Routledge Focus. 2018
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
People in our mainstream Western culture, if they are aware of Jains at all, are likely to dismiss them as ”those weird monks who walk around sweeping the path in front of them to avoid stepping on bugs.” However, the problem with a culture that regards bug-squishing as a normal act is that if our species wants to survive long term, this anthropocentric attitude, in which humans matter and bugs do not, is inimical to life. For, as Rankin points out early in this book, the smaller and more ‘insignificant’ a life form appears to be, the more crucial it is likely to be to the continuance of life on Earth. Oceanographers, for instance, conduct detailed studies on the role of plankton in regulating the temperature of the sea and thus influencing global climate…A species once dismissed as basic and unimportant is now widely recognised as essential to the equilibrium of the planet. In Jain communities, such conclusions have been more or less taken for granted for at least two millennia.
That is a perfect example of this author’s key talent, which is re-examining ancient wisdom traditions to see what they might have to teach us about wise environmental stewardship and how to create a just, ethical, green and sustainable culture across our precious planet. He does so in a particularly thoughtful and respectful way, continually reminding the reader how important it is to consider this—or for that matter, any non-Western spiritual tradition—within the context of its native culture, rather than looking at it through the lens of Western thought, which in this case would be Western environmental thought.
As do the other wisdom traditions emanating from India, Jainism embraces the concepts of karma, of reincarnation and of a gradual spiral of spiritual development, culminating in the eventual freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Which means that in a sense it is based on a hierarchical order. However, this in no way implies a hierarchy of value. To Jains, Earthly life is every bit as important and valuable as anything that might lie beyond it. And every life form is significant.
Ahimsa, or the principle of no harm, is the keystone of Jainism. Everything is built on that. The respect for even the tiniest of life forms flows from the central Jain principle that everything and everyone is connected. Which in turn gives rise to a system of ethics based on the need for harmony and a dynamic balance between elements. For this vast web of interconnected elements can only live and thrive successfully if all relationships and interactions between the elements are as harmonious as possible at all times.
In Jainism, the responsibility for this balance and harmony rests equally upon each and every individual. Its prevailing ethos is thus one of co-operation and service. Which is why the Jain business community, which is mainly a network of family-owned businesses, especially jewellers, is well-known for its support of charitable enterprises, particularly those that are for disadvantaged people and injured or sick animals.
Having only ever known one practising Jain, I was pleased to be able to round out my knowledge of this spiritual tradition by reading such an interesting and well-presented—yet succinct—description. It was rendered even more interesting by being compared and contrasted with Western environmental thinking. And being a huge fan of Arne Naess and his ‘Ecosophy T’, I was particularly interested in Rankin’s examination of the parallels and differences between Jainism and Deep Ecology.
I think that anyone who likes finding out more about the world’s wisdom traditions and what they have to teach us will find this little book very interesting and insightful. And anything, written or spoken, that helps to promote an ecocentric attitude, is worth its weight in gold.