The Jaina tradition has existed in tandem with Hinduism in India since at least 800 BCE. Whereas the Hindu faith looks to the Vedas for texts and rituals and to the Brahman caste for religious leadership, the Jainas developed their own sacred texts (including the Acaranga Sutra, ca. 300 BCE) and follow the authority of itinerant monks and nuns who wander throughout India preaching the essential principles and practices of the faith. As indicated above, Hinduism includes both monistic and dualistic theologies, with several variations of each. Jainas ascribe to the belief in plural lifeforms populating a storied universe with hell beings at the base, humans and animals in the middle region, with gods and goddesses in the upper or heavenly domains. The goal within Jainism is to ascend to the Siddha Loka, a world beyond heaven and earth, where all the liberated souls dwell eternally in a state of energy, consciousness, and bliss. Although this goal utterly removes one from all worldly entanglements, the path to reach this highest attainment entails great care in regard to how one lives in relationship to all the other living beings that surround one in the earthly realm. Hence, from the aspect of practice, Jainism holds some interesting potential for ecological thinking, though its final goal transcends earthly (or earthy) concerns.
The current worldwide ecological crisis has only emerged during the past four decades and its effects have been felt within South Asia more recently. As the region copes with decreasing air quality in its cities and degraded water in various regions, religious thinkers and activists have begun to reflect on how the broader values of Hindu tradition might contribute to fostering greater care for the earth. Gandhi’s advocacy of simple living through the principles of nonviolence (ahimsa) and holding to truthfulness (satyagraha) could give some Hindus pause as they consider the lifestyle changes engendered by contemporary consumerism. Most of the Hindu population lives within villages that, barring natural disasters such as flood or drought, are self-sustaining and use resources sparingly. However, as the population of South Asia increases, and as the modern lifestyle continues to demand consumer goods, the balance of sustainability can shatter. With appreciation and acknowledgment of the five great elements, with a new interpretation of social duty (dharma) expanded to include the ecological community, and with remembrance of its ethic of abstemiousness, the Hindu tradition can develop new modalities for caring for the earth.
Hinduism offers a variety of cosmological views that may or may not situate the human in the natural world in an ecologically friendly manner. On the one hand, the agrarian and often near-wilderness images of India found in the Vedas, Upanisads, and epic texts present a style of life seemingly in tune with the elements. The Samkhya and Tantra traditions affirm the reality and efficacy of the physical world. On the other hand, the Advaita Vedanta tradition, while adopting the basic principles of Samkhya cosmology, asserts that the highest truth involves a vision of oneness that transcends nature and, in a sense, dismisses the significance of the material world by referring to it as illusion or maya.
This is a powerful motivation for a Hindu to lead a life of righteousness that ensures escape from worldly sufferings and the attainment of spiritual blessings in the form of Moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth) and unification with one’s Supreme God.
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If in this present life, a person succeeds in adhering to the code of life as laid down in the Hindu scriptures and follows the path of true righteousness, then his soul gains salvation and unites with the Supreme Power, thus liberating him from the bondage of birth and re-birth.
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Cultural traditions of Judaism and Hinduism are also similar. Both require modest dress and put great emphasis on family. They have strict dietary laws and special language restricted to prayers. Meditation, the technique that plays an extremely important part in Hindu rituals, is not foreign to Jews. This is one of the reasons why representatives of both religions can pray together. However, some Hindu mantras can be offensive to Jews. This consideration must be taken into account when organizing interreligious events.
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The religious traditions of India are rich and various, offering diverse theological and practical perspectives on the human condition. During the course of the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) series of conferences on “Religions of the World and Ecology,” three major traditions originating from India were explored: Buddhism (the topic of a separate summary), Hinduism, and Jainism. Other traditions found in India could also have been explored, including Sikhism and Zoroastrianism, which have dual roots in the Middle East and India. We look forward to seeing future reflections from scholars and practitioners of these religions on the topic of ecology. Another prominent religion in South Asia, , has been examined in light of ecology in another essay on this website.