Overview Essay

Jainism and Ecology

Christopher Key Chapple, Loyola Marymount University


Abstract: Jainism posits the vibrant existence of a living universe. Jains advocate the protection of life, from its most advanced forms down to the microbes and the elements. In addition to exploring the history and philosophy of Jainism and its implications for an ecological worldview, leading voices from the Jain community and the recent “Jain Declaration on the Climate Crisis” will be surveyed.


The Universe Lives

The Jain premise that individual life forms pervade the earth down to the elemental level, paired with the requirement that all harm to life be minimized, predisposes Jainism to a friendliness toward life that lends to what in modern times is referred to as environmental ethics. Because all environments are suffused with life and because life must be honored, Jainism implicitly affirms the basic ideas of ecological ethics and, although a bit more complex, of bioethics. Actions taken by Jain persons, in order to recognize and abide by the teachings of ahiṃsā, must take into consideration the desire on the part of any life form to flourish. This sentiment is expressed in the oldest surviving Jain text as follows:

All breathing, existing, living, sentient beings should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law.[1]      

Harm to any life form causes the karma that obstructs one’s energy and consciousness and happiness to densify. Such actions must be avoided.

Since the rise of environmental awareness and concern after the 1984 Union Carbide industrial accident in Bhopal that took thousands of lives, several organizations have taken up the task of ecological advocacy India, most notably the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi and the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad. Neither organization focuses particularly on faith-based approaches to environmental advocacy. Most work undertaken by Jains on behalf of environmental issues has been championed by individuals, several of whom will be discussed in this article.

As noted above, environmental or ecological concerns did not enter the modern Indian lexicon until the advent of local disasters that prompted a reconsideration of the prevailing Nehruvian drive toward India’s industrialization following independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Though some concerns had been expressed by Gandhi and others regarding pollution of local water sources, this was not seen to be part of the broad systemic problems that have been revealed since the Bhopal disaster. Since that time, numerous campaigns have been aimed at cleaning India’s rivers, improving air quality, and ensuring the integrity and vitality of the soil. Leaders within these movements include M. C. Mehta who campaigned successfully for the transition to less-polluting compressed natural gas auto-rickshaws and taxis in Delhi and other cities and Vandana Shiva, whose work on behalf of organic agriculture has reached millions of farmers throughout the subcontinent. Because of Jain involvement with numerous businesses, various attempts have been made to infuse business ethics with an ecological sensibility. This article will explore Jain involvement with select businesses at both the theoretical and practical level, examining the writings and work of the late jurist L. M. Singhvi, the late religious leader Acarya Tulsi, educator and activist Satish Kumar, contemporary ethicist Atul Shah, and the Chairman of the Indian Green Building Council, Prem C. Jain.

It is now well recognized that India stands first in the world for polluted cities whose air and water have become quite foul. Litter abounds throughout India. Sewage treatment is woefully inadequate and simply absent from most towns and cities. Industrial and human waste effluent flows into rivers and streams. Particulate matter rises from dung cooking fires and transport vehicles, turning Indian skies gray, choking the population. The World Health Organization has ranked Delhi’s air as the most polluted on the planet and more than 600,000 premature deaths are estimated to occur due to pollution yearly in India.[2]

