Read transcript of Ep 1: Ahimsa

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Indian music, broadcast over small tinny speakers]

Ian McDonald:

We’re travelling in the ancient kingdom of Magadha in Northern India, in the plain of the Ganges.

I’ve come here looking for the roots of today’s vegetarian and vegan movements. As a long-time vegan, I want to know how we’ve got here. In this series we’ll discover how the ideas around vegetarianism have changed and spread up until the present.

Those ideas emerge almost simultaneously in the middle of the first millennium BCE, both here in the Magadha Kingdom and in the Greek world. This series begins with three episodes centred on three pivotal teachers.

We’ll get to the third of them, Pythagoras, later. He is gathering followers to his meatless musical mathematical cult, around the Mediterranean shores.

[trains rumble in the background; people chatter in the background; Indian music]

Ian:

The first two are leaders amongst the sramanas, the vagabond monks travelling around Magadha and exchanging manifold philosophies. They renounce home, possessions and the old-time vedic religion.

The two men know about each other; they teach in the same town; their orders will become major religions. And the man we know as the Buddha is only the second of them.

Farming is spreading through the fertile river plain; urban centres are developing; and with them, revolutionary ideas about our relationship with animals. Especially, in the Magadha capital.

[in the background, a bird breaks into song]

Ian [in Rajgir]:

The sramanic movements: Jains, Buddhists and others now forgotten are challenging the existing vedic tradition of animal sacrifice and championing ahimsa – the avoidance of harm.

One of those travelling sramanas, Mahavir, would stop and preach here, beneath the craggy Rajgir hills – a spot his modern followers mark with a temple and hospital complex.

Sadhvi Yasajhe Maharaj [speaks always in Hindi, with English translation dubbed over]:

Of Jainism, of ahimsa, and of vegetarianism, speaks Mahavir.

Ian:

Sadhvi Yasajhe Maharaj is a sramana too.

A Jain nun, she’d been reading in her low circular white prayer hall when I was introduced. She’d come outside to sit and – with some help from an English speaking staff member – talk.

Yasajhe:

This area here was a great park, people used to come and stay for the four-month rainy season, to use those four months for the spiritual life.

[birdsong]

Ian:

Amongst the trees and birds, it’s still possible to imagine the people of Magadha sheltering from rain and listening to Mahavir.

This episode, I’ll ask experts and followers about his ideas, where they might have come from, and what they inspired.

[theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

Vegetarianism, the Story so Far with me, Ian McDonald. Episode One: Ahimsa.

[theme ends]

Ian:

I want to start at the very beginning. Archaeology suggests humans first gathered, then also scavenged, then also hunted for at least two million years before the philosophers of India and Greece.

James Serpell:

We look at the way a cat kills a mouse. They evidently don’t show any anxiety or ambivalence about it, it’s just something they do. But humans appear to be different.

Ian:

[as narrator] James Serpell thinks animal ethics begin to stir deep in prehistory.

Serpell:

I am professor of animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

Ian:

[to Serpell] What do the hunter gatherer cultures that have survived in the present day show us about ancient attitudes towards other animals?

Serpell:

The way they view it is very much analogous to the way they view killing another human being: a morally hazardous thing to do, with repercussions.

Ian:

Could you give me a typical example of hunter gatherer guilt?

Serpell:

Some of the Inuit tribes, they are actively apologising to whatever they kill, and expressing all kinds of thanks and gratitude to the animal, and how they would never have done it if it wasn’t an absolute necessity, that they were starving, children were starving and they had to do this.

Among the Amazon indians it’s the same. If you look the Kung San bushmen in South Africa it’s the same. If you look at the aborigines it’s the same. What could be more expressive as it were of that level of guilt, the level of anxiety and ambivalence, than to have the hunter emptying his heart out to the slain animal and apologising, and making all these explanations for what either the thing had to be done.

Ian:

[as narrator] Some anthropologists are sceptical about whether these surviving hunter gatherers can speak for the cultures who settled into farming, but they remain our only clue.

[to Serpell] We have the spread of agriculture. How does that change our relationship?

Serpell:

Well it changes it very dramatically. The humans are placed in this position of responsibility over the animals. It made the whole thing become hierarchical. You see, religions after that period become hierarchical. So the Gods are above men, men are above the animals, and animals are above the plants, and you get this hierarchical world view.

[birdsong]

Yasajhe:

They performed many sacrifices. Thousands of animals were burned alive.

Ian:

That vedic religion is already a millennium old when Mahavir preaches. But modern Hindus still share its priestly caste – the Brahmins – and its most sacred verses – the Vedas. Those yaghnas show us how the vedic culture saw animals. But they’re very controversial in modern India.

