Non-Violence, Service & The Path: Jainism, Sikhism and Daoism on the Environment


The following post is part of an ongoing series of posts briefly outlining how the world's major religions have traditionally viewed the environment and are putting those beliefs into practice today.

In previous posts in this series we've focused on how the largest of the world's religions regard the environment and environmentalism. But that leaves out a good number of ancient and influential paths, ways of viewing the world, that still are relevant and active today. It's by no means intended as an exhaustive list (no offence is intended if your path has been omitted) and the presentation will be briefer than the already thumbnail views previously presented.

Here's how Jainism, Sikhism and Daoism have traditionally viewed humanity's relationship with the natural world:
photo: Jon Hurd/CC BY
Jainism: If You Don't Care For Nature You Don't Care For Yourself
Jainism goes back in its earliest forms to a similar time period as the Vedic teachings that form the core of what we now call Hinduism. As with Hinduism, it's a living link with human pre-history. Mahavira (pictured above), the last of its 24 tirthankaras (great teachers, roughly) was a contemporary of the Buddha.

Though currently there are roughly 4.2 million adherents of Jainism in the world, the vast majority of whom live in India, the influence of of Jainism on the other indigenous religions of South Asia and on society there more broadly is much greater than those small number of followers might indicate.

It is in Jainism that the concept of ahimsa (non-violence), as an absolute at least, originates. Mahavira, the last of the tirthankaras mentioned above, said "You are that which you wish to harm."

Famously, Jain monastics (both male and female) take this to such a deep conclusion that they often wear cloth masks over their mouths to avoid accidentally sucking in insects; they gently sweep the ground in front of them as they walk to avoid stepping on insects; they only travel by foot as other travel methods invariably accidentally kill other forms of life; similar injunctions in other areas of life also exist.

Jain householders observe the principle of ahimsa to less extreme, and many would say more practical, degrees, but nevertheless Jainism is the only faith where vegetarianism is an absolute.

Further Jain principles with a decidedly pro-environmental bent include practicing compassion towards all of life; recognizing that, as the Alliance of Religions and Conservation puts it, "all of nature is bound together...if one does not care for nature one does not care for oneself"; and practicing a good deal of self-restraint in terms of resource consumption.

Indeed it is from Jainism that Mahatma Gandhi, though himself a Hindu, derived much influence on his interpretation of non-violence and derived is now oft-quoted, if oft-modified, maxim, "There is enough in this world for human needs, but not for human wants."

More of these principles are outlined in the Jain Faith Statement from Assisi in 1986.


photo Jasleen Kaur/CC BY-SA
Sikhism: Humanity's Purpose To Be In Harmony With All Creation
Sikhism is the newest of world's major religious paths, founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of what is now India and Pakistan. Today Sikhs are the majority in Punjab, and spread throughout South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, North America and Western Europe. It is the fifth-largest organized religion in the world, with roughly 24-28 million adherents.

As far as concern for the environment goes, EcoSikh lays out the case for a Sikh environmental theology:

The Sikh scripture declares that the purpose of human beings is to achieve a blissful state and be in harmony with the earth and all creation. It seems, however, that humans have drifted away from that ideal. The earth is today saturated with problems. Its forests are being denuded. A smoky haze envelops the cities of the world. Its lakes and rivers are being filled with urban and industrial pollution killing aquatic life. There is a sense of urgency in all parts of the world, across ethnic, religious, and national boundaries.

As for our environmental problems, the Sikh Assisi Declaration offers the foundation for solving them:

Guru Nanak [the founder of Sikhism] in his philosophy states that the reality that humans create around themselves is a reflection of their inner state. The current instability of the natural system of the earth--the external environment of human beings--is only a reflection of the instability and pain within humans. The increasing barrenness of the earth's terrain is a reflection of the emptiness within humans...With an attitude of humility, and surrender to the Divine Spirit, conscientious human beings can seek to redress the current crises of the environment and of social justice. In the Sikh Way this is done through the guidance of the Guru, who is the Divine Master and messenger of God.

Read more: EcoSikh: Environmental Theology

photo: Willem van der Horst/CC BY
Daoism: If You Understand The Dao You Will Not Over-Exploit Nature
Daoisim is one of two native Chinese philisophical/religious systems, the other being Confucianism. In many ways Daoism is the more environmentally-minded of the two, at least as we conceive environmentalism today.

it holds four main principles relevant to ecological awareness (ARC World:

  • Follow the Earth: "We should cultivate the way of no-action and let nature be itself."
  • Harmony with Nature: "Everything is composed of two opposite forces known as Yin and Yang. The two forces are in constant struggle with everything. When they reach harmony, the energy of life is created. Someone who understands this point will not exploit nature, but will treat it well and learn from it. It is obvious that in the long run, the excessive use of nature will bring about disaster, even the extinction of humanity."
  • Too much success: "If the pursuit of development runs counter to the harmony and balance of nature, even if it is of great immediate interest and profit, people should restrain themselves from it. Insatiable human desire will lead to overexploitation of natural resources."
  • Affluence in biodiversity: "If all things in the universes grow well, then a society is a community of affluence. If not, this kingdom is on the decline." Both government and people should take good care of nature.

Read more: Daoist Faith Statement
More on Religion & The Environment
Humans Are Trustees of Allah's Creation: Islam & The Environment
We Are An Instrinsic Part of Nature, Not Separate From Anything Else: Buddhism & The Environment

Tags: Green Spirit | Religion

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