At a conference convened at Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions in 1998, scholars and activists engaged in a robust conversation about the prospects for a Jain contribution to the contemporary issue of pollution and its mitigation. At the conference, everyone agreed that the situation is dire and unprecedented. This is true of all historic religious; no religion confronted the social sin of ecological imbalance incurred by the human hand as seen in the past century. However, each religion developed a moral code to guide human actions. At the conference, many Jain leaders lifted up the premises and practices of their faith as a torch to light the way out of the current predicament. In particular, Nathmal Tatia suggested that “By strengthening themselves to resist the various temptations put forth by technology and consumer mentality, Jains can perhaps provide an example for living lightly on the planet earth.”[3] Padmanabh S. Jaini cited two examples of Jain innovation in regard to reducing coal pollution and mitigating malaria, stating that “the Jain response to development issues must be mindful of traditional Jain teachings on nonviolence and non-possessiveness.”[4] Sadhvi Shilapi, citing the work on Jain nuns in Bihar to encourage the planting of trees and the adoption of a vegetarian diet, states that “Wants should be reduced, desires curbed, and consumption levels kept within reasonable limits.”[5] Two scholars raised the measured counterpoint that the evidence does not always indicate that Jain vow-based decision making leads to environmentally friendly practice. John Cort pointed out that the Jain focus on one’s liberation from the world (mokṣa-mārga) might downplay “the sociobiological contexts in which Jain live and in which any Jain environmental praxis will be located.”[6] Cort also raised the issue that reforestation is sometimes deleterious to those who support themselves by collecting fodder. Paul Dundas noted that Jain acts of worship generally involve the construction of temples and offerings of flowers and other substances, deemed by some Jains to be acts of violence. Dundas, having quoted Abhayadeva Sūri, Haribhadra, and Yaśovijaya, writes that digging in the earth to create wells and temples, clearly an act of violence, constitutes “a lesser evil… is outweighed by the greater goods of water made available to human beings and worship offered to the Jinas.”[7] Simply put, Jains throughout history has advanced an instrumentalist argument in regard to natural resources. If a greater good can be achieved, a little violence is acceptable and even deemed to be necessary. Though he does not state it directly, Dundas implies that this position constitutes an ethical slippery slope, a justification for the anthropocentrism that lies at the core of current ecological crises. Without doubt, simple answers will not suffice.

The Jain approach to environmental ethics rests on premises radically different from those presented in the prophetic monotheisms and racially different from the views held by her sister faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Rather than assenting to the notion that the world was created by a benevolent presiding deity, Jainism holds that the world has always been present and will exist forevermore.  Rather than following an externally imposed moral code, practitioners of the Jain faith are taught the benefits of self-initiated virtuous action to be performed not for the sake of sheer obedience but for the purposes of self-improvement and purification.  In contrast to Hinduism, Jainism does not advocate sacrificial activity such as the killing animals to propitiate wrathful deities.  Jainism does not posit an underlying unifying state of consciousness such as Brahman but insists upon the individual integrity of each and every soul, from beginningless time into an infinite future.  Unlike Buddhism, Jainism posits the reality of a Self or Soul that holds the potential to attain its unique state of freedom.  Buddhism teaches emptiness of self and other; Jainism teaches about a universe filled with innumerable living souls.


Jaina Physics and Metaphysics

The Jaina approach to the natural world is simultaneously respectful and cautious, and above all driven by moral concerns.  First, according to Jaina ontology, the world is suffused with life forces (jῑva) that merit protection.  Hence, the lives contained in particles of earth, drops of water, rays of light, gusts of wind, as well as micro-organisms, plants, and animals must be acknowledged and, to the greatest extent possible, not harmed.  Each has entered its particular form due to the materiality of karma.  One must exert caution because each harmful action causes the karma surrounding one’s own soul to thicken and darken, obscuring the radiant consciousness of the soul and blocking its ascent to freedom.  The Jaina universe thus conceived becomes a moral universe.  In order to advance toward freedom, one must develop impeccable adherence to a moral code in order to purge all impedimentary karmas.          

Physics and metaphysics, matter and spirit stand intertwined in the Jaina worldview.  The tradition posits only four forces that do not possess life: matter or pudgala which can manifest as karma, time, space, and movement.   Aside from these, all beings, including elemental realities and plants, possess consciousness, energy, and an innate state of bliss.  The following passage from the Ācārāṅga Sūtra, the oldest extant Jaina text (ca. 350 BCE), gives a sense of how the Jainas regard life to pervade all aspects of the natural world:

As the nature of (human beings) is to be born and grow old, so is the nature of plants is to be born and grow old…. As (humans) fall sick when cut, also that (tree) falls sick when cut; as (the human) needs food, so that (plant) needs food; as the (human) will decay, so that (plant) will decay; as the human is not eternal, so that (plant) is not eternal…. As this is changing, so that is changing. One who injures plants does not comprehend and renounce sinful acts. The one who does not injure plants comprehends and renounces sinful acts. Knowing (those plants), a wise person would not act sinfully toward plants, nor cause others to act so, nor allow others to do so. The who knows the causes of sin relating to plants is called a reward-knowing sage.[8]

