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«Introduction Scholars such as Sigurd Bergmann have noted that each tradition is uniquely linked to its environment and it is best to try to look into ...»

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Jainism, Dharma, and

Environmental Ethics

Pankaj Jain

Environmentalism is comparable to a child that only recently learned

to walk. Ecospiritualities of different kinds seem to be the invisible

backbone of the growth of this child. – Sigurd Bergmann1


Scholars such as Sigurd Bergmann have noted that each tradition is uniquely

linked to its environment and it is best to try to look into native tradition for the

ways each tradition or lineage absorbs the environment around it. On the other hand, scholars such as John Cort have raised doubts about linking environmentalism with religious traditions such as Jainism.2 Given the absence of a formal category of environmental ethics in Jainism, this paper will explore Jainism’s historical relationship to environmental ethics. I will also compare Jainist perspectives on the consumption of natural resources with other lifestyles. From the few examples of Jain “environmentalism” I also seek to redefine the categories such as “religion” and “environmental ethics,” especially as they are applied to the non-Western parts of the world such as the Jains in India.

Scholars of environmental ethics and Indic traditions have differentiated two models of environmental awareness for India: the “devotional model” and the “renouncer model.”3 These two models are based on a long-standing dichotomy between the householders and ascetics.4 Householders perform devotional and ritualistic activities whereas ascetics perform austere practices. My fieldwork with the rural communities of Rajasthan and Gujarat suggests that their practices tend to be devotional rather than ascetic. To be sure, the devotional Indians do not reject ascetics. They continue to attend discourses by ascetics and pay their respect to them but their own practices largely consist of daily rituals, puja, at home and at temples.5 Fasting is another common practice performed by Indians. While lay Hindus would eat fruits and vegetables in their fasts, lay Jains avoid water and all 1 Bergmann, Sigurd. Ecotheology, Volume 11.3, September 2006.

2 Cort, John. “Green Jainism? Notes and Queries toward a Possible Jain Environment Ethic”

in Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, ed. Christopher Key Chapple. Cambridge:

Harvard University Press, 2002.

3 Nelson, Lance. Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India.

Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.

4 Jain, Pankaj. Chapter, “Householders and Renouncers, The Holistic Combination in Indian Thought” in Studies in Vedanta: Essays in Honor of S. S. Rama Rao Pappu, edited by P. George Victor and V.V.S. Saibaba, New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 2006, pp 165-180.

5 Madan, T. N. Non-Renunciation: Themes and Interpretations of Hindu Culture. New York:

Oxford University Press, 1996.

kinds of food.6 This example indicates an interesting dimension of environmentalism inspired by Indic traditions. The two models of devotional and ascetic actually lead us into a dichotomy of the Hindu traditions and the Jain traditions. As we saw, the majority of Hindu practitioners follow devotion in their daily rituals, and extending our discussion to Jain laity, we find that Jain lay practitioners come much closer to the austere practices of ascetics. Jain role models are their Tirthankaras who had renounced all their belongings including their clothing to perform the toughest austerities possible. Even the temple-going Jains know that the Jain ideal is to renounce householder life and to follow the path of their role models such as Mahavira, other Tirthankaras and the contemporary monks and nuns.7 The Jain ideal is to attain Moksha by renouncing worldly life, whereas for most Hindus, especially the followers of Vallabha and Ramanuja, the ideal is to become perfect devotee or attain Moksha by practicing their routine householder lives.

Naturally, scholars of Jain environmental ethics, such as Christopher Chapple, have advocated the ascetic model for environmental ethics in their writings, while scholars of Hindu environmental ethics, such as Vasudha Narayanan and David Haberman, have emphasized the devotional model. I suggest that both these models can contribute for preserving the ecology of India. While the ascetic model can help reduce the over-exploitation of natural resources by limiting one’s desire for more luxuries, the devotional model can help restore natural resources to their original beauty and harmony. The ascetic model can be prescribed for people of higher classes and developed societies, those who continue to plunder the planet for their extravagant consumption. While describing American society, Diana Eck posted this on the Washington Post blog (December 14, 2006), echoing Gandhi’s prophetic words, “The earth has enough for one’s need but not for one’s greed.” Is it a moral good to consume far more than our share of non-renewable energy resources, creating for us a standard of living that does not know the meaning of the word “enough” and that acquiesces in a world of unconscionable economic disparities?

Turning to the ascetic model, Chapple has advocated that non-violence to animals, trees, and self, combined with non-possessiveness, can result in ecological


[T]he solutions that Gandhi proposed to counter the ills of colonialism can also be put into effect to redress this new and ultimately deleterious situation. The observance of nonviolence, coupled with 6 Jaini, Padmanabh S. The Jaina Path of Purification. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, pp. 157-185.

7 Vallely, Anne. Guardians of the Transcendent: Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community.  Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2002b.

8 Chapple, Christopher Key. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions.

Albany: SUNY Press, 1993, p. 73.

a commitment to minimize consumption of natural resources, can contribute to restoring and maintaining an ecological balance.

Chapple notes Gandhi as an example who limited his possessions and “vital needs” and thus can serve as an inspiration for environmental ethics. According to Chapple, Gandhi and others who follow the ascetic and yogic values such as truth, non-stealing, non-possession, celibacy, and non-violence, serve as role models for limiting the consumption and thus reducing the burden on ecology.9 Vinay Lal and other have also put forward Gandhi as “too deep” even for “deep ecology.”10 What Lal means is that Gandhi serves as a role model of practicing an environmentalism that is much beyond what “deep ecology” presents in its philosophy.

