In the Web of Life, Jain Religion Reveres Even the Tiniest Forms


Just inside the entrance to the Jain Center in Buena Park, a spider edges down a silky strand of web on a cubbyhole where visitors place their shoes. Of all the places in the world to weave a web, this spider has chosen well.

Adherents of the Jain religion revere even the tiniest of lives, down to the most microscopic of beings. It is a reverence that requires strict vegetarianism, what Dr. Manibhai Mehta calls an essential part of his religion's theology of ahimsa, the rejection of violence to living beings either through thoughts, words or actions. Mehta, a 59-year-old urologist, is president of the Federation of Jain Assns. in North America, an organization of about 90,000 members and 52 centers in the United States and Canada. The Buena Park temple, the only one in Southern California, has a membership of about 700 families, he said.

"We don't want to kill any living beings. We don't eat any meat, we don't eat fish--none of the living things," he said. "Though we believe vegetables also have life, that is the least conscious level of life."

Some Jains, including Mehta, will not eat root vegetables because they are capable of continued, sustainable life. He won't eat bread made with yeast. And all food must be freshly prepared to limit the number of microbes that are consumed. No leftovers.

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Although Jainism is one of the smaller religions of India, its followers are considered the country's most rigorous vegetarians. It is the faith that inspired Mohandas K. Gandhi to employ nonviolence and fasting in his fight against British colonial rule, Mehta said.

"He was a pure vegetarian and a strict believer of nonviolence," he said. "When the fight was going on in India, he wanted a peaceful solution. He was greatly influenced by the Jain religion."

Jainism, rooted in the 6th century, is an offshoot of Hinduism with about 2 million followers. It is traced back to an ascetic named Mahavira, who is said to have founded the religion at the time of Buddhism's beginnings.

But Jains believe the religion to be eternal, with no beginning and no end. Followers consider Mahavira the 24th patriarch of Jainism, Mehta said.

Through a kind of spiritual evolution, he said, humans have worked their way up from a lower order of beings and have been granted the opportunity of attaining moksha, a release from endless reincarnations into a higher realm of existence.

"We have been given this spiritual and intellectual life, to know what is good and what is bad. But if you still keep doing bad things, like killing animals, then there won't be any attainment. You may be born again as an ant, a tiger--whatever."

Even the unintentional killing of a creature, no matter how small, can create bad karma, Mehta said. If ants invade his home, they are treated with respect.

"If they are on the sidewalk, we will try to walk around them. If they are in the house, we try to sweep them slowly into a dust pan and put them outside. We won't kill them."

For Mehta, raised in the religion by his shopkeeper parents in India, the pursuit of a medical career has presented challenges to his religious practices. He was forced to dissect animals as part of his medical training. And as a physician, he is often called upon to do battle with assorted viruses and bacteria, even though his religion considers them living beings, entitled to life.

"It becomes a question of whether you want to save the patient, which is a bigger life and has more to do in this life, or the small creatures. You have to choose between the two," he said.

"Monks won't take antibiotics. They will let the sickness go away by itself."

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Mehta begins a typical day with a breakfast of chapati, an unleavened bread made fresh each day by his wife, and a cup of tea. He eats a salad or vegetarian sandwich for lunch, and rice, beans and vegetables are staples for dinner. "When I joined Kaiser Hospital in 1974, in our meetings they usually got pizza, or something that had meat in it. So I said: 'If you are going to have a meeting here at the hospital, you should have something vegetarian.' Now they always have either a vegetarian pizza or salad, or something like that."

While Mehta is happy to be an influence on the lives of others, he does not proselytize.

"Each person has to go into it, work it out and do the best he can," he said. "We don't tell everybody to become vegetarian. We will never go from door to door to tell everybody to become Jain. It has to come from within, from your own mind, from your own conscience."

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