This theory of plants accords with what Sir James Frazer observed in The Golden Bough.  He wrote that for the early Austrians, “the tree feels the cut not less than a wounded man his hurt”[9] David Haberman has written about the affection for trees felt in Varanasi, where he notes that the sentiment can be extended to “tree worship worldwide: trees have not only been commonly thought of as animate beings but also as powerful divine beings who when approached in a respectful manner offer in return life-enhancing benefits to human beings.” [10] In the Jaina context, the divinity of the tree would envision the future possibility that the tree, which is divine like all other souls, might take human birth and enter the path toward freedom from all karmic constraints.   This spirit of affection extends to all living beings, to be protected according to the Jaina moral code.

In the coding of a pan-ethical universe, Jainism, particularly in the Tattvārthasūtra (fifth century CE) of Umāsvati, each of the life forms stands within a hierarchy of ascent from elemental beings, microbes, and plants, said to possess the sense of touch; worms, which add the sense of taste; crawling bugs which add smell; flying insects which add sight; and the array of mammals, reptiles, fish, and amphibians who can also hear and think.  Life constantly moves from one form to the next.  A virtuous human may even take birth in a heavenly realm, while a person of dissipation may endure torture in one of the seven hells.  The nature of one’s next birth depends upon action performed in the immediate past body, implying that even microorganisms exert some degree of touch in terms of whom and why they make contact with other forms of life.  The human birth stands supreme, being the only domain through which one can perform the necessary karmic purgations to attain freedom, a state at the edge of the universe untouched by the effects of karma. 


Jaina Vows as Moral Foundation

This coded universe carries a strong message: regardless of one’s station in life, choice by each and every individual determines future circumstance.  If one has earned the good fortune of human birth, a golden opportunity looms: to consciously and purposively commit oneself to the spiritual path of pursuing a life shaped by religiously inspired vows.  These vows, applicable to both laypersons and monastics but in varying degrees of intensity, include a set of five greater vows (mahāvrata) and a set of twelve lesser vows (anuvrata).  The Ācārāṅga Sūtra lists five forms of intensity for each of the five great vows, summarized as follows:  In the observance of nonviolence (ahiṃsā), a monk (nirgrantha) must be “careful in his walk;” guard against any thought that “produces cutting or splitting or division and dissension, quarrels, faults, and pains, injures living beings, or kills creatures;” not engage in speech that is “sinful and blamable;” be “careful in lying down his utensils of begging” so as to not “hurt or displace or injure or kill all sorts of living beings,” and must not “eat or drink without inspecting his food and drink” for the same reason (AS II:15.i.1-5, Jacobi 1968, 203-204). 

The second vow, holding to truth (satya), requires the five following qualifications: speaking only after deliberation, not speaking from a place of anger, not speaking out of greed, not speaking due to fear, and not speaking for the purpose of ridicule.  The third vow, not stealing (asteya), entails the pronouncement that “I shall neither take myself what is not given nor cause others to take it, nor consent to their taking it” (AS II.15.iii.).  Because a monk’s livelihood depends upon gathering alms, five further qualifications are given: thoughtfulness about where to ask for food, receipt of permission to do so from one’s supervisory director, moving onto a new place after a fixed period of time in order to not become a burden, always asking permission to visit a new place, and consulting with other monks about the duration of stay. 

The fourth vow involves restraint from sexual thought and activity.  Acknowledging the range of ways in which sexual desire can manifest, the Ācārāṅga Sūtra proclaims: “I renounce all sexual pleasures, either with gods or humans or animals” (AS II.15.iv).  The five clauses include to “not continually discuss topics relating to women,” to “not regard and contemplate the lovely forms of women,” to “not recall to mind the pleasures and amusements he formerly had with women,” to “not eat and drink too much,” and, to make certain that all options are covered, to “not occupy a bed or couch with women or animals or eunuchs” (AS II.15.iv).       

