:’A series of scientific studies and randomized clinical trials demonstrating that the progression of even severe coronary heart disease can be stopped or reveres simply by making comprehensive changes in one’s diet and life style. These lifestyle changes include adopting a low fat, plant based, whole food diet; stress management techniques (including yoga and meditation); moderate exercise; smoking cessation; and psychosocial group support.’
  • Ecological:
    • ‘It is a dream of a success in which all beings share because it is founded on reverence for life. A dream of a society at peace with its conscience because it respects and lives in harmony with all life forms. A dream of a people living in accord with the natural laws of creation, cherishing and caring for the environment, conserving nature instead of destroying it. A dream of a society that is truly healthy, practicing a wise and compassionate stewardship of a balanced ecosystem.’ (Page 3 by the author).
    • “All of the planet’s physical features and living organism are interconnected. They work together in important and meaningful ways. The clouds, oceans, mountains, volcanoes, plants, bacteria and animals all play important roes in determining how our planet works.” (Page 231) Traditionally farm animals played an important role in keeping agriculture on a sound ecological footing. They ate grass, crop waste and kitchen scarps that people could not eat. Their manure provided the soil with needed nutrients. And the animals pulled the plows and provided other services that enhanced human life. (page 233).
  • Economic:
    •  There is not enough land to raise animal feed to satisfy the meat eating habits of the human population. Producing one Kg of lettuce consumes 33 gallons of water while producing one Kg of beef consumes 5300 gallons of water. The same is the case of land requirements to cultivate other grains and plant based foods. Disposal of animal excreta makes the water bodies unusable for irrigation and human consumption. A number of large water bodies (aquifers) all over the world are becoming dry on this account.

6.0 Jain Food & Diet for Householders

Jain texts give detailed list of food items, which are not edible, and the time period for which an edible item also remains edible. The householders are further advised to seek opinion of the monks /nuns whenever in doubt.

6.1 Edible Foods and their Shelf Life [9]

Some of the in-edible items are given below:

    • Anything, which involves killing of mobile living beings. For example meat and eggs of any type and their products; honey; food grains and cooked foods infested with moth / mildew and microorganisms etc.
    • Anything, which involves killing of large numbers of stationery (one sensed living beings). For example root vegetables like onion, garlic, potatoes etc.
    •  Anything, which induces laziness or is toxic or aphrodisiac in nature. For example alcohol in any form; tobacco; opium, heroin etc.
    • Anything, which is even edible but not suitable for a particular individual. For example cold water or drinks for a person suffering from cold, cough etc.
    •  Anything, which is unknown.
    • Anything, which is edible but not suitable for a particular individual. For example cold water or drinks for a person suffering from cold, cough etc.

Most of the plant based foods like cereals, fruits (except infested or having large colonies of micro organism in them or toxic in nature), vegetables (except root vegetables, leaf vegetables during rainy season, vegetables infested with insects) are considered edible. Milk and its products are generally considered edible but with certain limitations.

6.2 Shelf Life of Food Items

This is very important consideration for Jains concerning edibility or in-edibility of any food items. Some examples are given below.

Strained water

48 minutes

Strained water with cloves

6 hours

Boiled water

12 hours

Water boiled many times

24 hours

Milk after milking

48 minutes

Milk boiled within 48 minutes after milking

24 hours


24 hours


48 minutes


As long as it does not change taste / colour /smell


As long as they do not get infested with mildew, moth or insects; flour; 7, 5 and 3 days during winter, summer and rainy seasons.

Cooked food

Generally 6 hours after cooking

Fried things

24 hours

Sweets having water

24 hours

Sweets without water

Like flour

6.3 Time and Quantity of Food comprising a normal Diet

Normally three meals per day are recommended starting with after sunrise and ending before sunset in quantities sufficient for sustenance. Further fasts / missing one meal or two meal regularly (8th and 14th day of every fortnight and religious days) and avoiding any one specific types of foods on certain selected days are advised for good health and enhancing self-control.

The texts do not specify exact quantity (by weight or type of food items) to be consumed and hence the statements are generally qualitative. Normally the emphasis is on minimizing the food intake (i.e. prohibiting overeating completely) but not starving. 

7.0 Conclusions

Jain canonical literature gives the following description of an ascetic to support his /her spiritual life[10]:

That monk, who, without desire, passions (attachments and aversions) but maintaining an attitude of carefulness and restraints (samitis and guptis) eats proper and worthy for the monk as per the Jain scriptures food and wanders from one place to other place for preaching and staying is said to be free from the flaws of taking food directly. The soul of that monk, who is busy in meditating on his self and is free from the act of accepting other matter is in fact called a fasting self (nirhari). Thus such monks are said to be free from the flaws of the food accepted by them in enabling them to meditate on their self. Such pure food is accepted once a day during daylight, that too less than the full need of the stomach is balanced in dry, oily, sweet, salty tastes and contents, free from elements like honey, meat etc, is prepared by religious persons aware of the method of preparing and serving. Such food is said to free from the flaws of adhaħ-karma and is taken through begging.

With these as ideal, the diet for householders is suitably modified depending upon his / her spiritual inclinations, family and professional circumstances and the place where he / she lives. The basic principles of Jain diet are:

  • Non-violence has to be always kept as a supreme factor while planning one’s diet.
  • It should assist us in achieving our objective of the human life by enhancing self-control, reducing passions and lead a happy and healthier life.



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International School for Jain Studies

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          Page glossary
          Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
          1. Acaryas
          2. Anekant
          3. Anger
          4. Aradhana
          5. Avirati
          6. Ayurveda
          7. Body
          8. Bŗhamcarya
          9. Celibacy
          10. Deceit
          11. Deśa
          12. Ecology
          13. Environment
          14. Fasting
          15. Ghee
          16. Greed
          17. Guptis
          18. International School for Jain Studies
          19. Jain Food
          20. Jain Philosophy
          21. Jainism
          22. Karma
          23. Meditation
          24. Microorganisms
          25. Mithyātva
          26. Non violence
          27. Non-violence
          28. Panna
          29. Parva
          30. Paryāpti
          31. Pragya
          32. Pramāda
          33. Pride
          34. Puja
          35. Pujyapada
          36. Purushartha
          37. Rasa
          38. Rasa parityāga
          39. Samani
          40. Samayika
          41. Samitis
          42. Science
          43. Siddhi
          44. Soul
          45. Sutra
          46. Tattvartha Sutra
          47. Unodari
          48. Vegan
          49. Violence
          50. Yoga
          51. Āhāra
          52. Āyurveda
          53. āhāra
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