Are Jains Vegan? What do Jain Scriptures Say About Dairy?

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Are Jains Vegan? What do Jain Scriptures Say About Dairy?
By Christopher Miller, PhD

With a community commitment to a lacto-vegetarian diet that spans millennia, Jains have long been the torchbearers of dietary non-violence. While a simple dietary commitment like vegetarianism may seem trivial to some, animal agriculture and the food it produces have massive and underrated harms on our climate, environment, human health, and, of course, for the lives of billions of animals annually. Therefore, by cutting out meat, eggs, and honey from their diet as lacto-vegetarian Jains typically do, Jains significantly reduce their impact in all of these areas.


In more recent times, however, dairy consumption itself has become a more open and debated practice both globally and within the Jain community. As my colleague Jonathan Dickstein and I showed a few years back, with their vows to non-violence, compassion, and other spiritual commitments in mind, Jains of all ages are indeed rethinking dairy in light of the devastating, scientifically proven harms that dairy production causes toward mother cows and their babies, the climate and environment, and human health


The question as to whether or not Jains should consume dairy has indeed become a hot debate in recent years, as many Jains continue to advocate for the continued consumption of dairy for a number of reasons (and despite all the aforementioned harms involved in modern dairy production). Though Jains advocating for dairy make a number of defensive arguments for continuing to do so, I will focus here on just one argument they use to avoid the cognitive dissonance that emerges when they are considering whether or not they should drop dairy from their diets: the cultural argument. 


To put it simply, the cultural argument goes something like this: “Jains have always consumed dairy, and dairy is okay to consume in our scriptures, so why can’t we consume dairy?” 


As an ethnographer of religion, I start from the assumption that cultures, religious or otherwise, can and do change through history to adapt to their times. A major part of my training has been to track how religious cultures change to adapt, with particular focus on the Jain tradition. 


A central component of this cultural change involves, for many religious communities, a reinterpretation of their religious scriptures, and the Jains have been no exception as Jain advocates for giving up dairy as well as Jains advocating for dairy’s continued consumption both draw from their scriptural traditions to make their arguments. 


But are these claims true, and what do Jain scriptures tell us about dairy consumption? And can Jain tradition change?


Dairy in Jain Texts

Jains have historically consumed dairy, and Jain texts do indeed in many cases include dairy among their permitted foods, and do not necessarily include dairy in lists of prohibited foods. However, it is important to highlight that when these scriptures were written, industrial dairy and its harms did not exist, and so the concern with dairy was not as dire and important as it is today for Jains.


Furthermore, there are particular prohibitions of dairy in Jain texts that are both direct and implied, especially when we consider what some of these texts might mean if we want to apply their spirit and teachings in today’s complex world. I will provide us here with just two examples to show us that dairy was both directly, and indirectly in spirit, prohibited in some Jain scriptures.


Direct Prohibitions of Dairy in Jain Scriptures

A number of influential Jain ascetics (both monks and nuns) in India have begun to encourage Jains to give up dairy. Sadhvi Vaibhavshree, for example, makes a compelling case for giving up dairy according to Jain scriptures (I thank veganjains.com for this reference).


Sadhviji points us to the ancient Śvetāmbara Uttarādhyayanasūtra, a fundamental and authoritative Jain scripture (mūla-sūtra) from which Jain ascetics learn the basics about Jain teachings. In this text, there is a particularly critical prohibition of dairy in a lecture about the qualities of a “bad śramaṇa” (bad ascetic, from Prakrit: pāva-samaṇe), said to be the words of Mahāvīra himself


“He who eats milk, curds, and other things produced from milk, and does not practice austerities, is called a bad sramaṇa” (Uttarādhyayanasūtra 17.15, Jacobi trans.)


A śramaṇa is an ascetic on the spiritual path whose aim is to purify themselves from karma. Here, the text is describing tempting activities that would work directly against this spiritual path. Dairy, as we find, is one such central temptation. 


So much so, in fact, that along with the other activities listed, the text concludes that those monks who engage in the consumption of dairy and participate in other spiritually determinantal activities are, in fact,


“…like the heretics… who though having the appearance (of a monk) is the lowest among his worthy brethren, is despised in this world like poison; he is nobody in this world and in that beyond. 


