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29 Dec 2012
Medical Research and Jainism - I

by Shan Nikhil Kothari

Shan is the son of Smita and Nikhil Ratilal Kothari. He currently resides in USA.         

While many Jain have pondered the relationship between Jain scriptures and specific topics within medical research, such as stem cell research or animal testing, few have actually considered why we, as Jains, even conduct medical research. I believe that answering this question is fundamental to understanding how to apply Jain philosophy to important topics in medical research, since, when considering whether a practice is harmful or beneficial, it is necessary to understand our reasons for doing it. While this may seem like an easy task, discovering our reasons for participating in medical research in terms of Jainism requires that we comprehend the Jain theory of karma, anekantvada, and other important concepts in Jainism and consider how to best apply them to our daily lives.

            A typical response to the question, “Why do we do medical research?” may be, “To allow people to live better and more fulfilling lives.” Answers vary greatly, of course. For example, in his paper, “The Philosophy and Nature of Medical Research”, Robert B. Salter writes, “[…] the primary goal of the various types of research is to achieve a more complete understanding of biological processes […] in order to make significant advancement in the treatment of disorders and injuries in man […]” (Salter 31). Essentially, he claims that the purpose of medical research is to allow us to gain a better knowledge of the human body so that we can learn how to provide better treatments for the diseases that afflict it. When boiled down to its key components, this response shares many similarities with the other, in that they both imply that the ultimate goal of medical research is to alleviate physical and mental suffering. Although this is not the same as practicing non-violence, it does share some similarities with the Jain principle of ahimsa, in that they are both related to decreasing the amount of pain that humans (or other creatures) suffer.

            However, this response does not seem to make sense when considered in light of the Jain theory of karma. No amount of medical treatment any person undergoes will change the amount of paap or punya he has, so does medical research really alleviate the suffering one undergoes in the long-term? All it can do is delay the maturation of that karma for a short time by lengthening the stithi, the duration of the bondage of karma to the soul (a modification known as upashaman), allowing it to cling longer to the atma and maintain its deluding effects. Furthermore, according to Jainism, our lifespan is determined by Ayu karma in one’s previous life, meaning that is cannot be changed. This seems to indicate that medical research, which can only allow us to treat physical illness, is useless from the point-of-view of Jain philosophy. In Jainism, the only true growth or improvement is spiritual growth, which clearly cannot be found through medical research.

            Nevertheless, medical research does have a role in Jainism. As shravaks, we have a duty to improve not only ourselves but our society. Even if we do not contribute directly to the spiritual growth of other people, by providing treatments to relieve them of their suffering, we are helping to improve the lives of others. Also, by allowing people to live healthier and better lives, we give them opportunities to pursue their spiritual development without worrying about their bodies. The purpose of medical research in Jainism is to help fulfill the duty of the shravak to improve society.

            Identifying the purpose of medical research in Jainism allows us to consider more specific topics within the field. For example, take embryonic stem-cell research, a controversial topic both among Jains and in political fights all over the country. Many scientists claim that embryonic stem-cells are much more versatile than the more widely accepted adult stem-cells; the National Institute of Health states that “If scientists can reliably detect the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into specific cell types, they may be able to use the resulting, differentiated cells to treat certain diseases at some point in the future”, proceeding to list many of these diseases (National Institute of Health). On the other hand, groups such as the Catholic Church have protested the destruction of embryos necessary to conduct this research and provide treatments accordingly. The topic has become especially relevant since President Obama reversed former President Bush’s policy of restricting federal funding for stem-cell research (Kaplan 1). As Jains, we have to consider whether it is more important to prevent violence to the embryos involved or to alleviate the suffering of people who suffer from such diseases as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. Although Jainism states that life begins at conception, human embryos are less capable of feeling pain than humans who have been born. Furthermore, the research is done with good intentions, and may yield cures for many diseases, which would help to fulfill our duty as shravakas to alleviate human suffering. Of course, we must also keep in mind the Jain principle of anekantvada, and accept that nobody has complete knowledge of the potential benefits or risks of embryonic stem-cell research, and therefore that there will be divergence in viewpoints. However, I believe that, because of its potential to mitigate suffering from disease, it is in accordance with Jain principles and beliefs.

            The purpose of medical research in Jainism is to alleviate our physical suffering to help give us the ability to grow spiritually. Without this ability, we would never be able to escape the cycle of life-and-death and enter into moksha.


Works Cited

Kaplan, Karen and Noam N. Levey. “Obama to reverse embryonic stem cell research policy”. Los Angeles Times, March 7, 2009.

Salter, Robert B. “The Philosophy and Nature of Medical Research.” The Iowa Orthopedic Journal, 1986; 6: 31-35

“Stem Cell Basics: What are embryonic stem cells?”. Stem Cell Information. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008. 08 March 2009.


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