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Ecological Teachings of Tirthankara Mahavira

The Environmental and Ecological Teachings of Tirthankara Mahavira

Sadhvi Shilapi

Sadhvi Shilapiji has been the Education Director of Veerayatan – Kutch since 2001 when the campus was first established to help the victims of the devastating earthquake. She holds a Master of Commerce degree from Delhi University, and a Master of Philosophy degree from King’s College, London. She began her spiritual journey at the age of 26. Her proficiency in six languages has enabled her to touch the lives of a wide cross-section of people in India and abroad. Sadhvi Shilapiji frequently lectures at Oxford, Harvard and other international institutions.

The Ecological Crisis

We are in the midst of an unprecedented environmental and ecological crisis, at the centre of which, clearly, lies the human race. It is the human community, among all forms of life on this planet, which is interfering with the laws of nature by squandering her gifts and destrong other species. Ironically, the recent and urgent desire to protect the environment has not arisen because we have begun to hear the cries of plants, animals and other forms of life – a direct result of our maltreatment of them – but because human life itself is now in danger. That is, the depletion of these elements may result in a legacy for our children and our grandchildren of compromised immune systems, increased infectious disease and cancer rates, destroyed plants and the disruption of the food chain. I wonder: Would we have the same concern, the same worry for other forms of life, if human life had not been in danger? Would we give the protection of the environment a second thought?

Mahavira’s Life Ethics

From the beginning, Tirthankara Mahavira campaigned for ecological preservation not solely because of his desire to protect human life, but also because of his concern for the pain suffered by living beings in the animal and vegetable realms. Through scriptures such as the Acaranga Sutra (ca.400 BCE), the first in the Svetambara Jain tradition, Mahavira fundamentally influenced our understanding of and attitudes toward the environment. In short, he believed in the equality of, and reverence for, all forms of life. He included in his definition of life not only all beings that can move, but also the earth, air, water and vegetation. Moreover, he considered any injury to these forms of life a sinful act. "Vegetation has life just as human beings have life,” he stated. "It is born as are human beings; its body grows and feels pain when pricked or cut with weapons.” Mahavira further proclaimed that anyone who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, water, and vegetation disregards his own existence, which is intrinsically bound up with them.

This notion of the symbiotic relationship of humans to their environment appears in the earliest Jain scriptures, including in the Adipurana, the epic poem about the first Tirthankara, Rusabha Dev. This text emphasizes that forests moderate the climate, protect against thunderstorms and floods, shelter the neighboring areas from cold winds, and enable the constant flow of rivers. They provide a habitat for wildlife, fodder for animals, innumerable industrial raw materials, and countless sources of vegetation with medicinal and healing properties. It is thus the duty of all to protect and preserve the forest.

Mahavira actively propagated these ideas and went on to make the protection and care of life in all its manifestations an obligatory duty for all Jains. Some may think that divine-human relations are considered more important than the relationship between humans and the natural world. However, sarvajnyata, the perfect knowledge of Mahavira or of any Tirthankara and for which we all strive, is not only defined as the knowledge of past, present, and future, but also as an extraordinary capacity for experiencing the pain and pleasure of all beings. Tirthankaras have attained this great state of empathy by the purification of their soul. And at the root of the Jain path of purification is the concept of ahimsa, that is, of nonviolence.

Carefulness so as to avoid violence to all living things, as Mahavira defined them, thus became the norm for the Jain way of life. This developed to the extent that those who renounce the world are required to take precautions for the protection of life before every action they perform. It is not a coincidence, then, that a Jain follower’s daily prayer includes the following: "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” and so on.

At the same time, Mahavira was clearly conscious of the fact that according to his philosophy, whatever humans do, whether it be eating, walking, sitting or even breathing, we are committing acts of violence, interfering with nature, and contributing to the destruction of the environment. Still, he said, "If you are aware of all your actions, and are careful about what you do in relation to other living things, you will develop spirituality and be in perfect harmony with the natural world.” If this harmony is achieved, the long term outlook for the global environment would change dramatically.

Nonviolence and Ecology in Practice

Mahavira carried this philosophy into the workplace, preaching to his disciples that they take care to avoid professions that destroy nature and perpetuate violence. Jains are clearly forbidden, for instance, from earning a living through the destruction of plants, cart-making, any trade in animal by-products, liquor, alcohol, poisons, weapons, and other substances that have the potential to injure animals, insects, or plant life. Significantly, rejection of such trades also requires that Jains not consume the products of these trades. At the same time, by limiting one’s use of resources and possessions – one of the major vows that the Jain laity observes – one can also minimize one’s environmental impact.

Tirthankara Mahavira’s life offers a profound example of one living in ecological harmony. He used resources sparingly, ate just enough to survive, had no dwelling of his own, and no possessions whatsoever. His life shows that progress along a spiritual path does not forbid someone from being concerned about the environment and the world around him The two are not mutually exclusive, and may, in some senses, be symbiotic.

Moving forward along the path toward purification requires not only that we strive not to commit violence, but also that we work actively to promote peace, reverence, justice, and tolerance in the world.

I come from Bihar, the place of Tirthankara Mahavira’s birth, teaching, and final death and where most of the population lives below the poverty line. Villagers cut down trees for fuel for cooking and sell wood as a way to earn a living. People feed on rats, empty the lakes and ponds of fish to survive, and continue to perform sacrificial rituals. The impact on the local environment is profound.

Veerayatan, a Jain institution established in Bihar and run by Jain sadhvis (nuns), is taking preventative measures to save the environment. Veeryatan has by planted thousands of trees, and by provided drinking water, food, shelter and employment to thousands in the community to reduce individuals’ dependence on remaining natural resources. Above all, Veerayatan is conveying moral and ethical values about the importance of ecological balance and minimizing violence. As a result, thousands of people in the area have given up drinking alcohol, killing animals, chopping trees, and eating meat.

Religion is often seen as passive and unconcerned with the world. In Veerayatan, the reverse is true. The sadhvi-led activism at Veerayatan, enacted on a daily basis, is rooted in Tirthankara Mahavira’s universal principle that the sun, air, water, and nature give of themselves silently and selflessly all the time. It would be selfish on our part if we take and do not at least return a portion in our lifetime. A life of renunciation, and being mindful of the violence we commit in the world, carries us forward along the path of spiritual development, allowing us to live in ecological harmony and thus better protect our precious environment.

Anil Sheth says on Nov 23, 2009

Good teaching regarding ecology in this time by sadhviji shilapiji when world needed to save all natural resources.

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