Animal Rights and Plant Based Diets: Short-Lived Fad or Longstanding Tradition?

By Brett Evans

Increasing numbers of Americans are becoming aware of the violence that our industrial food system inflicts upon humans, nonhumans, and the environment.

Contemporary bestsellers like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Peter Singer's Animal Liberation have all become foundational texts in the growing movements that are responding critically to these pressing issues. Pollan and Schlosser are frequently noted as visionary leaders of slow food and food justice campaigns and Singer has been widely hailed as a "father" of animal rights and plant-based diets.

But did these movements really start with these individuals? I believe that it is imperative to the success of our food and ethical movements to recognize that influential traditions have preceded us. With this knowledge, we can seek historical support in the face of the many pundits who wish to relegate important concepts like plant-based diets to sentimentalist fads of the post-modern era.

As our species increasingly remembers its connection with the more-than-human world, and we seek to (re)develop ethical responses to widespread violence and suffering, Jain traditions can serve as one source of this historical support. In particular, I believe that Jainism can be looked to for proof of concept.

A small but significant religion of Indian origin, Jainism has anchored itself upon the central tenet of ahimsa (nonviolence) for at least 2500 years and Jain communities have extended this principle in ways that are largely unfamiliar to, and perhaps uncomfortable for, many outsiders.

While this religion is radically different from most western traditions, the principles found in Jainism are critical to our shared future. One essential extension of ahimsa is what may be Jains' most conspicuous practice: vegetarianism, a diet practiced by both lay and monastic (i.e., monks and nuns) Jains from the religion's inception to present.

So, while the majority of westerners believe vegetarianism to be a mostly recent phenomenon, Jains know this is not the case. For those who hear about the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism and consider them infeasible, short-lived trends, we might be reassured by knowledge of this longstanding tradition.

During the last three years, as part of undergraduate advanced research programs at Elon University in North Carolina, I spent a total of seven months living and studying with Jains in North and South India, focusing on the strands of compassion for animals present in these communities.

Over this period, I visited dozens of panjrapoles--Jain animal sanctuaries that have been found in the historical record as early as the 3rd century BCE--throughout the northwest Indian state of Gujarat. The sanctuaries I studied housed anywhere from several hundred to thousands of primarily farm animals who are cared for due to their illness, old-age, or other needs. I toured these facilities and spoke with their managers and supporters, exploring enduring institutions whose parallels in the West emerged only in the 20th century.

I also rode around for several days on the Jain-managed Animal Helpline ambulances that serve sick and injured street animals in the city of Rajkot, joined Jain activists who patrolled highways for illegal animal smugglers, and met with Jain lawyers who volunteer their time through animal law clinics.

In addition to these activists' commitments, I also witnessed many practices of compassion that had been incorporated into Jain daily life. In each temple, among other boxes set aside for charitable donations, there was always one for animal welfare. Everywhere, there were bird feeders: large ones, small ones, old ones, new ones; those that belonged to communities and those maintained by individuals and families. And, during the three months I lived with a Jain family, I watched my host mother give the first chappati (an Indian flat bread) to the family dog each day.

Importantly, these Jain charitable and ethical endeavors were undertaken alongside, not instead of, many efforts oriented towards humans, resulting in an expanded circle of accountability and responsiveness to those around them.

Jain communities, which also operate an astounding number of human hospitals and clinics, hunger relief operations, and emergency response organizations, demonstrate that empathy and service are not zero-sum games wherein we must consider only those most like us.

Instead, Jains have taken a broader approach that is founded upon one of their most core concepts: parasparopagraho jivanam (all life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence). I highlight these traditions not in order to advocate conversion or that we should strive to exactly replicate Jain practices in our own communities. Rather, I hope to show what Jainism has helped me to see: that other, more compassionate and less violent worlds are possible; in fact, they are here now if we only look for them.

Brett Evans recently graduated magna cum laude from Elon University with a major in Religious Studies. While at Elon, his research on socially engaged Jainism was published in three peer-reviewed journals. He is currently employed as the manager of Elon's Loy Farm and Community Garden and a teaching assistant for a food and nutrition course taught as part of Elon Academy, a college access program for underprivileged high school students.