An Introduction to Jainism in Tamil Nadu: reading list and notes

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[1] Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life by Christopher Key Chapple, p. xii
[2] Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism by Johannes Bronkhorst, p. 20, p. 32, p. 130
[3] Jaina-Rupa Mandana: Jaina Iconography:, Volume 1 by Umakant Premanand Shah, p. 6, p. 28, p. 110
[4] Jainism: A Guide for the Perplexed by Sherry Fohr, p. 29
[5] History BA (Programme) Semester II: Questions and Answers , University of Delhi by Sharma, Kumar, pp. 110-120
[6] Encyclopaedia of Oriental Philosophy and Religion Volume 7 edited by N.K. Singh and A.P. Mishra, p. 111, pp. 168-169
[7] Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature: Sasay to Zorgot by Mohan Lal, pp. 4333
[8] Jainism: An Indian Religion of Salvation by Helmuth von Glasenapp, pp. 66-73
[9] A History of Indian Literature: Buddhist literature and Jaina literature  By Moriz Winternitz, p. 457
[10] Vaiṣṇavī by Steven Rosen, pp. 250-253
[11] Jaina Inscriptions in Tamil Nadu by Dr. A. Ekambaranathan and Dr. C.K. Sivaprakasam
[12] Recent Jaina Discoveries in Tamil Nadu by Dr. A. Ekambaranathan
[13] Jaina Archaeological Heritage of Tamil Nadu by Dr. A. Ekambaranathan
[14] Jainism in Tamilnad by S. Gajpathi Thiruppahamoor
[15] Some Contributions of South India to Indian Culture by S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar [We should buy this]
[16] Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, Volume 2  By Amaresh Datta, p. 1494, p. 1785-1786
[17] The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300  By Romila Thapar
[18] Studies in Jaina History and Culture: Disputes and Dialogues edited by Peter Fl Gel, Peter Flügel, pp. 347
[19] Western Thinkers on Indian Society  By Gurmukh Ram Madan, p. 186-190
[20] Tamil Literature  By M. S. Purnalingam Pillai [snippets]
[21] Dravidian India  By T.R. Sesha Iyengar [snippets]
[22] Various papers by Iravatham Mahadevan [snippets]
[23] Jainism in South India by S. K. Ramachandra Rao [snippets]
[24] Tamil Literature  By Kamil Zvelebil [snippets]

Spiralling into soul: the Jain way of life and death

“Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.”
~Emily Dickinson

Though fundamental to our existence, life and death are still not well understood; their meanings have many keepers.

Whether a transition or an end, death is illuminated only in the context of life. But life is more easily recognized than it is known or understood.

From the outside, life is evident from its signs (including complex arrangements and processes) and through its smallest units (organisms). In the scientific view, when these indications stop and when the organism itself perishes, life and the consciousness of it ends. From the inside, life is experienced through the body, the mind and their interactions with each other and with the world. In the religious view, even when the indications stop and the organism perishes, life and consciousness of it persists.

There are many debates about what that may mean, and about what exactly happens after the body ends.

Similar endings
In India, across a number of traditions, philosophies and cultures, the sense of duty in different contexts is usually glorified. And after a point, gracefully moving on from life is viewed favourably.

For example, the death Acharya Shantisagar in 1955, the death of Vinayak Damodar ‘Veer’ Savarkar in 1966, and the death of Vinayak Narahari ‘Vinoba’ Bhave in 1982 are similar. In their last days, each of them stopped the intake of food, water and medication; they fasted till the end of their lives. Each of them reasoned that the purpose of their life was served and that they were ready to submit to death.

Their systems of faith, however, were completely different. Acharya Shantisagar was a Jain monk, V.D. Savarkar was an atheist and a nationalist, while Vinoba Bhave was a devout, patient believer and a follower of Gandhi.

These similarities probably reflect the influence of Indian cultural views about the mechanism and purpose of life.

Many lives lead up to liberation
Indic views on the subject often envision a ‘soul’ or ‘self’ or ‘consciousness’ of some kind that keeps undergoing innumerable lives through births and deaths as different organisms or even as cosmic beings. All these flickering lives and the churning cosmos seem to inform an indescribable state which is often associated with bliss. Different schools of thought have different opinions on what that state may be, what it means and how to best access or reach it.

The Jains in particular consider that state to be liberation. Before reaching this state, one must overcome craving and aversion. One’s cravings and aversions are manifested as thought, speech and action, the consequences of which may be varied, including the obstruction of true vision and the attachment to the cycle of birth and death.