Let me tell you about one cold Saturday in Delhi when I met two professors who had quite different views.

When historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha wrote in his book “Myth of the Holy Cow” that vedic religion slaughtered cows in sacrifices, it was burnt by some Hindu nationalists – who not just venerate cows, but believe India was always thus, and consider claims to the contrary blasphemous.

[noise of suburban Delhi]

Ian:

His flat is in suburban Delhi, a short auto-rickshaw ride from the metro station. The crowds and stalls give way to tree-lined roads, blocks of flats, and the noise of neighbourhood life. We talked in his study.

Prof Dwijendra Narayan Jha:

In the vedic texts, there’s lot of discussion about killing of animals. Particularly, in the context of the rituals. And there is one particular sacrifice, the horse sacrifice, in that about 600 and odd animals were killed.

Ian:

[as narrator] The oldest of those oral texts, the Rg Veda, has a hymn for that sacrifice. Secular historians translate its Sanskrit as:

Vedic Brahmin [reading]:

Those who examine the horse when ready and say: “It smells good! Remove it”

And those who draw close, craving a share of the flesh of the steed –

Let their applause cheer us on.

Ian:

I took the Delhi metro north until the elevated Line Two peters out into giant pillars and construction crews. Then a crowded bus along the Great Trunk Road.

[sound of disembarking the bus, Indian voices]

Ian:

Which dropped me by some redbrick Jain temples

[vehicle horns]

Ian:

And an Indology Institute.

Prof GC Tripathi:

In fact nobody is Jaina in our Jaina Institute. Except one.

Ian:

[as narrator] I talked with GC Tripathi by one of the smaller temples. Jain scholars suggested him, and he’s a source for DN Jha’s book. But he doesn’t agree with it.

Tripathi:

I work on vedas.

Ian:

[to Tripathi] You work on the vedas.

Tripathi:

Even in the Rg Veda we don’t find any mention of animal sacrifice. The animal sacrifice in India, they make their appearance during the later vedic period.

Ian:

[as narrator] That’s the 8th and 9th centuries BCE, still well before Mahavir. But I asked him about older verses, like the one you just heard, that DN Jha says show Brahmins sacrificing animals much earlier.

Tripathi:

They don’t understand, doesn’t know Sanskrit, how can he write anything authoritative on it?

Ian:

[to Tripathi] Well that’s why I’d like to ask you, because…

Tripathi:

I know all my texts, almost by heart.

Ian:

Because you’re a Brahmin and you’re part of the…

Tripathi:

I know Sanskrit, Sanskrit has been in my family for the last I don’t know how many hundred years. I started my studies in Sanskrit 5 years or 6 years old.

Ian:

[as narrator] Tripathi is part of a living tradition that’s as old as the Rg Veda itself. Magadha doesn’t yet have writing; only the Brahmins offer the actual words of ancestors. Oxford University Indologist Richard Gombrich.

Prof Richard Gombrich:

If you were the son of a Brahmin you had to go through a whole series of very particular rituals.  And you were supposed to spend your first few years – sometimes not even very few, sometimes until you were well into adulthood – memorising the Brahmin texts. First came the texts and after that understanding what they meant.

Ian:

I met other Sanskrit scholars who completely rejected suggestions of vedic sacrifice. Secular and religious historians often disagree, and I wanted to let you see this one up close.

But I found no convincing alternative to the interpretations of historians like DN Jha. They believe the ancient Brahmins sacrificed animals – if not burning alive. And that their verses recall a distant past of nomadic herding, before slow centuries of spreading eastwards down the Ganges.

We’ll catch up with this controversy when the story reaches modern India.

So what do these rituals say about how vedic religion sees other animals? James Serpell.

Serpell:

When you get to these more hierarchical agricultural and pastoral systems, they’ve looked after these animals from birth, and yet at end of day they’re going to betray that trust, they’re going to kill those animals.

Ian:

In the Rg Veda, the hymn of the horse sacrifice ends.

Vedic Brahmin [reading]:

Truly, here thou diest not, thou art not harmed: by easy paths unto the Gods thou goes.

Ian:

James Serpell finds this sentiment typical.

Serpell:

We look at how people deal with animal death and time and time again we see all these interesting explanations for why something which is actually bad is not in fact bad: it represents something else or it’s symbolic or it’s because we’re sending the spirit of the animal to its homeland. All this stuff.

Ian:

Some 20th century scholars speculated that the idea of actual non-violence developed out of that ritual denial of harm, perhaps in stages via the purifying temporary vegetarianism of a Brahmin priest before a sacrifice.

