Ahimsa – the ultimate winner




[Major Presentation at the Parliament of World’s Religions, Chicago (USA), August-September, 1993 – further updated]

Once again, after a century the Parliament of World Religions is providing a common platform to a rich diversity of religions and faiths. Spiritual and religious leaders and thinkers from all over the world are assembled here as world citizens to carry forward the 1893 vision of interfaith fundamental unity of purpose in the quest for universal inner and outer peace and tranquility. It is apt to recall what Margaret Mead has said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has”.

At the pinnacle of unparalleled material advancement and tremendous strides in knowledge, the humanity faces an unprecedented crisis. Integrity of thought, ethics of purpose and morality of action has come under considerable strain. Dogmas, rituals and rigid beliefs hold sway and have come to be mistaken as religion. A fragmented planet and a world divided by religions cannot survive in harmony with nature and the environment and indeed with itself. The challenge facing the global community makes it imperative to evolve a common agenda of action.

A Poet has put it aptly:

So many sects so many creeds
So many paths that wind and wind
While just the art of being kind
Is all this world needs”?

This is the message of Jain religion. There is inherent in Jain principles and practices an integrated view of universe, a spirit of universality, a deeply compassionate outlook, an all pervasive belief in live and let live and above all a down-to-earth stress on ethical integrity of thought, purpose and conduct. Its teachings far from being sectarian, dogmatic or mystical – have a universal relevance in the contemporary world. Its global perspective is a judicious blend of the scientific as well as the spiritual.

Jain religion is amongst India’s and World’s oldest religions. Twenty-four “TIRTHANKARAS” (The Path Finders) beginning with Lord Rishabhanaath and ending with Lord Mahavir (599-527 BC) have guided its evolution and elaboration. It was under the inspiration and guidance of Lord Parshvanaath, the twenty-third and Lord Mahavir the twenty-fourth Tirthankar that their senior disciples put the accumulated religious wisdom, experience, tenets and practices in a codified form.

The followers of Jain religion number over ten million, mostly residing in India. What may, however, appear statistically as a minority religion has throughout India’s history made a refreshingly – distinct and abiding contribution to India’s philosophy, culture and way of life. It has achieved this through its predominant emphasis in both thought and practice, on non-violence, reverence for life in all forms, ecological harmony and balance, recognition of universal mutual support and interdependence, non-attachment to illusory materialism, propagation of vegetarianism and a non-egocentric out-look.

The three ‘A’s, Ahimsa (Non-violence), Aparigraha (Non-attachment) and Anekant (Relativity in thinking) constitute the basic core of the deeply compassionate Jain philosophy. Out of these basic tenets are inspired concepts like amity (maitri), compassion (Karuna) equanimity (madhyastha) and appreciation (pramod).

With such a comprehensive compassionate approach, Jain philosophy can meaningfully contribute to the attainment of universal durable peace and tranquility.

Jain religion is unique in as much as in its long existence, it has never compromised on the principle and practice of non-violence.

In the words of the famous American scientist Carl Sagan:

There is no right to life in any society on earth today nor has there been at any time with a few rare exceptions such as the JAINS of India”.

Jainism regards non-violence as the “Supreme Religion”. It insists upon its observance in thought, expression and action both at the level of the individual as well as the society. It envisages its observance not only among humans, but also on the wider plane among all life on the planet and the elements of nature that nurture and sustain it. It maintains that both scientifically as well as spiritually all life on earth is closely interdependent. There is a common organic chemistry, a shared evolutionary heritage and a common destiny passing through the cycle of birth and death towards eventual emancipation.

Lord Mahavir has beautifully elaborated the divine and yet pragmatic philosophy of non-violence in day-to-day life:

I cannot take what I cannot give back. No one can give back life. Therefore, no one should take it”.

In happiness and 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, suffering or pain as would be undesirable or unbearable if inflicted upon ourselves. We must endeavour to develop equanimity towards all living beings and elements of nature in this universe.”

Jain Yogashastra gives a comprehensive definition of Non-violence thus:

Reverence for life is the supreme religious teaching
Non-injury to life is the supreme moral guidance
Giving freedom from fear to life is the supreme act of giving
Non-violence to life is the supreme renunciation”.

This is not a narrow religious thought or creed. It is a universal truth. In his famous classic ‘Les Miserables’, Victor Hugo maintains.

Life is to give and not to take”

Mahatma Gandhi was from his childhood deeply influenced by the Jain culture of Non-violence; India’s non-violent struggle for independence from British colonial rule stands out as a striking example of the successful and effective application of the instrument of non-violence in the political arena. Likewise Mahatma Gandhi’s disciple Vinoba Bhave tried it out in the field of land reforms through his Bhoodan (Land gift) movement. He persuaded hundreds and thousands of landlords to voluntarily and freely distribute lands to the landless and give up the path of violent and vicious exploitation.

The first half of the twentieth century has been witness to two world wars. The second half has been witness to Hiroshima, to the phenomenal increase in nuclear arsenal of unimaginable destructive potential, and to a large number of local and regional wars and conflicts. In the last decade frightening growth of terrorism and the intensity of the cult of violence all over the world has been very disturbing and bodes ill for the future. However it is wrong to expect that the answer to violence is more violence. Far from solving problem, it creates increasingly unnerving situation.

Non-violence must be recognized and used as a potent instrument to safeguard political morality and social

transformation, promote both human rights as well as animal rights and to ensure equality and justice through persuasive methods. Without non-violent behaviour, all these modern concepts would become devoid of any meaning and content. Exploitation – mental and physical, political and economic, social and racial would continue. Violence as an easy option would sharpen its cutting edges ever more. Non-violent conduct alone can prevent in a durable manner the current universal drift towards crisis, confusion and chaos.

Teachings and practices of Jainism have a lot of relevance in persuading individuals and groups to shed “the violent ego complex”, and the temptation to assert authority or suppress or oppress others through sheer violence and brutal force.

What the world of today needs is a widespread grass root education and training in non-violence in thought and practice. It must become part of school and University education. It must find a mention in the Charter and Covenants of the United Nations. Search for durable peace has to be on the formulations of the compassionate concept of non-violence. Non-violence along can be stable and convincing deterrent. United Nations has so far undertaken many peacekeeping operations but they have always been through armed forces. It is about time an international brigade of multinational volunteer force is raised which would seek to bring peace in troubled regions through non-violent methods.

There are institutions like the UN University for peace at Costa Rica providing education in peace. Education in peace is incomplete unless reinforced by a well thought out, coordinated and planned programme of education in the virtues and strength of non-violent thought and behaviour pattern in day-to-day life for tackling crisis points and situation as they begin to emerge in a society.

Such education can more persuasively strengthen environmental awareness and responsibility. Jain religion may on the face of it appear austere in terms of inculcating mental and physical discipline and restraint, it has a clear potential of universally creating a healthy climate by spreading the philosophy of “Live and let Live´” and “Live by need and not greed.”

Jain concept of non-violence is not a theoretical, ritual or doctrinaire concept. Far from being a religious dogma or dispensation, it is a dynamic instrument. A case in point is Martin Luther King’s non-violent struggle for assertion of racial equality and protection of the legitimate human rights of the coloured population in USA. It created a deep impact on the minds and hearts of not only the Americans but indeed people all over the world.

Drug addiction, child abuse, cruelty to animals and a host of such worldwide problems can be more satisfactorily tackled through non-violent methods. While visiting Rio for the UN Earth Summit in my discussions with leading social workers I discerned that they were veering round to persuasive education to correct such social malaises and were eager to find out how the culture of non-violent approach be used as an instrument of social transformation, cultural reformation and moral rearmament.

The courage of non-violence is the most outstanding contribution of Jain Philosophy to the world. Non-violence has often been looked upon as cowardice or escapism largely because the habit or culture of violence has spread in the social fabric like a contagious disease.

The concept of ecology in enshrined in the Jain Motto of Parasparopagraho Jeevanam, which means that all living organisms, howsoever big or small, irrespective of the degree of their sensory perceptions, are bound together by mutual support and interdependence. They are and should remain in a harmonious and judicious balance with nature. The world is in peril today because humans have mercilessly exploited the environment, devastated and depleted it, disturbed the nature’s balance and brought Mother Earth to the brink of disaster.

Jain ecological perception views evolution and growth of life in all its splendor and variety on this planet of ours. It is a democratic concept pinning its faith in the equality of souls irrespective of differing forms of living creatures ranging from humans to animals, insects, plants and even the miniscule living organisms. Jain religion prohibits destruction of earth’s life support system, which provides for balanced and mutually supportive relationship between all life forms and nature.