The body, which is an assembly of matter, is one such cause and object of attachment.

A good way to live includes a good way to die
In the Jain view, since the body is a temporary vessel, it is also to be given up as one moves on to liberation or to a next life. The appropriate way to do so is called santhara. It is commended for those who at the very least have developed a degree of detachment from life and are in a state to make their confessions and to discuss their concerns.

“Because I could not stop for Death—”

At a stage of life when all duty is considered complete, or when debilitating disease, old age or some catastrophe prevents one from following the Jain vows, one may reduce eating in a gradual way and eventually fast till one’s life ends. This also reflects the Jain ideas about food in general and about fasting in particular.

This may be practiced not only by ascetics, but also by laypeople. It represents a tradition of more than two millennia, which holds that Parsvanatha and Mahavira—the two earliest Jain teachers in a historical sense—also lived by and advocated such principles.

Not a desire for death
Liberation is considered better than the even best life attainable within any realm in the cosmic cycle. However, Jains are not encouraged to violently or motivatedly hasten this outcome. Just as the Jain is taught to neither crave nor resent life, they are also taught to neither crave nor resent death.

Moreover, Jains follow the broader Indic idea that the state of mind during death plays a big role in the journey of the soul. Hence, a calm disposition is considered helpful. Gradual cessation of eating after a particular point is viewed as enabling the natural passage of life to its end in the current body.

“He kindly stopped for me—”
The original for this image was taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The lack of active motivation, the exceptional circumstances of the practice and the lack of an active causation of death indicates that it is unfair to yoke this particular stage of spiritual practice with suicide. Moreover, Jains have a clear distinction between santhara and suicide; a difference that has also been recognized by scholars. This is important since there has been some controversy on the practice being conflated with suicide by some Indian citizens and by some government entities.

Embracing death and killing the self are not the same thing
Jains do not approve of suicide and consider it both a motivated as well as a violent end to life, which has the effect of incurring severe negative karma.

In fact, santhara is also quite different from euthanasia as well. It is a passive fading out of life from the scope of body, an active but unmotivated acceptance of the fruits of one’s previous actions and a meditative embracement of the true nature of the soul. Though a spiritual mentor or peers may be consulted, the decision and performance of santhara is voluntary and individual. By comparison, euthanasia is often associated with motivation, particularly motivation in the form of the aversion to pain and suffering. It is typically an induced and assisted end of the body with no particular meditative or religious injunction attached to it.

For similar reasons, santhara is distinguished from any fasting or death with political or other motivations as well. It should however be noted that Jain monks have on rare occasions combined fasting with political outcomes. More famously, Gandhi was influenced by Jain thinkers and eventually combined the idea of non-violence and fasting with non-violent political resistance.

A shared, indigenous idea
As noted earlier, such practices are not limited to Jains. In India, since death is often not viewed as the end of life in a bigger sense, provisions for a suitable choice of death exists in many Indic traditions.

One of the attainments of advanced yogic practice is thought to be the ability to die by abandoning the body as and when one wills to do so. Even if one entertains the possibility of these claims, these acts may well be outside the ambit of regular legal reasoning and ordinary civil law.

But even in the absence of such abilities, many Hindus have a provision known as prayopavesa, which is also characterized by a final fast unto death. In all Indic cultures, conditions and disciplines leading to death are in place to ensure that the being is calm and centred at the junctions of mortal life and whatever may lie beyond it.

There are other exceptional provisions for more induced deaths as well, such as setting oneself ablaze on a pyre. Though it appears disquieting, to masterfully embrace such a death is considered a hallmark of equanimity and yogic practice. It indicates complete stillness while everything falls apart furiously. This practice recurs in anecdotes as well as in recorded history amongst early Indians as well as amongst later Hindus and Buddhists.

Vietnam 35th Anniversary
Photo by Malcolm Browne. This image was taken by Anveshan from Flickr, where it is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A particularly well-known and documented case of yogic self-immolation is from 1963, Vietnam. A senior Buddhist monk called Thich Quang Duc sat down and set himself on fire at the junction of a busy street in Saigon. Quang Duc’s heart survived the burning and a second cremation. The anti-communist dictatorship he was addressing, however, collapsed.

It should again be noted that tying such practices with political outcomes is rare, and even the political contents of Quang Duc’s protest were not hostile demands or a call to violent rebellion. His message was an appeal for consideration and compassion on part of the government.

