Jīva and Ahiṃsā: A Contribution Towards a Biocentric Morality

Published: 20.12.2017

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London

For the Pythagoreans wisdom (sophia) consisted of the recognition of religious and moral obligations of man defined in an eschatological context. The lover of such wisdom was called a philosphos, a 'philosopher,' one of— if not the earliest —uses of the word in that sense. Pythagoras (ca. 570 to ca. 490 BCE) taught the immortality and metempsychosis or transmigration of the psychē,[1] the essential element in the body-soul complex.[2] The psyche survived the death of the body and continued to be reborn in other bodies, human or animal, while retaining some personal characteristics. What ultimately happened to the psyche is, however, not clear. Pythagoras and his followers adhered to a life of dietary restrictions, especially vegetarianism, to strict ritual observance and rigorous ascetism. His vegetarianism was most probably a corollary of his belief in metempsychosis. He reportedly said that "all animate beings are of the same family" (Porphyry, VP 19). Though Pythagoras continued to have followers in the ancient western world up to the first century CE in Rome, his legacy was not in his ethical doctrines, but in mathematics. His teaching of the equivalence of all life, apparently centred on the idea of an immortal psyche supporting all life, did not gain general acceptance and was soon to be followed by the development of ideas reflecting quite the opposite.

For Aristotle (c. mid 4th century BCE, De anima) there were three types of psyche or soul. Plants had a vegetative soul, animals had in addition to that also a sensitive soul, and humans had on top of that a rational soul. In animals and humans the vegetative soul was found in the liver. The animal soul resided in the heart, and in humans the rational soul was to be found in the brain. These three types of souls also had three 'capacities' (dynameis): nutrition for plants, sensation, motion and some degrees of mental functioning for animals, and the workings of the intellect (nous) or rational thought for humans. Aristotle also believed that the psyche as a substance was ultimately a 'form' or a universal that could not exist separately from its particularized instances, being matter or body. The psyche was substance as form, not as matter. It was a substance that was (1) incorporeal, (2) created unity and purpose in the material body, (3) gave identity and permanence to it, and (4) could not exist separately from it. For Aristotle the soul was the hypostasis, the primary principle of life. It distinguished the living from the nonliving. An organism lives, grows and changes due to an internal cause, its psyche, and not only through action of external agents as in case of inanimate objects. Aristotle was also an ardent teleologist; he believed that everything in nature exists for a purpose and with a plan. Notwithstanding his belief in a vegetative and animal soul he considered the purpose of plants to serve as food for animals and animals as food for humans. He drew no ethical consequences from his tripartite soul theory. Non-human life was not brought into the sphere or circle of morality

Christianity, in the Book of Genesis (I:26) where God created man in his own image after his likeness and gave him "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth," also followed Aristotle's teleological view on the practical, nutritious value of non-human life. Most of historical and certainly modern Christianity ascribes immortality to the soul and also very strictly reserves it for humans, hereby excluding non-human life from the circle of morality.

Descartes (1596–1650) compromised between his scientific and his Christian beliefs about man and in doing so he enlarged the gap between human and non-human forms of life drastically. For Descartes the boundary line was no longer between the inanimate and the animate, but between the physical world, comprising matter, inanimate as well as animate, and the human mind. Inspired by Harvey's discovery of the blood circulation, he tried to explain bodily functions in mechanistic terms. Because of the close association of the human psyche with the theological concept of soul and the philosophical notion of rationality, all non-human forms of life were reduced to automata, devoid of soul, and hence free from the capacity to sin and the capacity to suffer as well. For Descartes animals and the human body were mechanical devices differing from artificial ones only in level of complexity. Descartes recognised that animals had a mental functioning, but he insisted that that must be purely physical. However, Descartes' mechanistic paradigm suffered, among other defects, from what in classical Indian logic would be called 'over-application' (atiprasaṅga). If from animal behaviour no existence of a rational mind or soul can be inferred, how can we decide that people other than ourselves have a rational mind judging from their behaviour? Conversely, if we infer the possession of a rational mind to other humans from their effective behaviour, why would we not do the same in case of animals and hence also ascribe soul to them.

