Author: Devanshi Khokhani
First published: Biodiversity of India
Jainism ( जैनधर्म – Jainadharma) is one of the most environmentally conscious religions in the world. The religion is based on the principal of non-violence towards all living beings. The religion is thought to have its roots in the Indus Valley Civilization and the later Vedic Civilization, a period of intense philosophical deliberations on the Indian subcontinent. Jainism was firmly established in India between 9th and 6th century BC. Today, there are over 4 million followers of Jainism in India and around the world.
The most important religious holiday for Jains worldwide is Mahavir Jayanti, the birthday of Lord Mahavir. Lord Mahavir was the 24th and the last Tirthankar in Jainism who played an important role in defining the Jain religion as it exists today.
Bhagwaan Mahavir, who is also known as Vardhaman Mahavir, was born in 599 BC in Kundgram near Vaishali of Bihar in India in the royal family of King Siddartha and Queen Trishala . After 30 years as a householder, he abandoned his family and went to the forests to perform a penance. After about 12 and half years of severe penance he attained “Keval Gyan” (Omniscience). Since then he preached non violence to people and insisted to inculcate the feeling of compassion towards all forms of living beings. He, himself set as an excellent example by remaining calm and forgiving all the creatures who imposed severe austerities on him. He is the last tirthankar of the 24 tirthankaras , who attained salvation on New Moon Day of Kartik, 527 B.C.E at Pavapuri in state of Bihar in India.
Non violence – the basis of Jainism
”Ahimsa-paramo-dharmah” (non-injury to living beings) is one of the basic virtues of Jainism. To kill a living being is considered to be the greatest of sins. Practice of non violence is not just limited to humans or animals but is extended to all forms of life. All living beings are regarded as equal. Jainism also stresses on the moral responsibility of the humans in their mutual dealings and relationships with the rest of the universe and hence it is a religion of compassion – it aims at the welfare of all living beings. An important principle of Jainism is expressed in Sutrakrta-anga (1.11.33) as follows:
A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated.
Apart from preventing oneself from act of injury or killing, Jainism also considers controlling emotions like aggression, possession, and consumption that are usually the root causes of violence in today’s world.
The core beliefs of Jainism demonstrate how close the beliefs are to the ethos of environmental sustainability.
Nature and Jainism
Jain Agams depict nature in a very unique way as it says that five main elements of nature; ”Prithvi” (land, soil, stones, etc), ”Jal” (Water resources including cloud), ”Agni” (Fire), ”Vayu” (Air) and ”Aakash” (Sky) are living creatures and must be treated as living beings. These five types of elements go on to form five classes of beings (as shown alongside) such as vegetation, trees and plants, fungi and animals. This unique concept of Jainism restricts its followers to harm any creature and eventually leads to limited consumption as well as help in protecting environment.
Lord Mahavira, who lived in forests and jungles most of the times during his asceticism, attained Keval gyan (omniscience) on the bank of river Rijuvalika below a shal tree. It is noteworthy that Mahavira is the 24th and last Tirthankar of Jain and all others also lived their ascetic life in similar manner. They preached sitting in Samavasharana after enlightenment. The Samavasharana itself is a complete ecosystem. Lord Mahavira has clearly warned in Acharanga Sutra, first Jain Anga Sutra, that contamination of any natural resources is not desirable in any case. He has gone in to details of contamination. Jainism considers these as weapons to creatures (natural resources).
One of the ways Jain monks or the followers of Jainism, observe non violence is by restraining themselves from eating the roots like potato, radish, carrots, ginger etc, especially during the 4 months of rainy season. The reason behind this is they think that during harvest of these vegetables, earth is dug out and the soil organisms are killed more during rainy season. Jains called this period as “Chaumasu” or “Chaturmas”. In this period, even the monks do not wander from one place to another in order to avoid any unintentional killing of any form of life. For example, on a rainy day, they would observe fasts as they cannot walk on the wet streets to get “Gochari” (get food for themselves).
Jain scriptures motivate people for minimal consumption. They emphasize on ”Tyaga” (Sacrifice). Jain ‘‘Sharavaka” / ”Shravikas” (Laymen and women) are preached to minimize their ”Bhoga” (Consumables). The seventh vow for Jain households is ”Bhogopbhog Pariman Vrata” (Vow). This vow restricts them from unlimited consuming of natural resources. Moreover, this vow is a ”Shiksha Vrata” (Educational vow). It preaches its observers to learn and educate themselves towards limiting their consumables.
The Warlis or Varlis are an Adivasi tribe living around the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. The Warlis have traditionally worshiped nature and have their own animistic beliefs, customs and traditions. The Warli people are famous for their beautiful and unique style of painting which reflects the close association between human communities and nature.
