The incredibly strict diet of a Jain monk

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Samani Pratibha Pragya (right)Image source, SOAS
Image caption,
Samani Pratibha Pragya (right) relies on the Jain community

Monks and nuns who strictly adhere to Jainism have to abide by a complex set of dietary rules, writes Rajeev Gupta.

"People may think our life is difficult but for me our way of life is much easier to live," says Samani Pratibha Pragya. She is a practising Jain "monk". In the age of the smartphones, Samani moves through life with only two possessions - a pair of simple white robes and three handmade wooden bowls which she collects food in.

Jain monks renounce all material possessions and rely for food and shelter on the Jain community. It's more common to see such monks and nuns in India where the Jain religion was founded and Samani was born, but she lives her life of abstinence surrounded by the technological comforts of 21st Century London. A decade ago Samani was given special dispensation from higher priests to travel to London to complete a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies and she still studies and lectures at the university.

"Of course the environment is different here but if you are committed and devoted then living life as a Jain monk can be achieved anywhere you go," says Samani. "In London there are 10,000 Jain families and I rely on them for food and accommodation and in return it is my job as a Jain monk to give them spiritual upliftment. It's a type of symbiotic relationship."

The Jain religion is believed to be one of the most ancient religions in the world and is often associated with Hinduism or seen as a branch of Hinduism. However, Jainism is very much a religion in its own right and its followers have to keep a strict code of conduct especially when it comes to diet.

Jains are strict vegetarians but also do not eat root vegetables and some types of fruits. Some Jains are also vegans and exclude various types of green vegetables during periods of the month.

Joyti and Rajesh, who run Jain website, explain: "We as Jains believe in reincarnation and we believe that all living things contain a soul. We therefore aim to cause as little harm as possible to these living things so restrict what we eat accordingly."

It is this principle of nonviolence to living things, or ahimsa as the Jains call it, which dictates Samani's life of abstinence. She doesn't know in advance what she will eat on any given day, and she is also obliged to eat every last bit of the food given to her, rather than throwing any away.

"If you throw it away like that, if you put it in the dustbin, it's going to accumulate microorganisms and they are going to die," says Bharti Shah, who prepared breakfast for Samani. "Albeit inadvertently, I caused the harm. So I have to minimise the harm."

Samani, who also fasts completely from sunset to sunrise, including going without water, is happy with her lot.

"To appreciate good music in life you need to understand what silence is too," she says. "In the same way I enjoy life but I don't have to over-indulge. While everyone worries about what they are going to wear and what they are going to earn, my life is simple. I have my small amount of possessions and with that I'm always happy."

Samani was interviewed on the BBC Radio World Service's Heart and Soul. Listen back via the BBC iPlayer.

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