The reactions against anthropocentric ethics of Christianity and Descartes' mechanistic view arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Already in 1737, Father Bougeant, a Jesuit, raised serious doubts against Descartes' mechanistic view.[3] The first structured response against excluding animals from the sphere of moral concern came from the utilitarians led by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. They argued that morality is basically a matter of promoting the maximum of happiness and preventing the minimum of suffering for the greatest number. In this perspective Jeremy Bentham was one of the first to realize that animals had rights. He argued that animal and human suffering are vey much alike. Comparing the status of animals with that of slaves he wrote in his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789):

"Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things.... The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated... upon the same footing as... animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?... the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?... The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes... "

Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) and his theory of evolution was a milestone in the development of thought, scientifically and philosophically. He showed that all forms of life were related by evolutionary descent and that differences between species were not of kind but of degree. In his Descent of Man (1871) in the chapter on the Comparison Of The Mental Powers Of Man And The Lower Animals (p. 34) he even wrote that "There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties." This raised a fundamental ethical problem: if our behaviour towards fellow humans is regulated by morality and law, why should this not be the case in case of animals since both are not fundamentally different?

Notwithstanding utilitarianism and Darwinism a morality outstepping the limits of the human species did not seem to be much of an issue in Western philosophy until the publication of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation in 1975. Singer popularized the notion of speciesism, the analogue of racism, and applied it to traditional anthropocentric ethics and its denial of rights to animals. He started a fierce public debate and instigated the foundation of sometimes very militant movements fighting for animal rights all over the Western world. The contemporary debate on animal rights centres around a disarmingly simple argument: it is wrong to cause suffering unless there is sufficient justification. But the issue is of course not that simple. For, what is suffering and what organisms have the capacity to suffer, and, what is a sufficient justification? No doubt a dog can suffer and a horse as well. But what about the 'lower' forms of animal life like a worm or a mussel? And, let us take the question up to its limit, what about vegetative life? What about plants? Do plants have the capacity to suffer somehow? In other words, should we enlarge the sphere of morality to such a degree that it applies to all forms of life?

In the Indian spiritual and philosophical tradition there is an age-old system that does, up to this day, exactly that, viz., to draw, in real life, non-human life into the moral circle. Jainism (from sixth century BCE and probably earlier) recognizes nine categories of reality or principles of existence (tattva): life (jīva), non-life (ajīva), the influx (srava), the binding (bandha), the parry (saṃvara), the wearing down (nirjarā), and liberation (mokṣa).[4] The dichotomy between jīva and ajīva is essential to the understanding of Jain ethics. Jīva, soul or life form, is a substance (dravya). The realm of ajīva comprises four other substances: the media of movement (dharma) and immobility (adharma), space (ākāśa), and matter (pudgala).[5] Every life form (jīva) or soul can have one or more of ten vitalities (prāṇa): (1) sense of touch, (2) body, (3) respiration, (4) lifespan, (5) sense of taste, (6) faculty of speech, (7) sense of smell, (8) sense of sight, (9) sense of hearing, and (10) rationality.[6] The different life forms are classified according to these vitalities:[7] one-sensed (1-4),[8] twosensed (1-6),[9] three-sensed (1-7),[10] four-sensed (1-8),[11] five-sensed non-rational (1-9),[12] and five-sensed rational (1-10).[13] However, the most essential characteristic of jīva is upayoga.[14] All jīvas have an empirical form and a transcendental form. They are transcendentally equal as life forms with upayoga, but vary as regards their vitalities (prāṇas). Now, Tatia (1994, 39) translates the term upayoga as sentience. Other translation-cum-interpretations are: applied or operative consciousness, conscious activity, conscious attentiveness, conative drive of consciousness, manifestation or transformation or effect of consciousness. With all respect for Tatia, I do not think that the translation as sentience is correct. Sentience implies the capacity to feel, to have qualia or subjective qualitative experiences and, in the modern sense, also to suffer. The connotation of the Sanskrit term upayoga does not imply anything of this sort, not consciousness or awareness (caitanya or cetanā), nor feeling (vedanā), nor suffering (duḥkha). Upayoga, derived from the root upayuj., 'to appropriate, attach one's self to, undertake, have the use of, enjoy,' refers to any activity tending to a desired object (MW). So, I think that upayoga refers to the basic property of life to have an interest (a desired object) of its own resulting in activity towards realizing it. This object is, in a biological sense, twofold: self-preservation and reproduction. Now, in the Jain doctrine the upayoga of a life form (jīva) results in two kinds of activities and their results: determinate knowledge (sākāra-jñāna)[15] and indeterminate perception or sensation (nirākāradarśana).[16] The senses (indriya), on the other hand, are twofold:[17] the material senses (dravya-indriya), active or non-active, and the mental, internal or subjective senses (bhāva-indriya) characterized by the 'acquisition,' or possession of sensuous capacity (labdhi) and, again, its upayoga, its interested object of activity. This upayoga consists of touch (sparśa), taste (rasa), odour (gandha), colour and shape (varṇa) and sound (śabda). So, according to the Jains, upayoga, being the essential characteristic of life and also of its sensuous capacity, is interested activity resulting in empirical knowledge, determinate or not. Now, where does suffering come into the picture here? In western thought suffering is closely associated with sentience. The Jains, well within the Indian tradition, link suffering (duḥkha) to karma. For them karma is a subtle material substance of variegated constitution that, as an external agent, binds jīva to non-jīva, soul to non-soul, builds an alternative dynamic karmic body (kārmaṇa śarīra)[18] and is, in that form, responsible for continuous rebirth. Karma flows into the karmic body as a result of action, is stored there, and is worn again when its fruit (phala) or result is effectuated. This result can be pleasant or unpleasant, is pleasure or pain.

