Published on 30th October, 2021, in Economic Times.
Vegetarian habits were less about non-violence and more about striving for contentment. The Jains were aware of the damage industry can do to the forest. And so kept consumption minimum.
Jainism values the principle of Ahimsa: non-violence. And the Jain community dominates the world of business.. And this is ironic, as business is the most violent activity in the world. Industry is essentially based on violence against nature. Culture is designed to please the appetite of human society and so promotes industry that provides various goods to satisfy humanity’s materialistic quest.
For producing food, we need to create farms, orchards and pastures. This involves the destruction of forests and therefore the ecosystem. For providing clothing, animals are killed for their bones and their leather. Silk worms are boiled for their cocoons to produce silk. For creating shelter, we have to cut down trees to provide wood for making houses and break mountains for stone and sand. For transporting goods from one place to the other, we have to build roads that cuts through forests. We castrate bulls and turn them into bullocks so that they can serve as beasts of burden. We invest via stock markets and mutual funds into Industries that release toxic chemicals that kill plants and animals. Indirectly, business promotes violence.
The act of how violence is critical for sustaining culture is depicted in the story of in the Mahabharata. Here, the Pandavas burn the forest of Khandavprastha, to establish the city, Indraprastha. Similar stories are found in the Puranas. Gayasur has to be pinned to the ground and a yagya has to be performed on top of him to establish the city of Gaya. The bones of the asura are turned into metal, such as iron, copper, gold and silver. Similarly, the gems that we find under the earth are said to be parts of the body of an asura, who was killed by the devas and buried under the earth.
The only way to be completely nonviolent is to reduce our consumption of goods and services. This can only happen when we overpower our basic physiological needs and our quest for hunger. when we strive for contentment. This is at the heart of Jain philosophy, which is often overlooked. In Jain mythology, above Swarga, or the world of abundance, which contains all kinds of luxuries and comforts, is Siddha loka, the world of the truly content, the Tirthankaras who consume nothing. They are Jina, conquerors of hunger.
Jain philosophy is about outgrowing hunger entirely. When we are not hungry, we do not seek food. When we do not seek food, we are not violent towards the ecosystem. We let nature be, which is true nonviolence. The holiest of Jain monks reduce their appetite for possessions, for clothes, for shelter, for food. They gradually outgrow hunger to a point that they can starve to death. We are told that this practice was followed by the first emperor of India, Chandragupta Maurya, under the influence of his Jain teacher Bhadrabahu.
As long as we seek to consume, we will destroy the ecosystem. Goddess Kali reminds us of this fact when she sticks her tongue out and mocks humans. She demands blood sacrifice. Those who shy away from blood sacrifice are naive or simply hypocrites. They think eating vegetarian food makes them non-violent. But they do not want to see blood being shed as trees are cut in the name of development. They argue that plants do not feel pain as they have no nervous system. But plants do not want to die. They produce thorns and toxins to protect themselves from predators. Because they want to live.
The Jain traders of yore never questioned other people’s eating habits. This was the old Indian way – keeping kitchens separate and not judging other people’s food. Vegetarian habits were less about non-violence and more about striving for contentment. The Jains were aware of the damage industry can do to the forest. And so kept consumption minimum. More importantly, they strove to be monks, who could donate all wealth and withdraw from society entirely, having realised the futility not just of consumption but also ambition, which feeds the ego.
Jain ahimsa is accompanied by another idea called anekanta-vada, or plurality of thoughts, and syadvada, that recognizes humans have access only to relative truth and not absolute truth. This allowed Jains to avoid argument and seek triumph of their doctrine, unlike Buddhist, Christian and Islamic missionaries. They valued all ideas. They saw psychological violence in debate and arguments, which is so valued in modern academia. They saw how such arguments destroy friendship and do not permit multiple ideas to flourish. By avoiding arguments, by being content in ideological matters, they were able to maintain trading relationships with Hindus and Muslims and so they thrived as bankers in Rajput kingdoms, Muslim sultanates as well as British Raj.