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Ahimsa, Ecology, and Strict Vegetarianism

e-Jain Digest I e-Jain Digest October 2009


Gary L. Francione

Dr. Gary L. Francione is the distinguished Professor of Law and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University School of Law, Newark, New Jersey. His book, "Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation,” was published in 2008. His forthcoming book (with Dr. Robert Garner), "The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?," will be published in Fall 2009. (Photo by N. Romanenko). He was the keynote speaker at JAINA Convention 2009.

The Basis Of Jain Vegetarianism

There is almost unanimous support among Jains for not consuming meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. The basis for Jain vegetarianism is two-fold.

First, Jains consider that eating these products violates the foundational principle of Ahimsa. Jains are forbidden from committing intentional violence against all mobile beings, whether they have two, three, four, or five senses. The mammals, birds, and fish that humans regularly consume all belong in the highest class of those beings with five senses—a class in which humans belong as well. This prohibition is not limited to what a person does directly but extends to those causing others to do Himsa as well as to approving of the Himsa of others.

The standard Jain diet not only seeks to eliminate violence to animals but also has the effect of minimizing the Himsa to plants, which are one-sensed beings, necessary to feed humans. Animals raised for meat consume more plant protein than they produce.

Second, a meat-based agriculture is an ecological disaster and a central tenet of Jain philosophy involves our obligation to minimize our impact on the environment. Because we need so many crops to feed the billions of animals that humans consume, we use an enormous amount of land to grow those crops, resulting in forest destruction throughout the world; as older pastures are destroyed through overgrazing, new land is cleared to replace them. It takes much more land to feed an average meat-eater than a vegetarian.

Animal agriculture also consumes enormous amounts of other resources, such as water and energy. In addition to the consumption of huge amounts of water and energy, animal agriculture results in serious water pollution, and contributes significantly to global warming burning of fossil fuels for transport purposes. Deforestation to produce more land for crops and grazing also results in the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Dairy Products

Although considerations of Ahimsa and ecology mean that we should not consume the flesh or eggs of animals, many Jains consume dairy products and use dairy products (and wool) in temple rituals. I respectfully submit that for the same two arguments—violence against animals and ecological concerns—that the Jains consider a move toward a pure vegetarian diet, what is today called veganism.

Dairy products involve inflicting suffering and death on mobile, five-sensed beings. Some forms of production are more brutal than others but under the very best of circumstances there is a great deal of suffering involved in the production of these products, and the death of animals is a necessary aspect of any industry or practice that uses animals.

Animals used in dairy production are kept alive longer than meat animals, treated as badly if not worse, and end up in the same slaughterhouses after which humans consume their bodies. The male babies of dairy cows are sold into the veal industry and most of the females are used in the dairy industry. It is an endless cycle of exploitation, suffering, and death. There is an inextricable relationship between the meat industry and the dairy issue.

Similarly, the very same detrimental ecological concerns are also applicable to dairy foods. The environmental impacts of processing dairy products are considerable, including the discharge of large quantities of liquid effluent with high organic loads, when whey from the cheese making process is not used as a by-product and is discharged along with other wastewaters. Effluent discharged directly into water bodies can cause a depletion of oxygen levels.

The dairy industry consumes large quantities of fresh water, use chlorofluorocarbons for refrigeration, causing ozone depletion. Most dairy products are packaged in plastic or plastic-lined containers, or cans, and these results in a considerable amount of solid waste.

Some Jains defend the continued consumption of dairy products on the basis of tradition—that is, the fact that Jains have been consuming dairy products for as long as anyone remembers means that it must be acceptable to continue doing so. But if Jainism stands for anything, it represents the notion that ethic principles are a matter of rational thought and careful consideration and that tradition can never be a sufficient answer to an ethical problem.

Some people think that it is difficult to be a strict vegetarian but that is not the case. There are now a large variety of delicious non-dairy "milks” (soy, rice, almond) available and these can be used for cooking and in beverages. There are delicious vegan "butters” made from soy that can substitute for ghee. Most Jains have already done what most non-Jains would regard as the difficult part—they have removed meat, poultry, fish, and eggs from their diets. Taking the additional step of eliminating dairy products is the easy part.

A note about the use of animals for clothing and rituals: Leather is not merely a by-product of the meat industry—it is an important part of the economics of that industry. Leather processing has harmful environmental effects. There is terrible cruelty involved in producing wool. Silk worms are boiled alive to make silk garments. Once again, there are many alternatives to wool, leather, and silk. The use of animals for all these purposes unquestionably involves Himsa.

The Future

I became a vegetarian in 1978 after visiting a slaughterhouse. It was terrible and I became convinced immediately that I could no longer eat animal flesh. I eliminated all animal products from my life in 1982 and became a strict vegetarian when I recognized that there was no logical or moral distinction between flesh and dairy or other animal products. They all involved Himsa; they all involved horrible suffering; they all involved death. As a practitioner of Ahimsa, I could no longer ignore the harm in which I was participating.

The sentiment in the Jain community is moving in the direction of strict vegetarianism. Jain community leaders have sought to facilitate discussion of this issue within the broader community. But most important of all, Jain youth, particularly those born in the United States and Canada are increasingly embracing strict vegetarianism and not wearing animal clothing as well. As these young people assume positions of leadership in the Jain community, the rejection of all animal use will become more widely accepted.

We live in a world of unspeakable violence that only gets worse by the day. It is more important than at any time in the past to speak up for peace and nonviolence. Although no one has a monopoly on these precious values, Jainism is the only tradition that emphasizes Ahimsa as the foundational principle of spiritual practice. Ahimsa Paramo Dharma. Jains are in a unique position to be the emerging voice of sanity in an insane world and have the responsibility to do so. Nonviolence begins with what we put in and on our bodies.

I offer these thoughts respectfully for your consideration. I recognize that many Jains are not yet strict vegetarians and it is not my intention to judge or to offend those people. I am only trying to apply what I understand to be important Jain principles in a consistent way. If I have offended anyone, Micchami Dukkadam.

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