Introduction To Jainism ► [03] Ahimsa ► Jainism and Environment

Posted: 18.09.2008

This section (Book: pp. 49 - 69) was written by Surendra Bothra, Jaipur, India, and is used with his kind permission.




Jainism is especially significant in our modern industrialized times for a better understanding of our proper place, attitude and function within the totality of our natural environment. Amazingly all we have to do is to refer to a book written more than 2000 year ago, known as the Āchārānga Sūtra, on which Surendra Bothra wrote the following article:


Āchārānga: The first book on the environment

The simple meaning of environment is "external conditions or surroundings." With our careless interference and exploitation we have changed everything around us to an extent that our natural surroundings are no longer natural. They are polluted, spoiled and degenerated. In the process we ignored even the vital fact that our actions may one day endanger our own existence.

More precisely, according to the dictionary, environment is defined as "the surrounding conditions, influences or forces that influence or modify the whole complex of climatic, edaphic (soil related) and biotic factors that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary).

The highly evolved human race has been adding various new and potent factors to this already complex system. Social, religious, political, and economic are prominent among these. Although all these factors evolve according to the physical environment of a specific group, they in turn influence and change the physical environment with ever increasing interference in the natural conditions. These changes can be both constructive and destructive.

When we look into the history of the human race we find that in the beginning each and every way of living or life style was intimately connected with and influenced by the environment, knowingly or unknowingly. That man has been driven by greed since the very beginning cannot be denied. Even primitive societies had groups who plundered the available resources and damaged their surroundings. However, the combined efforts even of all such groups around the world were almost insignificant. Even in those times there were people who were sensitive to the harm they could do to nature and the harm that nature could do to them in turn.

Human life continues to exist under the diverse and divergent influences of innumerable forces and variables of nature, society and circumstances. The same is true for every form of life and that is its natural destiny or fate. As long as we are not wise enough to think, analyze and understand the complexities of nature we remain unaware of these conflicting forces. This is because they are generally in a dynamic balance. Our awareness is triggered only when this multidimensional dynamic balance is slightly disturbed for a certain period. Man has been working hard to fully understand this balanced state since he first opened his eyes.

With the scientific and technological advancements, the consequent population explosion and industrial development man's ambition of conquering nature turned into megalomania. In the recent past the exploitation of natural resources has increased exponentially. In the process man completely forgot that environment is intrinsically and incontrovertibly connected with everything organic. Even the minutest change in environment influences all life-systems. And the influence of careless activities is mostly harmful.

All this has disturbed the ecological balance to the extent that the changes started affecting the life of humans. We have been jolted awake to the need of drastic measures to curb the ongoing degradation. Serious and widespread studies in this field were commenced. However, in spite of the continued and wide-ranging research, when it comes to application, this field is yet to attain the required maturity and sincerity.

The present state is that in spite of all pointed and general efforts made for the last fifty years, we have failed to put noticeable brakes on the continuing environmental degradation. It is high time some radical thinking, deliberations and actions emerged on the ever darkening horizons.

It would appear that religion has hardly anything to do with such physical and technical things like environment and ecology. That is because the dividing lines drawn between different disciplines for convenience of management have turned into barriers. We generally miss the fact that in the overall picture of things everything is connected and related to every other thing.

In some schools of thought stray efforts were made to understand, evolve and establish a life style intimately connected with nature in a mutually sustainable way. In all probability Jains have of old made maximum efforts in this direction. Their efforts even culminated in designing an environment-based style of life that is rational and scientific.

Ironically, with the passage of time the ritualistic leanings took over and we forgot the ecological importance of the life style we followed.

The Jain sages had an acutely sensitive and penetrating insight into the world of the living. They designed the ahimsā way of life with a very wide and liberal perspective of life. The popular Jain aphorism -"parasparopagraho jTvanam" (all living things are mutually supportive) - encompasses the symbiotic phenomenon of creation and sustenance existing in nature at all levels. [e.g. Bacteria extract nutrition from our intestines and at the same time they help us digest our food. A bee extracts nectar from flowers and at the same time pollinates them for their procreation.]

Had we made a little effort, had we shaken off our traditional conceit and dogma, and sincerely pondered over the problem, we could have provided humanity with solutions to many of the environmental problems. Tree worship and the concept of the wish-fulfilling tree (kalpavriksha) are common to almost all Indian religions. But to believe in life and consciousness in plants and beyond in both visible and invisible life forms, and to nurture fraternity and compassion for all life forms, macroscopic as well as microscopic, seems to be a unique contribution of the Jain religion.

