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Jainism & Ecology


This paper explores the ecological underpinnings of the ancient religion of Jainism. Jainism began over 2500 years ago in India and comes from the word jina which means conqueror or victor – those who have “conquered suffering (duhkha) inherent in attachment” (Chapple, 1993, p. 9). There are currently two sects of Jainism, including the Digambaras from south and central India and the Svetambaras primarily from western India (Chapple, 2002). While there are some diverging viewpoints, both sects agree on the foundations of Jainism, including ahimsa and karma (Chapple, 2002). As a global community we are currently facing climate change. We are connected while at the same time disconnected, from our natural surroundings, from each other and from life on earth. Jainism is unique among world religions in that it values all expressions of life. All beings, as well as the elements, are seen as inherently valuable, possessing jiva or spirit. Jains take a less anthropocentric view of the world. From the smallest plants to the five sensed human beings, all are infused with life and should be treated with love and care (Jain, 2016). Ahimsa or non-violence is a virtue central to Jainism. Actions are analyzed with karmic ramifications in mind – the variety of life forms are protected. Compassion and empathy are highly valued. The canons teach about loving kindness and the ultimate goal of moksha (liberation).

The Acaranga Sutra

The Acaranga Sutra is one of the foundational texts of Jainism, written in 400 B.C.E. Vardhamana Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara, lies out the foundational rules, ethics and understandings of Jainism. He renounced wealth and went on to live an ascetic lifestyle in the forests. The Akaranga Sutra outlines Mahavira teachings which recognize all living beings, including “beings living in the earth, living in grass, living in wood, living in cow dung, living in dust heaps” (Jacobi, 1895, p. 8). Jati or the five classes of beings include the one, two, three, four and five sensed beings. Jains believe all beings experience pleasure and pain, great terror and unhappiness (Jacobi, 1895, p. 11), thus people should act with compassion, discipline and humility. The first great vow in the Akaranga Sutra states that “I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtle or gross, whether movable or immovable; nor should I myself kill living beings” (Jacobi, 1895, p. 202). Reciprocity exists between oneself and others. One should know the truth of the suffering of other beings and avoid being responsible for the suffering of another through killing or injuring any living creature. One should not harm or injure others nor oneself. Violence should not be practiced, spoken nor thought about. Right knowledge is important for comprehending and renouncing the world. According to the Akaranga Sutra, one who comprehends and renounces the causes of sin is called a reward knowing sage or muni (Jacobi, 1895). In the First Lecture called the Knowledge of the Weapon, the living world is seen as “afflicted, miserable, difficult to instruct and without discrimination”. Individual beings are embodied with jiva, separate, and “not one all soul” (Jacobi, 1895, p. 3). The truth is taught “for the sake of the splendor, honor and glory of this life, for the sake of birth, death and final liberation, for the removal of pain, man acts sinfully towards earth, or causes others to act so, or allows others to act so” (Jacobi, 1895, p. 4). In the Second Lesson of the First Lecture, “a wise man should not act sinfully towards earth or cause others to act so nor allow others to act so – he who knows these causes of sin relating to earth is called a reward-knowing sage” (Jacobi, 1895, p. 5). The magnitude of these simple words is vast. This means that all life forms – animals, plants and even microorganisms – should be protected. According to the Akaranga Sutra, no living being wants to suffer. Thus the wise ones are the ones who protect the earth and neither directly or indirectly injure other beings. The Akaranga Sutra states that there are many beings living in water, so many that monks have in fact declared water living matter (Jacobi, 1895, p. 6). The Third Lesson applies to water bodies, that “a man should not deny the world of water bodies nor should he deny the self; he who denies the world of water bodies denies the self”. In other words, we are all interconnected. We are water and water is us. A wise man should not act sinfully towards water or allow others to do so. Similar teachings follow in the Fourth Lesson which applies to fire bodies. One should not deny the existence of fire bodies nor harm them. He that denies the world of fire bodies denies the self and vice versa. There are beings such as moths and insects that shrivel when they come in contact with a flame or bugs living in the wood. The Fifth Lesson applies to plants. One should not kill plants or injure them. They feel pain and should be treated respectfully. Some Jains will not eat root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots in case insects are killed when harvested. According to the Tattvartha Sutra of Umasvati, we should practice non-violence and act with compassion (karuna) as souls (jivas) exist to help other souls (1994). This is similar to the boddhisatva ideal in Mahayana Buddhism, which promotes the qualities of friendliness (maitri) and compassion (karuna) (Tattia, 2002, p. 6). According to the concept of parasparograho jivanam in the Tattvartha Sutra verse 5.21, “all souls render service to one another” - we are dependent on one another, are interrelated and part of a holistic system (Umasvati, 1994). Non-violence is the foundation for reverence and respect for all life. Every living creature has a right to life. Right conduct means respecting this basic tenet. The three jewels (ratnatraya) of Jainism include right knowledge (samyagjnana), right conduct (samyakcharitra) and right faith (samyagdarshana). Right knowledge or samyagjnana refers to understanding the elements and the reality of existence. Right conduct or samyakcharitra refers to self-control and discipline. For laypeople this involves taking the minor vows (anu vrats). Monks and nuns take the greater vows (maha vrats). The anuvrata include nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-attachment or possession (aparigraha), not stealing (asteya) and sexual restraint (brahmacharya) (Chapple, 1993, p. 10). Right faith or samyagdarshana refers to having the right view or perception, which in the case of Jainism involves a recognition of all life forms. Jain teachings help us to understand our inter-connectedness with other life forms with an emphasis on biology and ecology. In the Acharanga sutra, Mahavira “carefully observed life as found in animals, plants and microbes and exhorted his followers to spare life wherever possible in all its myriad forms” (Howard, 2017, p. 110). Jainism helps us be more compassionate to ourselves, others and our world.According to Jain, “true religion is what sustains all species of life and helps to maintain harmonious relationships among them” (2016, p. 60). Compassion towards other humans, animals, sea life, plant life and other living organisms means not killing or hurting them. This has implications for large scale industry, such as oil, gas, mining and large scale monocultures that use pesticides and herbicides and are highly destructive to life on earth. The great depth of compassion and detail in the Akaranga Sutra of other life forms attests to the strong moral and ethical fabric of Jainism. Asceticism and detachment are also important in Jain culture and are values which can inform a more sustainable lifestyle. In the Second Lecture of the Akaranga Sutra called the Conquest of the World, it states that “through wrong instruction the would be sages trouble themselves for pleasures thus they sink deeper and deeper in delusion and cannot get to this or that shore; those who are freed from attachment to the world and it's pleasure reach the opposite shore” (Jacobi, 1895, p. 17). Aparigraha refers to non-attachment. According to the fifth great vow, one should “renounce all attachments, whether little or much, small or great, living or lifeless” (Jacobi, 1895, p. 208). This teaching emphasizes limited consumption, living simply and not grasping (aparigraha). It also involves minimizing bhoga (consumables or consumption). On a practical level, this emphasis promotes simple lifestyle choices that have minimal impact on the environment. Living a life of non-attachment to materialism and consumerism is better for ourselves, each other, and all of life on earth. Restricting one's consumption in daily life reduces the amount of natural resources exploited. Self-sufficiency and living basically is more sustainable. A consumer lifestyle is harmful to many life forms, including people. Unfettered capitalism is occurring at the behest of the environment with negative effects on our Earth. The values and principles of Jainism can inform a shift in morals needed for creative solutions to climate change. Jain precept of aparigraha or non-possession promotes a lifestyle not attached to materialism or wealth, rather it promotes contentment, ethics and charity. Mahavira himself abandoned a life of privilege with the intention of realizing one's true self and finding release or liberation from karmic bonds.


