Jain Foodways

12 Dec 2008

While India undoubtedly has a large number of regional cuisines of great variety and sophistication, it has not remained immune to global tastes in fast food and in recent years pizza houses have become particularly fashionable among the newly prosperous urban middle classes. The menus of such establishments will as a matter of course tend to offer more vegetarian pizza toppings than non-vegetarian, for a large number of Hindus will under any circumstances not eat meat (often for reasons of familial custom as much as ethical reasons), and certainly there will be no dish in any way connected with beef.

If the pizza house is in the west of India, the menu will almost invariably include a section devoted to ‘Jain’ toppings. The uninformed patron will learn that these particular types of garnish, while unquestionably vegetarian, do not use root-based ingredients such as onion, garlic, ginger or potato in response to the dietary predilections of the members of the Jain community who are frequently to be found in the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. So who are these Jains whose vegetarianism precludes the consumption of what are normally considered staples of a vegetarian diet?

Although they number just under five million, the Jains are the most prosperous community of India’s one billion inhabitants, continually attaining the highest literacy and education rates in the country, and their religion of Jainism has been responsible for the production of some of the most impressive literature, art and architecture in the subcontinent’s history.

The name ‘Jain’ means a ‘follower of the conquerors (jina)’, a series of renunciant teachers who appear individually at various points throughout eternity to teach a doctrine of right knowledge, faith and conduct which leads to enlightenment and freedom from rebirth. From a historical point of view, Mahavira, the twenty-fourth teacher of this particular cycle of time, can be regarded as the founder of Jainism. Mahavira, whose name means ‘Great Hero’, was a contemporary and rival of the Buddha who lived in the eastern region of India around the sixth or fifth centuries BC (the date is not entirely certain).

This was a period of great spiritual and social upheaval in India when there appeared many holy men who had renounced the world of household, hearth and marriage to become wandering teachers seeking for the truth underlying the universe. Many such holy men took issue with the priestly brahman caste whose claim to authority at the time was based on its control over the a cult of animal sacrifice and they preached a doctrine of non-violence towards one’s fellow beings which included a rejection of the consumption of meat. However, none of these teachers was as radical in this respect as Mahavira.

Mahavira’s central insight was that the world is full of embodied souls called jiva. Not only human beings and animals, the higher forms of life with five senses, fall into this category. Plants also are regarded as living creatures that possess souls, although they only possess the sense of touch. At a basic level, souls are to be found in the earth, air, water and fire as well. All human action, witting or unwitting, causes violence and destruction of life which has a negative effect on the perpetrator’s own soul and leads to his degeneration and continued rebirth.

Mahavira’s radical solution to this existential dilemma was that human beings should attempt to withdraw from action as much as possible in order to purify their own souls. The only feasible way to do this was to abandon everything by becoming a wandering homeless monk and practising asceticism. Fasting had a central position in this regime because the basic desire for food which influences living creatures has always been regarded in Jainism as a negative instinct which engenders all sorts of violent behaviour.

Undermining the desire for food accordingly leads to the uprooting of passions and thereby the achievement of moral transformation. So we are told that Mahavira only ate on 349 days during the twelve years period before he achieved enlightenment and that the food he did consume was of the most basic sort, namely rice, pounded jujube and pulses.
Jainism has developed in all sorts of ways since Mahavira’s time and by far the majority of Jains have been and still are laymen and laywomen connected to mercantile and professional activities.

The renunciant monks and nuns follow the requirements of the religion in a fully rigorous manner and rely on the laity for support because they cannot use money, fire to cook or cultivate the ground to grow crops. Attitudes towards food and its intake have always played a major role in the everyday life of ordinary Jains who accept that violence of any sort, even towards the minutest of life forms, prejudices advancement on the long path over many existences to freedom from rebirth. It can rightly be said that the Jain sense of identity is most obviously bound up with the practice of vegetarianism and avoidance of particular types of food which are regarded as inedible.

As one would expect, no compromise can be made by Jains with meat-eating, which is regarded as the worst form of violence and a dietary habit which debases those who engage in it to the level of subhumans. Any Jain who willingly consumes meat in public will forfeit his position as a member of his community.

