Ahimsa is usually interpreted as non violence but it is a deeper and broader concept than non violence. Non violence  suggests negation of violence, but ahimsa is an internal attitude, an inward expression.

The late Ramchandra Gandhi once explained this concept to me.  One can avoid or reduce hostility and thereby violence if one can, colloquially speaking, enter the shoes of the other, he said. Put more simply, you understand the other, namely that person to whom you are hostile, by putting yourself in her place.  This transposition of identity could melt the hostility.  Such is ahimsa.

His essay, “I and thou, I am thou” in the Indian Philosophical Quarterly publication, his interpretation of ahimsa, his whole discourse on consciousness and making peace through entering into the other person’s shoes, as it were, has been a source of inspiration for me in trying to understand and find solutions for discrimination in general, and the racial and gender divide in particular.

Basic tenet of Jainism

The principle of ahimsa is a basic tenet of Jainism, which is why we find Jain monks and nuns covering their mouths with cloth, in a remarkable extension of ahimsa, so that insects may not be affected or destroyed through their breathing.

This idea of absorbing the other into oneself, and eliminate difference and distance, this is Ahimsa, a concept that was finds its genesis in Jainism. Mahatma Gandhi said he learnt the from his mother, who was a practicing Jain. Gandhi used this ethic of transposing identities all the time to handle conflict.

In the Ashrams, or collectives that Gandhi built, in those days, roles were constantly transposed to dismantle hierarchies.  For example, everyone – men, women, children – had to do manual work as well as "meditational" work, so that the intellectual or the educated would not look down on the manual.  Brahmins had to lift night soil so that the practice would not hold stigma and untouchability.  Persons belonging to all the diverse religions in India had to recite the prayers of all the religions - a Hindu would read the Quran, a Christian would recite the Hindu prayer.  Distances were thus effaced, as were hierarchies. This was Ahimsa: I and thou, I am thou.

The meat controversy

It is a pity that a sense of conflict has been created on behalf of Jains and their periods of meditation and fasting.  Preventing the satisfaction, pleasure or need of any other community as a necessary condition of their own spirituality would go against the very core of ahimsa which is the fundamental ethic of Jainism.

Jains worship through meditation, offerings and prayer. Prayers are not made in any form of petitioning to a greater being for grace or influence, instead they tend to remember the great qualities of their religious thinkers.

Self discipline, control over the self, is a basic element of Jainism, and the recent discussion on Santhara, self driven entry into death is an illustration of this devotion to self control. In Shiv Viswanathan's words, “Santhara means a way of life and encompasses a way of dying as well. In Jainism, the body is seen as a temporary residence for the soul which is reborn."

The fact that Jains wish to keep Santhara going illustrates how much Jainism depends on inner strength and not outer spaces. Thus worship or practicing their religion by the Jains has no connection with the habits of others. It is totally internal as illustrated even by Santhara.

Therefore, it is most unbecoming of those claiming to speak on behalf of Jainism to oppose the practices of the others as a requirement for their own satisfaction in worship – be it meditation or fasting.

Their spiritual enlightenment cannot be gained by intrusion into the practices of the other.