But he who always avoids these sins, and is pious amongst his brethren, is welcomed in this world like nectar; he conquers this world and the next. Thus I say.” (Uttarādhyayanasūtra 17.20-21, Jacobi trans.)


These are very strong words, believed by some Jains, once again, to actually be the words of Mahāvīra himself. They clearly admonish the consumption of dairy for any serious spiritual seeker on the Jain path. These words, taken from an ancient Śvetāmbara root scripture (mūla-sūtra), are also the earliest, clearest and most direct admonishments of dairy I have found in a Jain text. 


But there are other Jain scriptures directly prohibiting at least some of the derivatives of dairy, and from the Digambara tradition as well. I discovered these and other sources while watching a video interview of Akshat Jain and Nitin Jain, both of whom were interviewed by Vignesh Manjeshwar at YV Care in India regarding Jain scriptural approaches to dairy.


For example, in Digambara Amritachandra’s Puruṣārthasiddhyupāya, a 10th c. CE Sanskrit text, we find written:


“Honey, alcohol, butter, and meat [are] the great degenerative substances (mahā-vikṛti) renounced by a holder of vows. In them [arise] living organisms of the lowest order. They are not to be eaten.” (v. 71, my translation)


Here we see that “butter,” a derivative of milk, is listed among other harmful substances including meat, honey, and alcohol, all of which are “renounced by a holder of vows.” Given the centrality of not only butter but also other milk derivatives including ghee in the Jain diet, Amritachandra’s decree that the foods listed here “are not to be eaten” carries much significance for thinking about contemporary Jain eating habits. 


It is also important to highlight that the dairy industry is a slaughter industry, and so by consuming dairy, one directly contributes to the killing of mother cows and their babies for meat, which Amritachandra also forbids here.


Similar prohibitions of dairy and its derivatives due to their being considered vikṛti/vigai (degenerative) occurs in other Jain scriptures, though for the sake of space and time I turn our attention now to some of the implied prohibitions of dairy in Jain scriptures.


Implied Prohibitions of Dairy in Jain Scriptures

In addition to these direct prohibitions of dairy and its derivatives, Jain texts also provide guidance for how animals should be treated with an ethos of non-harming and compassion. 


Amritachandra, from whom we heard in the previous section, also notes regarding the treatment of animals that:


“The five transgressions of desisting from gross harm [are]: cutting off limbs, binding, afflicting, mounting with an excessive burden, and withholding of food” (v. 71, my translation)


Umasvati’s earlier Tattvārthasūtra (5th c. CE) makes a nearly identical plea, indicating that “tethering, beating, piercing the skin, overloading, and withholding food and drink” are the five transgressions of Jains’ vow to non-harming (ahiṃsā) (Tatia 2011, v. 7.19-7.20/SS 7.24-7.25). Since Jains are committed to non-harming, they are to avoid causing the five kinds of harm Amritachandra and Umasvati list here, which routinely occur in the dairy industry globally



In light of these concerns, many Jains express the hope that milk can be produced at its current industrial scale in a non-harmful way. Unfortunately, this is impossible. The idea that we can somehow create “sāttvic” or  “ahiṃsā” dairy at any capacity, as my colleague Hope Bohanec points out, is a myth. Dairy cannot be produced without causing harm to mother cows, father cows, their offspring, the environment, and the climate. All dairy causes significant and often unimaginable harm, and the production of dairy thereby directly contradicts the spirit of the Jain tradition’s commitment to ahiṃsā.


But to answer a question I posed earlier, yes, cultures can and do change, and many Jains are giving up dairy and becoming vegan for all of the reasons mentioned in this article, and more. In doing so they ensure that their tradition continues to serve as the model of non-harming and compassion they have aspired to be for the world through the centuries, expressing through daily action their commitments to animal wellbeing, avoiding climate change, protecting the environment, and maintaining human wellbeing. These Jains show humanity not only what is possible, but also what is ethical and necessary, in our shared times of global uncertainty.



Christopher Jain Miller, the co-founder and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Arihanta Institute, completed his PhD in the study of Religion at the University of California, Davis. His current research focuses on Modern Yoga and Engaged Jainism. Christopher is the author of a number of articles and book chapters concerned with Jainism and the practice of modern yoga. 


If you are interested in learning more about Animal Advocacy & Biodiversity at the intersection of Jain Philosophy, History & Anthropology, Professor Miller teaches several self-paced, online courses, including: