Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ACHARANGA : A framework for everyday ecology

Kathgola temple and Dadabadi, an Environment friendly zone

ACHARANGA : a framework for everyday ecology
(Surendra Bothara analyses this scripture and its profound contribution)

The general meaning of environment is 'external conditions or surroundings'. The more precise meaning is 'the surrounding conditions, influences or forces that influence or modify the whole complex of climatic, edaphic (soil related) and biotic factors that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival' (Websters's Third New International Dictionary).

It would appear that religion has hardly anything to do with such physical and technical things as the environment and ecology. This is because the artificial dividing lines originally drawn between different disciplines for convenience of management have now become barriers. We generally miss the fact that in the overall picture of things everything is directly or indirectly connected and related to every other thing.

Since the very beginning, man has been making involuntary as well as voluntary efforts to understand nature and develop a symbiotic life style. And of all the ancient schools of thought, the philosophy of the Jains has made the most progress in this direction. Indeed, Jain thinkers succeeded in designing an environment-based style of life that is both rational and scientific.

Jain sages had an acutely penetrating and sensitive insight into the world of living things. They designed the ahimsa way of life with a very wide and liberal perspective on life. The popular Jain aphorism -- "Parasparopagraho jeevanam" (mutually supportive are all living things) -- encompasses the web of interdependence existing in nature at all levels. For example, bacteria extract nutrition from the intestine and at the same time help in the digestion of food. Or a bee extracts juices from flowers and at the same time pollinates for procreation.

Tree worship and the concept of the wish-fulfilling tree (Kalpavriksha) are common to almost all Indian religions. But to believe that souls exist in plants and in invisible forms of life, to advocate abstention from destroying any life form, to give supreme importance to discipline and self-restraint at both the individual and social levels, to pursue pacification of animosity and aggression, and to nurture universal fraternity and compassion, are all inherent attributes of the Jain way of life that make it environment-friendly.

Preventing abuse of the ecosystem is an intrinsic part of the ahimsa way of life. If we look at the Jain code of conduct, both for ascetics and laity, we find that it prohibits both the individual and society from harming the natural habitat. In fact, it goes a step beyond this. By nurturing the natural functioning of the habitat through sentiments of ahimsa and universal fraternity, it helps to restore any damage or disturbance caused to the ecological balance. In other words, it is designed to eliminate the sources of disturbance to the natural world in a pragmatic way.

Indeed, an orientation toward the protection of the environment was so inherently a part of the Jain way of life that for Jains it became second nature. Unfortunately, the coherency and power of that environmental awareness appears to have been lost. Time has taken its toll. The advent of the ritualistic observance of Jainism has left us with only the skeletal remains of the true Jain philosophy of life.

Care in the disposal of waste has been included among the five cares (samitis) that form the essential part of the first and primary Jain vow of Ahimsa. We have never really tried to assess why so much importance was given to such a routine activity. Even today it has not been highlighted and elaborated beyond its ritual and traditional spiritual role. We now know that one of the prime causes of environmental degradation is careless release of polluting waste, both normal as well as industrial, into the natural environment. This should inspire us to regard the concept of the samitis with renewed appreciation.

It seems that at some point in time the system of studying the old texts with the freedom of exploring other than tradition-assigned themes and meanings broke down. Instead, most of these texts were simply branded as religious and spiritual and placed beyond the reach of innovative interpretation. This appears to be the reason for the exclusively religious, ritualistic and sectarian commentaries by the later traditional scholars and thinkers. It is time we shattered the cocoon of obscure and ritualistic traditional interpretations. We need to examine the ancient texts from different angles and to try to explore interpretations. By doing so we are bound to discover new vistas of meaning in most of our ancient scriptures.

In this context, I would like to refer to the Acharanga Sutra, the first sermon of Bhagavan Mahavir. It is the first of the eleven extant Anga Sutras (the primary canons or the main corpus of the Jain canonical texts. This consists of twelve treatises, eleven of which are extant according to the Shvetambar tradition). The traditional interpretation of Acharanga, or for that matter of any other Jain scripture, is directed at the spiritual realm. There can be no objection to that. However, when the traditionalists maintain and emphasize that this is the only valid interpretation and that there is no scope for any other viewpoint, a serious objection emerges. Is such absolutist attitude not against the Jain doctrine of Anekant-vaad (non-absolutism)?