The prevention of abuse of the ecosystem is an intrinsic part of the ahimsā way of life. It is designed to eliminate the sources of disturbance to the ecology at individual as well as social levels in a pragmatic way. If we look at the Jain code of conduct, both for ascetics and laity, we find that it prohibits individuals and society from harming the natural habitat. In fact, it goes a step beyond. By nurturing the natural functioning of the habitat through sentiments of ahimsā and universal fraternity it helps restore any damage and disturbance caused to the ecological balance.

I would go so far as to say that protection of the environment is the foundation on which the edifice of the Jain way of life has been raised. It was so intimately assimilated in our life that it became our second nature. Today the separate identity of that environmental foundation appears to have been lost. Time took its toll. In the form of ritualistic cults, we were left with mere skeletal remains of the true philosophy of life.

I would like to give an example here. Care in disposal of waste has been included in the five cares (called samitis) which form the essential part of the first and primary Jain vow of ahimsā. We never tried to assess why so much importance was given to such a routine activity. Even today it has not been elaborated beyond its ritual and traditional spiritual role. We now know that one of the prime causes of environmental degradation is careless release of polluting waste into the atmosphere. This includes normal as well as industrial waste.

Forget about what we failed to do. Should we not think of elaborating such pointers and extending the scope of their application from individual to social, national and international levels?

Anyway, all is not lost, even today if we remove the dust of ostentatious rituals we can find practical solutions to the problems. But it is easier said than done. Serious and sincere efforts will have to be made because that remote life style and its philosophy will have to be reshaped to suit the changed conditions. It will have to be presented in the form and language modern society can understand and easily follow.

Accepting life in plants, abstention from destroying any life form, giving importance to discipline and self-restraint at individual and social levels, pursuing pacification of animosity and aggression, and nurturing universal fraternity and compassion are some of the inherent attributes of the Jain way of life that make it environment friendly. Now that the Jain way of life has been contaminated and environmental degradation has acquired awesome dimensions, it has become pertinent to see and examine every facet of Jain religion in the context of environment.

I would like to present here the inherent affinity Jain tenets have with ecology with the help of what this tradition has acquired and inherited in the form scriptures. Many of these sources are still available and waiting to be utilized for improving the health of the ecology of this planet. But we failed to take steps in that direction, why?

It seems that at some point of time the system of studying the old texts with the freedom of exploring other than the assigned themes and meanings broke down. A larger majority of available texts were branded as religious and spiritual. That appears to be the reason for exclusively religious, ritualistic and sectarian commentaries by the later traditional scholars and thinkers. It is time that the cocoon of obscure and ritualistic traditional interpretations is shattered, and the ancient texts are examined from different angles and that an attempt is made to explore new meanings and interpretations. In all probability this would open up new dimensions of information and knowledge.

In this context the first sermon of Bhagavan Mahāvīra, written down as the Āchārānga Sūtra, is very significant. It is the first of the eleven extent Anga Sūtras (the primary canons or the main corpus of the Jain canonical texts. These consist of twelve treatises, eleven of which are extent - at least according to the Śvetambara tradition, though not according to the Digambaras, who maintain that the original texts were destroyed even in Mahāvīra's days).

The traditional interpretation of the Āchārānga Sūtra or for that matter any other Jain scripture is directed at the spiritual realm. This is of course extremely valuable. But traditionalists came to maintain and emphasize that this is the only interpretation and there is no scope for any other viewpoint. But such an absolutist attitude is against the Jain doctrine of anekāntavāda, which teaches the lawfulness and necessity of multiple viewpoints.

If we look at the Āchārānga Sūtra from the standpoint of the environment we will find that it abounds in information in relation to the environment. In fact it would not be exaggerating to say that the Āchārānga Sūtra is the oldest, thorough, scientific and pointed endeavor by Jain thinkers at evolving an environment-friendly way of life after understanding the importance of all facets of the environment.

The Āchārānga starts with a discussion about movement (gati) or direction of movement of life. It says - "I have heard, O long-lived one (Jambu Svāmi), Bhagavan (Mahāvīra Svāmi) says thus - 'Some beings in this world are not aware of this - whether I have come from the eastern direction, or I have come from the southern direction, or I have come from the western direction, or I have come from the northern direction, or I have come from the direction above (zenith), or I have come from the direction below (nadir), or I have come from some an intermediate cardinal point or another directions (between these points)'" (Āchārānga 1.1).

The traditional doctrinal interpretation of the term gati (realm of nature within the universe) is related to the concept of rebirth. Let us now look at it in the context of the physical world and day-to-day life. The direction of movement of a thing or a living being plays a vital role in the protection or destruction of the environment and ecology. As we know, the environment is a setup of innumerable complex systems made up of near infinite numbers of living organisms, things and forces which are always in an all-pervading dynamic balance. A change in natural functioning of just one of the infinite constituents of one of the innumerable systems disturbs this balance.

