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Jain ascetics in the media, use of animals in medicines and veganism

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.

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,, 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”.



Jivdaya Committee Series: Why Ahimsa is Paramount in Jainism

Why does Jainism strongly promote the principle of Ahimsa?

Jains believe in the existence of soul; and that each living being has a soul.  Jains also show logically that the nature of the soul is that of non-harming.  It is due to the soul being bound by Karmic particles that keep us humans in these material bodies that need to eat.

As a person lives a life that reduces the influence of the Karmic particles, the person’s non-harming character naturally will become stronger; and manifest itself in such activities as trying to watch out very carefully, and avoid doing even the slightest possible harm to any living being.  In other words, Jains maintain that if we want to experience the full potential of the nature of our soul, that is non-harmingness, we should try to duplicate it in all our actions.



In Jainism, Ahimsa means non‑hurting as described above.  Therefore, whenever our actions cause himsa (hurting), not only does our soul accumulate karmas but even the souls on the other side accumulate karma if they have minds (e.g., souls of animals, birds, fish, etc.).

Those karmas could be any of eight karmas, but we would discuss three of them over here which are Antaraya, Vedniya, and Ayushya Karmas.

When we deprive any living being of its livelihood, or its vital capabilities, it will come and hound us sometimes.  The story of Lord Rushabhdev is very well-known for this.  During his last life, while he was a king one day he advised his fellow farmer citizens to cover the mouths of the oxen so that they would not eat the grains they were working around.  But, he forgot to tell them that they should remove the mouth cover as soon as the work was over.  Those ignorant people kept on that mouth cover, and after some time they started wondering when to feed them.  So they went back and asked King Rushabh about when they were suppose to feed them.  The King realized his mistake and explained to those workers that they should have taken off the mouth cover as soon their work was over and feed them.  But because oxen suffered hunger due to King Rushabh’s oversight, he accumulated Antaraya Karma.  When this karma matured, it caused him to go without any food (starvation) for a little over eleven months when he became a monk in a later part of the same life.  So can you imagine if we starve or deprive someone of their vitality, through cruel means, what would happen to us?

The same way, when we cause suffering to others, we accumulate Ashata Vedniya karma and when that matures, it would bring us sufferings and unhappiness.  Look at the slaughterhouses, laboratories, cosmetic manufacturing, or any use of animals, and you will see nothing but tortures, and even death.  Why any sensible person of their right mind, and particularly a Jain, would do, or encourage, such activities even though he or she would have to suffer later on?  Therefore, Jains would not participate in any activity which would cause any harm to others and would not also ask, or encourage, anyone else to do it either.  Now, you should understand that suffering in this world is generated from own selves.  It is never late to turn back the clock to the right path by paying respect to other living beings as a whole rather than just to humans only.

Similarly, when we take away someone’s life, we must realize, what would be coming to us.  We would accumulate such an Ayushya karma, that it would make our life short, or end it  prematurely.  Why would we put ourselves in such a situation?  What happens if that life happens to be a human life, then we would miss an opportunity for spiritual pursuit. Therefore, we need to protect other lives, so that our lives are protected and we can be happy and without obstacles.

So in short by observing Ahimsa, not only we are protecting the vitality of other living beings, but in reality we are helping ourselves the most.  That is why Jains say “Ahimsa Parmo Dharma,” because by observing Ahimsa, everyone is able to stop his/her own decline and put him/herself forward to the higher spiritual pursuit.

Prem Gada


Why vegan? Health and ethical reasons for the UK Jain community by dr Jina

Rajesh and I gave a talk in English and Gujarati concerning the ethical and health reasons for Jains to go vegan among the Kanji Swami community in London and later I gave a  powerpoint presentation in English. Click here for the audio and video files.

More pre-Jivdaya day activities: a skit, a lecture and another vegan meal for the homeless

Besides the Berkeley meal that we served, other members of our committee engaged in a variety of activities consistent with our compassion challenge, in advance of the actual challenge.

Sanjay wrote and directed a skit leading the audience through the ideas that ahimsa means no leather, wool, silk, violent video games, and no dairy.  Watch it here:

Ritaben of the Jivdaya committee delivered vegan meals to homeless people in Ohio.

And Dr. Tushar delivered a lecture in Mexico to 500 nutritionists earlier in the year.DSC01174DSC01177

Pre-Jivdaya Day activities initiated by members of the new Ahimsak Eco-Vegan Committee

It was a beautiful Thanksgiving Holiday weekend here in the Bay area, with a lot to be thankful for. This year the JAINA Executive Committee approved our new committee, the Ahimsak Eco-Vegan Committee. Many of us who have been vegan for a long time now have a formal structure supporting our initiatives. We just kicked off Jivdaya Day, as we’ve named Thanksgiving in our community with a campaign for a 30 day compassion challenge and are hoping centers around the US and Canada will initiate activities.  A lot of activities have already occurred!

