Reflections of a Jain Carnivore

Hand with wheel in palm symbolizing Jain vow of Ahimsa

This is from Semil Shah, a great guy who married my cousin Sara. He is of Indian descent and was born in the U.S. and raised in a strictly vegetarian Jain home. I’ve been interested in this ancient Indian religion since I learned that not only are Jains strict vegetarians, they run animal shelters all over India! I wanted Semil’s take on meat-eating (he’s now a full-fledged carnivore); here’s what he wrote:

The opening line of Wikipedia’s entry on Jainism lays out its high ambitions: “Jainism… prescribes a path of nonviolence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice rely mainly on self-effort to progress the soul up the spiritual ladder to divine consciousness.” Vegetarianism is so deeply ingrained in Jainism that its orthodox subscribers do not even eat root vegetables like potatoes and garlic because worms and other organisms are harmed during their excavation.

That means no home fries, homies!

Jainism as faith, and its own brand of vegetarianism, are based on a path of nonviolence, or ahimsa, which means “no harm.” This term has been famously and effectively politicized by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King. Both built movements by invoking a path of nonviolence as a means of protest through civil disobedience.

In the same way that Gandhi and King drew on ahimsa for political movements, Jain immigrants to the U.S. (like my parents) tried to instill in their children a food-related path of nonviolence as well. One can’t fault them for this; it’s very likely that I will also impose some food rules on my children, like not eating at McDonald’s!

Even in India today, it’s somewhat hard to be a vegetarian Jain in modern times. The food production chain in India–from origin to table to mouth–is changing rapidly. New industrial processes are forming: machine manufacturing, refrigeration, organized retail. In India, which is becoming more urban, “eating Jain” is going to become very tough, very expensive, or both.

Being a vegetarian Jain in the United States is, naturally, even more difficult. Only in the last one or two decades have vegetarian options become more mainstream at restaurants. Surely with enough willpower and disgust for meat, anyone can be vegetarian, but most of those folks probably couldn’t go the extra mile to give up root vegetables. Even most Jains in the U.S. admittedly wouldn’t want to give that up.

At age eight, I finally elected to break my faith in a truly American way–at Burger King.

After watching so many friends eat fast food, I was chomping at the bit to get in the game. The irony is that my uncle, who had just immigrated to America, worked at the Burger King. I remember that day: my friend from the neighborhood and I walked down to the BK. My uncle wasn’t working that day; I had finally gotten permission from my folks. I ordered a hamburger. I had a taste of it and finally satisfied my curiosity and appetite. I liked it. The first experiment was a success.

Since that day, I have been a carnivore, but without any dilemma. At that age, the intensity of my curiosity completely outshone any personal, faith-based reservations I had about breaking with tradition. Since the Burger King episode, I have never once wondered if I had made the right decision to venture into carnivorous eating. There was no Carnivore’s Dilemma, even in hindsight. The only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.

I believe that the strictness in Jain vegetarianism propelled me in the opposite direction and made me interested in all types of food. Eventually, over the years, I actually become a cook at a professional level. Since “going carnivore,” I have tasted and/or cooked a wide variety of meats and game: roast bear, alligator, insects, and even a shot of cobra heart in its own blood, like any good Indian would dream of. My exposure to Jainism seeded my curiosity about eating meat, rather than repressing it.

Good, strict religion is excellent for rebellion, right?

7 thoughts on “Reflections of a Jain Carnivore

  1. Hi Semil,

    Thanks for your post.

    Clearly, strictly enforced religious views lead to rebellion… but I am curious about your extreme rebellion!

    If your family had been more open, if you had been able to ask questions, discuss your doubts about the extremism and dialogue about the merits of a vegetarian lifestyle, do you think you might be a vegetarian today? Do you think there is any merit at all to the Jain philosophy of ahimsa?

    From a non-fundamentalist vegetarian,

  2. Sunita, hello. You raise a great point. I’m sure you’re right, actually. I think at that age (8 years old), peer pressure and the rules “against” where just too strong. But beyond that, it’s taste. I like the taste. I don’t know if I was capable of a dialog at age 8. Probably not. On your broader question about the value of “ahimsa,” absolutely. It’s an amazing concept and simple, and clearly can be used in many different ways. -Semil

  3. Semil,
    Taste – yes, I too ate meat until the age of 16, and liked some of it a lot. But there are so many things we don’t do just because we love to. All of us make decisions to abstain from pleasures for some larger good. I don’t think its the taste, but rather that you haven’t been convinced that vegetarianism (or ahimsa) is for the larger good.
    And on another note, I have 3 sons, ages 15, 12 and 2, and all are capable of dialogue and conviction–not always coinciding with mine!

  4. I always believed that people should do whatever they want to but do it openly and honestly. Becoming a carnivore is a personal choice & is not a great thing to be so proud of!

    Jainism is a body of ideology and people believing in it only should follow it. Just like political parties…if you don’t like the philosophy of Jainism…please don’t associate yourself with that. Changing surname could be a good start :)

    I’m just 28 and have been out of India for a while (in fact seen most countries abroad) now but never felt a pressure to surrender to the temptations of eating non-veg. I guess, abstinence is core of Jainism and those who talk about its difficult to survive in US/UK etc. being veggie…I think its crap and reflection of low self control. But that’s just my personal view.

    I wish author best of luck in his experimentations (tasting for experimentation is different from making it a habit).

  5. @Kapil, I feel proud to read your perfectly expressed reply! I have always thought of jainism highly and being living in a family of ‘not orthodox’ Jains, I know Jainism is not just about being herbivorous. Its about abstaining oneself. Everyone has the right to find his own path to self realization. Then, it is never difficult for them to give up their ideals for ephemeral pleasures like ‘taste’….

    @Semil, Well, I don’t mean to offend you or your eating habits, but if you consider Kapil to be disillusioned, I only wanto to ask – Are you enlightened?

    Think over it.

    You shouldn’t anyhow, call yourself a Jain Carnivore in the first place, as you never believed in Jainism… (You yielded to the peer pressure and the surroundings at an early age of 8.. and never bothered to find out the true value of Jaininsm.)

  6. Neha, reading your “holier-than-thou” comments confirms for me why I made my own personal choices rather than subscribing to some arbitrary world view. People like you and the other commentators above are so myopic and brainwashed that you couldn’t understand why someone brought up within a certain philosophy choose to break free from it. For me, maybe “taste” isn’t ephemeral, right? Based on your flawed logic, I presume you think it’s OK for females born into Mormon Fundamentalist families to have their virginity stripped away at age 13 by their father’s friends?

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