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Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 6.3 ► Environmental Concerns

Published: 25.12.2015

Jains start the day with the morning prayers of friendship to all and malice towards none. They also pray for the welfare of all living beings in the universe, which includes one-sense immobile living beings of the earth, air, fire, water and vegetation, and two- to five-sense mobile creatures. The Jain conviction of parasparopagraho jivanam teaches that all forms of life are bound together in mutuality and interdependence, but ahimsaa is the major theme of Jainism and is summarised in the scriptures thus:

'All the venerable ones (arhats) of the past, present and future discourse, counsel, proclaim, propound and prescribe thus in unison: do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being' (quoted in Singhvi 1990: p.6).

Jainism teaches restraint in the consumption of material things, the regulation of desires, and simplification of lifestyle; indulgent and profligate use of natural resources is seen as nothing other than a form of theft and violence. In their use of the earth's resources, Jains take their cue from the bee that sucks honey, in the blossoms of a tree without hurting the blossom, and strengthens itself (Singhvi 1990: p.13)

More than 2,500 years ago, Mahavira revived Jainism and declared that all beings of the natural world have equal potential for progress in the cycle of transmigration, and all are dependent upon one another for their mutual survival, but ruination ensues when this interdependence is disturbed. The air, fire, water, earth and plants have comparatively unmanifest feelings, however, plants feel pain when harm is done to them or pleasure when they are properly watered and this has now been scientifically verified (Aacaaranga: 1991: 1.15).

Michael Tobias, author of 'Life Force', has praised Jain culture in many ways, coining some attractive, charming and realistic terms for it: he has declared the Jain ethics of non-violence and animism to be 'spiritual ecology' and 'biological ethics'. In fact, these terms indicate that Jains have not only thought of human beings alone, but for all the species of the world. Thus, higher species like birds and animals, and lower species like plants and living creatures in the earth, all are postulated to have the potential equality for life. This is the result of the spiritualisation of the environment, which Jains call 'ecology'. By formalising a system of non-violent ethics Jains have made all moral and ethical rules applicable to all life of the biological realm, which is why many species have been sanctified. The different types of lotuses have been taken as identifying emblems of the two jinas.

The importance and worship of trees may have been due to the fact that they served as purifiers, not only of the external surroundings but also facilitate inner purification. This fact can be confirmed from scientific data on the pipal tree: it absorbs in 2,252 kg of impure air (carbon dioxide), assimilates and purifies it to exhale 1,722 kg of pure air (oxygen mixed with nitrogen). Hence, it is presumed to be the seat of many deities, and those who meditate beneath it purify their inner self, as the atmosphere under the trees puts people in communion with nature. In the recitals for peace, during worship or daily penitential retreats, Jains pray for an amicable balance not only between nature and humanity but also for celestials, infernals, plants and animals, the seasonal rains, purity of atmosphere and the absence of undesirable activity and diseases in society. The Jains believe in a pure ecology as a source of inner and outer vitality, and they provide radiant proof that a non-violent life and behaviour can be a viable alternative for physical and psychic progress.

The Jain Declaration on Nature presented to Prince Philip, the President of the WorldWide Fund for Nature in 1990 argues that the Jain tradition enthrones ecological harmony and non-violence. The welfare of the plant world, animal welfare and vegetarianism form a partial, or total, non-violent environmental system. Accordingly, it points out that every life should be viewed as a gift of togetherness, accommodation and mutual assistance. The Jain practice of compassion and reverence towards all living beings involves not only caring and protection for others but also sharing with and service to others, and it represents internal and external security, friendliness and forgiveness. There are many prescriptions from the Jain tradition with regard to caring for nature and the environment. The Jains have proclaimed that if one wishes to have pleasure and earn good karma, one must be compassionate and pacifist towards all living creatures. Jain seers have advocated that one should practise only those activities, which are purposeful for Right Conduct. They also stress the need to avoid those purposeless or negligent activities, which either serve no purpose or harm the surroundings or its environmental components. Jain ethics, both for laypeople and ascetics, suggest how meticulously careful were the Jain seers to maintain the benevolent and non-polluted character of the surroundings by advising people to refrain from all possible causes of pollution, external as well as internal.

