International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo 34th World Vegetarian Congress
Toronto, Canada, July 10th to 16th 2000

by Prof. P K Jain


Jains are a small religious community in India, who are strict vegetarians (not vegans). Archeological evidence suggest that the religion was followed, rather flourished, 5000 to 8000 years ago amongst the people of Indus Valley civilization, who lived in the geographical area now in Pakistan. Even within the vegetarian regime, strict dietary codes are specified that restrict even the use of many products of plant origin. This makes the practice of vegetarianism at least 8000 years old, if not older, and a scientifically well founded way of life.

Recognizing plants as a life form, Jainism gives a scientific definition of vegetarianism, its limitations and necessity for the survival of the human race. Jains as a community of healthy, accomplished and mostly upper middle class people are a living example of the success of a vegetarian diet with no apparent dietary deficiencies. The paper seeks to look at the dietary code of Jains in light of modern concepts with regard to vegetarianism and environmental concerns.


Jainism is one of the ancient religions of India. Absolute non-violence of thought and action is the very fundamental principle of the teachings of Jainism. Truthfulness, not to steal, equal right for all irrespective of cast, race, gender, age and religion, compassion and love for all living beings, and vegetarianism etc. are but different manifestations of the very principle of non-violence. Jains follow in the tradition of 24 Tirthankaras: the Master Preachers who enlightened the path to Salvation. The last and the most recent Tirthankara is Lord Mahavira who lived and preached during the period 599 - 527 BC. Archaeological evidence of the antiquity of Jainism dates back 5000 to 8000 years to the Mohan Jodaro and Harrapan civilizations of the Indus Valley. This makes vegetarianism, which is central to the Jains' way of life, as old if not more. In this paper we review some of the dietary codes recommended for practice by Jains.


Traditionally vegetarianism is practiced by most cultures for reasons of compassion and reverence for life and non-violence, and the Jains are no exception to this. However, the definition and understanding of non-violence by Jains goes much deeper than others that this author has come across. The medical reasons for being a vegetarian are relatively a modern phenomenon mostly during the past half a century or so, during which period developments in the modern medicine have established links between certain ailments and the non-vegetarian diet. The very fundamental question that is often asked of a vegetarians is, "If non-violence is the basis of vegetarianism, why eat plant based foods?

Don't plants have life?" In this respects Jains perhaps were the very first ones to acknowledge that plants are a life form, long before it was established by the modern day biological sciences. Jains recognize five physical senses namely touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing as the principal attributes of living beings. All life forms in the universe are then classified in terms of the senses found in various creatures. Here as a word of caution, the senses should not be confused with other attributes of life, such as breathing, circulatory and nervous systems, heart and brain etc. that are dealt with as a separate topic in Jainism. The lowest life forms are those with only one sense, the sense of touch, such as the plant life, the highest life forms have all the fives senses such as human beings, mammals and most of the animal kingdom. The other intermediary life forms are the living beings with: two senses - touch and taste such as an earth worm, three senses - touch, taste and smell such as lice, and four senses- touch, taste, smell and sight for example mosquitoes. Senses appear in various living beings strictly in the order specified, i.e., touch is the most primitive of all senses, and hearing is the last sense found at the most advanced stage of development. No other combinations of these senses are known to exist. This in itself may be the most remarkable contribution of ancient Jains to the modern life sciences on the evolution of living beings.

Having classified all life forms in this manner, and realizing that human beings must eat to derive their nutrition and to survive, life with only one sense, that is basically plant life, is the only permitted food for human consumption. To reconcile the principle of non-violence with the consumption of plant based diet, and to preserve plant-life as best as possible, there are strict dietary codes of practice recommended for day to day living. These include prohibition on the consumption of some vegetables and fruits, restrictions on procurement of produce, restrictions of times and timings, fasting, recommended occupations etc. Such codes, with their feasible interpretations follow.


Vegetables and fruits that grow underground (roots of plants) are prohibited as a general rule. Clearly enough, to procure such vegetables and fruits, one must pull out the plant from the root, thus destroying the entire plant, and with it all the other micro organisms around the root. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be plucked only when ripe and ready to fall off, or ideally after they have fallen off the plant. In case they are plucked from the plants, only as much as required should be procured and consumed without waste. Grains, such as wheat, rice, maize, beans are obtained when the plants or the pods are dry and dead. Cutting down of green trees for wood or any other use is strictly prohibited. This is indeed a shining example of "conservation" in ancient times, which modern civilization is still trying to find ways for.

An orthodox Jain fasts twice a fortnight, on the eighth and the fourteenth day of the full and the new moon cycles of the lunar calendar Some fast even thrice, including the fifth day of the two lunar cycles. During fasting only food prepared from grains is consumed and no green vegetables or fruits are eaten.

