“Why don’t you eat meat? Don’t you wonder what it tastes like? You’re really missing out, you know…”
As a vegetarian with parents of Jain and Hindu heritage growing up in a mostly white, Christian suburb of Chicago, I got these kinds of questions every day. And as much as I hated having to explain (read: justify) myself over and over again, a lifetime of this has trained me to defend my choice to turn down half the food offered to me.
To put it simply, growing up Jain meant growing up vegetarian right from birth. The central principle of Jainism, ahimsa or nonviolence, requires that adherents of the faith practice this nonviolence in all aspects of their lives, including—you guessed it—diet.
This precept has a surprisingly scientific basis. Jains classify all living beings into categories based on the number of senses they have. Most animals fall under the category of five senses, while most insects have between two and four senses. Only plants fall into the lowest category of one-sensed life, with touch being their sole sense. With this limited capacity for sensory input (and pain reception), plants are the center of the Jain diet, while organisms with more senses are taken off the Jain food chain. Some Jains may take this principle of nonviolence even further, refraining from consuming root vegetables like onions and potatoes; this is because uprooting a vegetable ends the plant’s life, unlike picking fruit from a tree or leaves from a bush (mmm, tea).
Jains practice nonviolence because of the inherent value of all life.
This attachment to nonviolence primarily comes out of a belief in karma. Jains subscribe to a particularly complex theory of karma, in which every single action has an equal and opposite reaction. The time and circumstances of one’s karma coming back are never certain, but the belief is that, as Justin Timberlake once so eloquently put it, what goes around comes around.
The idea that closes the loop on this belief is reincarnation. Jains believe that souls inhabit the bodies of all living creatures, and that these souls transmigrate to new bodies upon the old body’s death. So, from the Jain perspective, I am not this body—I am the soul inhabiting this body, the soul that has inhabited countless bodies before, and the soul that will continue to inhabit bodies.
This belief in reincarnation is pretty comprehensive; Jains believe that we can reincarnate as any living thing—animals, insects, plants—anything. As such, Jains practice nonviolence because of the inherent value of all life.
In my own case, vegetarianism was only the beginning.
Now you might be saying, “But wait! You’re still eating plants that, may I remind you, have souls!” Yeah. You’re right. Still, Jains try to minimize the violence they inflict for sustenance by following a strictly vegetarian diet.
In my own case, however, vegetarianism was only the beginning. Several years ago, I came to the conclusion that, to truly adhere to the principle of nonviolence, I needed to go vegan. This was due largely to the appalling ways in which cows, chickens, and other livestock are treated on most farms, as well as the complicity I felt supporting a dairy industry that sells cows into the beef industry when their milk production slows. I won’t recount the various ways in which animals are treated like absolute crap on factory farms (there’s plenty of documentation already), but suffice it to say that this had a profound effect on me.
There are, of course, a slew of other reasons that convinced me to go vegan, mostly environmental. For one thing, it is far more efficient to grow plants than to raise livestock; about 20,000 pounds of potatoes can grow on the land it takes to produce 165 pounds of beef. Studies also show that diverting corn and soybeans from livestock to humans could feed an estimated 1.3 billion people.
And yet, I still don’t feel totally content with this diet. Although I’ve drastically reduced the harm I cause to animals, my diet still relies on foods like soybeans and quinoa. These crops, when grown on such a massive scale, tend to have pretty devastating environmental and socioeconomic impacts, contributing to widespread deforestation and rising costs of food for farmers.
All in all, I think I have a long way to go until I find a less harmful diet, and I don’t know how long that will take. What I do know, however, is that this principle of nonviolence, instilled in me through my Jain upbringing, gives me a reason to keep thinking about these issues, and to keep searching.
Gautam Srikishan is a communications associate at Interfaith Youth Core and an alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied music composition. He also plays a mean game of table tennis.