It is thought that the Warli culture goes back to the 3rd century BCE, although there is no hard evidence for it. It is true however, that the community has been living in the Thane district of Maharashtra for a really long time and call the forests in those regions their home. Over the years, they have made subsistence on agriculture, animal husbandry and collecting forest produce and it is through these activities that they have developed very close associations with nature. This association comes out through their drawings, which are quite simplistic in fashion, yet provide a great deal of information about how the Warli community lives and probably, our ancestors lived thousands of years ago.
You can read more about the Warli art in this article on Biodiversity of India
This is a mythological story of the Bhil tribe that is settled in parts of Central India, primarily in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra,and Rajasthan. The Bhils live in a highly arid and drought-prone part of India. Thus, farming cannot be their primary occupation. Traditionally, they have been hunter-gatherers and engage in animal husbandry. The Bhils are quite economically backward. I found this story interesting because it is being passed on through generations in the Bhil community, the elders explaining to the new generation why they are so poor and why they cannot engage in farming. This story also illustrates the importance of animals, especially domesticated animals, in helping tribal people achieve prosperity.
As the story goes, once Parvati and Lord Shiva were sitting in their abode in the Himalayas having a discussion about the mortal world. Suddenly, Parvati realized that her brothers were coming to meet her. Parvati greeted her brothers with great joy and spent some time chatting with them. When the time for them to leave came, she asked Lord Shiva to give them a parting gift. Lord Shiva said, “I’m just an Aghori Sadhu! I dont have any material possession to give as gift to your brothers. I’m sorry”. Hearing this, the brothers felt sad and left. But Parvati insisted and Lord Shiva, unknown to the brothers, placed a silver pot in their way. But the brothers failed to notice the pot and walked away.
Parvati felt sad. She thought, “If my brothers failed to notice a gift from God, how will they achieve any success in their life?”. She went to Lord Shiva again and asked him to give her brothers a valuable gift that can help them learn and achieve success. Lord Shiva said, “Alright! I will give your brothers my precious bull (Nandi).”
Parvati was happy. She said to her brothers, “Oh my dear brothers! Take good care of this bull and you will become rich and prosperous.” The brothers were very happy and took the bull to their home.
However, after reaching home, the brothers started to get very impatient. They thought that since Parvati asked them to take care of Nandi, there must be something valuable in it. One of them suggested that they kill the bull and see if there’s any treasure inside. Another brother resisted but in the end, all of them became greedy and agreed to kill the bull.
When Parvati heard that Nandi had been killed by her brothers, she grew very angry. She confronted them and said, “You fools! Nandi was the most powerful and the most sacred bull in all the three worlds. You could have used him for tilling your barren land and for farming, however, you gave up this opportunity and instead killed him.” So she cursed her brothers – who belonged to the Bhil community – and their descendants that they will never be able to farm again. And so the story goes for why the Bhils do not (cannot) farm on their lands.
Such stories also pass on an important lesson of respect towards the natural world to the younger generation.
PS: On a lighter note, a little bit of irrigation and proper groundwater management practices may help some bit in lifting Parvati’s curse 🙂
India has a rich cultural tradition extending back over three millenia. Given the multitude of species found in the nook and corners of the country, the Indian cultural tradition has a heavy dose of biodiversity deeply embedded in it. Examples of such associations abound – from Lord Ganesha having a mouse as his vehicle to basil being worshipped as Goddess Tulsi. Such stories are being forgotten and lost in the fast-paced world of today. The problem is more acute for the tablet-totting, television-hooked generation of today. Question is, in what way can we effectively deliver these stories to the children of today?
Muriel Kakani, a Belgian national living in India for the past 20 years, has been trying to do just that through her website Ecology for Children and a number of children’s books she has written. Muriel believes that the Indian lifestyle and cultural traditions are most well suited for environmental conservation. From maintaining agricultural biodiversity in fields through traditional farming methods to protecting trees by setting aside sacred trees and groves, Indians have been engaging in eco-friendly practices for the past several thousand years. Muriel tries to tell such stories through her books geared towards children.
In one of her stories, the The Honey Gatherers of Sunderbans, Muriel teaches the value of respecting Mother Nature while taking benefits from her. The story, told rather succinctly and in an engrossing manner, explains the pitfalls of exploiting Mother Nature while forgetting the need to do our bit towards its protection. Even though the story is told in a manner understandable to children, such stories hold valuable lessons for even the adults of today.
Muriel says on her website that “Love and empathic feelings are the greatest stimulant to the will…Feelings are more important than facts when talking about saving the Earth, preserving the environment and ecology.” I whole-heartedly agree with that approach. I also believe that feelings, coupled with knowledge, can be the most potent agent for change in this world!
For more information about Muriel’s work, check out the website and her project Ecology for Children.