Veganism in the Jain Community: Then and Now
I am very grateful to The Jain Vegans Working Group. I wanted the team to articulate what they do and why they do it, so that I could share it with you. In addition to providing this article, the group has been a great source of information and a forum to share concerns, happy moments and more. :)
What is Jainism?
Jainism is an ancient religion with roots in pre-Vedic India. Jains believe that all living beings - including animals, plants and microbes - have a soul, and that all souls are equal. The Jain path is one of spiritual purification and one of the key practices towards that aim is that of non-violence (ahimsa) towards oneself and other Souls. Jains therefore take non-violence very seriously, and avoid participating in activities which cause needless harm to living beings or the environment.
Why is diet so relevant to Jains?
Diet is a key way in which Jains practice non-violence. Nearly all Jains practice strict vegetarianism, and many Jains also avoid fruits and vegetables which are considered to cause more harm than others. For example, some Jains avoid eating figs due to the amount of seeds within them. Also, there are seasonal practices, such as, green leafy vegetables are usually avoided during the Indian rainy season due to the high degree of insect infestation. Jains also fast on a regular basis which helps develop self-control and reduce harm by reducing the quantity of food consumed.
Was consuming dairy ever condoned?
For much of history, dairy products were considered acceptable for Jains to consume, provided certain requirements were adhered to. For example, recognising that milk is produced by a mother for her offspring; it was only considered acceptable to take milk once the young calves had finished suckling. Traditionally, it was always possible for Jain households to observe these requirements because the heat in India and perishable nature of milk, meant that a Jain household consuming dairy could not live far from the cow that produced it.
Changes to production methods, distribution technology and lifestyles in the 19th and 20th Century has resulted in it becoming harder for Jains to observe how the dairy they consume is produced. The introduction of pasteurisation and refrigeration techniques mean dairy products can be consumed hundreds of miles from where they are produced. In addition to this, Jains began to move into urban areas, far from where milk production takes place. This added to the difficulty of knowing how the milk was produced and whether calves were allowed to suckle first etc.
Consuming dairy now
Towards the end of the 20th century, a number of Jains who were brought up as lacto-vegetarians were exposed to the reality of contemporary dairy production and began to question whether it was acceptable for Jains to consume dairy. Some of the points that motivated a shift were:-
- discovering the range of plant-based alternatives to dairy,
- the compelling scientific evidence demonstrating that it is not necessary for vegetarians to consume dairy to be healthy
- the realisation that much harm was inflicted on cows, buffaloes, goats and sheep through dairy production
- the understanding that using animals for food, clothing or entertainment did not fit in with the Jain way of living
- the conclusion that a vegan lifestyle was necessary to adhere to the Jain principle of ahimsa.
Unfortunately, many of the first vegan Jains were spread across different cities and countries and were largely unconnected with one another. Meanwhile, the majority of Jains continued the social norm of consuming dairy products. They did not and do not know about how contemporary dairy production abuses and mistreats cows. Most were, and continue to be unaware that:-
- cows are forcefully made pregnant through artificial insemination
- that male calves are routinely killed at birth
- that older cows are killed once their milk production levels begin to drop
Some Jains who recognised the mistreatment of cows actively promoted organic milk, unaware that cows on organic dairy farms are artificially inseminated and killed just like cows on conventional farms.
The growth of the internet widened access to information about the treatment of animals in food production. It also enabled vegan Jains around the world to connect with one another, and to help educate the wider Jain community about the inherent problems with dairy products, whilst sharing the positivity around the many plant-based alternatives that exist and can be used instead.
In 2008 two groups were set up to encourage and provide a support network for Jains wanting to make a shift to a plant based diet. These were the Jain Vegans e-group and the Jain Vegans Working Group.
The Jain Vegans e-group is an international forum where members can post questions to, and request advice from, experienced vegans from all over the world. Visit www.jainvegans.org to join and obtain practical tips on how to make the transition.
The Jain Vegans Working Group (JVWG) operates in the UK and works with UK-based Jain organisations to raise awareness about the treatment of cows in dairy production and the relevance of the vegan lifestyle to the Jain community. This is achieved by organising empowering events such as discussion workshops, cookery demonstrations, nutrition talks and social visits to vegan-friendly restaurants.
The vegan Jain community has grown significantly in recent years. The e-group now has over 150 members from around the world, and there are over 900 subscribers to the regular e-bulletins composed by the Jain Vegans Working Group. A number of UK-based Jain organisations are supportive of a vegan lifestyle, and have made efforts to organise events serving only vegan food.
At the time of writing, there is also a vegan Jain awareness-raising group in the USA called “The JAINA Eco-Vegan Committee of Jaina”, as well as an informative blog site called ‘veganjains.com’. No doubt over time other such Jain vegan action groups will form in other parts of the world where Jain communities live.
If you are based in the UK, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a presentation for your community or to receive a regular e-bulletin that will keep you aware of upcoming vegan related events and socials.
This article was produced by the Jain Vegans Working Group. Keval Shah, Mahersh Shah, Minal Shah, Nishma Shah, Rehma Chandaria, Sagar K. Shah
“Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages”
- Thomas Edison