All Jains are familiar with the story of the ancient teacher Nemi who, while on the way to his wedding, heard the terrified wails of the animals who were to be slaughtered to feed the (non-Jain) guests at the ensuing feast and so was moved to become a monk. This story combines a horror at meat-eating and a sense of compassion and brotherhood with fellow living which have consistently characterised Jainism throughout its history. Eggs also fall into the category of meat and Jains will frequently stress the unhealthy nature of this source of food.

However, no doubt to the consternation of many non-carnivores, other types of food which are regarded as basic to a vegetarian diet are not permitted to Jains. For example, honey falls into the category of what Jains call abhakshya, ‘inedible’, being viewed as a substance which contains life-forms which will be destroyed in any act of consumption and whose removal from the honeycomb will bring about the death of bees.

Root vegetables, which are regarded as being inhabited by organisms, along with fruits and vegetables which contain seeds and are thus capable of reproducing themselves, are also not permitted to the orthodox Jain. So turmeric, ginger, garlic, bamboo, radishes, beetroots and carrots are all renounced in the name of the principle of non-violence.

Green-leafed vegetables, such as cabbage and cauliflower, which might harbour insects in their leaves, are not eaten by monks and nuns and while not forbidden to lay people, are regularly avoided by them on holy days. Anyone who has ever spent some time in an orthodox Jain household will have seen young women of the family in the kitchen laboriously inspecting vegetables and the contents of sacks of rice to ensure that they do not contain any tiny creatures which might inadvertently be eaten.

While dairy products are acceptable to the Jain diet, since cows are not harmed in their production, consumption of alcohol is regarded as highly inappropriate on the grounds that the process of fermentation leads to the release and subsequent destruction of countless life forms.

However, it is water, the dwelling place of innumerable organisms, which is most problematic for orthodox Jains. Monks and nuns drink only boiled water prepared for them by lay people, the supposedly minimal violence arising from the act of boiling being regarded as justifiable in this case, while the water faucets and containers in Jain homes generally have some sort of cloth or gauze covering to ensure that filtering takes place to ensure that no organisms pass through.

A further stipulation incumbent on observant Jains is that of not eating at night. The main reason for this, pre-modern in origin, is that insects might be consumed along with any food eaten in darkness, although it is also argued that taking a meal after sunset causes indigestion and negatively effects the conduct of business the next day. All monks and nuns observe this rule, as do many laypeople, especially on holy days or on pilgrimages. Fasting is a frequent practice among devout Jains and the successful completion by an individual of a period of abstention from food, often of some length, is a cause of general celebration.

While I started this article by referring to Indian pizza houses, it will be obvious why many Jains seldom frequent restaurants, even allowing for menus offering supposedly Jain-friendly dishes. Quite simply the possibility of infringing the requirements of their dietary culture by inadvertently ingesting life-forms and so committing violence which will prejudice spiritual advancement is a risk which most orthodox Jains are not prepared to take. This is a particular problem for those Jains now living in the North America and the United Kingdom for whom the possible consumption of food containing rennet and the compromising of their vegetarian principles is a continual threat.

However, it should not assumed that because of this highly guarded approach to diet lay Jains don’t eat well or are unhappy and unfriendly table companions. As I can testify on the basis of having been royally entertained in many Jain households and community eating halls in India, the food provided is invariably plentiful and tasty as well as offering as healthy a diet based on a wide range of vegetables as is likely to be found anywhere.

Furthermore, experience shows that lay Jains do not universally observe all their food prohibitions and that personal preferences often come into play, especially among those who do not consider themselves to be orthodox or are not involved in any form of ritual abstinence. So, for example, some Jains will comfortably eat tomatoes, despite the presence of large numbers of seeds in that vegetable.

All Jains take massive pride in their religion and its high ideals and regard their diet as reflecting serious ethical principles. They advocate the adoption of their food culture as a means of solving many of the world’s nutritional and health problems. Who can say that they are wrong?

Paul Dundas teaches Sanskrit at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

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