Jainism is a religion with some of the most extreme dietary restrictions in the world: no animals, dairy, root vegetables, honey, or booze. But the ritual of santhara—a vow of voluntary death by fasting—is one of the most controversial components of...
Jains meditating. Photo via Wiki Commons
In prehistoric times, humans had to hunt for dinner with big rocks—or run away from it when it didn’t die off—if they wanted to survive another day. Fast-forward to the modern universe, and we’re almost effortlessly sourcing meals thanks to the aid of technology, from microwaves to ovens and refrigerators that fuel our gluttonous lives. But despite the world of #foodporn on Instagram and food bloggers who like to showboat the latest food trends, there are many global communities of great gustatory self-restraint with strict dietary disciplines.
Whether it’s because of political or ethical motivations, a concern over health and longevity, some highly questionable sanity, an eating disorder, or the neurotic habits of the modern eater, humans—myself included—are notorious for self-imposing restrictions on what we put into our bodies. But one of the most notable motivations for food restrictions stems from religious beliefs.
Piety is all up in our food in terms of influence, with nearly 84 percent of the global population practicing some sort of religion whose principal texts instruct dietary restriction. Aside from the degree to which these restrictions are followed or still seen as relevant, most religions of the world banish certain foods. The looser side of nutritional rules falls into the range of Christianity and Mormonism, while Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism come with tighter sanctions.
But while keeping kosher, halal, or vegetarian may sound over-the-top to some, there is one particular religion that surpasses all the others in the art of saying "hell no" to deliciousness. Known as Jainism, it’s a faith so extreme in its dietary restrictions that it makes all the primary global religions—even those with the strictest of dietary rules—look like a culinary free-for-all.
Jainism is one of the oldest and most ascetically extreme India-based religions in the world, with a current practicing population of about 5 million people. The name itself comes from the Sanskrit word Jin, meaning to conquer, and speaks to the Jains’ continual struggle to conquer all bodily needs, sensations, and worldly attachments, which eventually results in moksha (enlightenment) if you stick to the plan. Moksha breaks them out of the cycle of rebirth so that they don’t have to keep getting reborn over and over again into this shitty world. Jain philosophy also stresses the importance of ahimsa, or non-violence, to all living, karmic beings, in order to achieve moksha. But Jains believe that everything is a karmic being—essentially having a soul or whatever. This includes bugs, plants, root vegetables, and microorganisms.
Jain hierarchy of beings via Wiki Commons
So when you mix a combination of extreme asceticism, extreme non-violence, and an all-inclusive karmic cycle that even maggots get to be a part of, it results in the world’s most intense diet ever.
This means no meat, no fish, no eggs, no garlic or onions or any other root vegetables, no honey (which is seen as violence against bees), no alcohol, no fermented foods (it’s violent against microorganisms), no unfiltered water (it may have small organisms in it), no mushrooms, no fungus, and no yeast.
For stricter Jainism, there is the additional restriction of avoiding food consumption at night. And consuming any food that has been left out overnight is a no-no because this is violence against microorganisms or small bugs that may now be hanging out in the leftovers. Don’t even think about trying to look at the dairy group.
Shrimad Rajcandra, Jain and mentor to Mahatma Gandhi. Photo via Wiki Commons
Jain eating habits read as an exercise in saying no, because eating anything on the “do not eat” list equals negative karmic points. Besides the basic items that Jains are allowed to eat, their diet is made even more extreme by limiting themselves to eating only enough food to sustain human life, as well as the 30-plus types of partial and total fasting—from the eight-day to the 180-day fast—which act as a killer cleanse for your soul.
But the most extreme part of all Jain religious dietary restriction is the practice of santhara, a religious vow of voluntary death by fasting.
Currently undertaken by an estimated 200 Jains per year—typically by the elderly, ill, or those who have surpassed worldly attachment—this fatal fasting is seen as a blessed approach to purifying the body. The effort is undertaken to purge negative karma and achieve moksha. With their prolonged death—a product of complete fasting from all food and water—the individual has ample time to meditate, release all physical and emotional attachment, and come to death in a peaceful manner while being surrounded by fellow Jains who chant and sing over them.
Recently, there has been a debate about whether santhara should be considered suicide or a form of euthanasia, both of which are illegal in India. But talks of making this practice illegal continue to be challenged as an unconstitutional violation of religious freedoms by Jains. It seems that, for now, the right to santhara—and an almost martyr-like death—is legally protected, which means that microorganisms and maggots are safe from consumption, at least within the Jain community.