Jain World
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  The Idea of Ahimsa and Vegetarianism

The Idea of Ahimsa and Vegetarianism



One of the distinctive marks of Jainism has been its long tradition of nonviolence.  Living as we do in an era of unparalleled violence, this feature of the Jaina ethics should stimulate contemporary interest for finding solutions to our global problems.

Ahimsa is a way of living that proceeds from the recognition of the spiritual value of man as man.  It is supported by the values of aparigraha and anekantavada that develop an outlook of non possessiveness and nondogmatism.  Greed, hatred, attachment and intolerance give way to mind and spirit that is sensitive to life, compassionate, benevolent, and open.  It is never supposed that the practice of Ahimsa is easy, for a person must go through many stages of purification.  But once the discipline is mastered, Ahimsa is the only way of ending all conflicts.

The Jaina literature is full of stories, historical and legendary, that demonstrate that Ahimsa can serve as a power for peace.  For instance, there is the account of two kings, Bahubali and Bharata who were about to engage in bloody war with large armies.  At the critical moment Bahubali suggested that instead of allowing this conflict to entail the lives of many soldiers, he and Bharata themselves engage in a show of strength to settle accounts.  Thus a battle was fought without the shedding of blood.  Such stories have kept alive the option of nonviolence as a way of resolving conflicts.

The Jaina Tirthankaras and monks have been in the forefront of creating a world devoid of violence.  Numerous episodes in the life of Parsvanatha record his strong opposition to violence.  He was in the habit of countering hostile attempts upon his life with the response of Ahimsa.  It is said that he once saved a snake from being burnt by a mendicant in a sacrificial fire.  The incident shows that he would not even permit violence for a religious purpose against any living creature.  Similarly, several events in the life of Lord Mahavira also serve to establish Ahimsa as the highest perfection of human life.  Through his many acts of forgiveness and his firm faith in spiritual values, Mahavira demonstrated that violence cannot permanently resist nonviolence.  If truly observed, Ahimsa ultimately triumphs.

A few years ago, the prominence given to Ahimsa by Jainism would have sounded idealistic; today it is not just nice but necessary.  The old, practical ethics of justified killing belies the true conditions of human fulfillment and overestimates the power of violence against nonviolence.  Thus the principle of pacifism, which has surfaces on and off in the ethical consciousness of the human race is found to be deeply rooted in the Jaina religion both in principle and in practice.

In its fullest ramifications, Ahimsa is more than pacifism as it is known in the Western world.  Nonviolence is a principle of life that goes beyond human life to include birds, animals and all living beings.  Jaina laymen are obligated to the daily practice of Jivadaya�showing mercy to all creatures.  It was this vow that brought the Jaina saints into conflict with the Vedic practice of animal sacrifices.  Acarya Somadeva says to the royalty who often paid for these elaborate sacrifices.  �A king who constantly desires longevity, strength, and health must not cause injury to living creatures himself, nor allow it to take place when planned by others.  One may give away the Meru mountain of gold as well as the entire earth.  The result will not be equal to that of saving the life of a single sentient being.�  It does not take much sensitivity to see that all living beings wish to live and are in fear of death.  Therefore it is immoral to take away life for selfish ends.

Jaina literature has many examples of animal rescue.  It is said that Neminatha, the twenty second Tirthankara staged a nonviolent demonstration by sacrificing his nuptial pleasure in order to save the helpless animals that were kept in cages for the occasion of his marriage.

Other stories make the point that, ironically, dumb animals better understand the meaning of Ahimsa than intelligent man.  There is the narrative of Meruprabha the elephant who was caught in a raging forest fire.  All the animals and birds assemble in a field to escape the flames.  The area was so packed that a small rabbit was unable to find a vacant space to lodge itself.  Suddenly, Meruprabha lifted its leg to scratch its body.  Immediately the rabbit occupied the spot vacated by the elephant�s foot.  Knowing the move, the elephant kept its leg elevated so as not to allow it to come down on the rabbit.  At the end of three days, the fire subsided and all the animals departed.  But the elephant died in that place because of injury sustained in standing on three legs for three days.

The story of Meruprabha the elephant is a literary gem because it illustrates the beneficent law of the jungle.  To be sure, animals feed on one another but the carnage is not indiscriminate; fights are not to the death, and they do protect their young with their own lives.  Man, to whom intelligence is given, is thereby placed in a position of greater ethical responsibility.  He is Nature�s eldest son who must use his superior powers to care for and protect beings who are less endowed.  He must not act as though the world was made only for him and that animals were placed here as objects for human food or sport.  The saints have understood better.  Ahimsa is not just a social value but a natural value.  �Nonviolence is for the welfare of all kinds of animals, visible and nonvisible.�

Vegetarianism is another important correlate of Ahimsa.  It is �an attitude of life which refuses to enjoy any pleasure at the cost of another�s pain.  It is the policy of living at peace with all beings as far as possible.  It is a more radical innovation than any of the modern sciences to raise the cultural level of man.  The rational conclusion of vegetarianism is that one should refuse any thing for any purpose in which animals are slaughtered, even medicine and leather goods.�

Since the Jaina ethical code is based on non violence, the people are very particular about matters of food and drink.  Every layman is required to possess Asta-Mulagunas that comprise the five Anuvratas plus abstinence from the consumption of flesh, wine, and honey.  Numerous stories describe some of the mulagunus, and it is claimed that �flesh-eaters have no kindness, drunkards never speak the truth, and people who take honey and the Udumbara fruit feel no pity.�

Jainism�s ancient advocacy of vegertarianism is receiving global attention due to severe food shortages and to the researches of the scientific community.  Vegetarianism is the only viable answer to world hunger, given the scarcity of resources.  This is not tantamount to the taking of a backward step out of necessity, for it is now a fairly well established fact that �there is nothing necessary or desirable for human nutrition to be found in meats or flesh foods which is not found in and derived from vegetable products.