Chapple also notes that Jains, following their ascetic values, have exerted an active social conscience:11 They successfully convinced the first Buddhist monks to cease their wanderings during the rainy season, to avoid harm to the many insects and plants that sprout during the monsoons. The Jaina community has developed and implemented lay codes for assuring an integration of nonviolent values into the workplace. Jainas have lobbied against nuclear weaponry. The head of the Terapanthi Shvetambara sect, Acharya Tulsi, took a public stance on numerous issues.

Against Lance Nelson’s questioning of world-negating renouncer model, Eliot Deutsch observes,12 “Paradoxically, when nature is seen to be valueless in the most radical way, it can be made valuable with us in creative play.” Chapple’s observations about the Jain community seem to match with Deutsch’s argument that the practitioners of the ascetic traditions can also be proactive about the ecological concerns.

Christopher Chapple recognized the dichotomy of devotional or world-affirming models and ascetic or world-denying models of Indic traditions and sought to see an underlying common theme in both in this way:13 One model of Hindu spirituality encourages physicality through yoga practices that enhance the health of the body and the vitality of the senses. Other spiritual paths (such as Jainism) advocate renunciation of all sensual attachments to the world. However, even within the 9 Ibid, p. 71.

10 Lal, Vinay, “Too Deep for Deep Ecology” in Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, eds. Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

11 Martin, Nancy M., and Joseph Runzo (eds.). Ethics in the World Religions. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.

12 Deutsch, E. “A Metaphysical Grounding for Natural Reverence, East-West,” in J. B.

Callicott and R. Ames (eds.) Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, Albany: SUNY Press, 1989, p. 264.

13 Chapple, Christopher Key. “Hinduism, Jainism, and Ecology” in Earth Ethics, vol. 10, no.

1, Fall 1998.

paths that relegate worldly concerns to a status of secondary importance, the doctrine of dharma emphasizes a need to act ‘for the sake of the good of the world.’ Particularly in regard to such issues as the building of dams in the Narmada River Valley, this requires taking into account social ecology or the need to integrate environmental policy with the daily needs of tribal and other marginalized peoples.

Following Chapple’s attempt to transcend the dichotomy of devotional and ascetic models, I want to extend the notion of dharma further by combining religion, ethics, and ecology. One of the fundamental problems in studying or researching Indic traditions is the search for Western categories of knowledge within them. Scholars have long wrestled with various Western categories such as religion, ethics, theology, and history and their Indic equivalents. Gerald Larson wrote about the need to apply Indic categories of knowledge to the study of India instead of looking for Western categories.14 McKim Marriott’s ethnosociology of India is rooted on the same philosophical problem:15 It is an anomalous fact that the social sciences used in India today have developed from thought about Western rather than Indian cultural realities. As a result, although they pretend to universal applicability, the Western sciences often do not recognize and therefore cannot deal with the questions to which many Indian institutions are answers.

Elsewhere Marriott notes that the Western history has separated various domains of knowledge such as religion, psychology, sociology, anthropology (and if I may add, ethics and ecology), but the scholars should not assume that the nonWestern cultures would also wish to divide them. Following Marriott, I propose not to see environmentalism, ethics, or theology as separate categories in Indic traditions, and suggest that ethics, ecology, and theology are all intertwined in Indic traditions as exemplified by various texts, recent movements, and my ethnographic encounters. I am positing this intertwined relationship in a “dharmic” framework rather than “religious” one in order to stress the integration of ethics and theology in dharma, or to also avoid some specific incorrect connotation conveyed by the western term religious.16 Vijaya Nagarajan extends Karl Polanyi’s understanding of embedded economies to that of embedded ecologies:17 14 Larson, Gerald. 2004. “’A Beautiful Sunset…Mistaken for Dawn,’ Some Reflections on Religious Studies, India Studies, and the Modern University,” in Journal of American Academy of Religion (72/4), p. 1003-1020.

15 Marriott, McKim. India Through Hindu Categories (Ed.). New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1990, p. 1.

16 Although this is not how everyone in the West sees it and the categories in the Western academy result less from a deliberate separation, than from a problem in doctoral studies which rewards expertise in highly focused research areas. And recently, Interdisciplinary studies are on the rise thus diluting the hard-wired categories of the past.

17 Nagarajan, Vijaya. “Embedded Ecology,” in Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India, ed. Lance Nelson. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998, pp. 165-195.

The prime reason for the absence of any concept of ecology is the difficulty of identifying ecological processes under conditions where they are embedded in nonecological institutions. Ecological notions, beliefs, and practices are embedded in cultural forms, particularly in religious and aesthetic practices and institutions.

I would like to extend this “embedded” notion further by combining ethics, ecology, and theology with an overarching term “dharma” in which they are intertwined due to its varied interpretations. While it is true that environmentalism as a category does not exist in Indic traditions, it is equally true that the dharmic Indic traditions have helped sustain the Indian ecology for several millennia by inspiring

Indians to limit their needs. One of my students put it succinctly:

What sets humans above beasts is their ability to cease or control animal urges. Few animals can control eating, refuse mating, or censure diet. This makes ascetics, fasting, celibacy, and vegetarianism (all important Jain teachings and practices) fascinating to me (though not in my practice) and it is India that is the first place all these things occurred. This makes me think India may be the birth place of humanity.

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