Back to the Basics

June 1, 2013
By Pankaj Jain
Speaking Tree

PANKAJ JAIN writes that the philosophy of contemporary ecologists echoes M K Gandhi’s promotion and practise of ahimsa

An eminent scholar recently came to our university and spoke about the role of diverse religious communities of the world and their attitudes toward the environment. He showed examples from several indigenous communities from the Americas, Africa and Asia. Yet, when he referred to the traditions of India, he used these words: “India has the most bizarre culture in the world where even a cobra is worshipped. This is a bit of an overshoot.” It amazes me that even in a supposedly globalised world, India continues to mystify scholars.

The Greatest Dharma

While most Americans are familiar with yoga and Bollywood, Indian perspectives towards the ecology seem to be largely unknown. Although yoga is widely known in the west as a practice centred around physical postures, many westerners do not realise that yoga is actually a system of eight limbs or components. The first step of the first limb of yoga is ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence. Unless one is firmly rooted in ahimsa in one’s thoughts, speech, and actions, true practice of yoga cannot begin. Through yoga, practitioners develop harmony with and reverence for nature.

For more than 2,500 years, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain teachers have expressed the value of ahimsa as a core principle of philosophy, spirituality, and ethics. Mahavira, the last great teacher of Jainism, even proclaimed that ahimsa is the greatest dharma, a term whose meanings include religion, ethics, duty, virtue, and cosmic law. According to most of these texts, ahimsa improves one’s karma;hurting another being damages one’s karma and obstructs advancement toward moksha or liberation. To prevent the accrual of bad karma, practitioners avoid activities associated with violence, follow a vegetarian diet, and oppose the institutionalised breeding and killing of animals, birds, and fish for human consumption.

Festivals For All

Despite our visiting scholar’s concerns, the protection of the cobra and other animals has a long celebrated Indic history. Cobras have a specific festival dedicated to them just as there are specific festivals for mountains, rivers, cows, trees, and hundreds of other gods and goddesses throughout India. M K Gandhi once had a brief encounter with a cobra at his ashram, and he did not want it to be killed. Gandhi’s principled practise of ahimsa aligns with the prevailing values of contemporary ecologists. Scientific studies suggest that every being in nature is valuable because all species are directly or indirectly dependent on each other’s survival; this is one fundamental reason why scientists and environmentalists seek to protect the biodiversity of our planet.

When I first mentioned this story, one of my students asked, “If Indians are not following the principles of Gandhi, how can we expect others to do so?” Similarly, at a conference on World Religions and Ecology, a participant asked what nonwestern countries expect of the west. If the rest of the world is eager to make the same mistakes as the west did, what route should the west take to ensure the planet’s survival? One answer might be for the west to learn from Gandhi’s ecological practices. If the west is to remain an intellectual leader of the world, it must reform and transform itself. The west has led the world with its  scientific and technological innovations for the last several centuries. Now it needs to emerge as ecological leader, inspired by Gandhi’s lifestyle. Without deep transformation, all voices to save the planet’s ecology remain hollow rhetoric.

Gandhi’s entire life can be seen as an ecological treatise. He functioned much like an ecosystem: his small meals of nuts and fruits, his morning ablution, his everyday bodily practises, his periodic observances of silence, morning walks, his spinning wheel and his abhorrence of waste were all rooted in Indic values of truth and nonviolence. Gandhi’s example could prove to be a powerful inspiration even in today’s India, helping the people resist the pressure of global consumerism and lack of responsibility towards the environment.

Sunderlal Bahuguna’s Chipko Movement in north India used Gandhi-inspired ahimsa to protect trees from being cut down. Pandurang Hegde leads a Chipko-style movement in south India. Dozens of institutions in several Indian towns founded by Gandhi continue to flourish with their own small-scale production of textiles and agriculture. The dharmic traditions of India are still alive; we just need to create greater awareness and encourage eco-friendly practices. 

It is time to go back to these cherished values and practise nonviolence not just toward other human beings but also toward entire earth.

The writer teaches anthropology in the University of North Texas