Practise Before You Preach

Published: 17.06.2004
Updated: 30.07.2015

Despite astounding advances in science and technology, knowledge communications and comfort levels, it is a sad spectacle to see an increasingly violence-prone, terrorism-targeted, hate-infested and intolerance-glorified world moving towards rapid erosion of moral values, merciless degradation of the environment and evaporation of soul-energy. Man’s exploitative instincts against man, nature and other living beings have brought the universe to the brink of disaster. Dogmas, rituals, bigotry, orthodoxy and fanaticism have come to be mistaken as religion and we have gone a long way towards committing spiritual hara-kiri.

At this time of the crisis of the human spirit Mahavir’s ever-abiding teachings assume contemporary relevance for today and tomorrow for all humanity, transforming barriers of caste, creed, colour, sex or region. Mahavir first practised and then preached. Born in a royal family surrounded by limitless trappings of luxuries, his life path was charted out to rule and dominate. Despite this, he chose to renounce the kingdom of power, desires and ego to seek the keys of the true kingdom of life - where compassion and tolerance, renunciation and non-possession, relativity of thinking and action, non-attachment and non-violence became the tools to shape inter-humanity dealings as well as the approach of co-existence and co-prosperity with the natural environment and other life forms.

Mahavir’s unique contribution was to articulate with much greater clarity, comprehension and thrust an all-comprehensive and wider ranging definition of ahimsa (non-violence) - raising it to the pedestal of “supreme religion” - Ahimsa Parmo Dharma. Behind this enlarged and integrated vision of ahimsa was the spiritual urge to transform into life ethics the concepts of “live and let live” and the oneness of all creation.

Mahavir elucidated the principles of Jainism in their most fundamental and encompassing compassionate parameters. He observed: “There is nothing so small and subtle as the atom nor any element so vast as space. Similarly, there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence of life.”

Humans - the most superior living beings on earth - need to awaken to the realisation that they have an obligation to fight for life on earth not just for themselves but for those humans and others who came before them and for all those who, if they were wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent, no dedication more fitting than to protect the future of our species in a peaceful, serene and healthy ecological setting. Humans must recognise that God has given an uplifted face only to them and bade them to stand erect and turn their eyes to heaven while all other animals are prone to fix their gaze upon the earth.

Jain religion has for over 5000 years enshrined this approach in the motto of “Parasparopagraho Jeevanam” meaning that all living organisms irrespective of the degree of their sensory perceptions or size are bound together by mutual support and interdependence. Jain ecological perception views evolution and growth of life in all its splendour and variety on this planet of ours. It is a democratic concept pinning its faith in the sanctity, integrity and equality of souls irrespective of differing forms of living creatures ranging from humans to animals, insects, plants and even miniscule living organisms.

Jain religion prohibits destruction of earth’s life support system, which provides for harmonious, balanced and mutually supportive relationship between all life forms and nature. Jain scriptures say: “One who disregards the existence of earth, water, fire, air and vegetation disregards one’s own existence which is entwined with them.” Mahavir analysed it further by observing: “This instinct of self-preservation is universal. Every animate being wants to live and avoid untimely death. Nobody likes suffering. Therefore do not inflict suffering on anybody. This is non-violence. This is equality. In happiness or suffering, in joy or grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self. We should therefore refrain from inflicting upon others such injury as would be undesirable or unbearable to us and to develop equanimity towards all living beings and elements of nature in this universe.”

In Jain culture any ecological disruption is tantamount to a violent intervention into the well-knit web of universal life. Jain ethics regards misuse of any part of nature as a kind of theft as it deprives life of its inherent autonomy and interdependence. “Take from the Earth only what you need. The Mother Earth will then be able to serve and support living creatures longer.”

In a complete and comprehensive perspective Jainism is ecology and ecology is Jainism. Ecology is the culture of interrelationship among living organisms and their environment. It encompasses the entire universe - the earth, the solar system, sun, moon and stars, the geosphere and hydrosphere, the atmosphere and the biosphere. Living organisms are to co-exist with these forces of nature in an ambience of ahimsa for a peaceful and durable future of the universe.

