Short Theological Presentation

The Significance and Value of the Child in Jainism

The Jain tradition is probably best known outside the Jain community for its very strong commitment to an ascetic ethos based on strict adherence to the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence in thought, word, and deed. The ideal Jain is the Jain monk who dedicates his life to practicing harmlessness toward all beings and preaching this ideal to the wider lay Jain community.

It is important to know, though, that this emphasis on the celibate life of the wandering, nonviolent monk, while absolutely central to Jainism as a belief system, does not reflect the life of the average Jain. The average Jain is a householder–a married man or woman who is engaged in earning a livelihood, raising a family, and making a positive economic contribution to society.

As householders, and similarly to householders in the Hindu communities in the midst of which the Jains have lived throughout history, Jain laypersons cherish nothing more than their children. Again, the life of the monk is the ideal. But the Jain tradition is very frank in its acknowledgement of the fact that most human beings are not ready to live this ideal. This is very different from most western religions, where the same moral code applies in the same way to all adherents. The expectation of the man or woman who is drawn to the ascetic life is absolute celibacy and a severing of family ties. The equally strong duty of the householder, though, is to have children and to raise them well, as good Jains.

The emphasis of most Jain literature on children is on their correct upbringing. First and foremost, one finds a very strong focus on raising children with a vegetarian diet. The Jain diet is one of the strictest in the world, banning not only meat and eggs of any kind, but also many vegetables–such as root vegetables, the harvesting of which involves the killing of an entire plant, as well as both vegetables and fruits that bear large numbers of seeds, each of which is held to be a soul-bearing and thus sacred form of life. Milk is not banned, and is indeed part of the traditional Jain diet. In the modern period, though, large numbers of Jains are embracing veganism, due to the cruelty involved in industrial milk-extracting technology. Instilling good dietary practices in children from the beginning is important, because it is in childhood that our lifelong tastes and food habits are formed.

Secondly, there is a strong emphasis on being peaceful in all of one’s interactions: not to be combative or argumentative, not to lash out angrily, not to kill insects, and so on.

Thirdly, there is an emphasis on instilling respect for Jain institutions, such as temples, monks, and nuns, and for educating children in the principles of Jainism.

Finally, there is a strong emphasis that one finds in many Indian communities on learning in general, and on celebrating the child’s intellectual achievements.

In short, the child is cherished in Jainism. Parenting brings the honor and responsibility of guiding a soul on the path to liberation–the path that all practicing Jains aspire to tread.

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