Befriend Nature

Published: 22.01.2012
Whilst Jains throughout the world are celebrating Mahavir Jayanti, it is important to remember that he was one of the simplest yet greatest environmentalists of all time, writes Sadhvi Shilapi.

It is the human community amongst all the forms of life on this planet, who are interfering with the laws of Nature by squandering her gifts, and by destroying the existence of other species. Ironically, this issue of protecting the environment and the ecology has not necessarily come up because we have begun to hear the cries of plants, animals and other forms of life - but because human life itself is in danger.

A fundamental shift in our thinking and in our behaviour towards other forms of life is required. Equality for all forms of life and a reverence for all of them is Mahavir's central teaching. He said, "As you want to live so do others." In his definition of "others" he embraced not only the existence of all living beings, but also the existence of earth, air, water and vegetation. He even expressed a reverence for the inert. By making people aware of the existence of life on earth, air, water and vegetation, he made a fundamental contribution to our understanding of ecology. He considered any injury to these a sinful act.

The Acharanga Sutra, the first main scripture of the Svetambara Jain tradition, describes the thoughts of Mahavir on the life of vegetation, as: "Vegetation has life just the same as human beings. It is born like human beings are; its body grows and feels pain when pricked or cut with weapons. Like human beings, vegetation needs food. So the consumption or use of vegetation for personal propaganda, publicity or even in the worshipping of god is a sin. If someone uses it in such a way, it may lead to his misfortune."

He further proclaimed, "Anyone who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and vegetation, disregards his own existence which is intrinsically bound up with them."

Mahavir propagated these ideas, and went on to make the protection and care of life in all its manifestations an obligatory duty for all Jains. For example, the daily prayer of the Jains (Iriya Vahiya) contains a word of forgiveness for any harm or pain caused not only to fellow human beings but also to all forms of life. A Jain devotee says, "I confess to any injury caused by the path of my movement, in all my comings and goings, in treading on living things, in treading on seeds, in treading on green plants, in treading on dew, on beetles, on mould, on moist earth, and on cobwebs; whatever living organisms with one or two or three or four or five senses have been injured by me or knocked over or crushed or squashed or touched or mangled or hurt or frightened or removed from one place to another or deprived of life, I confess to that." However, this does not mean that Mahavir was not conscious of the fact that our very survival involves violence of one kind or another. In fact, his disciples even said to him, “According to your philosophy and teaching, whatever we do, whether it be eating, drinking, walking, sitting or even breathing, we are committing violent acts, interfering with nature, destroying the environment." Lord Mahavir said, "If you are aware of all your actions, and careful about what you do in relation to other living things, you will develop spiritually and be in perfect harmony with the natural world."

Jain art is an expression of Mahavir philosophy - it embraces nature.   

All these examples show the deep concern Tirthankara Mahavir had for ecology, which com­prises a balance between all plants, animals and humans. If a human being is murdered by someone, the killer is punished by law; but if any animals are being slaughtered or mistreated in any way at all, the perpetrator of the crime will go unpunished; it is an accepted way of doing things in our society. If the entire human race were to adopt a more car­ing attitude towards animals, vegetation or any other living thing as a way of life, if we were to treat the breaking of this rule as a crime, the global environment scenario as it is would change enormously.

The Adipurana, the epic poem about the first Tirthankara Rishabha Dcv under­lines the importance of forests.   The text emphasises that our forests moderate the climate, check thunderstorms and floods, protect the neighbouring areas from cold winds and provide the constant ebb and flow of rivers. They provide shelter for wild life and fodder for animals, innumerable industrial raw materials, thousand   of   excellent   medicines,   keep the underground water level up and also provide panoramic beauty.

The Adipurana says that forests are like saints who, overcoming all obstacles, create a better welfare for all. They remove fatigue, and every type of life feels cheerful as they create a typical type of ecosystem, consisting of trees, plantations, animals, air and water. Since it is a basis for survival and a symbol of happiness, - sometimes described as the

relationship between the bride and bride­groom - it is the duty of all of us to protect and preserve the forests. To live a peaceful life and earn - Puny a-positive karma, the planting of a tree has also been suggested in the Adipurana, and it is said that one who plants a tree, always remains close to God.

Nuns at work in Veerayatan

Unquestioned and unplanned tech­nological advances are considered to be the major reasons for ecological imbalance. Mahavir was also very thoughtful in guiding his disciples in the selection of their trade, business or profession. He said that people should not go in for professions that destroy nature and perpetrate violence. A Jain layperson is required to take twelve vows for spiritual progression. The seventh vow, Bhogopabhoga-vrata (limiting one's use of resources) clearly forbids involvement in fifteen trades, such as earning a livelihood from the destruction of plants; a livelihood from carts, (this includes the construction and sale of carts to be drawn by animals and the driving of them, whether done by oneself or at one's instigation); any trade in animal by-products; trade in lacquer or trade in alcohol and forbidden substances; trade in destructive articles like poisons, weapons, spades, all of which are potentially dangerous to life. The underlying idea is the avoidance of injury to animals, insects or plant-life. Jain teachers were conscious that these professions are potential health hazards because they pollute the environment in a big way. Of-course rejection of these trades also means that Jains should not consume such products.

Limiting resources and possessions is one of the major vows that the Jains are supposed to observe. Wants should be reduced, desires curbed and consumption levels kept within reasonable limits.

Accumulation of possessions for personal ends only should be min­imised. Using any resource beyond one's needs and the misuse of any part of nature is considered a form of theft, a transgression, for which one has to repent.

In a nutshell, Mahavir's own life, and the way he lived it, is one of the most profound examples one can follow in restoring the ecological balance. He used resources sparingly, he ate just enough to survive, he had no dwelling of his own, and no possessions whatsoever to the extent that he was completely naked. In this way he developed a unique oneness with all facets of the environment. Mahavir's life also shows that progress along a spiritual path does not forbid someone being concerned about the environment and the world around him, since the two are not exclusive. At the root of the Jain path of purification is the concept of non-violence. On one hand, we are taught not to commit any violence, and on the other, one needs to carry out the positive aspects of the word, that is to actively promote peace, reverence, justice and tolerance for all in the world. Mahavir knowingly avoided committing violence and, at the same time, maximised his efforts for the protection of all forms of life. He is a great role model for all of us.

Sadhvi Shilapi is a Jain nun based in London and Veerayatan, Kajgir. The above article is an edited version of a speechgiven at the conference on Jainism and Ecology at Harvard University, in July 1998.


Jain Spirit
Issue 04 - 2000
page 19
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Acharanga
  2. Body
  3. Ecology
  4. Environment
  5. Jain Art
  6. Jain Spirit
  7. Jainism
  8. Jayanti
  9. Karma
  10. London
  11. Mahavir
  12. Mahavir Jayanti
  13. Non-violence
  14. Rishabha
  15. Sadhvi
  16. Sadhvi Shilapi
  17. Sutra
  18. Svetambara
  19. Tirthankara
  20. Tolerance
  21. Veerayatan
  22. Violence
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