We’ll never know how much the Brahmins and sramanas borrowed ideas from each other.

But we do know that by the time of Mahavir, some Brahmins are passing down philosophical works, called Upanishads, that respect their rituals but also include some ideas they share with the sramanas.

Tripathi:

The people who were there who renounced the world, they lived on the fruits of the forests or they begged their food in the city.

Jha:

In Upanishads there is emphasis on ascetic life, and therefore there is also emphasis on non-killing of animals. And this ties up with more or less contemporary Buddhist movement and Jain movement.

Ian:

[to Jha] So this is a Sanskrit text. It’s part of the Brahmanic tradition. And the idea of ahimsa, the seeds of vegetarianism, are already there.

Jha:

Yes, already there.

Ian:

[as narrator] What exactly is this word that English renders “ahimsa”? Richard Gombrich.

Gombrich:

Ahimsa [pronouncing it as “ahinsa”] is grammatically from “han”, to kill, or sometimes just to strike. But “hinsa” means “desire or wish to kill”. And “A” is the negative. So “Ahimsa” means “lack of wish to kill”. Ultimately it is a psychological term.

Ian:

And the literal meaning of sramana reminds us what unites these itinerant begging mendicants. Yasajhe.

[birdsong]

Yasajhe:

“Sramana” means one who meditates, works hard, labours. His aims and goals he achieves with his own hard work.

Ian:

[to Yasajhe] Do Sramanas believe you can achieve enlightenment or whatever the goal is, through your own efforts?

Yasajhe’s interpreter:

No different at all.

Gombrech:

You can only be born a Brahmin. But anybody who has left the household life and decided not to take part either in production or reproduction: there is a sramana.

Peter Flügel:

I am Peter Flügel, chair of Jaina studies at SOAS.

Ian:

[as narrator] School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Flügel:

I mean, with the Upanishads and all these other ascetics, there is a big distinction between forest ascetics and these mendicant orders, the sramanas. Forest monks, they live there with their families. Jain and Buddhist monk and nuns, they have to beg for their food. That means they live in the midst of the urban population. They reflect a completely new society.

[birdsong]

Ian:

[as narrator] In the kingdom of Magadha, Mahavir addresses a crowd that have probably heard many other sramanic groups; creeds now long forgotten. We do know that the sramanas are arguing over not just ahimsa but concepts like fate, karma, rebirth, and liberation.

Rajgir is the capital of a kingdom, the heart of a region, that is an incubator of religious movements.

Yasajhe:

In those days, there were half a dozen so-called learned people. Buddha, Ajit Kesh Kambal, Prabhu Dikatyan, Goshalak and Mahavir. But when it came to understanding the truth, most of them didn’t do very well. There were half a dozen of them, but their theories were not sound. Except Buddha, who was very close to Mahavir – with only slight philosophical differences.

Gombrich:

The earliest one of which we know a huge amount with good early evidence is Buddhism. But there is very very good reason to believe that Jainism is somewhat older than Buddhism.

Dr Priyadarshana Jain:

The first thing is that Jainism is a pre-vedic and a pre-historic religion.

Ian:

[as narrator] Dr Priyadarshana Jain leads the department of Jainology in the University of Madras. It’s a Victorian university by the Bay of Bengal. The theology departments are in a building storeyed around a courtyard to let the sea air circulate. I came to her room, next to the departmental office milling with her students, to ask questions about what Jains believe.

Jain:

Our lord Mahavira was not the founder of Jainism, he was only the 24th teacher of Jainism.

Gombrich:

The Jains themselves would say it’s thousands of years older than Buddhism. You needn’t accept that because there’s no good evidence at all. But certainly it’s a few generations older than Buddhism. The person who might be historical is the one before Mahavira: Parshwa.

[birdsong]

Ian:

[to Yasajhe] How radical was vegetarianism at the time?

Yasajhe:

Vegetarianism was very small. Most people weren’t vegetarian. Outside of Maghad – Bihar state – there were more non-vegetarians. Parshwa’s impact was here.

Ian:

What set Mahavir’s message apart? What was specific to him? What would he hear if we were sheltering here in the rainy season?

Yasajhe:

Some used to say there is no God. And some used to say, he is in the ocean. Or in the mountain. Or, there is only one supreme soul. Mahavir said that every soul can be supreme. Every soul can reach the pinnacle of purity. His preaching of non-violence is based solely on this. In every living being he saw the same spirit that he had. He saw the greatness in every ordinary being.

Ian:

Peter Flügel.

Flügel:

Mahavir as a historical person is difficult to figure out because the texts are late and obviously constructions made for a particular purpose.

Ian:

[as narrator] For example texts put Mahavir in the 6th century BCE. Historians more often the 5th.