Such ideals of a life of duty leading to an acceptable death are fairly consistent not just in India, but in many Asian traditions.

Agreements from an observer of death
Certain kinds of life and death may be viewed more favourably in a cultural sense. But the reasonings and the bases for them usually come from religious cosmologies which elicit little interest amongst contemporary practitioners of science and medicine. This also includes the ideas that the individual can somehow ‘cling on’ to life or that they can intuitively ‘know’ the onsets of irreversible decay or death. There is, however, support for such ideas in the work of the famous psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who worked extensively to understand dying patients.

“The Carriage held but just Ourselves—”
The original for this image is taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

In her book, On Death and Dying, she notes that in dying patients, hope—even blind hope—seems to be related to staying alive and even to eventual recovery. She later summarizes that ambitious, materially successful people who try to control their environments and live in relative luxury have a hard time dealing with death, while people with simple lives who undergo suffering and find gratification in hard work can accept death with peace and dignity.

She also notes that even without any medically significant indication, patients are keenly aware of impending death and are also able communicate this to others. However, what signal or combination of signals triggers such awareness is not known.

A good death by many names
In Jainism, there are many ways in which death is viewed and categorized. While santhara itself refers to the vow and to the process of a final submission to death, there are many other names which refer to the same inner ideal. These names include ‘pandita-marana’, ‘sallekhana’ and ‘samadhi-marana’. The terms capture slightly different aspects, but they (and other similar terms) are sometimes used interchangeably with ‘santhara’ in both contemporary as well as historical literature.

Considering the state of wisdom of the dying individual, the kinds of death which are considered ideal are called ‘pandita-marana’ or ‘wise man’s death’. From this view, there are approximate gradations, which span from the death of an omniscient (the most sublime passage into liberation) to the death of one who has no inkling of spiritual awareness (the worst kind of ‘fool’s death’).

The term ‘sallekhana’ refers to the actual ‘thinning out’ of materials. The inner and outer dimensions of this process mirror each other; the adherent lets go of internal desires and reduces the consumption of external objects and sensations. Unlike santhara, which has a certain finality to it, sallekhana is a practice that may span many years.

When viewed from the perspective of the state of mind, the ideal death is known as ‘samadhi-marana’ or ‘death in detached, meditative equanimity’. In fact, all favourable deaths are thought to be some kind of samadhi-marana. Violent deaths such as by accident or from brutal attacks by people or animals are not favoured in Jainism. But as exceptional examples, Jain anecdotes and legend glorify yogic adepts who not only maintain vows but also quickly adopt the final rites of santhara and let the body go with complete equanimity throughout the event of a violent or unexpected death.

An essential component
In a manner of looking at it, santhara is a rare practice. However, this does not mean that it is not essential. For a successful pursuit of Jainism, one should have legal provisions to follow this method.

The practice is mentioned in one of the oldest extant scriptures of the Jains, the Acharanga Sutra. The Sanstaraka—one of the major texts followed especially by the svetambara Jains—is entirely dedicated to this subject. It is also mentioned in the Tattvartha Sutra, which is a scripture that is accepted by all Jain sects. Moreover, it has been discussed in later manuals, including contemporary texts. But there is more to this practice than just textual prominence.

“And Immortality.”
The original for this image is taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Based on Jain teaching itself, it may be said that Jainism is not just in the faith and cultural identity but also in the practice of Jainism. And the practice of Jainism entails gradual detachment. On the basis of both teaching and reasoning, it may be argued that to attain or to even approach liberation, any being at the very final stages of life should not be doing anything to keep the body actively alive.

What is essential is invisible to the eye
Jains view food as merely the materials from which the body is eventually created and renewed. The body and these materials are not that important, but the soul and its liberation are essential.

Alluding to a Jain metaphor, one may recall that a house shelters one from the elements, but it is best to leave a crumbling house to prevent injury. For someone who is merely departing from such a house, it makes little sense to keep adding bricks and mortar. At the threshold of an inevitable collapse, the Jain prizes the ability to walk away gracefully.

Text: Anveshan
Images: Anveshan and Wikimedia Commons
The cover image of this article is taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Image captions are the first four lines of a poem by Emily Dickinson.
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Spiralling into soul: the Jain way of life and death: reading list and notes

Click here for the parent article.

