Tag Archives: Jainism

Jain Vegetarianism

The 24 Tīrthaṅkars of Jainism. Source - Public Domain

The 24 Tīrthaṅkars of Jainism. Source – Public Domain

Most vegetarians in the western world come from meat-eating families and therefore grew up eating meat. In either their teen years or early adulthood they made the decision to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, for health and/or ethical reasons. They are often the only vegetarian in their family(like me!).

As far as I know, I come from a long line of meat-eaters, and the same goes for most vegetarians in the western world. However, there is one group of people who have been vegetarian since very ancient times, since almost the start of civilization itself – These are the Jains of India.

Just imagine for a second being a Jain. Your brothers and sisters are vegetarian, your parents are vegetarian, your grandparents are vegetarian, your great grandparents, great great grandparents, etc(makes me wish I was a Jain!). Being a vegetarian is an important part of your religion and identity, and it goes so far back in your family that it is shrouded by history. Eating meat would be an act of rebellion or a terrible sin.

Jainism is often mistakenly thought of as a sect of Hinduism, or is sometimes confused with Buddhism in the west. The truth of the matter is that it is even older than Hinduism, and seems to have influenced early Hinduism. Jainism was probably founded around the 9th–7th century BCE(or earlier) by someone named Pārśva, the 23rd Tīrthaṅkar(a “facilitator of enlightenment” or “teacher”) of Jainism. Although he is 23rd, he is the earliest Jain Tīrthaṅkar accepted by scholars as being an historical figure.

Judging by that date, he probably didn’t use the internet to popularize his message. But the message got out, and it spread, thanks in large part to Mahavira(599 BCE–527 BCE) one of its great reformers and teachers. He was also the last Tīrthaṅkar.

Amazingly, the message of these original teachers has survived through all these turbulent years. Jainism has accumulated a vast literature, and has influenced Hinduism and Buddhism. It usually co-existed peacefully with other religions, though was very occasionally persecuted by Hindus. India itself has been subject to countless invasions over the past few thousand years. There are about 5 million Jains in the entire world with most of them living in India. Of all religious groups in India, Jains have the highest literacy rate at 94%. Due to their high educational attainment, Jains have long been influential in science, engineering, academia, and the arts, in spite of being a tiny group.

Non-violence(related to the concept of “Ahimsa”) is of extreme importance to Jains, of which their vegetarianism is a logical outgrowth. Strict Jains will avoid hurting or killing insects, since they believe even insects have souls. Some very strict Jains take this even further and will avoid killing plants for similar reasons. Obviously, they will eat plants since they have to eat something to survive, but they will only eat the parts that don’t result in killing the entire organism.

While most Jains are vegetarian, many are adopting veganism, seeing it as the next logical step in the evolution of the religion’s dietary practices. There are a few sects of Jainism, and they may approach vegetarianism differently.

There is so much more to Jainism, like its metaphysics and rich history, but since this is a vegetarian blog, I wanted to focus on the vegetarian aspect of this ancient religion. Considering all the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle, those ancient Jains were way ahead of their time.

Visit Vegan Jains if you want to learn more about Jain veganism.

Doukhobor vegetarianism

Doukhobor women pulling plough. Source: Wikipedia

Doukhobor women pulling plough. Source: Wikipedia

As a vegetarian and history buff, I am fascinated by the history of vegetarianism and why certain groups and individuals chose a vegetarian lifestyle. Vegetarianism has very ancient roots, especially in India where observant Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus all generally practice vegetarianism, with the Jains being the most strict about it.

Various other religions and mystical sects outside of India practice vegetarianism, but they are generally much smaller in number and not as well known. Seventh Day Adventism is a protestant Christian denomination that advocates a vegetarian diet, though not all of them follow it. Many Christians from various sects are vegetarian, but for individual spiritual, ethical or health reasons, not because their church advocates it. I’ve also met many Jewish vegetarians over the years.

Among the more obscure Christian sects that practice vegetarianism are the Doukhobors(Духоборы). They split off from the Russian Orthodox Church several centuries ago due to their pacifism, anti-authoritarianism, non-belief in churches, priests or most religious rituals, and were persecuted by the Russian authorities as a result, when they weren’t too busy persecuting Jews I suppose. Their beliefs make them similar to Mennonites in many ways, and they were also vaguely similar to early hippies, but without the drugs, among many other differences.

A large portion of them eventually emigrated, with the help of Leo Tolstoy(who had a lot in common with the Doukhobors) and Quaker sympathizers, to the welcoming prairie regions of Canada, where they practiced communal farming and by the late 19th century, became vegetarians. They also forbid alcohol and smoking. Sounds like I would almost fit right in! Although they were mostly left alone, they did occasionally have problems with the Canadian authorities.

So why are Doukhobors vegetarians? According to Jim Popoff, a Doukhobor representative:

In striving to attain their expressed basic goal of “Toil and Peaceful Life,” the Doukhobors touched upon the very essence of the Doukhobor life-concept, which is a state of universal love for all of God’s creation. Thus, they found they could no longer participate in any form of violence, especially the taking of a human life, for any reason. This led, of course, to their decisive renunciation of militarism and the Burning of Arms in 1895 – historic events being honoured during this year’s centennial

It also led to their realization that if they could not take the life of a fellow human being, neither could they kill any other of God’s living creatures. Since animals had to be killed before they could be eaten, the Doukhobors resolved to stop using the flesh of animals for food. This step was taken even before the dramatic events of 1895, by which time they had already become strict vegetarians. Thus, their vegetarianism had an ethical origin, but Doukhobors soon realized that there were also distinct health benefits to a vegetarian diet, especially when it consisted of simple, unrefined, and naturally grown foods. Peter Lordly Verigin frequently counselled his followers about various healthful dietary practices. Doukhobors who grew up in the wholesome lifestyle conditions of those times became living proof of these benefits in the forthcoming decades, with their sustained vitality and remarkable longevity.

In other words, it was the next logical step in their spiritual/cultural evolution as a religious community. It also helped that one of their leaders was very health-conscious.

While the descendants of the Doukhobors have largely moved on from the self-sufficient, communal lifestyle their ancestors came to Canada to practice, at least a few still practice vegetarianism and some are still farmers. As they have assimilated into Canadian society, the Russian language has slowly disappeared, but a few are doing what they can to keep it and other Russian customs alive.