If we look at Acharanga Sutra from the standpoint of environmental concerns, we will find that it abounds in information related to environment. In fact, it would not be exaggerating to say that Acharanga Sutra is the oldest thorough, rational and focused human effort to develop an environment-friendly way of life on the basis of an understanding of the importance of all facets of the ecology.

The Acharanga starts with a discussion of movement (gati), or the direction of movement of life. It says -- "I have heard, O long-lived one (Jambu Swami), Bhagavan (Mahavir Swami) say thus -- 'Some beings in this world are not aware of this -- that whether I have come from the eastern direction, or I have come from the southern direction, or I have come from the western direction, or I have come from the northern direction, or I have come from the direction above (zenith), or I have come from the direction below (nadir), or I have come from some other direction (cardinal points) or intermediate directions (between the cardinal points)." (Acharanga 1/1)

The traditional interpretation of the term gati is related to the concept of rebirth. But let us leave that aside for the spiritualists and the religious and look at it in the context of the physical world and day-to-day life. The direction of movement of a thing or a living being plays a vital role in the protection or destruction of the ecology of this planet. As we know, the environment is a setup of innumerable complex subsystems made up of infinite living organisms, things and forces, always in an all-pervading dynamic balance. A change in the natural direction and functioning of just one of the infinite constituents of one of the innumerable subsystems disturbs this balance. In such a situation man, endowed with the unique capacity to think, imagine and translate his thoughts into action, has an added responsibility. His conduct and direction of movement can be damaging not only to himself but also to this dynamic balance if he is ignorant of the natural functioning of the things around him.

The Acharanga then advises us to be aware of violent actions and mentions the reasons thereof-- "In the world (being sources of violence) all these sinful activities that are causes of the inflow of karmas (karma-samarambhs) are worth knowing and abandoning." (Acharanga -1/1/5)

About this Bhagavan has prescribed (preached or propagated) parijna (awareness or knowledge).

"Man indulges in violence mainly for the following reasons —

·        In order to protect his life --everyone loves life, therefore he makes use of wealth, medicine, and other things.
·        In order to gain praise and fame --he makes efforts to win competitions like wrestling.
·        In order to gain status and prestige --he accumulates wealth and power.
·        In order to gain respect and veneration --he participates in war and other such violent contests.
·        Birth --he indulges in festivities to celebrate the day of his child's or own birth.
·        Death --he indulges in various rites and rituals connected with death.
·        Inspired by the desire of liberation --he indulges in religious rituals like animal sacrifice.
·        In order to be free of sorrows --he indulges in various violent experiments to vanquish ailments, terror, and torments." (Acharanga -1/1/7)

The target of these sinful activities is the world of the living. In the Jain view, this includes a large part of what we know as matter. Jains have defined matter as ajiva (non-living). The detailed definitions and varied interpretations of living organisms constitute a vast discipline in themselves. For the theme under consideration here, it will suffice to understand that beyond the visible gross world there exists a minute and subtle world that influences us and is influenced by us. Therefore, every action that harms this world of micro and macro life and matter is a form of violence and should be curbed. In every life form there is autonomous and reactive movement. The sentient beings have an additional movement, the volitional movement. When we are careful in movement, we are essentially careful in thought.

After emphatically establishing that ignorance or awareness of directions of movement influences the actions of a being, the Acharanga talks of actions to be curbed. Classifying such actions as himsa (violence), it prohibits them. The reason for this is that the consequence of such actions tarnishes the soul by causing it to acquire karmic dust, which leads to anguish, distress, agony, sorrow and death during this or subsequent births (the present and the future).

In its elaboration of the area of violence, the Acharanga has enveloped almost all major components of ecology. The description starts with the violence towards earth-bodied (prithvikaaya) beings.

"Therefore, knowing about the unexpressed sufferings of the earth-bodied beings, one (the sagacious) should not harm earth-bodied beings himself, neither make others do so, nor approve of others doing so." – (Acharanga 1/2/17) The traditional definition of earth-bodied beings is minute organisms made of and subsisting on the earth-element. In the same manner, the Acharanga defines water-bodied, air-bodied, fire-bodied and plant-bodied beings before proceeding to the animal world.