[1] Jaina Yoga: A Survey of the Mediaeval Śrāvakācāras by Robert Williams, pp. 166-172
[2] Inviting Death: Indian Attitude Towards the Ritual Death by S. Settar, pp. 110-142
[3] The Jains by Paul Dundas, pp. 179-181
[4] The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources edited by Margaret Pabst Battin, pp. 46-53
[5] Religion, Death, and Dying, Volume 3 by Lucy Bregman, pp. 169-209
[6] Textbook on the Indian Penal Code, pp. 556-558
[7] Collected Papers on Jaina Studies by Padmanabh S. Jaini, p. 16
[8] The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources edited by Margaret Pabst Battin, pp. 46-53
[9] Colors of Truth: Religion, Self and Emotions by Sonali Bhatt Marwaha, pp. 97-130
[10] Release from Life, Release in Life: Indian Perspectives on Individual Liberation, p. 27
[11] The Yogasastra of Hemachandra (translated by Olle Quarnstrom), pp. 73-74
[12] Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience by Randi Fredricks, Ph.D., pp. 230-243
[13] Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community by Anne Vallely, pp. 132-141
[14] Saman Suttam compiled by Jinendra Varni, pp. 207-215
[15] Tattvartha Sutra, 7:22
[16] Acharanga Sutra, 7th lecture (technically, 8th lecture; the original 7th lecture is lost), lessons 1 to 8
[17] On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
[18] The Jaina Path of Purification by Padmanabh S. Jaini, p. 181, pp. 227-240
[19] Jainism and Early Buddhism edited by Olle Qvarnström (The Morality of Sallekhana by Kim Skoog), pp. 293-304
[20] Sallekhana is Not Suicide by T.K Tukol
[21] Religion and Culture of the Jains by Jyotiprasāda Jaina, pp. 115-119
[22] Ritualistic Philosophy of Death and Disposal of the Dead, Volume 1 edited by Nagendra Kr. Singh, pp. 287-289
[23] Jain Voluntary Death and Secular End-of-life Care by Sean Hillman
[24] Sanstaraka (of the Prakirnaka Sutras), Hindi translation by Muni Deepratnasagar
[25] Uttaradhyayana Sutra, translated by Hermann Jacobi, 5th lecture
[26] Jaina Sutras, Part I by Hermann Jacobi, Book I, Lecture 7 (Acharanga Sutra)
[27] Segments of the Bhagavati Aradhana by Shivaraya
[28] Firstpost’s report on santhara being declared illegal by the Rajasthan High Court
[29] Firstpost’s article on santhara
[30] India Today’s report on Supreme Court staying Rajasthan High Court’s order
[31] Opinion piece in The Hindu criticising reductive views on santhara
[32] DNA’s article on santhara which also highlights potential abuse of the ritual
[33] TIME’s article on the history of self-immolation
[34] The Independent’s article on Jain demands to make Palitana meat-free
[35] The Hindu’s report on the state government’s response fast at Palitana by Jain monks
[36] DNA’s report on Gujarat High Court’s notice to Gujararat state government on food-ban decision
[37] Indian Express’ article on vegetarianism at Palitana
[38] Indian Express’s article discussing various facets of santhara

A Jain perspective on food, fasting and liberation

Non-violence as a core philosophy and a vegetarian diet as one of its outcomes are the two most well-known aspects of the Jain community. Practicing Jains from all sects and subsects are strict vegetarians. Jains who are engaged in any kind of active spiritual pursuit will even avoid vegetables which grow underground and animal-derived foods such as honey or dairy products.

Though exact diet may vary, vegetarianism is often an object of asserting social and traditional identity for Jains.

An overview of changing attitudes towards food
Ancient Indians, including the Vedic people, ate animals and animal products. From a historical perspective, the relationship of the Vedic people with the natural world including animals have been guided by a pastoral lifestyle. For example, cattle have been praised from the earliest Vedas and have over time gathered more strict ritual significance. On the other hand, animal sacrifice is a component of early Vedic practices. There are also specific merits associated with sharing food and especially the sanctified meat of sacrificed animals. Food was ritualized and also associated with celebrations. Eventually, access to such foods and sacrificial material also determined one’s place in society. The priestly brahmins, by their authority over diet and rituals, commanded some social and material clout.

Not all Vedic brahmins were priests. Many brahmins were simply scholars, others were renunciants who lived in huts outside society and performed fire rituals, and there were wandering ascetics similar to sramanas who forsook all belongings except some simple clothing and a few personal items such as a begging bowl or articles of religious use. The renunciant brahmins would often gather food by begging or from the forest.