A guiding precept in Jainism is ahimsa parmo dharma, meaning non-violence is a supreme moral virtue (Jain, 2016, p. 64). Ahimsa or non-violence is practiced by all Jains. The practice is a “basic requirement for religious life in Jainism and is the greatest of all dharmas” (Chapple, 1993, p. 79). As a central tenant of this ancient indigenous religion, it is considered the highest teaching in Jainism. According to Chapple, it is “the prime practice for expelling all karma and thereby achieving spiritual solitude (kevala)” (1993, p. 54). Ahimsa means the absence of killing or harming in Sanskrit. There are two types of ahimsa – to refrain from causing harm to any creature and active ahimsa, which is to proactively strive to eliminate the suffering of others. Ahimsa is a “proactive affirmation of divinity in all of creation” (Jain, 2016, p. 60). It requires a high level of self-exploration, reflection and self-control. One considers all actions and aspects of their life when making decisions and in daily life. Ahimsa traits include love, honesty, joy, peace, patience, humbleness, and kindness (Jain, 2016, p. 90).Jains are expected to uphold certain vows which protect one from inflicting violence on another person or being. Intention is also very important in guiding sound ethical action. Ahimsa is “the means, like a boat, to cross the ocean of samsara” (Jain, 2016, p. 64). Jain theory of many-sidedness or anekanta promotes a practical multi-perspective approach. According to Koller, “experience itself is complex, subtle, and many sided (anekanta)” (2002). Nayavada refers to how ordinary knowledge claims are limited by a particular perspective, thus one should balance one's claims with other perspectives (Koller, 2002). Open-mindedness and tolerance is “necessary for peaceful co-existence” (Mehta, 2018, p. 20). According to Mehta, much of the violence today is due to religious fundamentalism and ideological disagreement (2018). Truth is relative to our perspective and stand-points (Mehta, 2018). It is this ability to see one another's perspective and to empathize that encourages one to practice ahimsa towards all other life forms. It enables one to see “all of nature as alive, as endowed, like us, with awareness and feelings that enable the Jain principles of anekanta-vada and ahimsa to work together and form a basis for ecological thought” (Koller, 2002, p. 34).

