Long before ecology became the refrain of the global song at Stockholm and Rio, the ancient Indic heritage had already provided a spacious spiritual home for the environmental ethos. In the West, the term 'ecology' was coined only in the latter half of the 19th century from the Greek word Oikos, meaning 'home'. But India has, throughout trackless centuries, provided an ample expanse of friendly space for an open and ongoing discourse of ideas. The Jain, Vedic and Buddhist traditions established the principles of ecological harmony centuries ago - not because the world was perceived as heading for an imminent environmental disaster or destruction, nor because of any immediate utilitarian exigency, but through its quest for spiritual and physical symbiosis, synthesized in a system of ethical awareness and moral responsibility.
The ancient sacred literature of the Vedas enshrines a holistic and poetic cosmic vision. They represent the oldest, the most carefully nurtured, the most elaborately systematized and the most lovingly preserved oral tradition in the annals of the world. Unique in their perspective of time and space, their evocative poetry is a joyous and spontaneous affirmation of life and nature.
The Vedic Hymn to the Earth, the Prithvi Sukta in Atharva Veda, is unquestionably the oldest and the most evocative environmental invocation. In it, the Vedic seer solemnly declares the enduring filial allegiance of humankind to Mother Earth: 'Mata Bhumih Putroham Prithivyah: Earth is my mother, I am her son.' Mother Earth is celebrated for all her natural bounties and particularly for her gifts of herbs and vegetation. Her blessings are sought for prosperity in all endeavours and fulfilment of all righteous aspirations. A covenant is made that humankind shall secure the Earth against all environmental trespass and shall never let her be oppressed. A soul-stirring prayer is sung in one of the hymns for the preservation and conservation of hills, snow-clad mountains, and all brown, black and red earth, unhurt, unsmitten, unwounded, unbroken and well defended by Indra.
The Hymn says, in prayerful thanksgiving and homage: Earth in which lie the sea, the river and other waters, in which food and cornfields have come to be, in which lives all that breathes and that moves, May she confer on us the finest of her yield. Earth, in which the waters, common to all, moving on all sides, flow unfailingly, day and night, may she pour on us milk in many streams, and endow us with lustre. May those born of thee, O Earth, be for our welfare, free from sickness and waste. Wakeful through a long life, we shall become bearers of tribute to thee. Earth, my mother, set me securely with bliss in full accord with heaven, O wise one, uphold me in grace and splendour.
The Vedic seers regarded the Earth as 'sacred space' for the consecrated endeavours and aspirations of humankind and for the practice of restraint and responsibility. This affirmative view of the inviolable sacred space in human consciousness is integral to the Vedas and the Upanishads. On it rests the Vedic vision of a world filled with the purity of the spiritual environment and the sanctity of environmental spirituality and morality. Such a world can only be sustained by 'Satyam Brhat Rtam Ugram', the severely exacting discipline of truth, harmony and rectitude, based on a conception of cosmic and comprehensive peace as envisioned in the famous Vedic Hymn of Peace:
We invoke and imbibe Aum, the primordial sound of cosmic Harmony and pray for: Peace and Harmony in Heaven; Peace and Harmony in the Sky and on the Earth; Peace and Harmony in the Waters; Peace and Harmony in the Herbs, the Vegetation and the Forests; Peace and Harmony among the Peoples and the Rulers of the World; Peace and Harmony in Spiritual Quest and Realization; Peace and Harmony for one and all; Peace and Harmony Everywhere and in Every Thing; Peace, True and Real Peace, Let that Peace repose in my inner space, Peace of Peace, Everlasting Peace, We pray for Peace.
The ecological philosophy of Jainism, flowing from its spiritual quest, has always been central to its ethics, aesthetics, art, literature, economics and statecraft. It is virtually synonymous with the principle of Ahimsa (Non-violence) which runs through the Jain tradition like a golden thread. Lord Mahavira said: 'There is nothing so small and subtle as the atom, nor any element so vast as space. Similarly, there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life.'
