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Jina Shah, a Jain living in San Francisco, talks about the challenges of treading lightly on our Earth

David Ian Miller, Special to SF Gate

Jainism, one of the oldest religions in India, stresses nonviolence in all aspects of life. Its followers, who tend to be vegetarian, believe that all living things are sacred. Even killing flies is considered immoral.

Some say that Jainism is an unorthodox sect of Hinduism, but others see it as a separate religion altogether. Although most Jains still live in India, there are growing communities in the United States, western Europe, Africa, the Far East and elsewhere.

It isn't an easy path, as Jina Shah, a 35-year-old doctor who moved to San Francisco a few months ago, is quick to admit. Shah, whose parents are from India, was born in Chicago and raised in this country. Over the years, she's wrestled with how to live out her ancient Jain values in the modern world, where few share her philosophy of life. Her religious upbringing continues to influence most of her decisions, from the work she does to the kind of man she plans to marry.

What was it like growing up as a Jain?
Being different can be hard when you're a kid -- I felt that way both as a Jain and as an Indian American. The fact that we were vegetarians was the most obvious difference. It was something you had to make people understand, and it became harder as I got older and more strict about vegetarianism.

How were you more strict?

Initially, I ate eggs if they were part of a recipe in food. But then I began to think, "If I'm not eating eggs in omelets, then why am I eating eggs in cakes?" I remember my best friend in grade school wanted to give me a surprise birthday, and she got a cake for me. I think I ate the cake anyway, but I was really uncomfortable about it.

It's funny, because I went with this same friend to Bible school. My mom was quite open to learning about other religions. So she let me go.

You went to a Christian Bible school?

Yeah, and I remember at one point some of the women from the church came to our house and tried to convert my mother. They had long conversations in my living room, and in the end my mom just said, "Well, we don't exactly have that same belief. I think we'll have to agree to disagree."

My mother was probably the strongest influence on me in terms of learning about religion. We had a room set aside as a sort of temple area, and I would spend time in there reading books [about Jainism] while she was praying or doing other rituals. I think that's how, for me, the whole value system and philosophy became internalized. I thought about the things I read and then started incorporating what made sense to me into the way that I lived.

One of the basic tenets of Jainism is the idea that you treat all living things as sacred. What does that mean to you?

Every living being has a soul. Every spirit is equally worthy of our respect and care, and so a central ethical principle is not harming things. Traditionally, it's been narrowly practiced in terms of being vegetarian, avoiding the killing of even small insects in the home and other practices around food and consumption.

How do you decide what's OK to eat when pretty much everything you would want to consume was alive at some point?

It's challenging. I became a vegan about 15 years ago because I felt that simply being a vegetarian wasn't enough. I made that decision after attending a conference at a Jain ashram when I was in college. There was a group there from the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance, and I learned about the way cows are treated, about factory farming and the dairy industry.

The reason Jains don't eat meat is because we try to avoid killing anything more than what's necessary for our food, and the reason that traditionally Jains do eat dairy is that you didn't have to kill the cows. But the way that it works in modern factory farming is that the lactating cows, once they cannot give milk anymore, are killed and used for hamburger meat. Their baby male calves, which can never be dairy cows, are raised for veal. It took a little while to actually become vegan after realizing that, but that's why I did it. To me, there is a kind of obvious line about not wanting to be part of killing any animals.

The idea of not harming living things obviously extends beyond what you eat. What are some other ways you follow this creed in your life?

I own a car, but I try to use public transportation as much as I can. Fortunately, I live in San Francisco and work in the East Bay, so I can get by without using my car to commute. Right now, I live in a smallish apartment in a big complex. That may change in the future, but I think where you live is an important aspect of treading lightly in the world.

What about limiting your possessions? As I understand it, that's a core principle of Jainism, although it's not exactly the American way.

A lot of Jains in the U.S. have trouble with that one, myself included. I recently moved from a two-bedroom, one-bath condo in Georgia to this one-bedroom apartment, and so it's really in my face now. I've been going through boxes of stuff, and I'm thinking, "Do I really need these notes and books from a long time ago? I have this closet full of clothes. Why do I really need all of this stuff, and what can I get rid of?"

If you were to take your philosophy of doing no harm to its fullest extent, wouldn't that mean separating yourself from society? Why not just live in a monastery?

In fact, there are two distinct paths in Jainism, and one of them is the way of the monk or nun. Those are the true Jains, actually. They're the ones who have no possessions, except maybe what they're wearing and a bowl for food. They eat whatever excess food there is in a household, and they walk from place to place [to receive their offerings].

Then there is the householder's path, which is what I'm following. It's a step in the right direction, but it's not the fast track to enlightenment.

Do you ever think about taking the other track?

It would be hard for me to give up everything and be part of that community of ascetics. However, I used to spend a lot of time with the nuns when I was a kid. Their lives were so peaceful, and they lived so simply -- it was very appealing. I just don't think I could live that way now. Maybe I could in another life, but not this one.

Since you brought that up, what are your thoughts on reincarnation?

Well, if you believe in karma, if you believe in a soul, which I do, then you sort of have to believe in reincarnation. It makes sense to me that what you do has repercussions that come back to you. You see lots of bad people that seem to have lots of good things in their lives and plenty of good people that seem to be suffering, but I think it evens out over time. Maybe not in one lifetime, but eventually.

You're a single woman. Are you planning to get married, and if you do, will you be marrying a Jain?

I'm currently in a relationship with someone who is broad-minded enough that he showed up at a Jain conference, but he is not exactly Jain. He is Hindu, but he considers Jains to be Hindu in the very broadest sense.

So that's not a problem to be dating someone who is not a Jain?

I think we share the same values, and to me that's really what's important. He understands enough about Jainism, and practically he joins me in a lot of the things that matter. When we go out to eat, he will eat vegan with me -- even though he might not be vegan all the time. He also values treading lightly on the Earth. That's the way that he lives.

I want to ask you about your work. You're doing research on a vaccine to prevent meningitis. How do you feel about testing such a vaccine on animals? That is part of the process, right?

I couldn't directly do animal research. However, in order to get a vaccine or a drug approved, according to the FDA it has to have undergone animal trials. This is one of the hardest places for me to draw the line. I don't like animal research, but it's a requirement.

How do you respond to animal rights advocates who might accuse you of indirectly supporting animal testing by doing the work you do?

In a way, they are right. I'm part of this process. However, that logic only works if you think that animal testing has to be part of developing a product. I don't think it does. There's a group called Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which argues that some of the advances we see coming out of modern medicine could have happened in other ways [without animal testing]. So we don't necessarily have to reject those products outright.

If the FDA did not require animal testing for the vaccine that I'm working on, we could have developed it using, for example, molecular genetics and recombinant technology, testing on cell culture, or using other nonanimal methods, and then testing directly on humans. So it's not an all-or-nothing involvement.

I'd also like to point out that the aim of the work I'm doing is to prevent death from a disease that affects a lot of people, especially children in sub-Saharan Africa. Making a positive difference in this way is supported by my values.

Being a Jain sounds complicated. Is that ever frustrating for you?

I think there are so many conflicting values to living a spiritual life, however you define that. It's challenging to figure out how to integrate that in the modern world. That said, we believe in this idea of karma, so your intention does matter. You aren't absolved of accountability or responsibility, but at a certain point things are outside of your control. I think you just have to say, "Look, I did my best, and what happens, happens."

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