Over time, various ethnic and religious groups became vegetarian and vegetarianism became a matter of spiritual purity even amongst laypeople. Through much of history, sramana religions such as Jainism and Buddhism has played a role in this transition.

In contemporary India, many cultural groups including some categories of brahmins and a vast majority of other people do eat different kinds of non-vegetarian food. However, much of the staple food for even non-vegetarians is essentially plant matter. The idea of having a portion of meat as the central item and some small portions of sides to accompany that is a relatively young idea in India; it is limited to small groups of people. There still are more vegetarians in India than in all other countries, combined.

Sramana opposition to the brahmin view of castes
Early indigenous literature from both sramana and brahmin schools explicitly recognized the many shared or comparable features and concepts, but also clearly identified each other as rival philosophical systems. Sramana religions opposed the priestly brahmins and the Vedic caste system.

Over time, the caste system is thought to have become somewhat established along the lines of birth. Unlike brahmins, the sramanas allowed renunciates from all castes. Sudras and those outside the caste system had much more agency under the sramanas.

In the Jain worldview, there is no creator-god and animal sacrifices have negative consequences. Souls, however, are potentially divine, possessing singular knowledge and capable of attaining liberation from a cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. For the sramanas, aspects like birth, gods, society, wealth or anything outside one’s own agency cannot meaningfully hinder spiritual access as long as the philosophies and ethics are followed properly. For Jains in particular, diet is one major indication of such ethical excellence.

The philosophies behind Jain food
Food mostly has no ritual significance for a Jain. It is viewed merely as the physical materials needed to sustain one’s own body. These materials are thought to contain souls within them. In fact, Jain thinkers speak of souls at different stages of growth not only in various categories of animals, but also in plants, in microscopic life-forms and in physical substances in their natural state, such as water and earth.

Thus, all beings who acquire food directly or indirectly cause fear, damage and death to other beings. This is problematic from a Jain perspective because violence of any kind is thought to bind the soul to existence. However, because of realistic limitations, the Jain worldview allows the minimal violence that is inevitably committed towards some plants and microbes. In any case, from the Jain perspective, violence towards animals and higher beings for food can be avoided.


Amongst the sramanas, there are many injunctions related to food and eating which goes beyond a mere list of permissible edibles. Ascetics in particular are ideally expected consume cooked food and water that has been boiled and strained by laypeople and given willingly. The food is also to be ideally gathered from leftovers and from multiple houses to prevent shortages; this also prevents any undue favour or attachment towards any particular household. Food must never be eaten after sunset to ensure that it is not contaminated with small beings. Some of these rules also set sramanas apart from Vedic ascetics, who often either begged for, gathered or cooked their own food, and some of whom ate after sunset.


Of all the various impulses that cause a soul to be ensnared in the world, the desire to consume and more specifically the desire to eat are thought to be amongst most primal ones. This aspect of life is often a cause for philosophical, mythical and social concern to Jains. Hence, the Jain diet looks to restrict rather than prescribe how one should gather food and what one should eat.

Mythical indicators of historical diets
In the earliest available Jain literature which trickles down from a few centuries before the common era, the regulations for being a Jain ascetic or layperson were less strict. Over time, the regulations became more specific. Manuals about suitable food and elaborate protocols for laypeople as well as ascetics seem to be present from at least the 11th century CE onwards.

Despite some scholarly controversy around early Jain diets, the primary and only surviving view of Jain food is characterized by strict frugal vegetarianism and a preoccupation with removing microbes.

Jain mythologies threaded around the subject of food exemplify the Jain diet and often serve as cautionary tales against the consumption of animals and animal products. There are tales where eating meat leads to cannibalism and descriptions of hells for such sins. There are tales of how both real and metaphorical hungers can persist in a soul over many lifetimes. There are tales around Jain figures being given suitable food by virtuous laypeople. Even Jain sects are divided on the subject of whether an enlightened human being still has the need to eat or not.

The sramanas often morally distinguished themselves from brahmins on the basis of the more rigorous non-violence contained within their own food practices. Historically, the Jains and Buddhists were often responsible for stopping animal sacrifice and restricting animal slaughter. Jains in particular are critical of even Buddhist diet, where the strictness of vegetarianism varies by sect, geographical region and the state of being a layperson or an ascetic.

A Jain view of fasting
In Jainism, instead of food, fasting takes on a magical or ritualistic aspect. The elaborate rules about food merely ensure that one has a system to gradually eat as little as one can; not eating prevents new violences and entanglements.