Jains have stressed the importance of the internal environment, the purity of soul and self-control, in their daily lives by practising ahimsaa and aparigraha. By emphasising the livingness in all the beings including one-sense creatures such as plants, water, air, fire and the earth, Jains have extended the non-violent way of life in their thinking and behaviour. The pain and harm to others may be due to the passions, the attachment and hatred (raaga and dvesa) within us, and such action harms our own soul by attracting karmic particles. Our thoughts and actions are responsible for causing pain and pleasure to ourselves as well as to others and we cannot have peace and tranquillity if we harm others. This enormous responsibility has led Jains to care for all life including that of natural world. Rampuria has described ahimsaa: 'Ahimsaa is freedom from all miseries. To those who aspire to happiness for the soul, ahimsaa to them is like the sky to the birds, water to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, a boat to the drowning, medicine to the sick, and a guide to the lost ones in the woods' (Jain Svetambar Terapanthi Mahasabha, Calcutta, 1947, p.17). Ahimsaa is the basis of all Jain ethics.

Jain ethics teach a 'give and take' balance for the benefit not only of humanity but also for all species. Nature does not have any concept of waste; most materials designated as waste, is infact, useful to nature. Scientists are gradually developing 'utilisation of waste' technology, but they have not yet proved to be as efficient as nature, and it is due to this inefficiency that nature is overburdened. Humanity should learn a lesson from nature in terms of its ability to recycle waste into useful products.

A pure environment produces a better mind, less intensity of the passions, greater happiness and an increase in compassionate spirituality. As is well known, Jains declare it a gross offence to harm in any way any animate beings, purposely or purposelessly, as every living creature has the right to live and prosper. This concept of non-violence has positive aims and has great relevance to contemporary environmental concerns.

The spiritual ecology of the Jains indicates their penetrating insight into the nature and psychology of human beings: the religious sanctions inspire people not to indulge in sinful or disturbing acts that harm the natural world, and teach compassion and reverence for all. Jainism is, thus, not fatalist but dynamic and optimistic, which is why Jainism respects all components of nature whether plant or animal; its illustrative principle of aural coloration in meditation, and its beneficial human and educational psychology, are the end products of this love and respect.

Like Jainism, different religious systems have affirmed the duty of humanity to preserve the beauty of our surroundings by expressing nature as mother, water as father, and air as teacher. Men and nature hold a causal relationship of inter-dependence and inter-relatedness at the finest (micro-level) and grossest levels. Jews and Christians have been advised to be stewards of the earth; the Buddha encouraged improving the aesthetic beauty of the environment to earn merit; and Hindus have included service to nature as one of their five duties for the repayment of debts, which people receive directly or indirectly from birth. By contrast, the Jains not only declare the natural components as living but have made the care of them a part of their daily duties for spiritual progress and control over the mind. Their karma theory shows them that better action achieves better results, and it leads to the fact already stated, that a 'better environment brings better peace of mind'. The Jain system, therefore, not only lays theoretical emphasis on environmental protection, but it inevitably inculcates the habit of practising the implementation of this theory. All its concepts - non-violence, careful diet, limitation of possessions, refraining from purposeless activity and disrespectful behaviour - protect the environment and show care for the natural world.

The last two hundred years have seen the state of the environment taking a perilous turn. Industrial society, in its aim of conquering nature for its material benefit, has disturbed the environment, but the pre-modern society lived in harmony with nature. The Industrial Revolution has revolutionised the human mentality towards seeking more comfort, resulting in more and more competitiveness and aggressiveness towards nature; and religious and ethical concepts of benevolent equilibrium are becoming lost. At first, the consumerist culture did not discern the future catastrophe, but now, universally, people are realising the danger even to the survival of the human race. This trend has resulted in the uneven distribution of natural resources and inequality among human beings, which are against humanity itself and its moral teachings.

It seems probable that had industrialisation never materialised, nature might have maintained a balance. Population growth is another challenge facing the world over last two centuries. Rather than living in harmony with nature, commercial aspirations brought industrialisation to feed and clothe a growing population, and created an ecological imbalance. It is unfortunate that rather than blaming themselves as the root cause; people blame science and technology. For Jains, these problems could have been avoided if religious injunctions had been followed.