Compassion and reverence for life are the sheet-anchor of the Jain quest for peace, harmony and rectitude, based on spiritual and physical symbiosis and a sense of responsibility and restraint. The term Ahimsa is stated in the negative (a = non, himsa = violence), but it is rooted in a host of positive aims and actions which have great relevance to contemporary environmental concerns. It is a principle of compassion and responsibility, which should be practised not only towards human beings, but towards all animals and nature. The Jain scriptures tell us: 'The Arhats (Venerable ones) of the past, present and future discourse, counsel, proclaim, propound and prescribe thus in unison: Do not injure, abuse or press, enslave, insult, torment, torture and kill any creature or any living being.'
Compassion and non-violence are the basis of the ancient Jain scriptural aphorism Parasparopagraho Jivanam (all life is bound together by the mutual support of interdependence). Lord Mahavira proclaimed a profound ecological truth: 'One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them.'
Humanity's ethical responsibility
In Jain evolutionary theory all souls are equal but are bound by varying amounts of asravas (karmic particles), reflected in the type of body they inhabit. The lowest form of physical bodies, like those of trees and vegetation, have only the sense of touch, yet are able to experience pleasure and pain, and have souls. Mahavira thought that only the one who understood the grave demerit and detriment caused by the destruction of plants and trees could also understand the meaning and merit of reverence for nature. (Even metals and stones might have life in them and should not be dealt with recklessly.) Above these forms of life are micro-organisms and small animals with two, three or four senses. The highest grade of animals, and human beings, also possess rationality and intuition. As a highly evolved form of life, human beings have a great moral responsibility in their mutual dealings and in their relationship with the rest of the universe. It is this conception of life and its eternal coherence, in which humans have an inescapable ethical responsibility, that made the Jain tradition a cradle for the creed of environmental protection and harmony.
The Jain code of conduct is profoundly ecological. Transgressions against the vow of non-violence include all forms of cruelty to animals and human beings. Many centuries ago, Jains condemned as evil the common practice of animal sacrifices to the gods. It is generally forbidden to keep animals in captivity, to whip, mutilate or overload them or to deprive them of adequate food and drink. Domestic animals may be roped, or even whipped occasionally, but always mercifully, with due consideration and without anger. Except for allowing themselves the judicious use of one-sensed life in the form of vegetables, Jains would not consciously take any life for food or sport. They are strict vegetarians, consuming neither meat, nor fish, nor eggs.
By taking the basic vows, the Jain laity endeavour to live a life of moderation and restraint and to practice a measure of abstinence and austerity. They must not procreate indiscriminately lest they overburden the universe and its resources. Regular periods of fasting for self-purification are encouraged. In their use of the Earth's resources, Jains take their cue from 'the bee that sucks honey in the blossoms of a tree without hurting the blossom and strengthening itself'. Wants should be reduced, desires curbed and consumption levels kept within reasonable limits. Using any resource beyond one's needs or the misuse of any part of nature, is considered a form of theft. Indeed, the Jain faith declares unequivocally that waste and creating pollution are acts of violence. Accumulation of possessions and enjoyment for personal ends should be minimized. Wealth creation must have a philanthropic goal. Giving charitable donations and time generously for community projects is an obligation. It is this sense of social obligation that has led the Jains to found and maintain innumerable schools, colleges, hospitals, clinics, lodging houses, hostels, orphanages and relief and rehabilitation camps for the handicapped, old, sick and disadvantaged, as well as hospitals for ailing birds and animals. Wealthy individuals are advised to recognize that beyond a certain point their wealth is superfluous to their needs and that they should manage the surplus as trustees for social benefit.
In The Buddhist Declaration on Nature, The Venerable Lungrig Namgyal Rinpoche, Abbot of Gyuto Tantrik University, quotes Lord Buddha Himself: 'Because the cause was there, the consequences followed; because the cause is there, effects will follow.' He concludes that these few words show that happiness and suffering do not simply come about by chance. A human undertaking motivated by a healthy positive attitude constitutes one of the most important causes of happiness; it is, in the final analysis, rooted in genuine unselfish compassion and loving kindness, seeking to bring about light and happiness for all sentient beings.