The Jain focus on fasting becomes clearer when one looks at the examples and reasoning provided within Jain literature. Mahavira himself is said to have fasted for extraordinarily long periods, and fasting is a critical part of Jain spiritual pursuit. Jain festivals incorporate fasting as a central element as does all of Jain mythology.

Meditative fasting itself is said to generate inner spiritual heat, which quickens the process ripening and dissolution of existing bondages of the soul. Often, the merit of various good actions are measured by scaling them against the merit one would acquire by fasting for a number of days.

Even amongst contemporary Jain laypeople, frequent or occasional fasting is very common as a part of tradition, spiritual practice and routine life.

Food and the spread of Jainism
Compared to other religions, Jain ethical and dietary regulations seem intimidating to many. Over time, this perception has taken a toll on its popularity. Moreover, the broader reach of Jainism has been relatively restricted because Jain ascetics have historically been limited in their wandering on foot and teaching only in those regions where suitable edibles are available. Jain ascetics often prefer fasting or even starvation to death over unfit food or drink.


Through Jain history, the spread of Jainism has been closely related with the flourish of lay patrons of Jainism. This was clearly critical to Jains; there are anecdotes and myths which indicate the dedication of kings and traders towards fostering a suitable laity so that Jain monks, who are epitomes of dedication to the Jain ideal, can travel and preach. This is markedly different from the category of food myths in other religions where proper food may be made available by some divine or miraculous agency.

The exact rules and vows of gathering food have slight variations, but ascetics from all sects depend on suitable food given specifically by virtuous laypeople. These laypeople are usually understood to be people from within the Jain community or in some cases it may include anyone who meets certain ethical criteria. The conflation of ethics, diet and the qualification of laypeople eventually has had the effect of creating social hierarchy that mirrors the brahmin worldview.

A sramana view of diet and caste
Though the sramanas philosophically opposed the brahmin view of castes, the actual relationship between the sramanas and Hindu society is quite nuanced and is entangled with food practices.

The sramanas from Mahavira and Buddha’s time onwards often describe society in brahmin terms. Prominent sramana leaders of the time are said to have come primarily from the kshatriya and secondarily from amongst brahmins themselves. In fact, anecdotes and historical figures of converted brahmins are plentiful. These reflect the rivalry between the brahmins and other upper classes and the inner dissonance amongst brahmins themselves in Vedic society.

The earliest extant Jain literature often appeals to good sramanas and brahmins to adhere to ethics and a meditative life. Similarly, in sramana mythology, Hindu gods often attend to the sramana teachers and assist them in different ways. There are heavens reserved for non-believers who adhere to certain ethical precepts even with certain faults in worldview. This ultimately indicates a willingness on the part of the sramana to accommodate both faith and individuals from the very social order that they denounced and questioned.


Thus, while the sramanas do question the basis of social hierarchy and order, they do tacitly agree that people following the most ethical actions have the highest place in society and thus a social order exists on that basis.

In case of Jains, this distinction is codified through diet. There is a sharp disapproval of those who cause injury to living beings and consume meat and animal products, often on the broad basis of profession. As a result, a strong social and cultural overlap is found with the brahmins who also often exalt vegetarianism. On the other hand, it also creates a shared disdain amongst Jains and Hindu brahmins about lower castes who work with animal products or consume meat, fish and eggs.

A softer world
This worldview should be understood in the context that despite clarifying a basis for social order and outlining indications of moral virtue, ethical instructions in the sramana system ultimately clearly exalt human beings. According to sramanas, all human beings are to be treated with thoughtful kindness, and no violence, direct or indirect, is to be allowed and ultimately any human has a greater chance of liberation than other beings.

Jain ascetics depend on Jain laypeople and Jain laypeople depend on non-Jains. This dependence is also encoded through the ambiguous indirect violence that is inevitably associated with food and eating.

Since Jain ascetics are advised to not ask for anything, including food, the Jain laity are expected to offer food to ascetics on their own. The laity are also expected to understand the strict codes of how food should be prepared, what food can be given to ascetics, under what conditions and how.


The violence in the act of cooking and its mild consequence is shifted from the ascetic to the layperson, and more specifically to the women who cook the food. Similarly, Jain laity are not expected to pursue agriculture and the slight consequence for the violence of tilling soil or for harvesting produce is shifted to non-Jain peasants.

In the Jain view of society, both non-Jains who provide food as well as Jain laywomen who actually maintain the kitchen take a philosophical backseat.