In context of "root vegetables and fruits," most modern day Jains have devised self-imposed restrictions, not sanctioned by the religion. The majority of Jains with the exception of the orthodox, traditional ones, eat most of the underground vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, turnips etc. for reasons of social convenience (after all they fall within the regime of a vegetarian diet). Even amongst these exceptions, a large percentage still do not eat onions and garlic. The reasons advanced is their strong odor and that they are Tamsik, food that leads to lethargic action.

It is a common saying that "One is what one eats". But Jains go much farther in defining the character of an individual. According to them "One is what one thinks", a fact that any criminal and social psychologist shall confirm. Violence in thought is as detrimental to the development of character as violence in action. To this extent, candies and chocolates shaped as animals are generally not consumed in Jain families. Imagine a child going around eating the "head of a rabbit" or "leg of a man". What will be his/ her psychology and personality? If you want to eat chocolate, just do that, why lace it with an unappetizing thought of cruelty to animals and/ or cannibalism. Orthodox Jains do not even eat cooked/ prepared food from the shops. All food should be prepared within the house under the most hygienic conditions.


A group of five fruits from the fig family, termed the Five Udambars in Jain literature are not permitted. Modern biological sciences have established that these fruits, produced by the pollination of flowers by wasps, are inhabited by species of wasps specific to each. For example, the entire life cycle of the wasp "Blastophaga grossorum" is completed within the fig "Ficus carica". The wasp lays its eggs in the gall flowers and dies, the eggs mature within the fig and produce male and female wasps. Wingless males fertilize the females and die, and the females emerge from the fig to restart the cycle. Thus the fig contains the remnants of the eggs and dead wasps. (RE: The Earth, It's Wonders, It's Secrets: NATURE'S MASTERPIECES, Reader's Digest Publication, pp99, 1994).

Very orthodox Jains do not eat even multi-seeded fruits and vegetables such as brinjal (egg plant) and guava. Such fruits and vegetables are often found to contain worms, although this may not be the case with the use of insecticides in farming. But what do the advocates of health food and environmental conservationists have to say about the use of insecticides and chemical fertilizers? Some years ago, this author personally carried out a controlled but informal experiment to affirm this. Very clean and smooth brinjal and guavas, with no mark or blemish on the outside and having no external evidence of a worm entering it were found to have hives of worms inside. On discussing this find with fellow biologists in academia, it was explained that certain insects lay their eggs in the flower that are sealed inside these fruits and vegetables and develop in to worms leaving no indication on the external surface. This is somewhat similar to the life cycle of the wasp in the fig. These days, although most Jains will eat such fruits and vegetables, they generally cut and carefully examine them before cooking, whereas the most common Indian method of cooking brinjal among other communities is to roast it whole, till it bursts with steam, and then prepare it for eating without any concern for worms inside, and how it may effect one's health.

Cauliflower and broccoli that have velvety surfaces are not consumed by orthodox Jains. Very tiny flee like flying insects that grow in and around the farms, get stuck on to their velvety surfaces, and can not be fully removed in spite of careful washing.

Mushrooms and fungus are not used by Jain families because they are said to grow under unhygienic conditions and are parasites. Honey, vinegar, molases and wine of course are a taboo. Vegetables, like jack fruit, that bleed on cutting and when prepared have the appearance of cooked meat are not very appetizing to most Jains.

Cabbage should be peeled layer by layer, each leaf cleaned and washed before cutting and cooking, because there may be insects and worms resident in between the leaves, although these days not many cut cabbage in this manner. Other leafy vegetables, such as spinach etc., should also be inspected and cleaned leaf-by-leaf to prepare for cooking and eating.


Food must be cooked and eaten during day-light hours only. Orthodox Jains do not cook or consume anything, even water, before sunrise or after sunset. Cooking food at night leads to the killing of various creatures by the fire. In ancient times when there were no adequate lighting such creatures could even be large ones such as birds, snakes, rodents, squirrels, lizards that could be hiding in the wood or coal. Insects that are attracted to fire could fall straight into the food. In modern times, where one may have bright lights for cooking at night, killing of insects attracted by light and their falling into the food still presents a strong possibility. Further more while eating at night, a number of insects are attracted to the smell of food and could easily become a part of ones food. In a different context, going to bed soon after late meals is not a good health practice. Eating before sunset, i.e., a couple of hours before going to bed does have relevance.