Karma for Ecological Conservation

According to Jain, ahimsa cannot be fully understood without understanding the role of the karman doctrine (2016). The two principles are inter-connected and dependent (Jain, 2016). The theory of karma in the Jain worldview involves fourteen levels of spiritual attainment or gunasthana. The highest level is spiritual liberation or kevala. One should minimize the accumulation of karma through not participating in actions that hurt or kill another being. As stated in the Akaranga Sutra, if we disregard any of the elements of earth-bodied, water-bodied, fire-bodied, wind-bodied life forms, we disregard our own existence. It harks to a deep harmonious connection between ourselves, the elements and other life forms. In a western scientific and biological framework, it alludes to ecology.Ecology is the study of systems and how living beings relate to one another and their environment. In a microcosmic sense, we are symbiotically connected. Karma is at the heart of Jainism and is the connecting factor between jivas. In Jainism, karma is literally a substance that accumulates on the jiva or soul. In the Doctrine of Karman, the five everlasting, imperishable substances (dravya) includeAkasa (Space) – this is present in both the world (loka) and non-world.Dharma (Motion) – an ether that serves as the medium for movement.Adharma – the medium for rest that, like dharma, pervades the cosmos.Pudgala (Matter) – exist in an infinite number of minute atoms or paramanu.Jiva (Soul) – numerous souls which are distinguishable in their possession consciousness (cetana) and intelligence (Von Glasenapp, 1942). Though the jivas may influence each other, they are independent. There are many jivas, but, according to the Akaranga Sutra, the majority of them live attached to materialism, joy, suffering and a limited existence (Jacobi, 1895). Jivas or souls are unique in that they have the faculty of cognition which makes them able to analyze whether or not their actions cause suffering and will accrue karma. The final goal of Jainism is to free oneself from the influence of karma. Karma has been described as the “matter that veils the omniscience of the soul, as a dense veil of clouds hides the light of the sun” (Von Glasenapp, 1942, p. 43). But, “although the sun may be veiled, some light is breaking through the clouds, so there also, in spite of the influence of matter, a fraction of the faculty of cognition is preserved to the jiva” (Von Glasenapp, 1942, p. 43). The jiva also “possesses the faculty of action and has virya or energy, which bound by matter is called yoga or activity” (Von Glasenapp, 1942, p. 45). The activity of the soul is “threefold and includes thoughts, words and deeds” (Von Glasenapp, 1942, p. 45). One must hinder the binding or bandha of bad karma in particular, thus the body, speech and thinking must be controlled (Von Glasenapp, 1942). It is through this “continual self-control or samyama that holiness is reached and the antaraya-karmans are extinguished” (Von Glasenapp, 1942, p. 46). At this level, the absolute virya is reached and the holy man becomes a ayogi-kevalin (Von Glasenapp, 1942). The “infinite virya is completely free from the influence of matter” (Von Glasenapp, 1942, p. 46). The roots of negative karma include the ksatriya of hatred, greed, ego and attachment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, giving is highly encouraged. Dana refers to “engaging in activities which help in saving and improving the quality of life of every creature in the universe” (Jain, 2016, p. 16). There are four different types of dana, including Ahar Dana (providing food/nutrition), Aushadh Dana (medicine/health services), Gyan Dana (education/knowledge) and Abhay Dana (freedom from fear) (Jain, 2016, p. 16). These duties are expected by all Jains and speak to the benevolent nature of the faith. Such strong ethical undertones make the teachings of this ancient religion relevant when confronting present day issues of pollution, consumerism and climate change. Jainism and EcologyI want to acknowledge that ecology is a modern western concept while Jainism is an ancient Indian religion and spiritual practice. In an attempt to draw parallels between ecology and traditional Jain teachings it's important to acknowledge that I take the risk of oversimplifying a very complex topic, especially given the historical difference in time periods and cultures between the two. However, the foundational role that nature and the environment play is undeniable. In Jainism, nature is believed to be made up of five elements, including prithvi (soil/land), jal (water), agni (fire), vayu (air), and aakash (sky). Humans are made up of the elements and are in that way connected to other life forms. These five elements make up the five classes of beings. The various forms of life are earth-bodied, water-bodied, fire-bodied or air-bodied with different vitalities or pranas based on whether they are one, two, three, four or five sensed beings. According to Mahavira, one sensed beings have four pranas (life span, physical power, respiration, and sense of touch); two sensed beings have six pranas (life span, physical power, respiration, and sense of