The fifth vow, nonpossession (aparigraha) requires the monk or nun to renounce all attachments.  The basic monastic vows restrict the postulant to a bare minimum of possessions, generally a change of robes, a begging bowl, and small satchel for carrying books for members of the Svetambara order, and for male members of Digambara communities, no clothes, only a water pot and satchel.  However, the Ācārāṅga Sūtra mandates that the senses must be controlled in each of five expressions.  One must vow to “not be attached to, nor delighted with, nor desiring of, nor infatuated by, nor covetous of, nor disturbed by the agreeable or disagreeable sounds” (AS II.15.v).  The text goes on to say that “If it is impossible not to hear sounds which reach the ear, the mendicant should avoid love or hate originated by them.”  The same is said of seeing, that if one “sees agreeable and disagreeable forms or colors, one should not be attached.”  This formula repeats for smelling, tasting, and touching. 

The vow-based morality of the monks is somewhat lighter when reinterpreted for lay Jainas.  For instance, Muni Kuśalcanravija states, as summarized by John Cort, a layperson’s adaptation of nonviolence would include “A layperson should not overwork either animals or people… A layperson should not let people and animals in one’s care go hungry.”[11]  Similarly, a Jaina business person is advised not to tell lies (satya), to not avoid taxes (asteya), to be faithful in marriage and avoid “ardent gazing or lewd gestures” (brahmacarya), and to avoid attachment to one’s wealth “limiting either the value of various types of possessions or all of one’s possessions in total.”[12]   To these five basic vows the layperson adds three vows to restrict activity and four additional vows to undertake spiritual practices.  The restrictions of activity include “restricting the geographical limits within which one travels,” “restricting what one uses and consumes,” and “restricting one’s activities, particularly one’s occupation.”[13]  This last vow governs suitable professions with the traditional occupations including merchant, artisan, publisher, jeweler, and so forth, all of which avoid direct harm to complex life forms. 

The four spiritual vows include undertaking a daily 48 minute meditation, periodic stricter restriction prohibiting travel, occasional days of temporary mendicancy, and making regular donations to monastic communities.  All these activities are undertaken within the context of the three moral jewels of the Jaina faith: right outlook, right knowledge, and right action.  The moral life begins with outlook and knowledge, from which proceeds moral action.  Nine principal beliefs characterize the Jaina view of reality, summarized from the Tattvārthasūtra as follows:

  1. multiple forms of life forces (jῑva)
  2. four non-living forces (ajῑva): matter/karma, time, space, movement
  3. influx of karma adhering to the life force (āsrava)
  4. bondage of the soul by karma (bandha)
  5. auspicious forms of karma (puṇya)
  6. inauspicious forms of karma (papa)
  7. stopping the influx (saṃvara) through adherence to vows
  8. sloughing off karma (nirjarā)
  9. liberation/freedom (mokṣa/nirvāṇa/kevala)[14]

By analyzing activity in light of these categories, one applies knowledge leading to propitious action.  The moral life, while essentially teleological, carries benefits in the realm of day to day living, as will be suggested in the examples provided below.


Moral Conscience in Indian History

The influence of Jaina activists in the public sphere has been disproportionate to their numbers throughout Indian history.  From earliest recorded times, they have campaigned (along with the Buddhists) against the violent Brāhmaṇical rituals that involve animal sacrifice, with some success.  The Jainas became particularly influential during the period of approximately 700 to 1200 in two kingdoms, Karnataka in the south and Gujarat in the west.  The Digambara community influenced legislation for a time in the south.  King Kumarapala of Gujarat (ruled 1143-1175 CE) converted to Jainism under the tutelage of the great scholar and Svetambara monk Hemacandra (1089-1172).  Kumarapala enacted Jaina-friendly legislation and public work projects including temple construction.  The Jainas were also somewhat influential at the Mughal court.  In 1587, the Svetambara Jaina teacher Hiravijaya Suri (1527-95 CE) so impressed Emperor Akbar that a decree was issued banning the slaughter of animals in the empire during the week-long Jaina celebration of Paryusan, a time of fasting and forgiveness and reconciliation held every September.[15]    In the main, however, the Jaina community has been a small minority throughout the history of the subcontinent, currently number somewhere between four and six million, less than one half of one percent of the population.  Nonetheless, two 20th century Jaina figures made significant contributions to moral philosophy within public life in India: Acarya Tulsi (1914-1997) and L. M. Singhvi (1931-2007). Additionally, three 21st century figures will also be profiled who have advocated for a Jain-informed approach to ecological issues: Satish Kumar, Atul Shah, and Prem Jain (1936-2018).


