Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Jainism

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The physical environment plays a key role in the Jaina worldview, which makes a direct connection between its cosmology and its ethical system. From the earliest extant text of the tradition, one learns that Jaina monks and nuns were keen observers of the elements and the living beings of the natural world. The Ācarāga Sūtra, which dates from the fourth or fifth century before the common era, indicates that Mahāvīra (c. 500 bce), who established Jainism in its current institutional form, was a keen observer of nature. The text states: "Thoroughly knowing the earth-bodies and water-bodies and fire-bodies and wind-bodies, the lichens, seeds, and sprouts, he comprehended that they are, if narrowly inspected, imbued with life" (; in Jacobi, 1884). These observations indicate the underpinning of the Jaina worldview: the belief that life (jīva) takes many interchanging forms. The life force exists in the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air as well as in microorganisms (nigodha), plants, and animals. At the point of death, this life force moves from one body to the next, depending on its karmic constitution. The life force attached to an earth body moves very slowly, whereas the life force found in an insect or microorganism might move on very quickly. The goal of Jainism entails an elevation of consciousness about one's karma, leading to rebirth in a human body and the adoption of a nonviolent lifestyle that will ultimately free a person from all karmic entanglements. At this final stage of blessedness, one ascends to the realm of perfection (siddha-loka) wherein one dwells eternally, observing the machinations of the world but never again succumbing to its allurement. The twenty-four great teachers or tīrthakaras of Jainism all are said to have attained this state along with an undetermined number of saints.

The practice of nonviolence or ahisā in Jainism sets an individual on the path of spiritual purification and ascent toward liberation. Jainas have been scrupulous in developing techniques for the avoidance of harm to living beings. The vows of Jainism provide the very foundation for Jaina identity. Nonviolence undergirds the human interpretation of and consequent relationship with the natural world. The commitment to not inflict harm extends far beyond anthropocentric concerns into the animal, plant, and even elemental realms.

The Ācārāga Sūtra lists five primary vows (vrata) for ethical practice: nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, sexual restraint, and nonpossession. These same vows inspired Mohandas Gandhi to lead a deeply abstemious life; he had learned of them during his childhood in Gujarat, an Indian state with a large Jaina presence, and from Raichandbhai, a prominent Jaina lay teacher. Nonviolence requires not only doing no harm to other human beings but also being informed about and respectful of all life forms. Truthfulness requires honesty in all one's dealings and vigilance about one's commitment to the nonviolent ideal. Stealing causes harm in innumerable ways, as does sexual promiscuity. In addition to the obvious emotional and medical hazards presented by wantonness, the very act of sexual intercourse kills innumerable microorganisms generated and obliterated by the heat and friction of sexual contact. Possessions weigh heavily on their owners. All material objects entail some sort of harm in their production and maintenance. Even to wear a heavy coat traps small insects and microorganisms. The Jaina philosophers and practitioners were mindful of such violations of the code of nonviolence and advocated minimal ownership of things. The ultimate ideal can be found in the story of Mahāvīra, who spent the last several years of his life totally naked, a practice emulated by the naked monks of the Digambara branch of Jainism.

In the early philosophical period of Jainism, Umāsvāti (c. 450 ce) composed the Tattvārtha Sūtra, a text that itemizes and describes the details of Jaina cosmology. The universe, shaped like a cosmic woman, consists of seven hells at its base, the surface of planet earth (Jambudvīpa) emanating from the navel region at its center, and nine heavens that rise through the torso of the cosmic person up to the crown of the cosmic head. Beyond the body of this person can be found the crescent realm of the liberated souls, the siddhas (adepts) and tīrthakaras (great teachers), who have attained the fourteenth and ultimate state of unattached aloneness (ayoga kevala). These adepts have literally risen above and beyond all forms of karma. All other life forms can be found in lower stages of consciousness, with the overwhelming majority residing in the first stage, the deluded or ignorant view (mithyādi). Only human beings can begin the ascent along the spiritual path (guasthāna) that ultimately frees one from all karmic entanglement.