The integrated linkage between ahimsa and ecology is reflected all around us. A river does not drink its own water, a cow does not drink its own milk, a tree does not eat its own fruits. Life grows only because of such mutually supportive generosity and understanding. Non-violence in the first place benefits the person practising it and it is up to him to practise it and inspire others to do so. Ahimsa is their duty and not a gesture of generosity. If you are being kind to others, you are benefiting yourself first by purifying your soul.

But in contrast - what have humans done not only to themselves but also to the ecology surrounding them?

The legacy of the 20th century has been two world wars, any number of local conflicts, bloodshed, armed clashes, torture and terrorism which have taken a heavy toll of innocent lives. Ahimsa has unfortunately been relegated to the background and damned as a weapon of the coward. Inequality and injustice has been the staple diet of imperialism and dictatorships. Communism has also belied hopes of true socialism and has had its own share of injustices and atrocities against non-conformists.

While materialism has brought unparalleled prosperity, 25% of the world’s population has appropriated to itself 83% of the world’s income, leaving teeming millions all over the world under poverty, deprivation, malnutrition and hunger. Fear, terror and agony have increased the depth of universal suffering. Man’s insensitiveness is reflected in the horrifying spectacle of the Taliban army destroying in a violent orgy the towering Bamyan Buddha statues.

“They tire their bones crushing statues and stones
But their bluster and din amuses the God within.”

The cruel, merciless and uninhabited slaughter of animals in slaughterhouses all over the world makes nonsense of the concept of prevention of cruelty to animals. This mentality which can mill thousands of non-human lives in a day - what is then to prevent it from taking the next step from killing thousands of human lives? If we can kill the most helpless, the most voiceless, the most defenceless for our profit, for satisfying our taste buds, what will stop us from sending our sons and daughters to war, rendering ourselves helpless before the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction?

Human encroachment of forests has also been disastrous. Over 5 million hectares of forest are being lost annually. Chopping down tropical forests alone leads to at least 50,000 invertebrate species - about 140 every day - facing extinction.

Pollution of air, rivers, lakes and oceans has upset the natural balance. Fourteen major river systems in India have become giant sewers for the country’s urban population. Depletion of ozone layer threatens harmful global warming and climatic change.

These are only tips of the iceberg. If ecological degradation is not checked, it could create a paradoxical situation in which human beings would be moving towards their own extinction. If mighty dinosaurs have been extinguished after flourishing on earth for 100 million years, where are we the human species who have been on the earth for only about a million years?

Time has come for spiritual awakening both at the individual as well as collective levels, armed with courage, non-violence and compassion. Nothing is more urgent and pressing than to bring home the realisation among all the constituents of human race that non-violence is the only answer to longevity of healthy ecology and the survival of the web of life entwined with it.

The voice of reason must be reinforced with the voice of faith. No one will come to our help. At individual and collective society levels, we must build our inner moral fibre and seize the initiative to enrich and upgrade our life ethics. Mahavir used to say in his sermons that you have to work for your salvation in this life and beyond it yourself. It would be a folly to depend upon the mercy of others.

Mahavir and his 23 predecessors, the Jain Tirthankaras, have shown us the way of how an ordinary mortal could achieve omniscience, bliss and godhood through self-reliant and wide-awake soul energy and power and a heart flowing with love, friendliness and compassion for all.
We have the great example of Mahatma Gandhi who, inspired by Jain philosophy, successfully used the potent instrument of non-violence first to fight apartheid in South Africa and later to achieve India’s independence from colonial rule in a peaceful manner without arousing hatred, rancour or bitterness.

His favourite prayer echoes Jain ethics for life on earth:

Not for any kingdom do I long
Not even for the kingdom of heaven
Not even for freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death
For one and only one thing do I long
To free living beings from their agony and pain
To wipe away their tears.

It is up to us to look for the divine spark within us in order to spiritually reinforce ourselves to face the future with rejuvenated “inner environment” and harmonious “outer environment”.


The paper was delivered at a Jain conference at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.


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