The Theosophical Society in America

Green Karma

By Aidan Rankin

Originally printed in the JANUARY- FEBRUARY 2008 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Rankin, Aidan. "Green Karma." Quest  96.1 (JANUARY- FEBRUARY 2008): 17-20.

Aidan RankinOne of the most potent images associated with the ancient Jain tradition of India is that of the monk dressed in white who covers his mouth with a band of cloth, and as he moves, sweeps the ground before him with a delicate brush. These devices are simple precautions against injuring any form of life, however minuscule, in the course of breathing or walking. They reflect the Jain principle of iryasamiti, which means "careful action" or "care in movement." Jain ascetics are required to take that principle to its logical conclusion. This will help them develop the higher consciousness that can point towards enlightenment, or moksha: release from the cosmic drama of material attachment and the repetitive cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Lay men and women also practice careful action, but even in a modified form, the practice might still seem radical when viewed from a mainstream Western perspective. Jains will avoid killing wasps or swatting flies, for instance, adopt a vegetarian diet, and refrain from occupations and activities that involve exploitation of or harm towards fellow humans, fellow creatures, or the earth.

Careful action is more than merely abstaining from abusive and harmful behavior. It involves considering the consequences of—and crucially, the intention behind—all forms of action. In Jainism, the concept of action encompasses thought. Thoughts and ideas can harm or uplift the thinker as they are the starting point for all acts of himsa or injury, as well as all beautiful, creative, loving actions. Iryasamiti is closely associated with the spiritual ideal of ahimsa: non-violence or non-injury to life. This, too, is far more than simple abstinence. It is about cultivating an attitude of calm and a state of equanimity through the practice of maitri (friendship with all beings) and recognizing that worldly entanglements, including material gain, political power, or academic success are but transient trifles of no ultimate significance.

Careful action is based on recognition of the four following ideas:

Each life—and this includes all forms of life—is individual, unique, and precious.
All life is interconnected and interdependent.
Human beings and their concerns are but one small part of the earth and the cosmos; therefore, we should approach the rest of existence with humility and modesty.
Human intelligence has evolved to give men and women the capacity for spiritual development and the possibility of liberation. However, this intelligence is a double-edged sword for it confers the possibility of choosing destructive over creative power, gross materialism over spiritual insight, himsa over ahimsa.

Careful action is therefore a form of conscious choice to minimize harm and act in ways that benefit others, both human and non-human.

The brushes and mouth coverings of Jain ascetics apply the principle of iryasamiti in as exact a manner as is humanly possible. They also dramatize for laymen and women the importance of respect for life in all its variety and the knowledge, discovered millennia before microscopes, that the tiniest life forms although invisible to the human eye could have the most profound significance. Iryasamiti stems from the understanding that human beings are not separate from, above, or beyond the rest of nature; that the earth does not exist for us to exploit; that resources are finite and that the web of life is as fragile as it is intricate. In other words, the practice of careful action corresponds well with a principle at the heart of the emerging green consciousness: the reduction of our ecological footprint.

The idea that humans have the responsibility to conserve and protect life and that we should use our intelligence to work with the grain of nature, is derived from spiritual awareness at least as much as political consciousness. Reason underpins and science confirms our sense of ourselves as part of the natural world, a world that is beyond monetary value because it sustains all of life. The Jains call this Jiva Daya—identification with all living beings. Familiar to Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, this oldest and most powerful form of spiritual sensibility is being slowly rediscovered by an urban civilization that has reached the limits of its possibilities. The realization that we should consume less, individually and collectively, combines rational self-interest with an ethic of environmental and social justice. All but the most obdurate now realize that our present patterns of consumption have already eroded the quality of human life, and if continued, could destroy life on earth. Consumer culture destroys the ecology of human relationships as well. The breakdown of communities, the "bowling alone" society of narrow, cheerless individualism, violent crime at home, aggression and brutality overseas all stem from the notion of unlimited human entitlement—the idea that we can, and must have more. For the Jains, this demand for more is a sign of limited human awareness rather than progress, as we in the West have long assumed. For millennia, Jains have realized that living as simply as possible is the key to a balanced and fulfilled life. When we discriminate between genuine needs and passing desire, we are acting in our own interests as well as connecting with something larger than ourselves.