Umāsvāti categorized life forms according to the number of senses they possess. Earth, water, fire, and air bodies have only the sense of touch, as do plants. Worms add the sense of taste. Bugs possess touch, taste, and the capacity to smell. Winged insects add the ability to see. More complex beings, such as reptiles, mammals, and fish, can also hear and think. These higher life forms develop moral agency and make clear decisions about their behavior. These categories became embellished with great detail in the centuries fol-lowing.

In the Middle Ages, some Jaina authors turned their attention to an exhaustive enumeration of biotic forms. Śāntisūri, a Śvetāmbara Jaina writer of the eleventh century, states in the Jīva Vicāra Prakaranam that hardened rock can survive as a distinct life form for twenty-two thousand years; "water-bodied souls" for seven thousand years; wind bodies for three thousand years; trees for ten thousand years; and fire for three days and three nights. He goes on to describe different forms of rock, such as quartz, gold, chalk, lava, and many others, and the variety of shapes assumed by water and fire and gives elegant descriptions of plant genres, worms, bugs, animals, hell beings, gods, and humans.

Jaina cosmology proclaims that all aspects of the surrounding world have feelings and consciousness. The earth feels and responds in kind to human presence. The earth one treads upon, the water one drinks, the air one inhales, the chair that supports one, the light that illumines one's dayall these entities feel one through the sense of touch, though one seldom acknowledges their presence. Humans, as living, sensate, sentient beings, have been given the special task and responsibility of growing in awareness and appreciation of these other life forms and of acting accordingly. Humans have the opportunity to cultivate ethical behavior that engenders respect toward the living, breathing, conscious beings that suffuse the universe.

The environmental message of this remarkable faith presents interesting challenges to the development of an ethical outlook. On the one hand, Jain precepts can support and correct the practice of an ecologically aware lifestyle. The practice of a Jaina monk or nun or carefully observant layperson challenges even the deep ecologist. Vegetarianism must be followed. One may not take up a profession that entails harm in any way. Only a few Jaina farmers can be found, as agriculture causes too much harm to the earth bodies and the two-sensed worms found in the soil. Jainas generally are careful about their professional choices, with few members of the community participating in warfare, directly or indirectly. Virtually none will involve themselves in the trafficking of animal products. Most Jainas take up careers that involve the production and sale of items manufactured from one-sensed beings and have found great success in the cotton industry and the diamond business as well as in accounting and banking. Many prosperous Jaina industrialists have used their wealth to support the extensive communities of Jaina monks and nuns in India and have contributed generously to the construction of Jaina temples.

However, other aspects of the faith present ambiguous challenges. Like the members of virtually all other religions, Jainas, despite their promotion of compassion toward all life forms and extensive construction of animal shelters (pinjrapoles), believe the highest form of life is human life. The inherent worth of other life forms is to be respected, but not for its own sake. Rather, a Jaina avoids harm for his or her own self-purification, not to advance the spiritual status of another. In traditional Jainism, to interfere with another's karma does harm to oneself. Despite Jainism's emphasis on the need for self-purification, the myriad practices resulting from the importance of nonviolencethe Ācārāga Sūtra even includes detailed instructions on how to empty one's bowels without harming living beingshave the unintended effect of guaranteeing that when in the presence of an observant Jaina even an ant has a much better chance for survival than it would if in the company of even well-intentioned members of other religious communities.