Acarya Tulsi, Religious Exemplar

Acarya Tulsi was born into a large family in Ladnun, Rajasthan, during British colonial rule.  He entered the Svetambara Terapanthi order of Jaina monks at the age of eleven after meeting Acarya Kalugani, its eighth leader.  This movement, established by Acarya Bhikshu in the 18th century, started as a more austere branch of the Sthanakvasi Svetambaras, renowned for their eschewal of all images that are generally used as part of worship.  The year of separation came in 1759 when Bhikshu broke all formal ties, bringing six fellow monks with him to establish a new self-initiated order.[16] In many ways, this proved to be a Protestant movement, with Bhikshu decrying the notion that anyone can earn merit through donation.  Only strict adherence to the rules of nonviolence can guarantee spiritual progress.  From the onset, the Terapanthi pioneered education for Jaina nuns, who previously were not given the opportunity for study afforded to men.

Tulsi was elevated to leadership of the order at the age of 22 and presided for many decades over a dynamic period of growth.  The numbers of monks, nuns, and lay followers increased within the Terapanthi community.  A new order of Samanis was established, allowing women in particular to postpone their final vows.  This has allowed the movement to be of service in particular to the growing number of diaspora Jainas.  Samanis have established learning and meditation centers in London, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas.  Acarya Tulsi established a learning institute on a hundred acre campus in his home town of Ladnun in 1970, which achieved status as a deemed university in 1991. 

Whereas Acarya Tulsi’s successor Acarya Mahapragya focused on the development of a spiritual practice known as Preksha Meditation, Tulsi turned his attention in 1949 toward a campaign known as the Anuvrat Movement.  He saw that newly independent India needed a moral compass for guidance and he distilled and reinterpreted the standard Jaina precepts for contemporary times.  Though carrying no legislative weight, they remain a talking point for the process of making moral decisions and have influenced monastic and lay leaders within the Terapanthi community.  The vows are eleven in number, with explanatory subdivisions:

  1. I will not deliberately kill any innocent creature (includes suicide and foeticide)
  2. I will not attack anyone (non-support of aggression; advocacy of disarmament)
  3. I will not take part in violent agitation or any destructive activity
  4. I believe in human unity (no discrimination allowed based on color, race, gender, caste
  5. I will practice religious tolerance (no sectarian violence)
  6. I will be honest in business and general behavior (commit no harm or deception)
  7. I will practice continence and limit material possessions
  8. I will not apply unethical means in elections
  9. I will not encourage or practice evil social customs
  10. I will lead a life free from addiction (no alcohol, drugs, tobacco)
  11. I will strive to minimize environmental pollution (no cutting of trees; no wastage of water)[17]

Simplified versions were prepared over a number of years for students, teachers, business people, officers, employees, voters, and for those interested in spiritual practice.  These anuvrats function similarly to the Quaker queries and the Jesuit Examen in that they prompt a reckoning with one’s conscience in a systematic fashion.   Though perhaps originally intended as a social movement with broad impact, they have served to sharpen attention within the Terapanthi community worldwide to the wider implications of Jaina moral teachings. 

When I interviewed Acharya Tulsi in 1989 and asked him about environmental ethics, he smiled and pointed to the few items he owned: his clothes, a few books, a broom, a begging bowl. He commented that this was the model for environmental ethics: learning to do with less. Less possessions, less harm to the environment.[18]


L. M. Singhvi, Barrister

Member of a mixed Hindu-Jaina family, L. M. Singhvi rose to prominence in the fields of law and government.  He served as High Commissioner (Ambassador) from India to Great Britain in the 1990s and as a member of India’s Parliament for many years, in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Representatives) from 1962 to 1967 and in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House; approx. Senate) from 1998 to 2004.  He was tireless in his advocacy of Jaina causes.  He presented the Jain Declaration on Nature to Prince Philip in 1990 on the occasion of Jainism’s participation in the World Wildlife Fund Network on Conservation and Religion.  It was reprinted in 2002 as the appendix to the book Jainism and Ecology.  The Declaration outlines the core principles of Jainism, reframing them as dialogue partners in the emerging discourse on religion and ecology.

