Jains should not turn their back on Ecology

Dr. Jain also authored the book An Ahimsa Crisis.

Dr. Sulekh C. Jain

Every living being has a strong desire to live and we must respect this in our thoughts and actions…. Lord Mahavir

Jain ontology states that the soul can be found not only in humans but in gusts of wind, sparks of fire, in flowing waters, in plants, in microbes, and in rocks and stones and soil, as well as in insects, reptiles, birds, marine life, and mammals .

The ancient Jain aphorism “Parasparopa graho Jivanam (interdependence)” means that all life is bound together by mutual support and inter-dependence. This defines the scope of modern ecology while extending it further to a more spacious home. It means that all aspects of nature belong together and are bound in a physical as well as metaphysical relationship. All living things are connected in nature, dependent on each other for continued survival. Life is viewed as a gift of togetherness, accommodation and assistance in a universe teeming with interdependent constituents.

In the words of the celebrated scientist James Lovelock ‘The earth is critically ill.’ “Most of the species vitally important for our survival have disappeared. Mountains are denuded. Rivers are drying up. Forests have shrunk at a terrible level. Drinking water has become a scarce commodity. Frequent famines, droughts, floods, tsunamis in all parts of the world are adding to our misery every day. Climate change seems to threaten our survival into the third millennium. In less than two hundred years all natural resources have been depleted and very little is left for the coming generation. It is a manmade disaster that owes its origin to our unrestrained activities and wantonness”.

Survival of the planet, and in fact of the entire human and non-human race, depends on the planet we live on (Jains call it Jambu Dweep). There is much discussion about greenhouse gases, ozone layer, shortage of water, the warming up of the environment, pollution, and ecology. As a result a new movement called environmentalism is in vogue. We Jains rightly believe that several thousand years ago, we talked, preached, practiced, and developed the whole concept of environmentalism. Yet the fact is that I find little actual environmentalism in the Jain community. Yes, there are several pockets of environmentalism that do exist. For example, the lifestyle of our monks and nuns and also of some shravaks and shravikas (lay men and women) are good examples of environmentalism. Outside this, in general, I have not seen or known of any Jain leaders to inspire the community and draw their attention to this essential issue. Environmentalism has a direct connection with ahimsa (nonviolence). If we pollute, we create suffering and most probably the death and extinction of many species. Beyond that we endanger our own survival.

I have seen Jains wasting food, water, electricity, using and discarding paper plates, polythene bags, and many other resources as if there is no tomorrow. Jains are as much polluters (maybe sometimes more due to their affluence) as anybody else. Jain surroundings are no cleaner than other surroundings. There is very little consideration or observance of cleanliness. Because Jains are in small, medium, and large businesses, they contribute to the pollution, too. Let me share a few examples.

The City of Pali in Rajasthan has a significant and influential population of Jains. Jains own and operate a large number of small businesses that manufacture and trade in cotton yarn and clothing. In that business, they do the color dying of yarns and cloth. The dyes that are used contain many carcinogenic and other poisonous chemicals. After the dye is spent, the colored water (still containing much poisonous materials) is openly discharged on the streets and also into the river there. A few years ago, I happened to drive through that town and saw the condition of the river. The river at that time was dry and its dry bed floor showed all the colors in the sand. First, I thought it was some kind of wonderful natural scenery (like the Painted Desert-Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, USA) but quickly realized the true cause. These chemicals have not only polluted the river but the water table and the sub-surface water has become absolutely poisonous and unfit for human and non-human consumption. It is just full of poisonous chemicals, carcinogens, and other disease causing poisons. I was also told that the mosquitoes and frogs have completely disappeared from the area. Can anyone imagine the colossal himsa (violence) that has been caused by the actions of these traders, some of them Jains?

In Old Delhi, there is one area called Wazirpur Industrial area. Here, many Jains run or operate small manufacturing businesses such as metal utensil fabrication, polishing, wire drawing, and other metal processing. In the manufacturing processes, they use many chemicals, acids, and caustic sodas for chemical milling and making the metal surfaces shiny and attractive. After these chemicals are spent but still have lots of acidic and other toxic materials left), they are openly dispersed/discharged on the streets outside. Sometime ago, I happened to visit that area. The amount of open pollution, practically open sewers, pools, and small ponds of these chemicals was a site to behold. The filth, the pungent smell, and the whole scenery were just disgusting. The pity is that no one’s conscience is bothered and the same show goes on every day. I really wondered how people can come here, do their business, make money, return home and sleep day after day. To me this is a horrible example of himsa. With some care, this can be avoided but who cares? I ask, is this the way to care for and worship Jambu Dweep and Bharat Kshetra (India), which we revere?

In the same area and in many of the metalworking shops, the workers do lots of grinding and metal polishing without sufficient protection and hence they inhale metallic dust, which causes TB and other lung diseases that shorten their lives. Here again the show goes on without missing a beat.

Even in USA where I live, Jains behave no differently. They own big houses with many air-conditioning units, drive big gas guzzling cars, use and throw paper plates, napkins, plastic spoons, water bottles, polythene bags, glass bottles and aluminum cans without any regard to the protection of the environment. I as a habit don’t like to drink water from a pre-packaged water bottle but many a times I find no other choice when I go to some events in Jain homes and places of worship.

Just recently Jains celebrated Diwali (festival of lights) commemorating the Nirvaan day of Lord Mahavira (the last leader of Jainism more than 2500 years ago). Diwali is the largest festival celebrated all over India. On this day, (in fact for a week) use of firecrackers is very prevalent. Firecrackers are hazardous to the workers who make them, cause fires, result in many bodily accidents and injuries to humans and birds and cause so much smoke and pollution that only one week ago, all schools in Delhi were closed because of dangerous levels of smog and pollutants in the air. In spite of many warnings by the Government authorities and some concerned citizens, Jains equally joined with others in the show.

In my recent book An Ahimsa Crisis: You Decide, I write, “If one is striving to be an ahimsak (practitioner of nonviolence as a way of life), he needs to be aware of whether, in satisfying his personal needs, he is involved in actions that lead to the suffering of any humans, animals, birds, fish, or insects… he must find out whether his home furnishings and flooring materials were made using child labor, sweatshops, or animal products (skins, fur, tusks, horns, antlers or bones from animals, or feathers from birds.

I also pose several considered questions:

How many miles per gallon does his car get?

How much pollution does his company discharge into the air, land, and water?

Does he use chemicals on his lawn?

Does he buy organic produce?

How much paper does he use?

How often does he use trains, airplanes, and other fuel-guzzling forms of transport?

This self-examination extends from the personal to the social. Each year, during the end of August and the beginning of September, Jains worldwide engage in several days of penance and reflection. I suggest that this is the best time to take full account of one’s past behavior and set the course for the coming year.

Despite the nobility of the monks and nuns, Jain daily practice in the aggregate has done little to advance the cause of environmentalism. Here I make a strong appeal for change. Nonviolence in the Web of Life and Care for the environment is the practice of ahimsa

“One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them”…. Lord Mahavira

Dr. Sulekh C. Jain currently serves as the Chairman and member of the Governing Council for the International School for Jain Studies, North America; and previously served as President of the Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA). Dr. Jain also authored the book An Ahimsa Crisis: You Decide, which can be accessed as an eBook free of charge.