Perhaps one illustration of a positive attitude toward environmental protection stemming from the observance of ahisā can be found in two Jaina stories that relate to trees. The first comes from a discourse in the Ācārāga Sūtra in which Mahāvīra tells a gathering of monks and nuns to "change their minds" about looking at big trees. He says that, rather than seeing trees as "fit for palaces, gates, houses, benches , boats, buckets, stools, trays, ploughs seats, beds, cars sheds," they should speak of trees as "noble, high and round, big," with "many branches magnificent" (2.4.2, 1112; in Jacobi, 1884). This advice indicates that Mahāvīra not only appreciated the beauty of trees but also encouraged his followers to set aside their utilitarian perspectives. Wood, the major material used at the time for nearly all aspects of human manufacturing, was to be viewed by Jainas not for its monetary value but for its inherent beauty.

Another tree story similarly warns against the wanton destruction of trees while simultaneously explaining the mechanics of karma :

A hungry person with the most negative black leśyā karma uproots and kills an entire tree to obtain a few mangoes. The person of blue karma fells the tree by chopping the trunk, again merely to gain a handful of fruits. Fraught with gray karma, a third person spares the trunk but cuts off the major limbs of the tree. The one with orangish-red karma carelessly and needlessly lops off several branches to reach the mangoes. The fifth, exhibiting white or virtuous karma, "merely picks up ripe fruit that has dropped to the foot of the tree." (Jaini, 1916, p. 47)

Again, trees are not to be regarded covetously for their fruits but are to be given respect and treated in such a way as to avoid the inflicting of harm. This ethic of care may be extended to the entire biotic community, engendering an awareness of and sensitivity to the precious nature of life.

A ready example of Jaina involvement in the protection of life can be found in their long-standing practice of animal rescue. Quite often, the connection between treatment of animals and the environment is overlooked. The Jaina tradition has a long commitment to animal protection that can serve as a paradigm guiding interaction with the natural world. During the period of the Islamic incursion into India, the Jaina community was often in retreat and had some of its temples taken over and converted into mosques. However, some Jaina monks exerted influence within the Islamic world. Jinacandrasūri II (15311613), a leader of the Khartar Gacch order of the Śvetāmbaras, traveled in 1591 to Lahore, where he greatly influenced the Mogul emperor Akbar the Great. He gained protection for Jain pilgrimage places as well as legal protection ensuring that Jaina ceremonies would not be hindered. Akbar even lent support to Jaina advocacy for animals and forbade the slaughter of animals for one week each year.

A modern example of Jaina activism that extends into the realm of ecological ethics is in the work of two leaders of the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthī movement, Ācārya Tulsi (19141997) and his successor Ācārya Mahāprajña. Tulsi was appointed to the leadership of his order in 1936, when he was twenty-two years old. For fifty-eight years he served as leader and preceptor and worked tirelessly at promulgating the Jaina teachings on nonviolence. In June 1945, deeply disturbed by World War II, he issued a nine-point declaration of the basic principles of nonviolence. Starting with the proclamation that nonviolence should be widely propagated, he then stated that one must overcome anger, pride, deceitfulness, and discontent; that all persons should pursue education; that governments must become just; that science must not be used for purposes of war; that governmental pronouncements should promote "universal fraternity instead of national solidarity"; that people must not hoard; that the weak must not be oppressed; and that religious freedom should be granted to all (Kumar and Prakash, p. 42). Although some of these principles may certainly be seen though environmentalist spectacles, particularly the admonition against hoarding, not until 1949 did Ācārya Tulsi explicitly mention environmental pollution. He issued an eleven-point call for action, culminating in an eco-friendly message. Specifically, he asked his followers, laypeople and monastics, to observe the following admonitions: to not kill or attack; to not engage in destructive activities; to subscribe to the ideals of human unity and religious toleration; to follow good business ethics; to limit acquisitions; to not engage in falsification of elections; to abstain from bad habits and addictions; and finally, to be "alert to the problem of keeping the environment pollution-free" (Kumar and Prakash, p. 71).

