Jainism is built upon a foundation of non-violence — ahimsa — which is one of the guiding principles by which Jains live. Everything else that Jains believe is directly connected to this pacifist way of life, from how the interact with those of different faiths right down to what they eat. In fact, Jains might find it impossible to act in any way at all were it not for how living through ahimsa is regulated.
Many of us live peacefully. But how many of us extend the notion of “peace” to everything we do on a day to day basis? You might have friends or family members who are vegetarian or vegan — or perhaps you choose this diet for yourself. But even these dietary restrictions are chosen for certain reasons that differ from person to person. Jains are vegetarian because this diet does the least amount of harm to living beings.
However, nothing is quite so simple.
For Jains, “macro” forms of life and “micro” forms of life bear no discernable distinction. In other words, you can cause just as much chaos by killing small forms of life as you can by killing larger ones. But it’s completely impossible to live without killing microorganisms! Think about it: every step you take might demolish entire communities of tiny organisms that can’t be seen with the naked eye!
Therefore, the Jains take specific actions (or avoid them) in order to avoid hurting all forms of life. Certains types of foods are also avoided simply because they are more likely to be filled with microorganisms.
In order to live through ahimsa, it is important to study the opposite: violence. Jains use “violence” as sort of an umbrella term for which they have many categories. For example, there is intentional violence, violence through self-defense, domestic violence, or violence while working. Knowing what the main categories of violence are, and how enacting one could result in the personal injury of another, are important to Jain believers.
Jains also distinguish between the how and why. Violence can be perpetuated in three basic ways, for example: body, speech, and mind. Even motivation for violence matters in Jain philosophy. These potential motivations include anger, greed, price, and deception.
Why put such stock in a completely nonviolent way of life? It’s not because Jains believe in a supremely omniscient or omnipotent god like other religions. It’s not even for the betterment or wellbeing of the communities in which Jains live! The entire point of philosophical ahimsa is that harm to others directly equates to harming oneself. You cannot hurt another without also causing harm to yourself!
Ironically, Jain philosophy is all about “self.” But in order to eventually liberate what other faiths call the “soul,” it it necessary to put oneself above all others. Then again, by doing so — you would also be doing what is right for everyone else!