That sense of connectedness at the heart of Jainism arises from the awareness that every life is unique and the individual is supreme. To those used to the Western "either/or" reasoning, this might seem paradoxical. We associate individualism, after all, with "bowling alone," with rugged self-reliance, or even Ayn Rand's "virtue of selfishness." Western thought associates connectedness with subordination and we believe that we must continuously choose between the two principles. Jainism, based on "both/and" rather than "either/or" sees the issue in more complex terms. It promotes a more rounded view of individualism and individual liberty in which individual fulfillment is identified with social responsibility and restraint, while greed and hedonism destroy the true self. Furthermore, the concepts of "social" and "society" extend to animals and ecosystems as well as humans. The Jain idea of self differs radically from that of the West. Rather than simply being an individual in his or her present existence, the self in Jain teachings is a strand of continuity between existences, which was shaped by past lives that span the whole evolutionary spectrum, and now makes decisions and choices that will affect future lives. Therefore, self-awareness involves an understanding of genetic and spiritual evolution along with a sense of unity in diversity. Each self is equal in that each is part of the same process and is on the same journey towards higher consciousness.

Jains have always been aware that the universe is teeming with life. Each individual—human, animal, plant, or micro-organism—contains a jiva, which in Jain terms is a unit of life energy, a life monad; somewhat similar to the Western idea of a soul. Every jiva is on the same journey of the spirit, whether it is conscious of this or not. Unlike most Buddhist and Vedantic traditions, the Jain path does not lead to the extinction or transcendence of the self. Moksha is the fullest realization of the self, its return to its point of origin as pure consciousness, where it retains its individual identity. All the identities it assumes along the path to enlightenment are karmic embodiments, part of the process of self-discovery that is spiritual evolution. Material preoccupations are a confusion of jiva, the life force with ajiva, which is all that is not alive and contains no soul. Human destructiveness, including environmental despoliation, arises from attachment to ajiva and with this comes a false sense of supremacy over nature, closely akin to delusions of racial superiority. By contrast, Jiva Daya is recognition of the life force that is contained in each of our fellow beings. Although unique, each jiva has the same essential characteristics as our own and is in the same situation of working through samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

It was this understanding of shared characteristics and common interests that led Mahavira, the Great Hero of the Jains and contemporary of Gautama Buddha, to the insight that "kindness to all beings is kindness to oneself" and that conversely "you are that which you intend to hit, injure, insult, torment, persecute, torture, enslave, or kill." This is surely an ecological message for our time, transcending mere conservation or protection to include a repudiation of all bigotry and violence in human relationships, as well as relationships between humans and fellow creatures. Just as they emphasize the relationship between hateful thoughts and violent acts, Jain teachings recognize that violent, exploitative relationships among humans —including vast disparities of income and access to education or health care—create the psychological conditions for violence against the earth. On the other hand, respect for the earth and its variety of life is linked intimately to cooperation between human beings and the pursuit of economic and social justice.

For twenty-first century men and women, the first step towards more harmonious relations with the planet is to adopt an attitude of non-violence and to question the false priorities associated with materialism, a shift of priorities from ajiva back to the source of life. Awareness that jiva is present in everything that lives, breathes, and moves points towards a spiritual democracy of all beings, in which each life form has its own place, its own indispensable role and its own legitimate viewpoint. The human concepts of rights and responsibilities extend to all of life, just as they cross the boundaries of race, caste or class, gender, and faith. Jains recognize the principle of biodiversity and give it a spiritual dimension.
Jainism's view of karma distinguishes it from other Indic traditions.  For the Jains, karma is, as to Buddhists and Hindus, the cosmic law of cause and effect.  All actions in the universe connect with each other and our own deeds influence our future as much as our present lives.  But the principal meaning of karma in Jainism is a substance, made up of particles of subtle matter that adhere to the jiva and imprison it in the material world. Karma is a material bond as much as a spiritual process. When moksha is achieved, it is seen as a physical liberation, a release from the karmic bondage that weighs down the soul and entraps it in material concerns. The Christian image of shedding the "mortal coil" has resonance here. Karmic particles also have a muddying effect on the jiva. They reduce its clarity of vision and obscure its knowledge of itself.