Contemporary Jainas, particularly in North America, identify readily with values centered on environmental protection. Anne Vallely notes, "Rather than through the idiom of self-realization or the purification of the soul, ethics are being expressed through a discourse of environmentalism and animal rights" (Vallely, 2002, p. 193). One example of this trend is in Resurgence, the journal edited by the former Jaina monk Satish Kumar. This beautiful publication features works by prominent photographers, artists, and writers that highlight the beauties of nature and critique the many assaults on the environment caused by consumerism and the global economy. Whereas this journal enjoys worldwide distribution to diverse constituencies, a newer journal, Jain Spirit: Sharing Jain Values Globally, is distributed almost exclusively within the Jaina community. It includes articles on an array of topics, including essays on the integration of Jaina traditional values into contemporary life. One such piece, "Vote with Your Pocket," by Raju Shah, extols the virtues of hybrid automobiles, which "produce up to 90 percent less emission than a similar-sized normal vehicle" (Shah, 2003, p. 44). Numerous websites buttress the new global reach of the Jaina community, which continues to espouse vegetarianism and animal activism as key components of its ethical expression. As the twenty-first century progresses, the abstemious lifestyle of the Jainas may become increasingly instructive to those seeking to protect the environment.


Babb, Lawrence. Absent Lord: Ascetics and Kings in a Jain Ritual Culture. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

Chapple, Christopher Key. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany, N.Y., 1993. Includes an examination of how traditional Jaina texts and practices might contribute to debates over the global issue of environmental degradation.

Chapple, Christopher Key. Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life. Cambridge, Mass., 2002. Includes essays by Nathmal Tatia, John E. Cort, Paul Dundas, Padmanabh S. Jaini, and others on the contributions that Jainism can make to ecological discourse. It also examines the complex issue of whether a traditional system of ethical reflection based on self-purification can be adapted to adopt a more socially active role.

Dundas, Paul. "Jain Perceptions of Islam in the Early Modern Period." Indo-Iranian Journal 42, no. 1 (1999): 3546.

Dundas, Paul. The Jains. 2d ed. London, 2002. Provides a comprehensive history of the Jaina faith.

Jacobi, Hermann, trans. Jaina Sutras, vol. 1: The Akaranga Sutra. The Kalpa Sutra. 1884; reprint, New York, 1968.

Jaini, Jagmanderlal. The Outlines of Jainism. Cambridge, U.K., 1916.

Jaini, Padmanabh S. The Jaina Path of Purification. Berkeley, Calif., 1979. Outstanding survey of Jaina history and doctrine.

Kumar, Muni Prashant, and Muni Lok Prakash. "Anuvrat Anushasta Saint Tulsi: A Glorious Life with a Purpose." Anuvibha Reporter 3, no. 1.

Lodrick, Deryck O. Sacred Cows, Sacred Places: Origins and Survivals of Animal Homes in India. Berkeley, Calif., 1981.

Śāntisūri. Jīva Vicāra Prakaranam, along with Pāthaka Ratnākara's Commentary. Edited by Muni Ratna-Prabha Vijaya, translated by Jayant P. Thaker. Madras, India, 1950.

Shah, Raju. "Vote with Your Pocket." Jain Spirit 14 (MarchMay 2003).

Tobias, Michael. Ahimsa: Nonviolence. PBS film, Los Angeles, Direct Cinema, 1989. A video that portrays leading Jaina teachers, shows Jaina pilgrimage sites, and explains fundamental teachings.

Tobias, Michael. Life Force: The World of Jainism. Berkeley, Calif., 1991. A gentle introduction to the life and business practices of contemporary Jainas in India.

Tobias, Michael. "Jainism and Ecology." In Worldviews and Ecology: Religion, Philosophy, and the Environment, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1994. This important chapter delineates resources from the Jaina tradition that can be construed as eco-friendly.

Umāsvāti. That Which Is: Tattvārtha Sūtra. Translated by Nathmal Tatia. New York, 1994.

Vallely, Anne. "From Liberation to Ecology: Ethical Discourses among Orthodox and Diaspora Jains." In Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, edited by Christopher Key Chapple. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Christopher Key Chapple (2005)