Here in Berkeley, we offered Beyond Meat as a vegan option to a homeless shelter serving homeless teenagers on Nov 26. While the main cook, our friend who is vegetarian,  thought she should serve chicken, as she found that in the past they didn’t like tofu, she was open to trying something different.  We found that the kids were willing to try to Beyond Meat even though they did not care for the simply prepared tofu. The three local college students who served the food also discovered that the kids liked the veggie meat and when dishing out the late night plates for teenagers that came in late, put some of it on each of the plates.   Our friend the chef, the volunteers and I are pictured here in the opening of the kitchen where the kids were served.  Next Sunday we’ll cook a fully vegan meal  with chili, cornbread and gingerbread! YEAHpic

Vegan for Paryushan

Go Vegan for Paryushan: A Plea from the Jain Vegans of the UK

Paryushan, the Jain festival of penance and forgiveness will begin in a few weeks. During the festival, followers of the Jain faith traditionally fastrepent, and forgive. For lay members, fasting often entails avoiding activities that are traditionally thought to cause more himsa than others, such as eating root vegetables or eating after sunset.
As someone who has come across the activities of the Jain Vegans Working Group, you will be aware of how our consumption of dairy leads to the immense suffering and killing of innocent cows.
  • Dairy cows are forcefully impregnated by means of artificial insemination to stimulate milk production.
  • Calves are immediately separated from their mothers at birth.
  • Male calves are killed at birth or sold on to be reared for veal or beef (they are of no other value to a dairy farmer)
  • Dairy cows will normally get killed before the age of 10, even though they could live up to 20 years if given the chance.  This is because her milk yield drop, and it is not does not make financial sense for a farmer to keep her alive when he is able to obtain milk from her younger (and more productive) daughters.
In light of this, it seems reasonable that during Paryushan we as Jains should acknowledge and reflect on the suffering we have imposed on cows as a result of our consumption of dairy products.
Inline images 2
Paryushan offers a perfect time to reflect on the actions we undertake in our daily lives and to make changes to our dietary habits.  So, in addition to the other activities you undertake, why not consider giving up dairy products this Paryushan?
If you believe giving up dairy products this Paryushan is a good idea, please help spread the word.  Kindly forward this email on to friends and family, or spread this weblink via Facebook orTwitter.  Please let us know how you get along, and also consider making this image yourFacebook cover picture.
 More photos are on the next page–

Profiles of Vegan Jains: Dr. Shrenik Shah

I interviewed my parents’ physician who has been practicing internal medicine for 27 years. Raised Jain and having learned more about the hinsa of dairy, after his patient brought him Diet for a New America, he decided to become completely vegan. He has  been observing and especially in the last 6-8 months,  promoting the health benefits of a vegan diet including weight loss and decreased cholesterol. He has collected data on 50-60 patients showing that veganism has resulted in a 50% drop in LDL levels among omnivores and 10-30% drop among previous vegetarians, beating the effect of the widely prescribed statin drugs. Dr. Shrenik also shares his observations regarding patients’ willingness to change especially among young and prediabetic patients.

Profiles of Vegan Jains: Mahersh and Nishma (and a shrikhand recipe!)

Mahersh and Nishma started the group Jain Vegans based in the UK.  They invite  us to their home in London for breakfast to discuss their reasons for going vegan and show us the variety of plant milks and other tasty foods they enjoy. To make the shrikhand that Nishma tastes in the video:

Use unflavoured soya yoghurt (400g)  and place a muslin (“cheese”) cloth over double fold bath towels and spread the soya yoghurt (left it for appx 2hrs).  When the water has been absorbed, remove the yoghurt solid from the muslin cloth and place the lumps in a bowl. Mix in sweetener (tradtionally sugar, but find a vegan kind) to taste, powdered cardamom and a generous pinch of saffron. And garnish with almonds and pistachios.

Serves 2 people.

Mindful Eating Prayer

These Five Contemplations by Thich Nhat Hanh resonate so much with me as a Jain that i wanted to share it on this blog:Image

This food is the gift of the whole universe: the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and
much hard, loving work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed,
and learn to eat with moderation.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of
living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming.
We accept this food so that we may nurture our sisterhood and brotherhood, strengthen our
community, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.