Over a century ago, the great thinker TH Huxley echoed this very approach when he wrote:

The question of all questions for humanity is the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the cosmos. Whence our race came, what sort of limits are set to our power over nature and to nature’s power over us to what goals are we striving, are the problems which present themselves afresh with undiminished interest to every human being born on earth.”

Jainism answers the eternal question for today and tomorrow by clearly identifying the responsibility of humans, the most superior and advanced among living creatures. The identification of the obligation has both spiritual connotations as well as realistic and practical implication in day-to-day life.

Further more Jainism has ingrained in it a continuous search of fulfillment of this responsibility taking into account that nature and other living beings also in their turn fulfill their responsibilities and do a lot of good to humans – be it the sun and the moon, the soil and the vegetation, the forests, rivers and oceans, animals and other living creatures. It is indeed the reason why Hindus regard cow as a “Sacred Animal” and many Jain temples have in their precincts bird clinics.

To quote an American Jain from his delightfully reflective poem:

The trees were dancing gaily in the breeze,
Why do you so dance?
O Tree? I asked”
Nodding their foliage merrily, they replied:
We bore the searing heat of the sun,
Giving shade to the weary traveler and the dropping bird,
We readily offered our fruit to the hungry;
Should we not dance now?
Happy in the fulfillment of fortitude and compassion.”

In the contemporary world, humans have grossly neglected their responsibility towards nature and other living beings.

Despite prohibition by United Nations and wide ranging national laws and international conventions global trade in vanishing exotic species like apes, sea turtles, giant pandas cheetahs and elephants is running at almost US$ ten billion a year next only to illicit trade in drugs and arms, Cyanide is being sprayed in coral waters to scoop up tropical fish.

Fur farms breed confine, strangle or asphyxiate foxes, minks and rabbits, Cosmetic industries squeeze or scrape openings near the reproductive organs for perfumes, which harpoon whales for lipsticks, rouge and other products, which kill musk deer far scent. This involves enormous cruelty, violence and environmental devastation and to what end? – For use in fancy restaurants as rare menu items, for use as pets or for use in zoos and circuses or for luxurious cosmetic consumption! We talk of human rights day in and day out but choose to turn a blind eye to the rights of the mute animals!!

Mexican conservationist Homes Ardjes says:

We are killing the masterpieces of life on the planet and destroying life support system”.

Conservation ethics is being grossly neglected and violated. It is only the spread of the culture of non-violence that can bring a lasting change in this cruel and violent habit and addiction. Consumers need to be convinced with love and reasoning that they need to give up such “tastes” which, in the ultimate analysis, go against the interest of humanity and the universe.

UN Earth Summit held at Rio-de-Janeiro in Brazil in June 1992 eloquently focused on “the rape of our planet”. World’s forest are being recklessly destroyed, rivers, lakes, oceans being polluted, wild life is becoming extinct, land is become barren, march of desert is getting accelerated, an depleting ozone layer threatens global warming and climate change. Jain philosophy emphasizes that if the plane’s life support system does not survive, it would threaten the very survival of humanity.

The Rio declaration adopted by the Sacred Earth Gathering of over sixty leading spiritual and religious leaders of the world very significantly incorporates the Jain thought:

We believe that the universe is sacred because all is one. We believe in the sanctity and the integrity of all life forms. We affirm the principles of peace and non-violence in governing human behavior towards one another and all life”.

Jain ecological consciousness is grounded in a judicious blend of divine holism and vision of non-exploitative science and technology. Instead of ignoring or side tracking one another, religion and science must go hand in hand and chart a single path to guide humans spiritually in the direction of preservation of our planet and conservation of its resources. The scientific approach, reasoning and practices prescribed by Jain religion are, thus highly relevant today when environmental concerns are on the top of human agenda.

Jain philosophy exhorts and inspires human beings to become the spiritual agents for preserving the grace and dignity of Mother Earth and enhancing the productivity and vitality of the natural phenomenon. After all, all human, nature and other living being are a part of an organic whole – a oneness in the vast eternity of time and space. Jain as well as other religions have preached this from times immemorial.