The Declaration states that Jainism presents an ecological philosophy and consequently summarizes various aspects of the faith in light of its particular attention to nature.  The first part discusses Jaina teachings on nonviolence, interdependence, recognition of multiple perspectives, emphasis on equanimity, and commitment to compassion, empathy, and charity.  The second section provides a synopsis of Jaina biological categories as delineated earlier in this chapter.  The third and final part highlights the Jain Code of Conduct as exemplary for bringing about environment justice.  Key aspects include the restatement of the five Jaina vows (described earlier in this chapter), the history of Jaina kindness to animals, the Jaina advocacy of vegetarianism, the teachings on restraint and avoidance of waste, and finally, the value of charity in the tradition.[19]  

Decidedly more complex than Acarya Tulsi’s eleven Anuvrats, this Declaration demonstrates the philosophical commitment of the Jaina community not only to regard life but to advocate for sustaining and protecting life in all of its forms.  By asserting the presence of conscious life within soil, rivers, fires, and wind as well as within the overly self-obsessed human realm, Jainism calls for an expansion of view, a broadening of horizon that can serve as an antidote to the damning anthropocentrism that has characterized most of human philosophical endeavor.  When Singhvi writes about compassion and empathy, he intends not to limit one’s scope to the merely human but to include all the animals and plants and the elements themselves. 


Satish Kumar, Contemporary Ethicist

Satish Kumar, who served as a Jain Therapanthi Svetambara monk for nine years before joining the Bhū Dān movement of Vinobha Bhave and subsequently founded Schumacher College in southwest England, has long championed the social engagement of Jain values with public life.  He edited Resurgence, the leading journal for ecological spirituality in Britain, for several decades, contributing himself many pieces on how the Jain value of simplicity intersects with ecological values.[20] At Schumacher College, which Satish Kumar co-founded in 1990, spirituality and ecology are taught in tandem, inspired in large part by the nature-friendly aspects of Jain thought and practice.[21]

Satish Kumar makes direct parallels between Jain philosophy and ecology. He cites Mahavira who “forbade riding on animals” and “taught his disciples that the earth has soul, water has soul, fire has soul, air has soul, and of course all plants and animals have souls.”[22] For him, the Jain vows convey the restraint necessary to encourage a balanced ecological lifestyle.


Atul Shah, Academic and Theoretician

Dr. Atul Shah, professor at Sussex University in England, makes links between the world of business and environmental ethics in his book Jainism and Ethical Finance: A Timeless Business Model. He notes that “Crucially, the concept of ‘society’ extends beyond human communities to other species and ecosystems” and that “Jain philosophy recognizes an intimate link between spiritual practice and consciousness of the natural world. Shah goes on to state that “the conduct of economics has been too anthropocentric” and laments

pollution of the air, seas and soil on a global scale; the unplanned expansion of cities to the detriment of quality of life; as well as the unfolding crisis associated with climatic instability and the growing encroachments on the habitats of other species, threatening their survival and denying them the dignity they deserve.

He suggests that that environmentalism “converges with the Jain belief in the connectedness of all forms of life and the need for us to remember these connections in both our individual and collective decision making.”[23] Spiritual practice in the Jain observance of nonviolence holds ramifications beyond a concern for human well-being. “Arbitrary interference with nature can injure or even eliminate ecosystems, species and organisms on which we depend for our survival.”[24] Shah advocates careful consideration, taking into account unseen possibilities that might cause harm.