In Jainism, as in modern physics, everything in the universe is cyclical. There is no creator god or First Cause. Instead the cosmos—and with it, life—arose spontaneously and passes continuously through upward and downward cycles, utsarpini and avasarpini, which last for many millions of years, and are divided into ages which are likened to the spokes on a wheel. Each jiva also spontaneously arises as a unit of pure consciousness. But its movements or vibrations bring it into contact with karma. The encasement of the jiva by karmic particles enmeshes it in the samsaric cycle, where it is reborn until it achieves enlightenment and returns to its point of origin as an unsullied, all-knowing jiva. Living simply and avoiding unnecessary luxuries brings spiritually aware men and women closer to that ideal, helping them to understand the austerities of Jain ascetics and the restraint displayed by even the wealthiest laypeople. The latter are obliged to use their wealth for the benefit of others, animals as much as humans. They are keenly aware that privilege, like human intelligence, brings with it material dangers, and that the most auspicious rebirth is as an ascetic, who is closest to freedom from karmic bonds.

Karmic bondage need not be a permanent condition and should not serve as an excuse for fatalism or pessimism. On the contrary, it gives us the opportunity to take control of our own lives, present and future, break with negative patterns, and rethink our priorities. At personal and political levels, these goals are identical with those of the ecology movement. Green philosophy, unlike deterministic doctrines such as neo-liberalism and Marxism, has the individual consciousness as its starting point. In the Jain worldview, the reduction of karmic influence is identified with the reduction of material consumption and the abandonment of the attachments. The widespread human addiction to materialism destroys our sense of true self and damages the planet. The attachments to which materialism gives rise restrict our thinking and lead us into one-sided positions, such as greed and fanaticism. Reduction of karma is achieved through careful action, and through the principle of aprigraha, or non-possessiveness. This means carefully evaluating our material requirements, but it also involves a new attitude of mind, by which the people, creatures, and natural formations around us are valued in their own right, rather than seen as objects to be controlled, dominated or suppressed.

means still more than this, for it requires us to clear our minds of clutter as well. Mental attachments are as karmic as material bonds. One of the most destructive forms of karma is known as mohaniya, the karma of delusion. It is associated with a conviction of absolute truth and the desire to impose that truth on others. The restrictive claim that "either you are with us or against us" is an explicit example of mohaniya, as are the actions of terrorists and the bigoted proclamations of fundamentalists, whatever faith they claim to represent. Mohaniya leads to mittyatva, a one-sided or distorted world view, which affects spiritual progress within this life and influences the prospects of an auspicious rebirth. Mittyatva is human arrogance, which spans the spectrum from self-righteous forms of political correctness, which more often hurt those they are meant to help, to the illusion of our dominance over nature. Measured conduct, friendship with all beings, and the cultivation of a quiet, calm mind all serve to lighten the karmic burden, so that it eventually falls away as illusory attachments are relinquished.

Clearing the mind of grasping impulses and controlling the desire to exercise gratuitous power are both part of the practice of ahimsa. Karmic influence is reduced through non-violence of the mind, which is achieved through contemplation and simple living, recognition that truth is multi-faceted and that all beings are working towards it, and that only at the moment of enlightenment can it be fully grasped. The starting point for green or ecological consciousness is similar, for it grows from a primal awareness of the complexity of living systems and the subtle interactions between them.

Jainism also shares with the Theosophical movement a perception that no single human idea can encapsulate the truth, and that our common search for enlightenment transcends all artificial barriers of faith. Jains call this approach anekantavada, or many-sidedness. They recognize that a diamond's clear light can be glimpsed through many facets. The summit of a mountain can be reached by many paths, some straight, some winding, but all pointing towards the same place. Many-sidedness celebrates the diversity of life and thought, but reaches beyond that diversity to the common source of life. What more suitable path could there be for the interesting times in which we find ourselves today?

Aidan Rankin is on the National Council of the Theosophical Society in England.  His book, The Jain Path: Ancient Wisdom for the West is published by O Books (Winchester/Washington, DC), . Aidan is currently working on a book about many-sidedness, karma, and ecology. Email: