The Religion of Non-Violence

Dear Colleagues:

This past weekend, JAINA, the Federation of Jain Associations in North America, held its 15th Biennial Convention. The Convention was held in Los Angeles at the Jain Center of Southern California, which is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen anywhere in America.

The theme of the Convention was “Ecology: The Jain Way.” The selection of this theme reflects a central focus of the Jain tradition: that all life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence.

Jainism is a spiritual tradition that is not well known to most North Americans and is very much misunderstood as a general matter. To try to present Jainism in a blog essay would result in a trivial description that could not possibly do justice to an incredibly rich spiritual tradition that predates both Buddhism and Hinduism and is surely one of the world’s oldest spiritual traditions. I will however, reproduce the text of a brief statement prepared and distributed by Yogendra Jain who, in addition to being a JAINA Vice-President, maintains a site called JainLink:

Jainism is a religion and a way of life. For thousands of years, Jains have been practicing vegetarianism, yoga, meditation, and environmentalism. Jains have three core practices:

Non-Violence is compassion and forgiveness in thoughts, words, and deeds towards all living beings. For this reason, Jains are vegetarians.
Non- Absolutism is respecting views of others. Jains encourage dialog and harmony with other faiths.
Non-Possessiveness is the balancing of needs and desires, while staying detached from our possessions.

Jains believe in the existence of a Soul – in each living being – which is eternal and divine. JAIN WAY OF LIFE (JWOL) respects and honors all living beings through the practice of Non-Violence, Non-Absolutism, and Non-Possessiveness. We are all interdependent and, by living a JAIN WAY OF LIFE (JWOL), we can bring peace and spirituality to our lives and to those around us.

This statement, which Yogendra distributes on cards that are the size of business cards, is certainly not intended to be an exhaustive or complete statement but merely a very brief description of the three central principles that characterize Jainism.

Jains are non-absolutist but they are not relativists; that is, they recognize that there is truth but that truth is often complex. One thing that Jains accept as clear and absolute truth is the principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence, which is really the single most important idea in Jainism. Many Jains refer to their religion as the “Religion of Non-Violence.”

Because of their adherence to Ahimsa, Jains do not eat meat, fish, eggs, or honey. There is an increasingly strong movement within Jainism toward strict vegetarianism and the rejection of the use of animal products for clothing and other purposes. One of the most prominent living spiritual leaders in Jainism is Gurudev Chitrabhanu, who is a very strict vegan. There is no spiritual tradition that focuses on nonhuman animals as much as does Jainism. Not only do Jains advocate vegetarianism (and increasingly veganism), but they are the force behind most of the hands-on animal protection work (i.e., shelters) done in India.

I was given the great honor of presenting the Opening Address at the Convention this year. As you might expect, I spoke about veganism and the need to recognize that the principle of Ahimsa required that we eschew the use of all animal products. There were more than 2000 attendees at the Convention and they received my talk and my views on veganism with considerable enthusiasm. Over the four days that I was there, I spoke with hundreds of people who indicated that they agreed that veganism was the right way to recognize Ahimsa. At least a dozen people told me that they were going vegan right there and then!

Although the food served at the event was not completely vegan, it was mostly vegan and all vegans were fully and respectfully accommodated.

I thoroughly enjoyed being at the Convention and I accept the Jain Way of Life–the vegan version, of course! I encourage you all to explore this spiritual tradition. There is a great site that provides (for free) the full text of a large number of books in English (and other languages).

For those whose views about animal rights and abolition are, like mine, based ultimately on non-violence, you are probably already a Jain and just never realized it.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione

P.S. I am continuing to receive emails from conference attendees who are going vegan. One comment:

I was skeptical when you said that chai could be as good with soy milk as with cow’s milk. I am 63 years old and have never had tea without milk. I tried what you recommended (Silk Soy Plain in the red box). It was delicious. I can be vegan now without any suffering (although I would have done so anyway after hearing your talk).

P.P.S. The positive reactions from those attending the Convention are still coming in. People were clearly receptive to the vegan message. If you want to see a video of the presentation, one has just been added and you can see it by clicking “talk” in the text.