So, life is what has upayoga, self-interested activity, and causing injury to it is adharma, unrighteousness. Jain ethics is wholly built on the jīva-ajīva distinction. The non-injury or ahiṃsā principle is central to it: ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ, non-injury is the foremost duty. This duty is put into practise in two ways, by abstaining from injury to life and by promoting and sustaining life.[19] As I see it in line with the Jain view, ahiṃsā towards life is a moral duty not primarily because it can suffer, but because it has its own interested activity which can be disturbed or promoted. So, every reproducing being with an interested activity of its own that can be disturbed comes within the moral community. That does not mean that there is no justification whatsoever to destroy life. It is wrong to cause injury to life unless there is sufficient justification. To make my point clear, the use of antibiotics is well justified in the treatment of many diseases.

The idea that life can be defined as that having selfinterested activity has recently found a concrete workingout in the West. In April 1998 The Swiss Federal Council established the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH). One of its tasks was to make proposals from an ethical perspective to concretise the constitutional term dignity of living beings (Würde der Kreatur) with regard to plants. In 2004 a study was commissioned which in April 2008 resulted in a report titled 'The dignity of living beings with regard to plants; Moral consideration of plants for their own sake.'[20] The central questions were whether, and why, plants should be protected, as a species or individually. One of the criteria used in the discussions was the 'inherent worth,' the 'good of its own' and 'own interests.' A clear majority of the committee took a non-sentientist position as regards plants, though not ruling out the possibility that plants are sentient. The majority opinion was also that "we require justification to disturb plants' ability to develop," or as I would read it, to disturb its self-interested activity. The basic tenet was that:

Most ECNH members assume that the dignity of living beings is not an absolute value, but is achieved by the balancing of morally relevant interests: the good, or «interests», of plants should be weighed up against the interests or goods of other organisms. A prerequisite for balancing interests in this way, however, is that plants have their own interests, and these should be considered morally for the plant's own sake. So if we are trying to put the idea of the dignity of living beings into concrete terms for plants, we must first show which basic ethical positions permit the consideration of plants for their own sake. (p.5)

In his report the ECNH also foresaw the nature of the objections raised to their biocentric view:

For some people, the question of whether the treatment or handling of plants requires moral justification is a meaningless one. The moral consideration of plants is considered to be senseless. Some people have warned that simply having this discussion at all is risible. In their view, the human treatment of plants is on morally neutral ground and therefore requires no justification. But there are other reasons put forward to exclude plants from the circle of organisms to be valued for their own sake. One is that human life would become morally too demanding and too complicated if this area of human action had also to be justified. An additional fear is that ethical positions that value plants for their own sake could relativise higher-weighted moral responsibilities towards humans (and animals). (p.4)