The interdependence of nature
Lord Buddha's vision and speech made him unexcelled as a sage and a teacher and as the Enlightened Being who saw the interdependence of nature and taught it to the world through his religion of love, understanding and compassion and his commitment to the ideal of non-violence. Buddhism and Jainism, perhaps as much if not more than any other traditions, rejected the notion of humankind as the exclusive centre of life and existence and repudiated the selfish anthropomorphic calculus of utility to human beings for the evolution of other forms of life. As the Venerable Abbot puts it, we should be wary of justifying the right of any species to survive solely on the basis of its usefulness to human beings.
He explains his view of the Buddhist philosophical system as one which propagates the theory of rebirth and life after birth, and shows that in the continuous birth and rebirth of sentient beings (not only on this planet but in the universe as a whole) each being is related to us, just as our own parents are related to us in this life. He points out that for all their limitations, our ancestors were aware of the need for harmony between human beings and nature; they loved their environment and revered it as a source of life and well-being. He quotes His Holiness The Dalai Lama in The Buddhist Declaration on Nature, in words which breathe and pulsate with the Lord Buddha's ethical and ecological vision and have compelling relevance for our own time:
'Destruction of the environment and the life depending upon it is a result of ignorance, greed and disregard for the richness of all living things. This disregard is gaining great influence. If peace does not become a reality in the world, and if the destruction of the environment continues as it does today, there is no doubt that future generations will inherit a dead world.
'Various crises face the international community. The mass starvation of human beings and the extinction of species may not have overshadowed the great achievements in science and technology, but they have assumed equal proportions. Side by side with the exploration of outer space, there is the continuing pollution of lakes, rivers and vast parts of the oceans, out of human ignorance and misunderstanding. There is a great danger that future generations will not know the natural habitat of animals; they may not know the forests and the animals which we of this generation know to be in danger of extinction.
'We are the generation with the awareness of a great danger. We are the ones with the responsibility and the ability to take steps of concrete action, before it is too late.'
The spiritual, ethical, individual and collective dimensions of human life constitute a continuum, encompassing the whole of the Indic heritage and transcending all segments and fragments. The Vedic, Upanishadic, Jain and Buddhist traditions perceived this and together built an enduring spiritual, intellectual and cultural foundation for an environment-friendly value system and a balanced lifestyle.
A living legacy
The value system reflected in the life and message of Mahatma Gandhi and the provisions of the republican Constitution of India of 1950 derived their spiritual and moral inspiration from the composite Indic culture. It was shared by different faith traditions and communities in India through the ages and often emulated and assimilated across the boundaries of religious affiliations. It is not only reflected in the Vedic, Upanishadic, Jain and Buddhist scriptural texts and other literature, but is part of the social ethos of these traditions and of other communities which trace their roots to them. The wide variety of sects and denominations which rose in India during the last two millennia have consistently dug and quarried from those Indic roots. The Sikh, Vaishnava and Bishnoi traditions and numerous other Bhakti denominations in mediaeval India - which give spiritual joy, comfort and guidance to millions of people in India and abroad - are fine examples.
The Indic environmental ethos declares that all aspects and phenomena of nature belong together and are bound in a physical as well as metaphysical relationship, and views life as a gift of togetherness and of mutual accommodation and assistance in a universe teeming with interdependent constituents. Agenda 21 has to be implemented with this sense of spirituality, morality and universality if religion is to play a significant role in creating and sustaining a momentum for ecological conservation in the hearts and minds of men, women and children.
The Indic approach to the environment is even today a part of the living legacy of India. That legacy often seems to be embattled and imperilled all around, and yet it is endowed with an uncanny and time-tested resilience. In that resilience, there is hope and promise for India and the rest of the world.