Women, food and Jainism
The role of women in many Indic cultures have been a subject of tumult and controversy throughout history and it remains so in the present day. By Mahavira and Buddha’s time, the social position of women had become somewhat unfavourable, and their access to philosophy and religion was often restricted. Compared to Vedic society, women within the sramana traditions had more agency and equality. Irrespective, Jain mythology has a somewhat secondary place for women, especially in the area of asceticism.

However, women play a culturally significant role. Especially in contemporary Jain society, women are the keepers of the lay rituals, and often perform fasts and follow festivals and penances more rigorously than men do. This is especially true because of traditional division of gender roles, where Jain women are able to stay home and pursue the faith more deeply.

Jain women are also expected to know how to prepare food in accordance with the Jain tenets. These skills, familiarity with tradition and the depth of their religious devotion are often thought of as indicators of the piety of the entire family.


In each Jain family, therefore, it is usually the women who are responsible for the preservation of the Jain practice and identity through the agencies of food, festivals and fasting. Significantly, the cooked, permissible food that is given by a layperson to the ascetic is also controlled by the women in a household. This particular food, as we discussed briefly earlier, is a critical link in Jain society.

Thus, it may be said that Jain women are the keepers of Jain culture in general and uphold the grammar of food in particular, which is turn is critical to the Jain understanding of social order.

Contemporary conflicts with other communities
In India in general, food is still entangled with religion, society and politics in a way that lies far outside its value as the mere source of physical nourishment.

Historically, the sramanas are responsible for getting suitable non-violence and food-related enforcements through the agency of patron kings and states. For example, Buddhist philosophies led Ashoka to implement benevolent rules for all animals and plants in his kingdom, and Jains played a hand in tempering Akbar’s treatment towards animals and for getting animal slaughter banned in certain areas during certain holy periods.

While the sramanas are understood to have caused a certain balancing of food habits in the subcontinent, their approaches do not always translate easily during contemporary times. Recently, Jains have played a role in some controversial bans and obstructions to the food eaten by non-Jains. These sramana practices and efforts often stem from philosophical grounds of compassion towards animals or sometimes from a sense of moral righteousness. Ritual sacredness of animals or even an affront against other identity groups do not usually drive these ideas. Irrespective of intentions, the social and political implications cannot be ignored.

Often, affordable meat and eggs are a rich source of protein and nourishment for the poorest segments of Indian society. More significantly, specific foods contain historically significant cultural value for most groups of people. Interference with such matters entails cultural and social overreach. This is problematic not only from a non-Jain view, but also from a Jain perspective which recommends against violence in thought, speech and action; forcible imposition of one’s worldview on other people is quite outside the Jain way of life. Moreover, the disdain towards meat eaters sometimes has led to controversial social behaviours, such as the ostracization of non-vegetarians by some Jain societies.


Another source of oddly specific misunderstandings stems from some of the overlaps of the Jain and the vegan diet. This is a superficial similarity, and the motivations, methods, outcomes, pragmatic considerations and the sociocultural fits for both diets are different. It is unfair to both communities to yoke them together casually.

Despite these problematic issues, the Jain approach to food resonates deeply with large-scale problems of today.

Food, environment and Jainism
In Jain philosophy, there are elements that indicate ecological understanding, but it is not appropriate to posit that Jainism and contemporary scientific or political environmentalism as essentially the same.

The scientific views and sensitive political interests seek to gracefully preserve the world while Jain ethics seek to gracefully liberate an individual from the world. The behavioural outcomes of both views, however, converge favourably. Many progressive contemporary Jains find a natural alliance with activists who work on ecological issues or those who promote sustainable lifestyles.


Contemporary crises of food and agricultural practices include severely faulty distribution, wastage and an immense ecological as well as individual impact. India is a contributor, but many practices by affluent nations highlight the problems with heavy agriculture and industry. For example, the mechanized meat and agriculture industries especially as established in many affluent nations are thought to be amongst the leading causes of climate change which in turn is considered to be the greatest ecological crisis facing the world today.

These industries, whether built around plant or animal matter, are exceedingly cruel towards animals, which are killed either because they are considered pests or because they are considered objects of harvest. Monocultures and systematic animal farming also eventually have negative effects on society. Moreover, meat-heavy diets are observed to have negative effects on individual health.

There are many progressive Jains who draw from their cultural sensitization and work on local and sustainable food and agriculture and oppose potentially hazardous practices like genetic modification of food by corporations, industrial farming and especially the animal product and meat industries.

