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29 Dec 2012
Medical Research and Jainism - II

by Monika Nikhil Kothari

Monika is the daughter of Smita and Nikhil Ratilal Kothari. She currently resides in USA. 

The subject of science is one of the most complex and ever-changing aspects of our existence: the human attempt to understand our environment. Every day, revolutionary discoveries are made, and the way we see the world is changed forever. The heliocentric model, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Bohr’s atomic model resulted in new relationships between religion and science, as well as leading to further discoveries and development. These, at the time radical, propositions changed the face of science and, over time, resulted in massive paradigm shifts of entire human populations.

The area of science that probably sees the most innovation today is medicine: the science of the human body, the understanding of its processes, and possible treatments in the event that it fails. Medicine is what astronomy and geology were in centuries past: the science of our era. We are beginning to cure or even prevent diseases that have plagued human society for thousands of years, all with a simple pill or vaccination. Such rapid advancement in the field, from hormonal treatments to chemotherapy, heart transplants to prosthetics, requires a very mentally advanced population.

Successful revolutions, have always had strong intellectual foundations with sometimes very novel and inventive ideas. The French Revolution, a turning point in political history, was based on Enlightenment ideals that supported individual freedoms and human rights, concepts that didn’t even exist just a few centuries prior. The Industrial Revolutions were based on rapidly developing manufacturing industries that resulted in the shift from agrarian to industrial society. But the conditions--political, economic, and scientific--had to be favorable to these changes for them to ever take place.

Today’s society, the age of technology, involves a mixture of an intelligent populace, widespread and easy access to information, and instant communication, creating, in the words of Stanley Miller in respect to the origin of life, a kind of “biological soup” conducive to certain developments, in this case within medicine. Developments in medical science, as with all other sciences, require unique perspectives, differences of opinion, debate and discussion. In Jainism, this is called anekandvad, the acceptance of other viewpoints, and is necessary for societal and medical advancement.

Of course, this differing viewpoints and opinions seem, at times, irreconcilable. Stem cell research and it’s government funding has in recent years come into direct fire. Opponents claim that research into these undifferentiated cells of human fetuses devalues human life and will lead to a slippery slope of organ farms and cloning, not to mention that it is morally wrong to kill millions of fetuses in search of a treatment that may or may not work. Proponents assert that exploration of this new science can ultimately treat many diseases and end the suffering of thousands of people.

As Jains, as the next generation to inherit the world, and as citizens of the United States, it is also our responsibility to be aware of and to weigh in on this controversial issue. Here we have two perspectives, both equally valid and supported by logic. We can argue that the Jain principle of ahimsa prevents us from supporting stem cell research. Jainism argues that every soul is precious and equally important and deserving of life, and, furthermore, that life begins at conception. To end a human life, even with good intentions, is ultimately and inevitably a source of paap.

However, as laypeople (shravaks and shravikas), we should also realize that we are not bound to the same strict rules as sadhus and sadvis. At times, an act of violence is necessary if the results would save lives, as in the case of stem cell research. These scientists aren’t bad people; they have good intentions and hope to limit the suffering of others. Also, many researchers propose using the discarded fetuses of in vitro fertilization for experimentation, or possible alternative methods. Every societal development has come at some personal cost to individuals, and this case is no different.

Another issue that has been looming in our minds for decades but has only come to light recently is the use of animals for experimentation. Almost every household cleaning product, cosmetic, and, of course, every form of medication, has been tested routinely on some of over 100 million animals subject to this cruel process every year. Even though organizations such as the American Psychological Association and other scientific communities have specific limitations on the extent of animal testing, these rules are often very laxly enforced or not sufficient to prevent abuse.

The extent of animal experimentation in a medical context ranges from pig dissections performed by medical school students studying anatomy, to drug companies force-feeding non-human primates developing medications to observe possible complications before the product is released for human use. Most non-Jains, not recognizing the value of animal life and denying their souls, would argue that this is a necessary evil. However, others argue that humans have no justification in violating the rights of individual animals--thinking, feeling, sentient creatures--to feed human greed and desire for wealth and long life.

Famous animal rights activists, such as philosopher Bernard E. Rollins, take an extreme approach, saying that animal suffering in the process of medical research outweighs any benefit to human life, and that we hold no entitlement to free animals for our personal use.  On the other end of spectrum are those that say that animals were placed upon earth by a God, solely for human use and exploitation. While Jains will often disagree with this latter opinion, the principle of the multiplicity of viewpoints again suggests that we also consider the differing perspectives of others.

Jains are apt to be more moderate than proponents of these more extremist positions. To create ultimatums in the form of either banning animal testing altogether, or affirming that animals have no rights, is a flawed manner to approach a solution. We can probably agree that experimentation upon animals is necessary for some medications in order to limit human deaths, we also recognize that animals do have souls and should not be abused as a result of consumerist interests (such as cosmetics, shampoos, etc.). To value material goods over life is a sin, ignorance of aparigarah.

Another controversial issue that is occasionally touched upon within the medical community today is genetic modification and engineering. While this topic isn’t on the forefront of American politics yet, we have already been cloning other animals for decades. Parents are already able to select the sex of their baby prior to conception, and choosing eye-color, hair-color, and intelligence as encoded in the genes may not be too far off. The question of human cloning is currently limited only to the realm of science fiction; however, even this becomes a more real possibility with every passing day.

Artificial modification of the human gene pool should not merely be a concern of geneticists, but Jains and others as well. Perhaps it isn’t an issue that we can address accurately at the moment, but we should be aware of these new medical advancements looming on the horizon and the consequences that may result. We need to remain connected not only to the religious and spiritual, but also the scientific world and the way it shapes our lives. Medicine is a great thing that sometimes comes at great cost. We have been raised with a values system that we are expected to trust and believe in. Our faith will face many trials and will be confronted numerous times over the courses of our lives. We will be responsible for upholding our morals in the face of a rapidly change society, and will have to make choices regarding what we feel is right and wrong in every aspect of our existence, including medicine.

The key questions when considering the meaningfulness of medical advancements are: Will the results be worth the suffering we may bring to others in the process? Who will benefit, and how, and will it last for the long term? What consequences may arise in the future as a result of our behaviors today, both scientifically and spiritually? Ultimately, in evaluating a question of science and society versus personal beliefs and values, we can boil the question down to one as simple as one of political philosopher Machiavelli’s most famous quotations: “Do the ends justify the means?”


Works Cited

Bulliet, Crossley, Headrick, Hirsch, Johnson, and Northrup. The Earth and Its People. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Chapple, Christopher K. "Jainism, Hinduism, and Ecology." Forum on Religion and Ecology. 1999. Loyola Marymount U. 2 May 2008

Hickman, Roberts, Larson, I'anson, and Eisenhour. Integrated Principles of Zoology. Madison: McGraw Hill Companies, 2006.

"Jainism: Jain Principles, Tradition and Practices." Dept. of Asian Studies, Colorado State U. 3 May 2008

Shah, Pravin K., comp. Jain Philosophy and Practice. Vol. 2. Raleigh, NC: Federation of Jain Associations in America. 

Wikipedia Contributors. "Animal Experimentation." Wikipedia. 28 Feb. 2009

Wikipedia Contributors. "Stem Cell Controversy” Wikipedia. 3 Mar. 2009


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