Analysts have pointed to eight factors contributing to the current acute environmental predicament: population, industrialisation, excessive extraction and overuse or misuse of natural resources, increase in destruction of plants and animals due to industrialisation, dietary habits and modern living, soil erosion and desertification, and municipal waste disposal.

Jains, however, point out that it is not only the external environment that is the problem but also the internal environment of the human being, the mind and the passions. If the passionate mind were to be restrained through education or religion, one could realise a better society and environment; hence, education towards minimising desires and greed, and achieving equanimity of mind is of the utmost necessity.

Population Problems

There has been a large population increase over the last two hundred years, and an explosion of different types of industries producing a variety of consumer goods, war materials, transport vehicles, thermal power, nuclear power, and information systems. There is a direct, if not geometrical, relationship between population and industries. Both not only consume natural resources but also pollute them. They exhaust nature, but as nature has the capacity to balance itself, the consumption of natural resources might not have been a serious problem if the world had been careful not to supplement them with additional industrial products, such as artificial fertilisers and harmful by-products for commercial benefits. The depletion on one side and the over-production of industrial goods on the other is creating problems of environmental imbalance. The consequence is polluted air, water and surface areas. The West is currently suffering more from industrial pollution, while the East is suffering from pollution due to both population and industry. The disposal of human, domestic and industrial waste has compounded the problem, and it is affecting the health of both humanity and the natural world, and is destroying a host of plants and animal species everyday. The forests are being destroyed to accommodate the needs of new populations. Consumerism, modern living, industries, chemical fertilisers, insecticides and sprays are converting the living earth, air and water into an inert system, harmful to all. This pollution may be:

Air Pollution: Early human beings conceived of air as a deity, showing their respect for its life-giving property to all living creatures in the universe. Scientists, however, tell us it is a balanced mixture of some gases, mainly nitrogen, oxygen and some other gases such as carbon dioxide etc., without which we cannot live. The balanced composition of air is destroyed by:

  • additional amounts of components such as carbon dioxide;
  • it's being mixed with foreign harmful components such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulphate;
  • reduction in the amount of natural components.

Life on Earth suffers through many forms of air pollution, caused by industrial gases, coal or liquid fuel, power station gases, gases formed from the burning of petrol or diesel in various forms, gases from the domestic burning of fossil or organic fuels, and gases from incineration of the municipal wastes (largely carbon dioxide, and sulphurous and nitrogenous gases). Secretory and excretory volatile ingredients from other sources also mix with air. Normally, there is a natural cycle to maintain the equilibrium of the composition of air, but as the rate of pollution is greater than the rate of equilibrium an imbalance occurs and the air is totally polluted. Air pollution creates the following effects:

  • The 'greenhouse effect' and depletion of the ozone layer leads to the warming of the earth's atmosphere.
  • Deforestation due to acid rain and the felling of trees.
  • Diseases in humans, such as respiratory illnesses, irritating coughs and skin cancers; in animals and in other life forms due to the inhalation of polluted air containing excess gases, such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and fine solid particles such as asbestos.
  • Destruction of plant life and the natural world due to acid rain caused by the mixing of acidic gases in the air, and then falling as rain.
  • Toxic effects (e.g. the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal) due to mixing of fluoride gases, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides in the air.

Water Pollution: Like air, water was also seen as divine in earlier times due to its support of life on earth. However, modern scientists tell us, it is a compound, made by hydrogen and oxygen, which is responsible for maintaining temperature equilibrium and many other processes in our physical systems. It also maintains agriculture and forestry. It is estimated that about two thirds of the earth's surface is covered by water.

One requires water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, industry and agriculture. The purity and quality of drinking water is the most important. All the sources of water are now becoming polluted through the disposal of different kinds of waste: industrial (including water, paper, fibres, metals etc.), washing water, toilet water, detergents, slurry liquids from livestock units, and soluble fertilisers and an overloaded sewage system. Water also becomes polluted from dam building, and from solid wastes, fertilisers, insecticides and other toxic substances. Polluted water affects living creatures in many ways, for example:

  • Oxygen transmission capacity in blood decreases owing to increasing amounts of nitrates;
  • Wildlife and natural beauty suffer because of toxic substances in water;
  • Water-borne diseases due to bacteria, soluble salts etc.

