Modern Jainism: From Vegetarian to Vegan (Uttam Shakahari)

Posted: 12.03.2012
Updated on: 30.07.2015

For many Jains, vegetarianism is the defining characteristic of our culture and identity. From early childhood, we are taught to respect all life forms, and discouraged from harming animals, insects and minimizing harm to plant life. Vegetarianism - the refusal to kill animals for food -- was the ultimate expression of Jainism's ahinsic (non-violent) approach to life.

Some Jain historians speculate that Jainism introduced vegetarianism to the Indian subcontinent. In more recent times, Jainism is thought to have influenced Gandhiji, whose non-violence politics helped win Indian independence, and Gandhiji's work later influenced Dr. Martin Luther King who played a decisive role in the American Civil Rights movement.

Jains are proud of their vegetarian heritage, but now, Jains are having to confront a new reality -- the reality that today vegetarianism is an insufficient expression of ahinsa. We are learning thorough our animal welfare colleagues and friends in animal welfare organizations, that the dairy industry is full of hinsa and ultimately leads to the slaughter of dairy animals.

In the past we think that man had a more symbiotic relationship to dairy animals than today. In return for the things the animals provided, we took care of them; some would say they were treated like family. Populations were smaller back then, grazing land was more plentiful. And even those who consumed milk and milk products kept their consumption in line with the ability of the cows to comfortably produce milk.

Today, populations are much larger, and our individual consumption of dairy products has expanded beyond the occasional glass of milk, to include cheeses, ice-creams, and a wide assortment of milk-based sweets and other food products. We have exploited artificial insemination and associated reproductive technologies to create unnaturally large cow and buffalo populations. Human development has substantially reduced grazing lands, so these animals are crowded onto increasingly smaller areas of land, and some find themselves tied up most of their short miserable lives, preventing them from experiencing basic natural behaviors or enjoying any quality of life.

Female cows who, like all mammals including humans, produce milk for their offspring, have been turned into mere commodities - milk producing machines. In order to keep the females continually producing milk, they are kept almost continuously pregnant - artificially inseminated very shortly after each birth, until their bodies collapse from the strain of repeated pregnancies at short intervals. To increase production they are injected with hormones, which leads to infections of the udders; to control infections they are routinely given antibiotics. The breeds of cows we use these days are in themselves unnatural - as they have been selectively bred to produce excessive quantities of milk, at the expense of their health and longevity.

In the past, male cows and buffalo were used to pull ploughs and for transport. While that too was a form of exploitation, they were allowed to live. In the West and increasingly in India, there is reduced demand for work animals, and males are now largely used for meat. The meat of infant calves is called veal, and highly prized in much of the western world. The meat of adult cows and buffalo is increasingly consumed throughout India. Since cow slaughter is banned in many Indian states, males (and females whose milk production has declined) are often forced to walk across states so they can be sold for slaughter. Much slaughter in India takes place illegally, behind closed doors, under unthinkable conditions. While Jains and other vegetarians may blame meat-eaters for such atrocities, it is our collective demand for milk that is driving the torture and slaughter of cows.

We also wear the skin of these innocent animals on our feet, in the form of leather shoes. In addition to being the world’s largest milk producer, India also leads the world in leather production (another by-product of our milk consumption).

Besides the hinsa involved in dairy farming, we are learning that the dairy industry causes water pollution, is a major contributor to climate change, and damaging to health when consumed in large quantities.

Jains understand that all actions involve hinsa and laypeople need to balance hinsa with need.A particularly good example is the use of Turmeric: Turmeric is a root (roots are normally avoided by Jains) that is widely accepted in Jain culture due to its medicinal properties. Similarly it's possible that milk was accepted because it was necessary in those days. Nutritionists have learned that vitamin b12 is not commonly available from plant food sources, so it would have been hard for people to avoid all animal products entirely, until recently when we have learned to produce it artificially. Now products from breakfast cereals to plant-milks and fruit juices are being fortified with b12, and countless brands of b12 supplements are readily available on the market. The world is changing - but not entirely for the worse. As dairy production becomes increasingly cruel, advances in food science and technology are making dairy consumption unnecessary. Veganism, a diet that abstains from milk products as well as egg and meat products, is becoming common throughout the world, particularly amongst Jains.

Veganism is not a necessarily a Jain concept, but it is a natural and inevitable extension of our vegetarian values of ahinsa. While the structure of the dairy industry, and really all the world, has changed dramatically since the time of Mahavir and earlier Tirthankaras, the values they taught us are timeless. Vegan Jains, whether in the U.S. or India or Europe, are finding that ahinsa can still be practiced today if we stay sensitive to the changing forms of suffering around us, and are willing to change our habits in response. Organizations like JAINA and Young Jains often invite vegan experts to inform the Jain community of the issues surrounding animal agriculture.

For many Vegan Jains, the transition has been hard and long. They found themselves alone and at odds with Jain culture. How could our scriptures be wrong? And surely it was possible to produce milk humanely? But after decades of soul searching and seeing the vegan movement grow, more and more Jains are coming to the conclusion that a vegan lifestyle is in accordance with Jain principles and the logical way forward. Fortunately, as numbers increase and the ideas are well articulated to fellow Jains, it is now easier for Jains to adopt these principles. Groups like Jain Vegans, an on-line community for vegan Jains from around the world, are growing in membership and helping fellow Jains on the vegan path.

By leaving dairy products out of our diets, Jains today continue to stay true to our values and fulfill our role in promoting ahinsa around the world.

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