Vegetarianism Divided this Village

In religiously-contentious India, a surprising new battleground

Jain Temple in Palitana. Photo by Kalpeshzala59 via Wikimedia Commons

This summer, Palitana, a town of 50,000 people in the coastal lobe of northwest India’s Gujarat state, announced it would officially become a completely vegetarian municipality. No meat can be slaughtered, sold, or harbored, no eggs can be collected, and no fish can be caught within its borders. Since then, the city has gained an international reputation as the world’s top veggie city, trouncing the American and European cities that once billed themselves as the best spots for meatless mavens to visit.

But Palitana’s transformation wasn’t just a snap-of-the-fingers ethical decision. It was a religious one—the result of a long battle by India’s 4-to-5-million-strong Jain minority. And the imposition on the city has caused a fury in the town’s meat-eating, non-Jain quarters. Hopefully the city will be able to strike a balance, respecting Jain culture and faith without impinging on the rights of others, as they work out their civil discord in local councils and courts. And maybe when the smoke clears they’ll be able to keep their international, tourist-drawing veggie acclaim as well.

The Jains involved in Palitana’s veggie transformation are one of the world’s oldest but least known religious faiths. They believe their faith, lacking in gods or prophets, rests upon the wisdom and guidance of a series of enlightened individuals, the twenty-fourth and latest of whom, Mahavira, delivered the bulk of the Jain’s modern scriptures in India in the 6th century B.C. These teachings prescribe a life free of material attachment, lying, stealing, sexual indulgence, and violence—the last point being taken so far that the Jains avoid killing any living creature, including bugs, which the most devout brush from their path on the ground as they walk. So a strict vegetarian diet is a core of their faith.

And Palitana is their holy city. Its nearby mountains are pilgrimage sites for all Jains, as are the hundreds of temples and shrines in the town and throughout the nearby foothills. In recognition of the holiness of the site, the Jains have long wished to see their traditions institutionalized and enforced in the area.

Years ago, the government recognized Jains’ right to enforce their religious rules in and around core pilgrimage sites and routes leading to the Taleti region of Palitana. But in 2012, Jain ascetics claimed that bans on animal slaughter were not being enforced, and in a radical move, threatened self-immolation if the state did not approve a wider and better enforced ban on meats and butchering in their religious areas. The ban was soon granted, creating several 100-meter vegetarian zones. But this summer, local Jains took their demands further, launching a four-day, 300-man hunger strike to demand the extension of these zones to the whole city.

Jain Temples in Palitana. Photo by Pratap Tur via Wikimedia Commons

Many might think it was unreasonable for the Jains to try to enforce their religious ideals on the secular ordinances of the city of Palitana. But they didn’t pull the demand out of nowhere. Many smaller towns in India, and cities of equal or greater size, like Haridwar, Uttarakhand, and Katra, Jammu and Kashmir, have long banned meat in recognition Hindu religious traditions. In 2009, two men were even arrested for carrying beef in Haridwar. Love it or hate it, such religious protection via state enforcement is a part of Indian life.

This precedent doesn’t mean everyone in Palitana has taken the transition well, though. The city has a twenty-five percent Muslim population (about the same size as Haridwar’s Muslim population), who cry foul, saying the ordinance forbids them from practicing their own religious rituals involving animal sacrifice—not to mention the fact that it’ll close down dozens of butcher’s shops and fish mongers. Jain insistence on the ban in spite of the sizeable Muslim minority’s protests have led Indian blogger Sanjeec Sabhlok to compare them to the Taliban.

The Jains of Palitana have offered to compensate Muslim merchants and fishermen for their losses. But these aggrieved groups are seeking the annulment or modification of the law in court. And it seems entirely possible that their discontent will bubble up in black markets for meat, all the more troubling to the city’s religious majority. These struggles will, hopefully, push a compromise between the two factions, bringing the Jains the respect and space they desire to practice their faith without infringing on the rights of Muslims. And when that compromise arrives, it may still leave Palitana an especially holy and culinary distinct city, which brings its perks not just for the devout, but for merchants making a buck off of this international reputation. That’s all the more motivation to reach an amicable truce, which would itself be a heartening and welcome development in the all-too-often religiously contentious India.

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