Flügel:

To them, Mahavir was the son of a king, tribal leader who realised the futility of wealthy existence, left his family and wandered about as a mendicant.

Ian:

From the Acaranga text.

Ācāranga sūtra [reading]:

In these places was the wise Sramana: for thirteen long years he meditated day and night, exerting himself, undisturbed, strenuously.

Flügel:

He didn’t join a mendicant group, but he self-initiated by removing his hair and changing his dress. And after a few years he walked naked because the rag he wore was falling off and he didn’t replace it.

Ian:

They say he endured scorn.

Ācāranga sūtra [reading]:

He was struck with a stick, the fist, a lance, hit with a fruit, a clod, a pot shard. When he once sat without moving his body they cut his flesh, tore his hair under pains, or covered him with dust. Abandoning the care of his body, the venerable one humbled himself and bore pain, free from desire.

Flügel:

…until he reached enlightenment. And from that point onward he began to teach what he has learned. I.e. that the path for the liberation of the soul from the fetters of the karmically produced body.

Yasajhe:

They just renounced the world.

Ian:

[to Yasajhe] And renouncing the world means becoming a monk or a nun.

Yasajhe:

Yeah.

Ian:

[as narrator] They join Mahavir’s monastic order in the hope of also becoming a liberated conqueror of their desires.

Ācāranga sūtra [reading]:

He leaves the road to birth and death, rejoicing in the glorious liberation.

Ian:

Over on the other side of the Persian empire, there are Greeks too who are vegetarian because they believe in reincarnation; we’ll meet them later. Richard Gombrich told me how the idea of rebirth emerges in vedic religion; not initially as something that happens for everybody.

Gombrich:

According to the last book of the Rg Veda, there is a cycle of rebirth for human males. It isn’t really properly ethicised at all. It doesn’t say if he was a good honest man this happens, and if he was a thief, that happens, no. Whereas in Buddhism and Jainism, you can go up or you can go down et cetera according to your ethics in life.

Ian:

And the mechanism for that is Karma.

Flügel:

Combination of reincarnation and karma that is specifically Indian, and the Jains of course are masters of the karma theory.

Ian:

[to Flügel] The Jains have a really specific visual concept of karma.

Flügel:

Yes, karma is perceived as a form of matter which sticks to your body, and becomes the seed for a new action of the same quality. So if one doesn’t act violently, one can step-by-step withdraw from this predicament, and ultimately after many many rebirths, leave this terrible cycle of re-death.

Jain:

Jainism is a non-violent way of living, and it doesn’t believe in a creator God and it rejects the authority of the vedas.

Ian:

[to Jain] Mahavir preached vegetarianism.

Jain:

Mahavira preached non-violence. We don’t have the word ‘vegetarian’ in any Jain scripture.

We have ahimsa – we have “live and let live”. We have mutual interdependence [gives the term in Sanskrit].

Ian:

[as narrator] The word “vegetarian” is a 19th century invention.

We’ll encounter many different ideas around the ethic of not eating animals, not all of which translate perfectly to the modern concept of a complete and permanent principled abstention from eating flesh. The roots of vegetarianism singular, lie in many different vegetarianisms plural.

Those early Jain texts are indeed overwhelmingly strongly – for want of a better word – vegetarian. A couple of ostensible exceptions in special cases suggest to historians like DN Jha that progress towards strict vegetarianism might still have been going on at the time of Mahavir. Peter Flugel.

Flügel:

In the texts there is mention of Mahavira eating meat that was prepared for him of a dead cock, roadkill as it were, for him to regain his health.

Ian:

The Vyakhyaprajñapti seems to say he asked…

Vyakhyaprajñapti [reading]:

to send the cock killed by the cat, instead of the two pigeons she was preparing for him.

Gombrich:

He doesn’t kill it. And according to Buddhism indeed, he’s absolutely innocent. But the Jains don’t like that. Therefore they say that this word which clearly refers to a chicken, actually refers to a kind of plant.

Jain:

A word may have many many meanings, many many interpretations. Okay, so this interpretation is done by the rival religions who want to defame Jainism.

Ian:

[to Jain] The word is…

Jain:

The Mahavira never never never ate any kind of meat.

Ian:

So it’s not chicken…

Jain:

It is not chicken, it is, ah, it’s, ah, some thing related with a crow or an ani… a bird.

Ian:

[as narrator] So one medieval translation goes:

Vyakhyaprajñapti [reading]:

…to send the citron pulp seasoned with viralika herb instead of the two gourds …

Ian:

[to Flügel] This is what medieval Jains onwards tend to say, denying the literal meaning.