touch, taste, and vocal power); three sensed beings have seven pranas (life span, physical power, respiration, and sense of touch, taste, smell, and vocal power); four sensed beings have eight pranas (life span, physical power, respiration, and sense of touch, taste, smell, seeing, and vocal power); five sensed (non-sentient jiva) have nine pranas (life span, physical power, respiration, and sense of touch, taste, smell, seeing, hearing and vocal power); and five sensed (sentient jivas) have ten pranas (life span, physical power, respiration, and sense of touch, taste, smell, seeing, vocal power and mental power) (Jain, 2016, p. 85-6). In Jain cosmology, there are a multitude of souls “identical in its qualities of bliss, energy and omniscience, but due to each soul's unique karmic history, these souls are embodied in various forms” (Cort, 2002).The Jain Declaration on Nature highlights the five Jain teachings of ahimsa (non-violence), parasparopagraho jivanam (interdependence), anekantavada (the doctrine of manifold aspects), samyaktva (equanimity) and jiva daya (compassion, empathy and charity) (Singhvi, 1990). The Jain perspective includes “reverence for all life forms, commitment to the progress of human civilization and the preservation of the natural environment” (Singhvi, 1990, p. 3). Within the Declaration, waste and pollution are considered acts of violence against nature (Singhvi, 1990). Humans are seen “as a highly evolved form of life, and have a great moral responsibility in their mutual dealings and in their relationship with the rest of the universe” (Singhvi, 1990, p. 7).Jainism is seen as an “ecological religion” that provides insights into solutions for our climate crisis. The Jain Declaration on the Climate Crisis was drafted in 2019 (JAINA, 2019). It contains a series of commitments and propositions for Jain communities that address climate change. It also encourages one to avoid eating meat through a vegan or organic whole foods, plant based diet to minimize one's environmental impact. Jain temples are educating their communities about the climate crisis and creative sustainable solutions. Examples of environmental projects in Jain communities would be an interesting topic of further research. Cort refers to Jains active in environmental justice and social ecology in the northern parts of India and environmentalism in the south (2006). Projects are working to address environmental issues and inequality (Cort, 2006). Tatia elaborates on seven Jain principles relevant environmental sustainability, including: (1) do not kill or allow others to be killed, try to protect life, display compassion to all living things, and do not get entangled in the misery and suffering of others; (2) resist injustice, favour truth; (3) resolve conflicts peacefully; (4) do not make the accumulation of wealth the main aim in one's life; (5) pollution, extinction of species, and the destruction of forests and wildlife are crimes against the earth and against humanity; (6) pollution of the environment is caused by pollution within ourselves; and (7) to make a clean, sustainable environment “we have to adopt a lifestyle that springs from a moral and spiritual dimension” (Tatia, 2006, p. 14). There's limited research related to Jain food systems. While agriculture is a profession not many Jains do, with relation to food systems and agriculture, it would be interesting to know if there is an organic food preference among Jain communities. Agroecological ways of growing food, such as agroforestry, food forests and no-dig gardening, support and promote life. Jain teachings motivate people to be more conscious in their daily affairs, to minimize consumption and our environmental impact, to respect other people, life forms and our natural surroundings. Jain scholars propose solutions for ecological issues through reconsidering lifestyle choices and acting with ahimsa. Koller argues that “the Jain view of life is essentially ecological because all forms of life are valuable; lower and higher forms constitute a single large community in which every life-form is entitled to respect and ethical treatment” (2002, p. 31). As Chapple concludes, “a shift in consciousness must take place that places greater value on life in its myriad forms” and the cosmological views of Jainism offer important insights (2002, p. 138). Jain sutras address the interdependence of all things, the conservation of natural resources and the avoidance of waste or mistreatment of the environment (Fergusson et al., 2018). According to Miller, “All beings do not wish to suffer, and Jain yoga proposes a model of ethical living that inspires us to reduce the harm we inflict” (2019, p. 5). Imagine how different the world would be if respect for all life was regarded by all humans. We wouldn't cut down and kill trees, but rather we would plant trees to facilitate life. Plants and trees are needed for converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and storing carbon. Humans need plants and trees to produce oxygen. Our relationship is symbiotic and reciprocal. Jainism is a framework that allows us to acknowledge that relationship, respect other life forms and ultimately be of service to one another.