A meaningful meal
Jainism, however, is not just about its restrictions, dietary or otherwise. It has a rich inner philosophy, a sophisticated way of viewing the world and significant practical outcomes driven by its ethical system. Even looking at contemporary society without the explanations offered by Jainism, it is not difficult to understand that excesses of various kinds are the root of private and social troubles. Even leading secular thinkers today harp on the the seemingly religious notes of thoughtfulness, restraint and ethical actions that avoid causing suffering to others.


The soul and its liberation and their relationships with food are matters of faith, of private experience, of religious practice and of contemplative debate. However, one perspective to consider is that thoughtful eating may free a person from economic pressures fuelled by excess or expensive food, from the negative ecological effects of heavy agriculture and from the poor health created by unbalanced diets and synthetic eatables.

Little can be said of liberation from this world, but policies of the plate may be a key factor to liberation within this world.

Text and images: Anveshan
Please click here for a list of references for this subject.

A Jain perspective on food, fasting and liberation: reading list and notes

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[1] The Jaina Path of Purification by Padmanabh S. Jaini
[2] The Jain Saga – Part 1: Brief history of Jainism by Hemachandra Suri (edited by Muni Samvegayashvijay Maharaj), p. 5, pp. 490-492
[3] How Food Made History by B. W. Higman, pp. 1972-1974
[4] Jainism: The World of Conquerors, Volume 1 by Natubhai Shah, pp. 249-254
[5] Fear of Food: Jaina Attitude on Eating (Collected Papers on Jaina Studies) by Padmanabh S. Jaini, pp. 281-296
[6] Golden Book of Jainism by Hermann Jacobi. pp. 139-187
[7] History of Jainism with special reference to Mathura, p. 63, p. 57-75, p. 103, 155, p. 169, p. 219, p. 111-114
[8] Food for the Soul: Vegetarianism and Yoga Traditions by Steven Rosen, pp. 120-122
[9] Jainism and ecology edited by Christopher Key Chapple, pp. 95-117 (Paul Dundas’s paper)
[10] Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer : Essays in Honour of Louis Dumont  by T. N. Madan, (Romila Thapar’s paper) pp. 273-297
[11] Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions by Wendy Doniger, pp. 3-37
[12] Cultural and Religious Heritage of India: Jainism  edited by Suresh K. Sharma and Usha Sharma (extract from India and its Faiths: a Traveller’s Record by James Bissett Pratt), pp. 79-112
[13] The Yogasastra of Hemachandra (translated by Olle Quarnstrom ), pp. 1-100
[14] Encyclopaedia of Oriental Philosophy and Religion Volume 7 edited by N.K. Singh and A.P. Mishra
[15] Caste in Question: Identity Or Hierarchy? edited by Dipankar Gupta, pp. 73-74, pp. 1978-1994
[16] South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia by Peter J. Claus, Sarah Diamond, Margaret Ann Mills, pp. 299-303
[17] Framing the Jina: Narratives of Icons and Idols in Jain History by John Cort, p. 51, pp. 138-142, p. 277
[18] Singing to the Jinas by M. Whitney Kelting Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies St. Lawrence University
[19] A Comparative History of Ideas by Hajime Nakamura, pp. 172-176
[20] Acharanga Sutra (Book II, Lecture I) as translated by Hermann Jacobi
[21] Food and Morality: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery by Susan R. Friedland, pp. 234-239
[22] Ascetics and Brahmins: Studies in Ideologies and Institutions by Patrick Olivelle, pp. 71-93
[23] The New Comparative Economic History: Essays in Honor of Jeffrey G. Williamson  By T. J. Hatton, Kevin H. O’Rourke, Alan M. Taylor, pp. 9-32
[24] The Story of Our Food  By K.T. Achaya
[25] Grist Media article on the cow and Indian politics.
[26] article on the Maharashtra beef ban of 2015.
[27] NDTV article on opposition to eggs in mid-day meals for children in Madhya Pradesh.
[28] article on controversy over eggs, ideology and nourishment.
[29] NPR article on food and societal issues.
[30] Outlook article on turning Palitana completely vegetarian through legal sanction.
[31] Opinion piece on potential hazards of identity-based housing
[32] India does have legal sanctions and precedents for various identity-based cooperative housing societies as well as specific restrictive rules on land and property acquisition and sale with the intent of protecting the interest of various ethnic and cultural groups and of groups in general.
[33] Suri Ajay Sagar ji, a Jain monk, was critical of veganism. Some of his views can be found in this article.