One example cited by Shah is Jain Irrigation, a global Jain business. It educates farmers about sustainable agricultural practices and helps them market their produce. This company places “significant investment… in research and development to ensure efficient land use, mammal waste and sustainable productivity and harvesting.”[25] This contrasts starkly with the approach used by Monsanto, an American corporation that through patents and monopolization of seed, fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides, has destroyed many family farms in India through its “aggressive financialisation.” In contrast, the farmers within the Jain Irrigation network are “supported and nurtured rather than exploited and squeezed.”[26] Additionally, in response to the issue of worldwide climate instability, Jain Irrigation is working intensely at expanding solar operations to meet India’s growing demand for electricity.[27]


Prem C. Jain, Chairman of the Indian Green Building Council

Dr. Prem C. Jain received his Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota in the late 1950s and worked with Carrier Air Conditioning in Syracuse, New York, in the early 1960s. He brought his knowledge and expertise to India and helped contribute to the modernization of India through various undertakings, including AECOM, a corporation that has been “involved in designing and completing 56 LEED certified projects, over 5,000 kilometers of highways, 300 kilometers of metro and 14 sea ports” as well as a Smart Cities program emphasizing sustainable development.[28]  He chairs the Indian Green Building Council and, in an interview held in June, 2017, shared his enthusiasm for energy efficiency for the protection and enhancement of life in all forms.

Prem Jain graduated from Hira Lal Jain Senior Secondary School in Old Delhi’s Sadar Bazar before taking up university studies. He returned to the school as a trustee in the 2010s and has worked to make this historic school, which now serves underprivileged families of various religions, an example of best use of appropriate technology. A water catchment system has been installed on the roof, as well as solar panels that help with basic electricity needs. In an interview on June 28, 2017, he noted that for him, all the elements of the world, earth, water, fire, air, and space, comprise divinity, Bhagavan. Attentiveness to this divinity comprises a universal faith, with “no Hindu, no Muslim, no Christian.” He analyzes the word as follows: “Bh for the earth, ga for the sky, va for Vayu which means air, a for Agni, and na for water.” The five great elements (pañca-mahā-bhūta) comprise the common ground for all experience.

Jain described the first major eco-friendly building that he undertook during the Reagan era in the city of Hyderabad. Microsoft had chosen this area of the country partly because it was free from earthquakes. During the construction of this complex in the 1980s, it was a leading example of the implementation of green building technology. Jain predicts

eventually we will go away from the coal. I am hoping that five years down the line, we will not have to use firepower. We will put in a lot of solar; solar has become very inexpensive now. When I started, the general cost was very high. Now it's very affordable. It's less than the cost of a coal plant with the same solar plant. Then the petrol will eventually be replaced by natural gas. So there is a good chance that five to seven years down the line we will stop polluting. That is the situation. We must get more clean, with all the carbon absorbed. I can say that my grandchildren will have much cleaner air than we have today. [29]

Prem Jain’s optimism arises from his faith in a universal sense of connectivity, grounded in the Jain ethic of nonviolence and the Jain cosmology that sees life in all elements, all beings.

Each of the five figures profiled above are deeply engaged with the process of reflective, constructive environmental ethics. Though not blind to the benefits of modern industrialization, they advocate a return to a simpler lifestyle informed by reverence for life in all its forms rather than blind pursuit of wealth and comfort at any cost.


The Jain Declaration on the Climate Crisis[30]

JAINA (Jain Associations in North America), an amalgam of temples, study groups, and religious and lay leaders, issued declaration on October 17, 2019 that supplements and updates the 1990 Jain Declaration on Nature described above. Drafted by the JAINA Ahimsak Eco-Vegan Committee, the name of the committee itself reflects the face of forward-looking change within the Jain community, many of whom have now taken up the cause of eschewing milk and dairy in favor of a vegan diet. Informed by science, this declaration cites the data on fossil fuel and animal agriculture-related emissions. The amount of CO2 in the atmposphere has increased from 280 parts per million (PPM) in pre-industrial times, to over 415 PPM in 2019. The results are stark: we are in the sixth major extinction event; climate change has resulted in increased human mortality from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress; sea levels are rising, hurricanes are more destructive, forests are more susceptible to fire; air pollution has adversely affected human health; the range of mosquito borne diseases such as Malaria, Dengue, and Zika has increased. The document cites the need for Jains to reconsider their food sources, the transportation choices, and overall patterns of consumption. Individual Jains are asked to consider nine specific lifestyle changes: 1) calculate one’s carbon imprint; 2) abstain from meat, eggs, and dairy products; 3) minimize food waste; 4) walk and bike when possible; 5) use hybrid or fully electric vehicles when essential; 6) reduce air travel; 7) live in smaller homes; 8) buy fewer consumer goods; 9) “consider how our work or business can benefit the climate for all living beings.” The document ends with two calls-to-action. The first asks the Jain community to “green” its temples by engaging in renewable energy use and eliminating the use of plastics. The second calls for business and government leaders to adopt policies for regenerative agriculture, to “remove subsidies for the meat and dairy industries… and for fossil fuels,” to encourage government support for public transportation, to ban plastics and deforestation, and, finally, to “support practices and vetted technologies to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.”  This document extends a call to action for the more than four million Jains worldwide.



