Why Don’t Jains Eat Root Vegetables?

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Why Don’t Jains Eat Root Vegetables?
By Jonathan Dickstein, PhD

The traditional Jain diet excludes root vegetables such as onions, garlic, potatoes, and carrots. But why? Why do Jains avoid these vegetables and opt for others instead? 


Jain dietary guidelines are rather complex and are not identical for ascetics and laypeople. However, a few basic points can clarify the culinary landscape. First, Jain ethics, including food ethics, is governed by the principle of nonharming (ahiṃsā). One’s thoughts, words, and actions should always strive to minimize the suffering (duḥkha) inflicted on other ensouled organisms. Second, all ensouled organisms have at least the sense of touch (sparśa) and are thus capable of experiencing suffering. Third, microbes (nigodas), “elemental organisms” (e.g., water-bodied organisms/āpo-kāyikas) and plants (vanaspati-kāyikas) are inhabited by at least one soul (jīva). Viewed together, these three points generate a concern for causing harm (hiṃsā) not only to humans and other animals, but to plants and microscopic organisms as well. 


However, it is impossible to live without causing some harm to other organisms, especially in the process of feeding oneself to survive. As a result, one additional point guides both ascetics and laypeople in their dietary practices. This fourth point asserts that the more senses an organism has, and/ or the more souls that an organism contains, the worse it is—ethically and karmically speaking—to harm that organism. Since all animals (trasa) have at least two-senses and all plants (and microscopic organisms; sthāvara) have only one-sense, then according to the first clause of this point, it is worse to harm animals to nourish oneself than it is to harm plants to nourish oneself. As a result, both ascetics and laypeople refrain from eating animals due to the greater ethical severity of harming them compared to that of harming plants.


Still, if the relevant ethical distinction is between animals and plants, and all plants have only one sense, then what is the difference between harming, killing, and eating root vegetables compared to other vegetables? Why the distinction between types of vegetables?


The reasoning behind this distinction is threefold: 


First, and most significantly, while all plant-bodied souls have only one sense, some plants are inhabited by one soul (pratyeka śarīras) while others are inhabited by many souls (sādhāraṇa śarīras/ananta-kāyas). According to the second clause of the fourth point above, it is worse to harm an organism that is inhabited by many souls compared to an organism inhabited by only one soul. As such, the latter category of many-souled plants is included—amongst other edibles—in traditional Jain lists of forbidden foods (abhakṣyas). By the time of the Jain monk Nemicandra (9th century CE), a list of thirty-two plants inhabited by many souls had apparently become conventional, and this list includes root vegetables. Root vegetables are not the only type of vegetable listed among the ananta-kāyas, but their inclusion results in a prohibition against the consumption of vegetables such as onions, garlic, potatoes, and carrots.


Second, while it is impossible to avoid all forms of harm, killing is typically regarded as the worst form of harm and should be avoided with more vigilance than other forms of harm. The process of harvesting root vegetables for consumption requires uprooting and killing the entire plant, a process (theoretically) unnecessary in the manipulation of other plants such as fruits, nuts, and leaves. As such, it is preferable to consume plants that do not need to be killed in the process of extracting nourishment for oneself.


Third, the process of harvesting root vegetables invariably requires distressing the earth in which these vegetables are embedded and grow. Not only does uprooting disturb one-sensed, earth-bodied organisms (pṛthvī-kāyikas), but it also harms and kills the many insects and other two (and more)-sensed organisms present in the soil around these vegetables. Therefore, the prohibition against root vegetables considers both the welfare of the plants themselves and that of surrounding organisms. 


Does this mean that all Jains, including both ascetics and laypeople, refrain from consuming root vegetables?


Jain ascetics take a great vow (mahāvrata) of nonharming, a vow that requires minimizing harm to all organisms, including one-sensed organisms. As such, the prohibition against root vegetables is rigidly followed by Jain monks and nuns, as is the practice of avoiding harm to elemental and microscopic organisms. By contrast, the lesser vow (anuvrata) of nonharming adopted by laypeople focuses specifically on minimizing harm to organisms with two or more senses, that is, animals. This is the reason why vegetarianism is the most conspicuous and ubiquitous feature of the Jain diet, both ascetic and lay. However, the ascetic diet still remains the ideal diet in Jainism, and many lay Jains also refrain from consuming root vegetables to work towards this ideal.



Jonathan Dickstein, Assistant Professor at Arihanta Institute, completed his PhD in Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He specializes  in South Asian Religions, Animals and Religion, and Comparative Ethics. His current work focuses on Jainism and contemporary ecological issues, extending into Critical Animal Studies, Food Studies, and Diaspora Studies. 


Professor Dickstein's course Jain Approaches to Animal Sentience is available now in the self-paced, online course catalogue. 


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