Jain (Satvika) - Historical Background

Historical Background

When Mahavira revived and reorganized the Jain movement in the 6th or 5th century BCE, ahimsa was already an established, strictly observed rule. Parshva, a Tirthankara whom modern Western historians consider an historical figure, lived in about the 8th century BCE and founded a community to which Mahavira’s parents belonged. Parshva’s followers vowed to observe ahimsa; this obligation was part of their "Fourfold Restraint" (caujjama dhamma). Mahavira adopted it into his code of conduct.

In the times of Mahavira and in the following centuries, Jains criticized Buddhists and followers of the Vedic religion or Hindus for negligence and inconsistency in the implementation of ahimsa. In particular, they strongly objected to the Vedic tradition of animal sacrifice with subsequent meat-eating and to the hunting.

Early Buddhism discouraged eating animals that were slaughtered for the purpose of eating. The Buddha declared:

... meat should not be eaten under three circumstances: when it is seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); these, Jivaka, are the three circumstances in which meat should not be eaten, Jivaka! I declare there are three circumstances in which meat can be eaten: when it is not seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); Jivaka, I say these are the three circumstances in which meat can be eaten.

Jivaka Sutta, MN 55


In the Tamil classic Tirukkuṛaḷ, Valluvar, who is regarded to be a Jain by some scholars, criticizes the Buddhists for accepting the same of meat:

256 If the world did not purchase and consume meat, no one would slaughter and offer meat for sale.

Some Brahmins - Kashmiri Pandits, Bengali Brahmins and Saraswat Brahmins - have traditionally eaten meat (primarily seafood). However in regions with strong Jain influence such as Rajasthan and Gujarat, or strong Jain influence in the past such as Tamil Nadu, Brahmins are strict vegetarians. Bal Gangadhar Tilak has described Jainism as the originator of Ahimsa. He wrote in a letter:

In ancient times, innumerable animals were butchered in sacrifices. Evidence in support of this is found in various poetic compositions such as the Meghaduta. But the credit for the disappearance of this terrible massacre from the Brahminical religion goes to Jainism.

Some Western authors have interpreted the texts in different way to show that ancient Jain ascetics accepted meat as alms if the animal had not been specifically killed for them. If this is correct then they applied the same standard as early Buddhists. Some passages in two of the earliest Svetambara Jain texts, the Acaranga Sutra and the Dasaveyaliya, have been interpreted as regulations for specific types of meat and bones which were considered to be acceptable alms. This can also be interpreted at references to fruits and seeds. Another Svetambara text, the Viyahapannatti, tells a story where Mahavira himself eats kutkutmansa, which may be interpreted as meat of a cock. Medieval Jain commentators of these passages interpreted them in the literal meaning, but also mentioned the opinion that the offensive words had different meanings, some of which did not refer to animals and hence was compatible with vegetarianism. Jains, who are strict vegetarians, do not accept the interpretations of Western scholars.

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