In such a situation man, endowed with the unique capacity to think, imagine and translate his thoughts into action, has an added responsibility. His conduct and actions can be damaging not only to himself but also to this dynamic balance if he is ignorant of the natural functioning of the things around him.

The Āchārānga then advises us to be aware of violent actions and mentions reasons for this: "In the world (being a source of violence) all these sinful activities that are causes of inflow of karmas (karma-samarambhas) are worth knowing and abandoning" (Āchārānga 1.1.5).

"About this the Bhagavan has prescribed (preached or propagated) parijñana (awareness or knowledge):

(People indulge in violence mainly due to the following reasons:)

  1. In order to protect his life (everyone loves life, therefore he makes use of wealth, medicine, and other things).
  2. In order to gain praise and fame (he makes efforts to win competitions like wrestling).
  3. In order to gain status and prestige (he accumulates wealth and power).
  4. In order to gain respect and veneration (he participates in war and other such violent contests).
  5. Birth (he indulges in festivities to celebrate the day of his child's or own birth).
  6. Death (he indulges in various rites and rituals connected with death).
  7. Inspired by the desire of liberation (he indulges in religious rituals like animal sacrifice).
  8. In order to be free of sorrows (he indulges in various violent experiments to vanquish ailments, terror, and torments)" (Āchārānga 1.1.7).

The target of the said activities is the world of the living. In the Jain view this includes a large part of what westerners know as matter. Jains have defined matter as ajīva (non-living). [As will be discussed in chapter 6, the detailed definition of the taxonomy of living organisms is a vast discipline in itself.] For the theme under consideration it would suffice to understand that beyond the visible gross world there exists a minute and subtle world that influences us and is influenced by us. Therefore, every action that harms this world of micro and macro life and matter is violence and worth curbing. In every life form there is autonomous and reactive movement. The sentient beings have an additional movement, the volitional movement. When we are careful in movement, we are essentially careful in thought.

After emphatically establishing that ignorance, or unawareness of all our subtle motives and movements in the karmic space, greatly determines the actions of a being, the Āchārānga talks of types of actions which should be curbed. Classifying such actions as himsā (violence) the Sūtra opposes them. The reason attributed to this is that the consequence of such actions tarnishes the soul by acquiring karmic dust (pudgala) and leads to anguish, distress, agony, sorrow and death during this or future births.

In the elaboration of the area of violence Āchārānga has enveloped almost all major components of ecology. The description starts with the violence towards earth-bodied (prithivikāya) beings. The traditional definition of earth-bodied beings is "minute organism made of and subsisting on the earth-element." In the same style water-bodied, air-bodied, fire-bodied and plant-bodied beings have been defined before proceeding to the animal world. "Therefore, knowing about the unexpressed sufferings of the earth-bodied [etc.] beings one (the sagacious) should not harm earth bodied beings himself, neither make others do so, nor approve of others doing so" (Āchārānga 1.2.17).

Āchārānga gives the first authenticating statement about life in plants by comparing a plant body with human body: "I say:

  • This human body is born, so is this plant.
  • This human body grows, so does this plant.
  • This human body is conscious, so is this plant.
  • This human body withers when damaged, so does this plant.
  • This human body has food intake, so has this plant.
  • This human body decays, so does this plant.
  • This human body is not permanent, so is this plant.
  • This human body gets strong with nutrition and weak without it, so does this plant.
  • This human body undergoes many changes, so does this plant.

- Āchārānga 1.5.40

The Āchārānga concept of violence is far more elaborate and wider in scope compared to the normal or traditional definition of violence. The reason behind prohibiting violence to any component (as defined in Āchārānga) of the complex life-system on this planet is not easily appreciated. In order to appreciate it we have to understand the most amazingly complex, dynamic and fragile ecological balance existing in nature. We will also have to be aware how a seemingly insignificant but ignorant human action can disturb this balance and cause harm to innumerable living beings, including humans. Human ignorance often lies at the basis of a tree of destruction of an extensive ecologically balanced natural system. The complex balance in nature and its precariousness is ever more surprising while it rests on a multiplicity of seemingly independent constituents.

After defining the object and target of violence, Āchārānga mentions śāstra (weapon) as a means of violence. To hurt or destroy a thing employing a weapon (or tool of violence) is called violence (himsā). And this weapon is defined as anything, including our intention, which has attributes contradictory, conflicting or hostile to those of the object against which it is directed. To contaminate earth, water, air and fire with things having such conflicting properties is violence. This is a unique definition of a weapon and appears to be based explicitly on ecological parameters. If put in ecological terms, anything that pollutes and harms earth, water, air, and fire is a weapon and the act of polluting is violence. These four - earth, water, air, and fire - in the state they exist are the basic and essential components of the habitat conducive to life. Even the modern scientists and thinkers who have suffered the consequences of environmental pollution, have not been able to design environmental protection programs based on such all-enveloping definitions of weapon and violence.