Surface Pollution: The earth's land surface has many properties for maintaining and preserving life. Generally, it consists of mixtures of salts and other compounds, but also it has some aqueous elements for assimilation, solution or purification. The land surface is becoming polluted from many sources such as:

  • large scale excretions and secretions;
  • large scale use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides and sprays;
  • large amounts of solid/semi-solid waste from municipal works;
  • large amounts of solid/semi-solid waste from industrial works;
  • large amounts of what is called 'Junkosis':
  • the incineration of waste materials.

A large amount of the waste material on the surface is soluble. It permeates the soil, but had it been of an appropriate quality, it would serve to purify the land's environment. However, because of its harmful nature and contents, it may be doing the reverse, adversely affecting the plant and animal life of the land, and it reduces the fertility of the earth. Plants grown on such polluted land contain many assimilated toxic ingredients, which humans and animals consume.

Pollutants —> Food Chain —> Body Chain —> Danger (?)

The various assimilated components are also toxic. They kill not only the plants but also the small creatures, which beneficially serve all life on the land. The waste or the polluting ingredients undergo many physical and chemical changes on and under the surface of the earth. They dissolve in water and pollute river waters. Their foul smell pollutes the air. Thus, surface pollution has the capacity to pollute all the environmental constituents.

Noise Pollution: Everybody is familiar with the noise of machines, vehicles, crowds, loud music, loudspeakers at public or individual religious rituals, social and other events. These noises have an effect on our sensitivity of hearing. The loudest noises not only disturb our sleep but cause dysfunction to blood circulation. High-pitched or highdecibel noises over a long period may cause our auditory organs to become desensitised, and one can become deaf or even mentally disturbed. Nuclear Pollution: Pollution due to radioactive wastes is a recent phenomenon of the twentieth century. Disasters, nuclear explosions and tragedies in atomic institutions pollute the air and affect the health of living creatures.

Prevention of Environmental Pollution: The effects of environmental nonequilibrium have alarmed politicians, governments, voluntary organisations, religious leaders and even the public. Prevention has two aspects:

What should be the aims for improving the environment? Should it be only public/human welfare or the welfare of all? Many agencies aim at only human welfare, and this seems to be the western way of thinking. However, the welfare of all species is the Jain way of thinking, as it believes in 'live and help to live'. Caring people have been concerned with this problem over a long period, and have tried to awaken the public consciousness to the enormity of impending disaster and the threat to our survival. Central governments, local governments, voluntary organisations and the caring public have made certain rules and regulations to improve the environment and reduce pollution. Many national and international conferences have been and are being held (the last two: at Rio in 1992 and New York in 1997) to discern ways and means of safeguarding the future of the planet. Some concerned scientists have been instrumental in reducing the gravity of the situation:

  • Scientists have tried, in many cases, to reduce the amount of waste material by developing recycling processes to regain useful materials, (paper, plastic, brick, metals etc.).
  • Scientists have also tried to reduce the harmful effects of waste by pre-treating it in such ways that its capacity to pollute becomes negligible.
  • Atmospheric gases are being filtered and pre-treated to remove solids and harmful contents by absorption, before being released, thus reducing the temperature and the pollution of air and water, so there is less harm to living creatures.
  • Scientists are also trying to improve the quality of polluted air and water.

All the above are useful in preserving species, however, the decision makers will not entertain a reduction in industrial growth, although they desire population control and some measures to reduce pollution. It is impossible to put the clock back, but there is no alternative to minimising the use of natural resources and reducing wastage. Many conscientious organisations are propagating principles and practices in tune with the Jain way of life. They advise using minimum quantities of water and other natural resources, proportional to natural production rates, avoiding destruction or harm to land and forests, and encourage waste recycling and the use of recycled products as far as possible. They also advise minimising the use of chemical fertilisers and insecticides for agriculture, and the application of organic manure on the soil. In other words, the five Jain principles of non-violence, limiting consumption, acceptable dietary habits, refraining from purposeless or harmful activities or professions, and carefulness in movement are all now being accepted.

