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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jainism and nature

Paul Dundas wrote an illuminating essay (The Limits of a Jain Environmental Ethic, in Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, ed. by Christopher Key Chapple, Cambridge Mass. 2002) warning about the risk to overestimate the 'ecological' commitment of Jainism and inspiring the following considerations of mine:
1. True, Jainists endorse ahiṃsā and include plants among living beings, but they do not share our contemporary concern for 'nature' as a whole. They focus on suffering individuals, and would not share our care for protecting a natural environment even at the expenses of some individuals living in it (for instance, we might decide to kill all wild dogs in the area of Canberra in order to preserve the Australian original habitat).
2. Nature (and even the sum of the individuals inhabiting it) is not something to be preserved in itself. One should strive for ahiṃsā in order not to accumulate new karman, not (only) for the sake of plants and microscopic organisms.
3. Points 1-2 entail no ethic evaluation. Ecology is part of the contemporary world view but the fact that we feel immediately close to it does not necessarily entail that it is the 'right' way to look at nature. In fact, the last century has –notwithstanding ecology– destroyed the natural world much more than the preceding eras.
(In the photograph: Jains avoid to swallow insects and other microscopic organisms by wearing these masks)


Anonymous said...

You have said:
In the photograph: Jains avoid to swallow small animals by wearing these masks.

In India (a tropical country) it is common to find mosquitoes and other insects in most places. By wearing these masks, they ensure they don't accidentally cause the death of these insects and other microscopic organisms when they breathe or talk.

Obviously their concern is not about 'swallowing small animals'.

elisa freschi said...

well, aren't insects "small animals"? Maybe my English is too poor, but I did not refer to mice or kittens! Thanks for mentioning it, I shall use a clearer expression in the post.

अश्वमित्रः said...

Animal for insect would be etymologically correct, anyway, obviously. Can Italian animale be used in the same way? I use it that way anyway, like I use English animal for anything with a jiva, but I'm out of touch at this point with how the prthagjana uses English.

windwheel said...

I'm afraid I would disagree with the notion that Jainism does not have a 'field theory' but is individualistic merely. There was a Jain Muni associated with the Veerayathan Institution which is headed by the first Jain female Acharya who has written some beautiful essays in Hindi which show how Jainism inculcates an attitude of responsibility and caring for pure and life giving elements like water, air, soil, etc. In the case of Buddhism, we have no difficulty thinking they can have something like a Gaia concept- i.e. concern for the System as a whole- because we know they have a 'field' theory from the Vimalakirti Sutra. In Hinduism also, we have the teaching of Sanath Kumar 'Tigers and Forest are interdependent just like the Kauravas and Pandavas. If the Tigers die the forest can't survive. If the forest disappears Tigers cease to exist.' This result can be got through Jain sentiment of anyonyvavyaptibhava, or pervasive mutuality, which stitches the Cosmos together and permits it to function as a dynamic community of interacting reals.
Furthermore, Jain deontics is infinitely defeasible by reason of many pointedness and furthermore the parinami dravya conception itself has this property or inbuilt tendency- i.e. the 'harsh' (ghora) aspect of Jainism does not really obtain. Compare Sallekhana with Buddhist Sokushinbutsu and tell me which is harsher!
I really disliked Jainism till I went to the Veerayathan Ashram and had the chance to see living Jainism in action. It is a beautiful Religion and very pragmatic and involved in uplift of the needy. The paradox is that one of the most philantrophic Jain sects was originated by a Monk who said only feeding Monks yields merit, nothing else does. In other words, precisely because Charity became wholly gratuitous, it also became truly 'unselfish' and the fact that these Jains are so munificent to all good causes is evidence that 'unselfishness' is somehow just as natural as insensate consumerism.
There are some great Western scholars on Jainism but they get things wrong because, unfortunately, Jainism has not been well served in European languages. Incidentally, the major study of Jain nuns, by a Catholic nun, which came out in the mid 80's was already obsolete because she predicted there would be no female Acharyas for the foreseeable future!
Jains are a very prosperous and educated community but because they are 'good citizens'- we don't hear much about them and so end up harboring some incorrect ideas. Incidentally, one Brahmin community serving Jains is of Parthian origin- I mention this in the context of another blog post on 'Aryan' origin of Buddhism.

elisa freschi said...