Assigning the category jīva (living organism) to the life sustaining components of nature - earth, water, fire and air - is suggestive of the important responsibility of man towards nature. Violence does not simply mean harm to the visible life forms, but the Āchārānga definition of violence includes destruction of even the remote possibility of evolution of life. If we are earnest about the protection of the environment we will have to popularize such comprehensive and all-enveloping concepts. Āchārānga has discussed this concept in both spiritual and mundane contexts.

Transgression has been discussed in great detail and given a very wide definition in the ahimsā way of life proposed in Āchārānga. At micro level it covers minute matter particles. In the biological field it covers all things and activities of the world of the living, micro and macro. At the gross level it covers every thing and process existing in this universe. It is a fundamental principle and can be applied with the necessary variations to every field and at every level within a specific field.

This detailed discussion was later summed up as abstention from prānātipāta (harming life) (Uttarādhyayana Sūtra). When we study the detailed explanation of the term prānātipāta, it is further confirmed that Jain ahimsā is not just about avoiding harm to living beings. It goes beyond and includes avoiding harm to the environment and ecology conducive to generation, evolution and sustenance of life.

Jainism defines prāna as force that makes one live (life-force). It is of two kinds - dravya prāna (physical life-force) and bhava prāna (mental or spiritual life force).

Dravya prāna (physical life-force) - force which provides signs of life and absence of which means death; also, force that sustains the union of soul and body. It manifests ten ways - five sense organs, three powers, manas, vach, kāya, mind, speech and body, respiration and life-span. All beings are endowed with one or more of these life-forces. The capacities of the five indriyas (sense organs), three balas (strengths - mental, vocal, and physical), respiration and life-span are the ten prānas. Of these ten prānas, one-sensed beings possess four (life-span, respiration, physical strength, one sense, i.e. that of touch), two-sensed beings have six (add the sense organ of taste and vocal strength), three-sensed beings have seven (further add sense organ of smell), four sensed beings have eight (further add sense organ of seeing), five-sensed non-sentient beings have nine (further add sense organ of hearing) and sentient five-sensed beings have all ten (further add mental strength). Atipāta means violation. Thus prānātipāta includes violation of any or all of these ten prānas or life forces. Jains try to damage as few as possible prānas in their food habits. That is why the consumption of plants is considered a lesser sin than eating the flesh of animals.

Bhava prāna (mental or spiritual life force) - the bhava prānas are basically attributes of the soul manifesting through the body or otherwise. They are four - knowledge, perception, conduct and potency (vīrya). Every being has these spiritual forces in variable quantity, not in terms of numbers as in the case of physical prānas, but in terms of intensity or degree. In general the dormant one-sensed beings (nigodas, "microorganisms") have the minimum intensity of knowledge etc. and other one-sensed beings have a little more, and so on. Violence is not just physical harming but also harming on the mental level. Also it is not just harm to others, but harm to oneself as well (Brihatsangrahniratna, Hindi translation, p. 232).

In conclusion Āchārānga states - "He who has properly understood the violence related to six life forms is a parijñana-karma muni (a discerning sage or an ascetic who with a discerning attitude abandons violence)" (Āchārānga 1.7.56).

After proscribing violence starts the detailed discussion of the disciplined life-style designed to avoid such violent and anti-environment activities. When we resolve not to harm two or more sensed living beings we will avoid cruelty towards the full range of animals that are tortured and killed, not just for food and medicine, but also for producing things of comfort and beautification. When we resolve not to harm one-sensed living organisms we will avoid careless exploitation of the material resources available in nature.

The life-style proposed here is completely and intimately connected with mutually sustainable interaction with nature and environment. This is what conservation ethics is all about. This unique way of living shows the path of spiritual as well as mundane development that avoids disturbing the fragile dynamic balance of the ecology of this planet.

Āchārānga establishes ahimsā as a universal and eternal truth. Ahimsā as elaborated in Āchārānga does not stop at philanthropy. It proposes universal fraternity for all life-forms and extends to matter. It is a fundamental principle applicable to all facets of life and all dimensions of the physical world. It is not just about feelings; it is also about the balance in the physical universe. Anything conducive to balance is ahimsā.

These are some examples selected from the first chapter of Āchārānga. Although the book was written more than two millennia ago by Jain thinkers, if the whole book is studied from an ecological point of view it appears as if it has been written by modern environmentalists on the basis of profound study and with great care. The need of the hour is that rising above the traditional bias, modern Jain thinkers and scholars conduct unbiased and multidimensional research on this and other scriptures. This would indeed be a beneficial and important contribution towards the beatitude of mankind, or indeed, the entire world of the living.

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First Edition, 2006
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Translated and revised edition of:
" Jainisme - Een introductie"