All food must be cooked fresh daily. Food cooked during the day light should be consumed within the same day, but cooked food left overnight is prohibited. There are various possibilities for such a guideline, for example to avoid the wastage of food as there were no refrigerators during ancient times, with inadequate storage facilities insects may crawl into the food left overnight, the sun's UV light acts as a protection against growth of bacteria in the food, but in the cold and darkness there could be rapid growth of bacteria or fungus perhaps not large enough to be visible to the eye. For the same reason, flour and spices should be ground fresh, and they and a number of other foods must be used within a specified period which depends on the season and the product. As an example ground spices and flour of any grain has a validity of 3 days during the rains, 5 days in summer and 7 days in winter. This practice also ensures freshness, flavor and good taste of these ingredients. How much more scientific could one get during ancient times, when we know that even in today's scientific world all food products on supermarket shelves, even though mostly chemically preserved, are marked with an expiry date.


Water must be filtered through three layers of home-spun cotton cloth. Cotton cloth, when wet behaves as a cotton pad; water passes through it by the process of surface tension, and not through gaps between fibres of the cloth as will be the case if one used cloth made of synthetic or vegetable fibre (synthetic fibers were perhaps unknown, but the vegetable fibres such as jute were known). This provides the most effective filtration of non-soluble, suspended contamination and of micro organisms, but will not remove the dissolved impurities. However, such contamination of water was almost unknown as there was no dumping of waste in rivers or other water bodies, and the use of insecticides in agriculture did not exist. Water, with its life-supporting attribute for all living beings and its importance in agriculture, was regarded with reverence. Even with the current crises of clean drinking water in most developing countries, filtering water through a thick cotton cloth provides a convenient and cheapest means for cleaning water for drinking and cooking, where other means are not available, and is practiced by most Jains even today. After filtering the water, the cloth should be rinsed in a river or well to return any living organism to its habitat. Can there be a better example of co-existence of human being with their environment even at the microbe level?

Jains are not Vegans. The use of dairy products is permitted provided they are procured and prepared as per the laid down rules. Before milking a cow, young calves, if any, should be allowed to suckle up to about one third of the expected yield. The milk should be heated within 48 minutes of milking, bringing it to three-boils, and consumed within 24 hours. Compare this to the modern pasteurization of milk at 65o for 30 minutes. Yoghurt is not allowed unless prepared daily, fresh from boiled milk, using the leaf of a certain plant and consumed within 24 hours. Using the previous day's yoghurt for the starter to set it is prohibited. Cheese ans yoghurt, as we know them today, even if vegetarian, shall be classified as stale, and hence not edible.


Jains are traditionally a trader community that deal in non-violent commodities, such as grains, clothes, jewels and gems etc. Trading in hides, horns, bones, ivory, silk and like animal products is strictly prohibited. Although violence in the line of occupation is allowed as an exception, such as farming, defending one's nation and the community at large, but that does not mean that one can open a butchery or run an abattoir. The trading occupation has made the Jain community a well-off society, with a 100% literacy rate and most living well above poverty line. It is for their non-violent ways of life, that till about 50 years ago, Jains rarely went to study and practice medicine, and to serve in armed forces, although they served amongst the high ranks of courtiers of states and kingdoms, and have been rulers themselves. It is because of their lifestyle that Jains did not migrate en-mass to other parts of the world till about 4 decades ago.


The Jain-concept of vegetarianism is a total, all encompassing principle of unconditional compassion and reverence for all life. Vegetarianism is not what is on your plate, it is a holistic lifestyle. It is not surprising, that a comparative study of religions presented at a world environment congress in the UK some years ago pronounced Jainism as the most environment friendly. It was stated that if the whole world could think and live the Jains' way, there would be no environmental problems and extinction of species. In modern times, globalization has shrunk the world to the size of a village. Jains have entered all professions, including medicine, have migrated to foreign lands in large numbers, and have been established as accomplished members of the communities which they serve. This may have brought about some degradation of Jain traditional values in India and abroad, however, vegetarianism still remains at the heart of most. Only time will tell which way such changes will steer the community.


Prof. Pushpendra K. Jain (popularly known as PK) is the Founder Chairman of the Vegetarian Society of Botswana (VSB), established in 1995. He is also the Regional Coordinator for Africa on the IVU Council since 1997. VSB, although a young and small Society, has been able to remain active. PK has contributed occasionally to IVU Newsletters, and to the World Congress in Thailand in 1999.

Born in a religious Jain family in Saharanpur, India in 1946, PK has been a vegetarian since birth. Educated in India and USA, PK holds a Ph.D. degree in Physics from the University of Connecticut. PK is an academic physicist and researcher, and has been working at the University of Botswana since 1987. He has also worked in India, USA and Zambia.

PK is married (1978) to Priti who holds a degree in Law and a Masters degree in Library Science and Information Technology (MLSI). She is working at the Botswana College of Agriculture Library. They have two daughters, Gauri (1981), Shilpi (1987) and a son, Shitesh (1989). PK is a member of a number of Professional Societies, Lions Club and Mensa International (UK).