The Acharanga also gives the first authenticating statement about soul-bearing life in plants by comparing a plant body with the human body --

"I say —
-         This human body is born, so is this plant.
-         This human body grows, so does this plant.
-         This human body is sensitive, so is this plant.
-         This human body withers when damaged, so does this plant.
-         This human body has food intake, so has this plant.
-         This human body decays, so does this plant.
-         This human body is impermanent, so is this plant.
-         This human body gets strong with nutrition and weak without it, so does this plant.
-         This human body undergoes many changes, so does this plant." -- (Acharanga 1/5/46)

The Acharanga's concept of violence is far more elaborate and wider in scope than the normal or traditional definition of violence. The reason behind prohibiting violence to any component (as defined in Acharanga) of the complex life-system on this planet is not easily appreciated. In order to comprehend it fully, we need to understand the complex, dynamic and fragile ecological balance existing in nature. We should also know how a seemingly insignificant but ignorant human action can disturb this balance and cause harm to innumerable living beings, including humans. Plenty of examples are strewn around, and we only have to open our eyes.

The Acharanga then mentions weapon (shastra) as a means of violence. To hurt or destroy something employing a weapon (or tool of violence) is certainly a form of violence (himsa). And this weapon is defined as anything, including our intent, that has attributes contradictory, conflicting or hostile to those of the object against which it is directed. To contaminate earth, water, air and fire with things having conflicting properties is violence. This is a unique definition of a weapon and appears to be based explicitly on ecological insights. It could be expressed in ecological terms by saying that anything that pollutes and harms earth, water, air, or fire is a weapon, and that the act of polluting is violence (himsa).

These four -- earth, water, air, and fire -- in the state in which they normally exist are the basic and essential components of the habitat conducive to life. Even modern scientists and thinkers, who have suffered the consequences of environmental pollution, have not been able to design environmental protection programmes based on such comprehensive definitions of weapons and violence.

Assigning the category jiva (living organism) to the life sustaining components of nature -- earth, water, fire and air -- is suggestive of the important responsibility of man towards nature. Violence does not simply mean harm to the visible life forms. The Acharanga definition of violence extends even to interfering with the evolutionary processes that produce future forms of life. If we are earnest about protection of environment, we will have to popularize such comprehensive and all-enveloping concepts. In conclusion, the Acharanga states -- "He who has properly understood the violence related to six life forms is a parijnat-karma muni (a discerning sage or an ascetic who with a discerning attitude abandons violence)." -- Acharanga 1/7/56

After proscribing violence, the Acharanga then moves to a detailed discussion of the disciplined life-style designed to avoid such violent and anti-environmental activities. When we resolve not to harm two to five sensed living beings, we will avoid cruelty towards the full range of animals that are tortured and killed, not just for food and medicine but also for producing things of comfort and beautification. When we resolve not to harm one sensed living organisms, we will avoid careless exploitation of the material resources available in nature. The life-style proposed here is intimately connected with mutually sustainable interaction with nature and the environment. This is what conservation ethics is all about. This unique way of living shows the path of spiritual as well as mundane development that avoids disturbance of the fragile dynamic balance of the ecology of this planet.

The Acharanga establishes Ahimsa as a universal and eternal truth. Ahimsa as elaborated in the Acharanga does not stop at philanthropy. The Acharanga proposes universal fraternity for all life-forms and extends that fraternity even to matter. It is a fundamental principle applicable to all facets of life and all dimensions of the physical world. It is not just about feelings, it is also about the balance in the physical universe. Anything conducive to balance is ahimsa.

These are some examples selected from the first chapter of the Acharanga. Although the book was written more than two millennia ago by Jain thinkers, if it is studied from an ecological point of view one can readily see that it could have been written by modern environmentalists. The need of the hour is that modern Jain thinkers, scholars and researchers should rise above traditional dogmas and conduct unbiased and multidimensional research on this and other scriptures. This would indeed be beneficial, not just to mankind, but to the entire world of the living.

(Article appeared in Jain Spirit, Issue 25, 2006, an international quarterly published from London. Hindi version of a part of this article was originally published in Prakrit Vidya, April-December 1991, a periodical published by Prakrit-adhyayan Prasar Samsthan, Udaipur)

Surendra Bothara
3968, Rasta M. S. B., Johari Bazar, Jaipur - 302 003. Ph. (0141) 2569712 .

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