UC Berkeley had a screening last week of a movie called “The Ship of Theseus” by Indian Filmmaker Anand Gandhi. Featuring 3 stories of people with donated organs, the 2nd story presented a monk named Maitreya, who by all implications (though not stated as such) was a Svetambara Jain. He was portrayed sympathetically, going to the Indian high court with a meat eating lawyer, arguing for better treatment of animals in research, and elimination of cosmetic and non essential testing. His adversaries are representatives of pharmaceutical companies. There was footage of draize testing, with substances placed into the eyes of rabbits, clearly unnecessary and brutal. He was shown carefully placing a caterpillar on a leaf, out of the way of trampling human feet. The lifestyle of the monks was also shown quite poignantly, walking barefoot in pouring rain, searing sun, taking only small amounts of the food offered to them, but oddly that food included milk or a milk product such as kadhi (yogurt soup) . And hence the disconnect. The movie actually portrayed him saying the word “vegan”, as in he didn’t expect the world to go vegan overnight, but it was unclear if the movie intended to show the contradiction that , traditionally, Jains eat dairy products or it was an oversight. But his ethical dilemma was not about eating dairy products; rather it came when he was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis, likely from a parasite that was portrayed under a microscope. For a long time he refuses to take medicine as he knows it has been tested on animals. There is even speculation that he will undergo sallekhana the fast until death that Jains with terminal illness sometimes conduct. But (spoiler alert) at the end he decides he wants to live. He takes medicine, accepts a liver transplant and at the end of the movie is shown in laymen’s clothes. The movie leaves open to question how he has reconciled his previous stance with the compromise that he had to make to save his life and whether he decided to leave the monk’s life. As dissatisfying as some of the contradictions of this portrayal were, the movie brought to life the Jain emphasis on ahimsa and the severe discipline of the ascetic life. I asked the filmmaker, who was present at the screening, if there was any real monk on whose story the character of Maitreya was based and he answered, along the lines of what you can find in the Wikepedia entry for the Ship of Theseus, that Maitreya is a composite of Satish Kumar, Mahatma Gandhi, Abhay Mehta, and Shrimad Rajchandra, none of whom (as far as I know) actually address/ed animal testing or veganism. I hope that I’ve simply not been informed, but I am not aware of any Jain monks that have taken an activist stand, engaging and trying to change the mainstream society’s ideas of animal abuse, apart from opposing animal slaughter for meat. And perhaps that’s why this, opposition to animal testing, is the aspect of activism that was chosen to be portrayed. It would not have been so easy to show inner conflict it the moral conflict was simply about stopping the eating of animals, because actually that does not pose such problems for Jains. if they had dared to explore the stopping of eating dairy, an activist Jain monk or nun that could have taken on the force of tradition, that, too, would have been an interesting story!
Another media portrayal of Jain nuns is not so complimentary. William Dalrymple in “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India” tells the story of a Mataji, a Digambara ascetic, who takes the nuns vows with a friend, only to watch the friend die of tuberculosis some years later because she refuses to take medicine, presumably because the medicine involved violence to animals. The friend who dies eventually fasts until death. The protagonist nun cries at her loss and is berated by her guru. She eventually appears to decide to fast to death herself,though she has no disease. This portrayal, like the whole book, strikes me as spectacle, rather than of sympathy. Dalrymple seems to point to the nuns and say, look how odd, these Jains just starve themselves, without distinguishing what is, at least to this medically trained reader, obvious depression in the protagonist nun leading her to lose interest in life. Her best friend is gone, her guru is un-supportive and she has previously renounced her ties to family and society. To me this rejection of life violates the reasons a Jain is to consider sallekhana. The moral question around the other nun not taking medicine for TB is not explored, written off as “tradition”.
Though both Nine Lives and The Ship of Theseus show Jain ascetics grappling with mortality and ahimsa in Indian society, the former is decidedly less sympathetic. I can only hope that a real activist Jain ascetic can address the public misperceptions around Jain practice and promote a meaningful practice of ahimsa.The first sadhvi (Jain nun) to take the vows in the US was supportive of Prof Gary Francione’s message at JCNC in 2013. Will she or any other ascetic speak out for veganism? That will be a revolutionary moment in Jainism and possibly a media worthy one.