Spirit of renunciation is basic to Indian philosophy in general and Jain philosophy in particular. The approach is not to endorse it as a compulsive principle, but to put it into practice as practicable to one’s station in life and strength of one’s own will power through a process of self-control – both physical as well as mental. The psychology is not one of feeling of being forced to do it as a religious ritual with a kind of suffering imposed, but of a task undertaken with enthusiasm, willingness, delight and positive orientation.

The concept of “Aparigraha” (Non-attachment and non-possessiveness) can be practiced in varying degrees. Simply stated it is the practice of self-restraint and voluntary control of wants, abstinence from over-indulgence and elimination of aggressive urge. Jain religion prescribes more strict and rigorous practices (MAHAVRAT) for monks and relatively less so (ANUVRAT) for ordinary followers.

Spreading widely the basic culture of self-restraint is highly relevant in the contemporary world. In the wake of tremendous materialistic progress, human kind has been caught up with never-ending multiplication of wants. This has increased human greed, wasteful consumption and waste of earth’s precious resources.

In his book “Vedanta Treatise”, Mr. A Parthasarathy has beautifully explained the meaning and relevance of renunciation:

Renunciation is not measured by the quantum of possessions. It is determined by the attitude of dispossession towards your possessions. The concept of renunciation has been gravely misconstrued with the result that wealth and riches have been condemned in the name of religion.

If the nations of the world today wish to claim real civilization and progress, they ought to inculcate the sense of dispossession in the minds of their citizens. The spirit of true renunciation alone can pave the way to salvation for nations as well as individuals.”

Thus “aparigraha” does not envisage dispensation of normal life of a householder. It is not running away from normal life or escaping from its challenges and responsibilities. It is not necessary to become a hermit and retire to Himalayan mountain areas for meditation and penance. Asceticism is for the monks to practice. For people in the society, “aparigraha” is a way to gain more and more objectivity in life and rationality of approach.

Implicit in the Jain concept of “Aparigraha” is the philosophy of conservation of natural environment and avoidance of its over exploitation or abusive and wasteful consumption. For instance it has now become clear that the rupture in the protective ozone layer is the result of man’s own mischief with nature due to his acts of unrestrained violence and wreck less possessiveness.

Jain ethics regards misuse of any part of nature as a kind of theft as it deprives life of its inherent autonomy and independence. “Take from the earth only what you need; the mother earth will then be able to serve and support living creatures longer.”

Ahimsa (Non-violence) and Aparigraha (Non-attachment) complement and supplement one another. In the world of today if these virtues are practiced together in practical life, it would help in reducing social tensions, national greed, international rivalries over boundaries, control over natural resources, or fruits of development, Legal or technical, political or juridical agreements concluded have, by and large, transitory significance. It is the strength and force of a philosophical tradition of “give more and take less” that can sustain a nation or a community of nations on a more durable and contented basis.

Vegetarianism is an integral part of Jain ethics, drawing its fountain inspiration from the principles of non-violence as well as self-restraint. It has become a way of life and basic culture for a Jain. Indeed, it is to the credit of many Jain centres in USA and Canada that the cult of vegetarianism is spreading widely in the western world.

In the ecologically conscious world of today, vegetarianism is being regarded more and more widely as a desirable and health-conducive habit. The movement inspired by Jain philosophy is becoming popular and acceptable.

Vegetarianism represents a non-violent thought culture based on the concept of kindness to living creatures. Not only Lord Mahavir but Jesus has also said:

For I tell you, he who kills, kills himself and who eatsthe flesh of slain beasts eats the body of death.”

As the practice of vegetarianism spreads around the world in slow but steady measure, one recalls what the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw, himself a devout vegetarian said:

I am a human being and not a graveyard for dead animals.”

The contemporary world brought up in an atmosphere of violence and killing needs to realize how one would feel if it were to happen to him/her. After all, other living creatures have also the ability and sensitivity to feel pain and get not only physically but also emotionally hurt.

Poet Coleridge almost echoed Jain thought on Non-violence in his poem:

He prayeth best who loveth best
Both man and bird and beast
He prayeth well who loveth well
All things great and small.”

Humanity has come to abhor wars because so many human lives have been lost. And yet we go on killing millions of animals, birds and fishes in slaughterhouses mercilessly everyday – simply to fill our dinner plates.

Compassion must be universally applied and not selectively only towards fellow human beings. The benevolence should extend to the humblest living creature. The daily war of humans on animals must stop.

Vegetarianism provides a viable healthy and sober answer, which world citizens can practice by simply controlling and curbing the “animal instinct” in them.