Environmental concerns and Jain principles

Many scholars point out that the current problems of environmental pollution were nonexistent during an earlier age of rural society. It appears very difficult to find solutions to modern problems in the teachings of the religions of the pre-industrial age. The ideal society is that which promotes the welfare of living creatures at all times. In contrast to many other ethical systems, Jainism has offered specific and detailed guidance.

Jains point out that environmental concerns require a specific non-violent lifestyle that has both an aesthetic dimension and a practical concept of spiritual concord. A new lifestyle of spiritual ecology and environmental concern will have to be formulated and inculcated. Changing our life-style is not very difficult if we bear the following in mind:

  • cultivation of a beneficent attitude, detachment and universal friendship;
  • cultivation of an attitude of restraint, and the minimal use of natural resources and consumables;
  • cultivation of the habit of carefulness in diet, speaking, movement, picking up and setting down;
  • daily penitential retreat and prayer for the welfare of all living beings, and for universal peace;
  • cultivation of satisfaction and tolerance;
  • cultivation of a non-violent life-style;
  • cultivation of friendship towards all co-habitants on our planet.

Governments and educational institutions can offer guidance on minimising needs and the cultivation of respect towards the natural world. We should not harm our friends and co-habitants; and if people were constantly reminded of this, they might be more vigilant in not maltreating the natural world. Governments and international organisations, such as the United Nations, should give assistance to those religious and voluntary organisations that are actively concerned in environmental affairs, but which have few resources.

Jains all over the world have been involved in schemes to preserve and renew the local environment. It is worth quoting the ancient wisdom of the Matsya Puraana, which argues that 'the merit of digging ten wells equals that of making one pond; the merit of making ten ponds equals that of forming one lake; the merit of forming ten lakes equals that of producing one virtuous son, who is useful to society; but the merit of planting one tree equals that of producing ten such sons' (Bhanavat N. 1987: Bombay Paryusana lectures).

As well as tree-planting, Jains have engaged in other local initiatives such as the purchase and safeguarding of unexploited swamp-land and mountain habitats, the creation of green areas within urban environments, and measures to preserve energy, reduce pollution, and create good personal and social environments locally.

Ecology is the inter-relationship between living organisms and their environments and any abuse or rupture of this relationship is bound to react against humanity. Within this ecological system shared by all living creatures, Jains recognise the existence of equilibrium as being of primary importance. Jain scriptures claim that there are a constant number of souls or living beings present in the cosmos, ranging from the smallest microorganisms to complex life forms such as human beings or the higher animals, although the number may vary in different destinies and species. Given this closed ecological system, the necessity of maintaining and, where appropriate, restoring a proper balance between its component parts is obvious.

Human beings of course have a pivotal role to play in this task of stewardship, since they are endowed with highly developed moral, analytic and creative faculties. Jainism propounds a way of life that facilitates both external and internal environments, of non-violence, reverence for life, restraint and the co-operation of all to revive the balance of our ecological system. Any lasting and worthwhile contributions in restoring ecological wholeness can only be made by a partnership of interests representing all that share our common home. This was summarised beautifully in 1990 by Dr. L. M. Singhvi, a practising Jain, who became Indian High Commissioner in the United Kingdom: 'We are all here to offer to the world today a time-tested anchor of moral imperatives and a viable route plan for humanity's common pilgrimage for holistic environmental protection, peace and harmony in the universe' (Singhvi L. 1990: p.14).


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aparigraha
  2. Arhats
  3. Bhopal
  4. Body
  5. Bombay
  6. Buddha
  7. Calcutta
  8. Consciousness
  9. Consumerism
  10. Ecology
  11. Environment
  12. Equanimity
  13. Greed
  14. Jainism
  15. Karma
  16. Mahasabha
  17. Mahavira
  18. Meditation
  19. Michael Tobias
  20. Microorganisms
  21. Non-violence
  22. Parasparopagraho Jivanam
  23. Paryusana
  24. Science
  25. Soul
  26. Svetambar
  27. Terapanthi
  28. Tolerance
  29. Vegetarianism
  30. Violence
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