I did not mean to offend Jainism at all. All I meant to say is that Jainism in its classical sources values single lives rather than the environment in general. It is the same distinctino one can find between the WWF approach (emphasising the preservation of a certain environment, even over and above the single animals inhabiting it, so that some animals might said to be obnoxious) and the PETA approach (emphasising the rights of single animals, even over and above the destiny of the environment). The contemporary developments you mention might have been influenced by the rise of environmentalism and have reused accordingly the Jain teachings about non-violence and non-appropriation.

windwheel said...

There was nothing offensive in what you wrote. My point is that the mechanics of aashrav is one thing- that is atomistic- but there is something else which arises from svadhyaya on the topic of 'divyadhvani'. One other point is that the parinami dhravya conception means that everything is blurry and entangled so you have an easy path to a sort of field conception such that aggregates like 'Water', 'Air', 'Forest' and other pure and life giving 'elements' can be the object of care and study.
If Jainism had always just been some small sect confined to merchants and bankers then I think they could be PETA like. But they were Generals, Kings, Seths and so on- responsible for fighting wars, maintaining irrigation works and so on. One other point, the Gujarati Jains retain a memory of having had to leave Bihar due to a prolonged drought and thus it makes a sort of intuitive sense that they'd have a sort of environmental awareness. If you think about it, very large cattle herds such as probably were common in ancient times, could have a devastating impact on fragile micro ecologies. Big herds go hand in had with big sacrifices. The Tirthankara Arisht Nemi, Krishna's nephew, becomes a monk when he hears piteous cries of the animals about to be slaughtered for his wedding feast. We can see this as his concern for individual lives but there is also a critique of the big herds of pastoral elites like the Yadavas.
On the other hand, what you say is true about Jain Acharyas and Upadhyays following the fashion in highlighting Environmentalism.
It is tragic that the younger generation of Sadhus and Sadhvis think western scholars are more authoritative than their own tradition. God help us all if the Jains end up as fanatical Greens. Even Gandhianism was less mischievous.

Alessandro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elisa freschi said...

Thanks for stressing the pariṇami dravya, it is an interesting point and a pertinent one.
As for Jains adopting new fashions, I can understand your concern, but on the other hand, don't you value the essays to take into account new trends? I recently read an interesting article (by Sabine Scholz, within *Re-use*, edited by Julia Hegewald and Subrata Mitra) on the development of Jain communities in the diaspora and stressing the "Jain way of life" in a way which I would deem to be "contaminated" by Western ideals. But perhaps it is the only way to preserve Jainism in the diaspora, where it needs to take into account its new environment, in order not to become a closed and "fundamentalist" religion.

elisa freschi said...

I forgot to say: Calasso seems overtly to have been influenced by some trend of philosophia perennis. I do not know about his direct knowledge of Sanskrit, but he was surely in a milieu of excellent Sanskritists (such as R. Donatoni).

windwheel said...

That book looks interesting- maybe re-use is a bit like your positive sum prasanga?-how very well read you are!
I don't mind 'contamination' at all except when it involves mere fashionable 'preference falsification, availability cascades'. Actually, in India it is Menaka Gandhi and other empty headed celebrity/high Society types who are the most fanatical PETA type agitators. I think many of the older generation of Jain sadhus and sadhvis were very lovable and affectionate yet very subtle and rigorous in their thinking. Contact with them increased 'shradda'. Nowadays, the fashion is for empty speeches, bogus indignation and Celebrity worship. Young Jains are bound to be sucked into this terrible vortex of unmeaning- with the diaspora leading the way. Sadhus and Sadhvis will become fixtures on the U.N and Climate Change Conference circuit- wearing their muhpattis and adding an exotic touch. In fact Berlusconi may become a Jain Acharya like Steven Segal (a fat Hollywood action hero)has become a Buddist tulku. What to do? We live in an avasarpini age. However, as I point out in my novel- Samlee's daughter- one can gain kevalya in this life by teleportation to another cosmic 'continent'- Disneyland sounds nice.

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