At the surface, Jain religion may appear rather austere, strict and rigid in the definition and practice of non-violence. However, it provides a rational, ethical and judicious approach considering how the violent ego in humans has brought the entire universe to the brink of environmental disaster. Jain philosophy appeals to human beings to give a lead in building a non-violent fabric of life.

After all to quote Aristotle “Of all animals, man has the largest brain in proportion to his size.”

What human kind needs to grasp is the overall perspective for life. Clare Rosenfield – a scholarly American Jain says in a very thoughtful observation:

The vegetarian way of life is not only a way of removing ourselves from supporting the machines of violence and the mentality of callousness towards helpless creature, but it has also been able to give us a new and fresh outlook on life. I feel one with creation; I feel a deep kinship with the beings with which I share the planet. I see them as energies – conscious, living, growing, evolving energies in a myriad of different forms.”

In the egocentric world of today, situation and problems are quite often perceived, viewed and assessed with a one-track approach. It is however important to grasp the fact that there is nothing like an absolute truth as such. Truth and reality, to be clearly understood, has to be seen in a relative context in all its manifold aspects and from multiple angles. An absolutist approach tends to ignore overall reality in its comprehensive perspective. It is said that many roads lead to Rome.

Anekantvad – a Jain doctrine is based on scientific reasoning and logic and is imbued at the same time with the approach of accommodation and respect for differing points of view. It is not enough how an individual perceives a problem, situation or relationship. It is equally important to know what it means to others concerned and how they view it. That will give a truly total picture of a given reality.

Anekantvad – the doctrine of manifold aspects makes for a greater degree of tolerance and give and take in the society, removes rigidity of approach, facilitates rational and objective analysis and helps in eliminating subjective approach. This is what the contemporary world needs for tackling complex global and national problems.

This Jain approach is conducive to strengthening cooperative co-existence, harmony, equanimity and understanding in social interaction and dealings.

The doctrine of relativity in thinking is not a Jain religious prescription, but a significant scientific contribution of Jainism to sociology in the field of logic and reasoning.

Anekantvad helps promote an integrated and wholesome perspective with considerable openness (glasnost) for the consideration of the merits of an issue of a problem. It makes for democratization in thinking, analysis and solution-search. It curbs egocentric tendency, which more often than not complicates solution of intricate, social, national or international problems.

In the rapidly changing world of today, relativity of thinking can provide a very dynamic and vibrant approach for harmonizing apparently conflicting viewpoints, maximizing agreement at highest common denominator levels, and discovering fundamental unity of purpose in the diversity of thought and behaviour patterns. The approach could be usefully applied to bilateral as well as multinational issues in a wide variety of situations and circumstances.

With its scientific temper, logical perception and ethical approach Jain philosophy is of universal relevance in the contemporary world. Jain principles of non-violence, non-egocentric outlook, ecological perspective, reverence for life in all its forms and vegetarian culture can provide a healing touch to the manifold problems facing human society today in its relation interse as well as with other living beings and elements of nature.

The principles are not only of continuing validity, but are of particular timely relevance in the world of today when humanity is going on the wrong track of unbridled violence and may well end up destroying the entire fabric of rich and advanced civilization and culture built up through human ingenuity, inspiration and a sense of faith and commitment.

The deeply compassionate principles of Jain religion and their practice can meaningfully help search for sustained peace, safe environment and sustainable development, curbing violence and terrorism, fear and suspicion, hatred and hostility, inculcating the practice of restraint over the indiscriminate pursuit of materialism and above all serving more whole heartedly the underprivileged, handicapped and the utterly deprived living beings.

There is a refreshingly welcome impact of Jain philosophy beginning to make itself felt on the world community – on whosoever come in touch with it, be they followers of Jain religion or not. The realization is growing that its principles make Jain religion a religion of humanity.

Human life is but a small passing phenomenon in the vast eternity of space and time and the grand complexion of the entire cosmos. It has been rightly said:

I expect to pass through this world but once; any good, therefore, that I can do any kindness that I can show to any fellow creatures, let me do it now – for I may not pass this way again”.


We are all miracles. This miracle is the miracle of the ‘Karmas’. This is the law that explains the deepest questions of life. Then you know how to become your own master, your own creator, The miracle is you!”

- Gurudev Chitrabhanu

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