Ahimsa – the ultimate winner
Ahimsa and Ecology
[Key note speech at the Symposium Event at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London to celebrate the 2600th Birth Anniversary of Bhagavan Mahavir on 7th April 2001.]
It is a privilege to speak at this vintage “Temple of History” in the backdrop of its rich collection of Indian art including unique treasures of Jain art through the ages.
The pleasure is all the more since the symposium event is dedicated to Mahavir the great Jain apostle (Tirthankar) whose life and teachings have deeply influenced spiritual thinking and ethical living in the 2600 years since his birth far beyond the narrow confines of religious doctrine.
The happy coincidence makes the poet in me recite:
Need one ask for more?”
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 human spirit, Mahavir’s ever-abiding teachings assume contemporary relevance for today and tomorrow for the entire humanity transforming barriers of caste, creed, colour, sex or region.
Mahavir first practiced and then preached. Born in a royal family surrounded by limitless trappings of luxuries, his life path was charted out to rule and dominate. And yet he chose to renounce the kingdom of power, desires and ego to seek 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 greatest contribution was to articulate with much greater clarity, comprehension and thrust an all-comprehensive and wider ranging definition of Ahimsa (non-violence). Behind this enlarged and integrated vision of Ahimsa was the spiritual urge to transform the concepts of ‘Oneness of all creation’ and ‘Live and let live’ into life ethics. Mahavir elucidated the principles of Jainism in their most fundamental and encompassing compassionate parameters.
He incessantly preached that Ahimsa needs to be practiced in thought, action and expression. Practicing non-violence needs courage or conviction and resolute pursuit. It is by no means easy. It may be relatively easier to curb physical violence but it is far more difficult to control violent and hurting expression and even much more to eradicate from one’s mind violent instincts. Synthesizing practice of non-violence together in thought, deed and speech is a challenging task both for individuals as well as societies. Without achieving this coordination, the search for the culture of non-violence would remain elusive.
“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 for life”.
Humans – the most superior living beings on Earth need to awaken to the realization 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 recognize 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 were prone to fix their gaze upon the earth.
Renowned Digambar Jain Acharya Vidyanandji put it very aptly in one of his sermons. He said:
“An oarsman plies the boat on a river, but who is taking the Oarsman? It is his own initiative, determination, emotional and skill faculty, and soul strength. Human beings being superior among all life forms owe it to them to lead and not to blame or exploit life and environment around them”.
Jain religion has for over 5000 years enshrined this approach in the motto of “Prasparopgraho 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 analyzed it further by observing:
“The 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 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 peace-ful and durable future of the universe.
The integrated linkage between Ahimsa & ecology is reflected all around us. A river does not drink its own water, a cow does not drink its own milk, and 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 practicing it and it is up to him to practice 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.
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 world’s population has appropriated to itself 83% of world’s income leaving teeming millions all over the world under poverty, deprivation, mal-nutrition and hunger.
Fear, terror and agony have increased the depth of universal suffering. Man’s insensitiveness is reflected in the horrifying spectacle of 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”.
Cruel, merciless and uninhabited slaughter of animals in slaughterhouses all over the world makes nonsense of the concept of prevention of cruelty to animals. The mentality, which can kill thousands of non-human lives in a day, what is to prevent it from taking the next step from killing thousands of human lives? If we can kill the most helpless, voiceless, the most defenseless for our profit, for satisfying our taste buds, what is that will stop us from sending our sons and daughters to war, rendering, ourselves helpless before the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Indiscriminate deforestation, pollution of air, rivers, lakes and oceans has upset the natural balance. 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 in 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 earth for only about a million years?
Time has come for spiritual awakening both at the individual as well as collective levels. Nothing is more urgent and pressing than to bring home the realization 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 fiber 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.
I recall the story of a newly anointed Pope in this connection.
After a troubled day of problems, the new Pope had a disturbed night full of dreams. In each dream when a problem came up he solved it by saying I will refer it to the Pope. When he woke up the next morning he realized that he was himself the Pope and the buck stopped with him.
Mahavir and his 23 other predecessors – 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’.
“Ahimsa is a true and unconditional surrender of our own identity for the welfare of others, Ahimsa is not a mere principle of a particular religion, it is in consonance with the true nature of all living beings”
-Acharya Chandana Ji,
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