In addition to their advocacy of a vegetarian diet and their protests against animal sacrifice, and their charities for schools, hospitals, and free prostheses, Jains have been investing in eco-friendly businesses such as solar power generation and other forms of appropriate technology. The Jain faith offers a multivalent, multi-life perspective on the nature and purpose of the world.  According to Jaina teachings, we live in a moral universe, governed by the laws of cause and effect.  Moral agency requires paying attention and giving reverence to the natural world.  Mahavira advocated the protection of trees, positing that any harm done to nature will immediate constrain and impede the soul.  Adherents to the Jaina faith have produced a biological inquiry that reveals the inter-connectedness of all life forms.  With this insight comes great moral obligation.  Knowing that life depends upon other forms of life, the Jainas urge human beings to be careful and loving in all ways, and to never take more than what is absolutely needed, poignant lessons for today’s world of over-consumption and rapacious use of resources.  Through the moral voice of Jainism, all peoples can be reminded of the sanctity of life.


[1] Ācārāṅga Sūtra  I:4.1, as translated by Hermann Jacobi, Jaina Sutras in Two Parts.  Part One: the Ākārāṅga Sūtra; The Kalpa Sūtra (New York: Dover, 1968, first published, 1884), p. 36.

[3] Nathmal Tatia, “The Jain Worldview and Ecology” in Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, edited by Christopher Key Chapple (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 16.

[4] Padmanabh S. Jaini, “Ecology, Economics, and Development in Jainism” in Jainism and Ecology (above), p. 153. See also Padmanabh S. Jaini.  1979.  The Jaina Path of Purification.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

[5] Sadhvi Shilapi, “Environmental and Ecological Teachings of Mahavira” in Jainism and Ecology, p. p. 164.

[6] John C. Cort, “Green Jainism?” in Jainism and Ecology, p. 70.

[7] Paul Dundas, “The Limits of Jain Environmental Ethic” in Jainism and Ecology, p. 109.

[8] Ibid., I:1.5.6-7, Jacobi 1968, 10-11.   

[9] James George Frazer,  The Golden Bough: A History of Myth and Religion (London: Chancellor Press, 1994, first published, 1922), p. 113. 

[10] David Haberman, People Trees: Worship of Trees in Northern India  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 57.

[11] John E. Cort, Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 27.

[12] Ibid., p. 28.

[13] Ibid.,p.  27.

[14] Nathmal Tatia.  Translator.  1994.  That Which Is Tattvārtha Sūtra, A Classic Jain Manual for Understanding the True Nature of Reality.  San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994.

[15] Paul Dundas, The Jains (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 126.

[16] Ibid., p. 219. 

[17] Mukhya Niyojika Sadhvi Vishrut Vibha, Acharya Shree Tulsi: A Legend of Humanity (New Delhi: Acharya Tulsi Janam Shatabdi Samaroh Samiti, 2012).

[18] Christopher Key Chapple, Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

[19] See “The Jain Declaration on Nature” in Christopher Key Chapple, ed., Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life (Cambridge, MA: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 217-224.

[22] Satish Kumar, “Jain Ecology,” in Christopher Key Chapple, ed., Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life (Cambridge, MA: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 184.

[23] Atul Shah and Aidan Rankin, Jainism and Ethical Finance: A Timeless Business Model (New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 3.

[24] Ibid., p. 31.

[25] Ibid., p. 97.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Conversations with family member Mayuri Bhandari, 2016-2017.

[29] Interview, June 28, 2017, at Hira Lal Jain Senior Secondary School, Old Delhi.


Header photo credit: Manas Mandir Jain Temple, Shahapur, India