Jainism regards all life forms as equal. Compassion, non-violence and karma form the foundation of this ancient religion. Such teachings can inform present-day environmental ethics and behavior change. Values promote the protection of living beings and the natural environment. The central tenant of non-violence evokes reverence for all life forms. Jainism speaks to the harmonious connection with nature that most Indigenous traditions attest to. All life forms are inter-connected. Jainism contributes to an understanding of the world that raises consciousness and presence, while contributing to a more harmonious and peaceful society.

Works Cited

Chapple, Christopher K. (2002). Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chapple, Christopher K. (2003). Reconciling Yoga. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Chapple, Christopher K. (1993). Nonviolence to Animals, Earth and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Cort, John E. (2006). Green Jainism? Notes and Queries toward a Possible Jain Environmental Ethic. In C. H. Chapple (Ed.), Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life (pp. 63 – 85). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Howard, Veena R. (2017). Dharma: The Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh Tradition of India. India: Library of Modern Religion. Jacobi, Hermann. (1895). Jain Sutras. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

The Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA). (2019). Jain Declaration on the Climate Crisis. Jain, Pankaj. (2010). Jainism, Dharma and Environmental Ethics. Union Seminary Quarterly Review 63(1-2): 121-35.

Jain, Sulekh C. (2016). An Ahimsa Crisis: You Decide. Jaipur: Prakrit Bharati Academy.Koller, John M. (2002). Jain Ecological Perspectives. In C. H. Chapple (Ed.), Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life (pp. 63 – 85). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fergussion, L., Wells, G., and Kettle, D. (2018). The personal, social and enivornmental sustainability of Jainism in light of Maharishi Vedic Science. Environment, Development and Sustainability 20: 1627-1649.

Mehta, Geeta. (2010). Ecological Insight in Jainism. Wardha, India: The Institute of Gandhian Studies. Miller, Christopher. (2019). Jainism, Yoga and Ecology: A Course in Contemplative Practice for a World in Pain. Religions 10(4): 232. Singhvi, L.M. (1990). The Jain declaration on Nature. London: Institute of Jainology.

Tattia, Nathmal. (2006). The Jain Worldview and Ecology. In C. H. Chapple (Ed.), Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life (pp. 63 – 85). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Umasvati. (1994). Tattvartha Sutra: That Which Is. San Fransciso, CA: Harper Collins Publishers. Von Glasenapp, Helmuth. (1942). The Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy. Varanasi: P. V. Research Institute.

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