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Nov 28, 2007

Jainism’s Perspective of Vegetarianism

-By Dr. C. Devakumar

Time and again, many questions have been raised as to why we should be vegetarian in our outlook and food habits. Let me attempt to give the Jaina logic. Jainism is the religion that supports all life. It is not limited to the welfare of human beings alone. The soul and its liberation from bondage is the center of all actions.

The soul in reality does not need any support from non-souls. However, it is habituated and conditioned to assume material way of life from time eternal. It must break this web of illusion and ignorance. If one is convinced and determined, one can severe all dependence with non-souls. Such a person would dare and care to interfere with none. He would abstain from worldly activities, go fasting for days together and meditate only on his soul. This is one category of people for whom there is minimal and rare occasional need of food. May such divine sages and seers guide us too. We as householders must always serve their supreme cause.

There is another category of people who know and trust the true path of liberation but are not in a position to abandon worldly life. They are constantly contemplating of that noble path, adore it and longing for such a sublime life. Since, they are involved with material world, they need to eat to survive and sustain their life. Vegetarianism is one such way of life prescribed for these two categories of people. Here vegetarianism includes not only food habits but also the various processes of food production, storage and distribution. In Jainism, the concurrent internal intentions more than external manifestations of an act are important. An apparent act of surgery or service in armed forces or an act of defending one’s family or friends against murderous attack is not measured in terms of violence associated with such act but by the noble intention behind.

Why vegetarianism?
Now let us get some facts clearly. The self-awakened man respects the life of others as precious as his. Live and Let Live is his central philosophy. This is the fundamental tenet of Jainism. The bonded souls are distributed in various states and forms throughout universe. For our understanding and identification, some taxonomic keys have been provided in Jainism. These are for example, senses (sense of touch, sense of taste, sense of smell, sense of hearing and sense of sight) vital-forces (controlling five senses, mind, body, speech, respiration and life span) mobile and immobile orders etc. In terms of senses, there are five categories viz. one-sensed, two-sensed, three- sensed, four- sensed and five- sensed organisms. Bonded souls have 4 to 10 vital forces. The soul-character if one may state, so increases from lower to higher strata. Plant kingdom (which includes a lot variety of microbes) falls under the least strata in both categories. They are immobile. Plants have one sense of touch and four vital forces (force controlling life span, respiration, body and impulses). Human beings and celestials form the highest strata.

The laity or the householders cannot survive without the support of food and the least they can do is to depend on plant kingdom for this purpose. Even here, the self-awakened person must take adequate precautions in the selection of right plant, its part, and its growth stage and package of practices in their cultivation, harvest, storage and distribution. His need must precede his greed. His material needs would become minimal as he makes spiritual progress. He should not waste food and the consequence of feeding himself and others should not promote actions contrary to the religious spirit. His actions must stem from the feeling of equanimity and compassion as much as possible. He must ensure ecological balance, preservation of environment and inevitable harm to minimum number of plants. As should be clear, all plants or their parts are not qualified as food. There is another important fact of bonded souls. There is one category called nigod souls that thrive in a common tissue. Their life span is less than a second and they are infinite in number in a microscopic unit of tissue. They live and die together again and again. They share a common mass called body. Many plants accommodate them in their parts. In any given time (i.e in minutes), this tissue harbors many times the souls in unit space. It is said that the number of souls in a tiny tissue may exceed the entire human population. So we must not eat such plant parts. Care should be taken to avoid eating of parts in active growth stage such as leaves, flowers etc. Also, we should not facilitate proliferation of such nigod souls in our food materials by means of method of preparation, preservation and disposal of food. There are well-established descriptions and descriptions about these in Jain scriptures.

Why not eat non-vegetarian food?
Jains have been advised not to eat body or its parts of organisms having two or more-sensed for many reasons. One cannot get their flesh without harming or killing the organism. As mentioned earlier, their consciousness level is higher than that of one-sensed organism. So, they can sense bodily changes much faster and in high pitch. No self-awakened person would like to hurt them without reason. He has option of vegetative source as food. Eating non-vegetarian food is prone to mental and physical afflictions. It always harbors many microscopic organisms in infinite number per unit volume. Many varieties of the microbes are probably so small that they can’t be observed with the available modern electron microscopy. They are of mobile in nature but microscopic in form. In that sense, they are microzoa or tiny animals. In that sense, you are not killing one animal but infinite number in one stroke.

Some arguments
Plant and animal products have one commonality viz. both are derived from life. So why not eat both? This is too generalized statement to be treated at par. We know that all plants are not edible. Even within a plant, a particular part has medicinal application but not another. The traditional medicine prescribes leaves of some plants but not their roots. Though it may sound harsh to cite this example to counter the argument of giving equal edible status for both plant and animal products, one treats differently two young women with due social respect. One is his wife and another his sister. Another question is the availability of choice based on principles of compassion and less harm to fellow beings (necessarily not limited to a single species called Homo sapiens). The ingenuity of human beings being so high and evolved, if there is a will, surely there is a vegetarian way.

Killing animals or eating flesh has been granted religious sanctity in some religions. A section of people perhaps even some Jains shun agricultural profession as it necessarily involves some inadvertent killing or displacement of organisms. Another religion gives license to eating flesh products but not killing. These measures may appear to be sanitized on the face of them, but they promote the trade of killing or agriculture as ultimate consumers. An act is said to commence or be completed within the frame of mind or speech or physical actions, if one indulges in it directly or gets it done or sanctions it by his muteness or endorsement. Non-violence is the essence of a religion and so such practices do not qualify religious sanctity. I therefore would like to warn innocent but intelligent people not to become prey to such covet designs.

Another important talisman is the role reversal i.e. think of you in place of the victim and re-evaluate your actions. Imagine a scene. You are about to slaughter a lamb. A divine force appears before you and spells you to become a lamb and the lamb to a man. Then it asks your opinion. Will you recommend slaughtering of you, now the lamb by the lamb? Please pause a moment and spare the devil in you. In the ocean of transmigration the bonded souls have assumed all sorts of forms and bodies and varieties of relationship. Think this way: the organism I am willing to sacrifice to save or feed my son was verily my father in another birth. Will I do it again? Think over. Such train of thoughts would cool our greed and make us sane. Whenever you feed yourself with material food, concurrently feed yourself with the thought on the noble path of liberation so that our dependence on plants comes to an eternal end one day.

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