The claim that human life would become morally too demanding and too complicated if even plants would acquire rights can be countered by referring to the Jains, their monks and nuns, and the laity. Though their diet and their occupations are subject to restrictions, my experience is that their daily life is neither too demanding nor too complicated. On the contrary, the life of many Jains is, in its simplicity, less demanding and complicated because it restricts choices. Also the claim that the granting of rights to plants would relativise human suffering can be confuted by referring to the attitude of many Jains towards fellow humans marked by kindness and charity. Without idealizing Jain ethics and the Jain way of life, I can only point to the worth of the study of both for the dynamics of modern bio-ethics.

Frank Van Den Bossche is senior lecturer at the Department of Languages and Cultures of Ghent University (Belgium). He lectures on Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hinduism and Jainism, and non-Western philosophy. His interests include Indian philosophy in general and Jain philosophy in particular (specially Haribhadra Sūri). He has published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy and Asian Philosophy.


Alexakis, A. "Was there Life beyond the Life beyond? Byzantine Ideas on Reincarnation and Final Restoration". Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 55 (2001) 155-177.

Aristotle. On the Soul (De anima). Hicks, R.D. (Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907.

Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789. Adamant Media Coporation, 2005.

Bhargava, D. Jaina Ethics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1968.

Bougeant, Father (Guillaume Hyacinthe Bougeant). (1737) A Philosophical Amusement upon the Language of Beasts, Of the Understanding of Beasts (Orginally published: Paris as Amusement philosophique sur le language des bestes; First English Edition: London, 1739; Online Edition: Animal Rights History, 2003)

Brenner, E. D. et al. "Plant Neurobiology: an Integrated View of Plant Signaling". Trends in Plant Science, 11: 8 (2006) 413-419.

Rachel, J. (1998). "Animals and Ethics". In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved June 10, 2008, from http:// www.rep.routledge.com/article/L004

Singer, P. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals. New York: New York Review/Random House, 1975.

Sinha, J. Indian Psychology. London: Routledge, 1934.

Soni, J. "Upayoga, according to Kundakunda and Umāsvāti." Journal of Indian Philosophy, 35, (2007) 299-311.

Umāsvāti/Umāsvāmī. Tattvārtha-Sūtra. That Which Is. With the combined Commentaries of Umāsvāti/ Umāsvāmiī, Pūjyapāda and Siddhasenagaṇi. Translated by N. Tatia. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994.


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CoJS Newsletter • March 2010 • Issue 5
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  1. Adharma
  2. Ahiṃsā
  3. Ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ
  4. Ajīva
  5. Aristotle
  6. Bandha
  7. Body
  8. Brain
  9. Caitanya
  10. Centre Of Jaina Studies
  11. Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter
  12. Cetanā
  13. Christianity
  14. CoJS Newsletter
  15. Concept of Soul
  16. Consciousness
  17. Darśana
  18. Delhi
  19. Descartes
  20. Dharma
  21. Dravya
  22. Duḥkha
  23. Fear
  24. Frank Van Den Bossche
  25. Gandha
  26. Haribhadra
  27. Haribhadra Sūri
  28. Hinduism
  29. Indriya
  30. JAINA
  31. Jain Philosophy
  32. Jaina
  33. Jainism
  34. Jīva
  35. Karma
  36. Karmic Body
  37. Kundakunda
  38. Kārmaṇa śarīra
  39. Labdhi
  40. London
  41. Mokṣa
  42. N. Tatia
  43. Nirjarā
  44. Prakrit
  45. Prāṇa
  46. Pudgala
  47. Pythagoras
  48. Rasa
  49. SOAS
  50. Sanskrit
  51. Saṃvara
  52. Science
  53. Soul
  54. Space
  55. Sūtra
  56. Tattva
  57. Tattvārtha Sūtra
  58. Umāsvāti
  59. Upayoga
  60. Vegetarianism
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