Jainism, the Moral Imperative of Veganism, and the disheartening forms of rationalization that allow violence to continue

Sanjay, co director of the Ahimsak Eco-Vegan Committe,  in the skit he presented with pathshala students in Boston, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9I6cFs5dHlg, provides a sequence of ethical questions for a Jain family to consider, with a “know-it-all” daughter providing the voice of conscience. The sequence goes from  use of leather  as in an expensive BMW, purse, shoes, and a jacket, [ to which the Jain center of Greater Boston audience claps, acknowledging that they agree with this in principle]  silk , in a silk sari, kurta and scarves, pearls in jewelry, violent video games and dairy in naan, rasmalai, cheese pizza.  While audience response seems less focused the further along the skit proceeds, there is no obvious objection from the audience.

Anticipating the unstated question, though, one of the sons in the family then asks, if dairy is so violent, why is it not prohibited in the scriptures… and the daughter answers, “Did the scriptures say  to drive BMWs?  Don’t ask if it is is said NOT to do something but rather to do something.”  The principle Ahimsa Paramo Dharma is the moral imperative driving abstinence from all these items.

Prof Gary Francione writes: “I recall visiting a Digambara temple once and there was a sign at the entrance of the main area of worship that read, ‘No leather allowed.’ I asked a Jain friend who was with me why leather was prohibited inside the temple. He said: ‘Because of himsa.’ I remarked to him that it was odd that Jains thought that it was morally acceptable to wear something outside the temple that was prohibited inside the temple. He had no answer.That is because there really is no good answer.”

In his essay Ahimsa in Jainism and the Moral Imperative of Veganism,  Prof. Francione details the reasons that veganism is a moral imperative given Jainism’s central emphasis on ahimsa and carefully addresses the four most common arguments used to resist this conclusion: tradition, the need to compromise, a false use of anekantvad and convenience.  Tradition does not hold weight against ahimsa. The other three excuses are the same as could be used to eat meat, and yet, with our uncompromising ethical stance on vegetarianism, we hold fast to the principle and practice of ahimsa.

An unusual argument was posed in a recent discussion among Northern California Jain center volunteers.  Someone stated that if we did not drink milk, the cows would be killed earlier, as they would be slaughtered for meat.  He did not recognize that while dairy cows are killed later than veal or beef cows, because they are exploited before they are killed, their lifespans are still cut substantially, from a natural of 15-20 years to 5 years. The odd argument also ignored the intentional breeding of animals  separately and specifically for meat and milk and also ignores the increase in meat exports from India directly linked to dairy consumption.  As Prof Francione says, “It is no coincidence that India now is the largest producer of dairy products in the world  at the same time that the Indian beef market is growing and India is exporting 44% more beef than four years ago” (Dairy Industry in India: 2013-2019,” Research and Markets) .

The context of the assertion that veganism would result in more killing of animals was of community members  was in expressing disapproval of a vegan cooking demonstration scheduled at JCNC for which a publicity email quoted the Acaranga sutra with its emphasis on non harming animals. Perhaps it hit a nerve in the reader and provoked this odd rationalization response. Whether related to this lack of support or other logistical reasons, the cooking demo had to be cancelled and the group that had mobilized in Northern California lost some momentum and enthusiasm.  The saddest aspect for me is that if we Jains who are the strongest voices for ahimsa rationalize, put up excuses, fight the truth and resist those who are trying to promote a more peaceful world, how will anyone take ahimsa seriously as a real principle worthy of living in the real world? If those of us that try to educate our communities are shut down, it is not only the Jain societies but our potential to improve the world that will suffer.
This blog, though written in Northern CA, has expanded its scope to highlight inspiring educational activities around the globe in order, as Pramodaben Chitrabhanu’s book states “to light one candle, rather than to curse the darkness”.

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