Flügel:

Well, we don’t know the literal meaning, these are dead languages, we should not forget this. No one knows exactly what these words meant when they were written down. And it doesn’t seem to make any sense within the context of Jain teachings to have Mahavira of all people eating meat or permitting meat to be prepared for him. Basically, I am with the Jains on this point.

Ian:

This, from the Acaranga, is characteristic.

Ācāranga sūtra [reading]:

The Enlightened and Worshipped of the past, present, and future, speak thus, declare thus, proclaim thus: all breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away…

Ian:

We’re glimpsing the emergence of Jainism through the fog of centuries of oral transmission. For Jains, enlightened teachers have been revealing eternal truth since pre-history. And these few lines are deeply controversial.

But this series is about people making the case, generation by generation.

So what is Jain vegetarianism? Jains apply ahimsa to a world they see as alive with beings to be protected from suffering.

Flügel:

If you take a stone, and regard a stone as a living being, this is not unusual. In many tribes across the planet you find animist beliefs.

Ian:

[to Flügel] So if you behave very badly, you can be reincarnated as a rock?

Flügel:

Definitely. A stone, like any living being, from Jain perspective, is composed of a soul and a body, and a stone is just another type of body.

Ian:

[as narrator] Jains rank beings by how many senses they have.

Jain:

The meat, the animals, the fish, and the eggs are all products of the five-sensed beings. Whereas the plants and vegetables are all one-sensed.

Ian:

[as narrator] And insects are in between with two or three senses.

Taking it through to a logical conclusion, early Jains look at plants with more potential for life like root vegetables that can sprout indefinitely, conclude they must contain infinite lives, and so…

Jain:

Prepare the food that is without the underground roots and stems. And…

Ian:

[as narrator] Although not all modern Jains have a literal belief in one-sensed beings of earth, wind, fire and water, the intention to tread lightly upon the earth remains.

Jain:

So the minimum you take from the environment, the less will be your karmic load. And the more you exploit and take from the environment, the greater will be the karmic load as well as the carbon footprint that we leave in the environment.

Ian:

[as narrator] Consider the challenge of ahimsa if you contemplate a world alive with invisible single sensed beings.

Flügel:

So the practical consequence is that ultimately you should not act at all. And that makes life rather complicated, to say the least.

Ian:

[as narrator] The logical conclusion for Jains, the lightest way to tread, can be to stop treading.

Flügel:

It is clear in the Jain scriptures that if you want to reach liberation at the last moment of your last existence you should stop acting at all.

Jain:

Nobody wants to die but that is inevitable. And when you die you should die like a hero, not being fearful or being desirous. And this kind of holy death can enable you to terminate your cycle of rebirths.

Ian:

[to Jain] By simply refusing food until you waste way?

Jain:

Yeah. It is not just simply refusing food. Refusing food and doing what? To be observed spiritually.

Ian:

[as narrator] This practice is rare but not unknown today, when Jains face death.

Mahavir’s sermons didn’t just affect the monks and nuns who abandoned their homes for him. They spread their doctrines amongst laypeople like Priyadarshana.

Flügel:

At the very beginning, there must have been just a small group of mendicants who were interacting with householders.

Jain:

The monks and nuns depend on the lay men and women for their basic needs like food, water and clothing.

Flügel:

The Jain community, i.e. a group of lay followers developed only slowly.

Jain:

It is not just ascetics who are following vegetarianism, it is a lay men and women also who follow vegetarianism. It is not merely an ethical obligation, it is a religious discipline, and a spiritual discipline in itself.

Ian:

Jains will spread far beyond the Kingdom of Magadha, and have an influence beyond their numbers that means we’ll come back to them again and again.

One of those craggy Rajgir hills, called Vulture’s Peak, is a place of pilgrimage for followers of our second sramana.

[birdsong]

Yasajhe:

Mahavir came before Buddha. He was older than Buddha. Mahavir attained enlightenment before Buddha. After Mahavir, Buddha lived on after Mahavir’s nirvana. Buddhists even have the story of how, after his death, news was given immediately to the Buddha.

Ian:

Next episode, we turn to the philosophy that will carry the idea of a fleshless diet throughout Asia, to Prince Gautama…

[theme starts: music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

…to Buddhism.

With the voices of Sandeep Garcha, Chetan Pathak, and Selva Rasalingam; the music of Robb Masters. I’d like to thank Dr Smita Bagricha for interpreting, and Shitansu Tyagi and Ranjan Joshi for translation.

Full credits and more information at the Vegan Option dot org.

END OF EPISODE 1.

This transcript was posted October 13 2017, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter.

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About Ian McD

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

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