According to the Indian comparative religion scholar Champat Rai Jain, in Jainism, ahimsa (non-violence) means “[to] neither injure, nor ask, nor encourage another to injure any living being through actions, words or thoughts. This includes injury caused by cooking, starting a fire to cook, plucking a fruit, or any conduct that harms living beings.”

A core principle of Jainism, one of the world’s oldest extant religions, ahimsa could be translated simply as “non-violence.” And that’s true in its common usages across the other Dhārmic religions. But in Jainism, as teased by Rai Jain, it’s a more radical ethical proposition than the historically-politically loaded “non-violence” can conjure. As Swedish graduate religious studies student and popular academic YouTuber Filip Holm puts it, “Hurting or using violence to cause suffering for another living being is the kind of action that produces the most and most negative amount of karmic matter.” The smaller of the two major Jain monastic traditions, the Digambara go as far as to reject clothing in part because the material production of clothing requires the harming of living beings. 

Like most ascetic traditions, the Digambara do not reflect the everyday reality for most lay Jains. The Digambara aren’t even the larger of the two sects. The Śvētāmbara do not practice nudity and instead are known for their sartorial white robes. For most lay people, abiding by ahimsa entails a commitment to a certain kind of career, vegetarianism, and a non-combative approach to the circumstances of life. According to Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, “[Orthodox] Jain monks and nuns will often carry with them a variety of brooms, taking special care not to heedlessly crush tiny insects as they sit or walk; some will even wear a white cloth mouth-covering to avoid inhaling microscopic organisms.” Many Jains also avoid eating vegetables like the potato that aren’t part of the organism but are the organism. In all major forms of Jainism though, one can recognize—and depending on the individual, appreciate—the same radical ethical approach to animal life found in Digambara nudity.

I’m more than a little ashamed to admit this, especially because I work in interfaith circles, but I’ve always (subconsciously) considered Jainism to be a tad bit silly, even pedantic, for its extreme ethical practices concerning animals. How far should we go to protect animal life?

I’ve always considered myself an animal lover. The death of Steve Irwin was a foundational memory of my childhood and I’ve totaled about five years working in dog kennels. I’ve even owned a handful of tarantulas and two scorpions (the latter, regrettably, didn’t last too long in my care). But, as a Christian, I never really wondered if God would really care if I stepped on the beetle in my apartment or squished that spider with my windshield wiper. Surely they are too small, in significance and in divine import, to matter to God, right? My comfort (not even nutrition) superseded their very existence.

And if a beetle or a spider was too small to matter to God, a rat was too disgusting. Living in the Boston neighborhood nicknamed “Rat City,” I’ve grown accustomed to the vermin by circumstance. Supposing I leave the apartment at least twice, on an average summer day I’m likely to encounter at least two or three of the local mascots. Every time Honeydew, my seven-year-old pitbull, sees one our daily walks quickly turn south and she darts with every muscle in her body trying to chase the greasy rodent into whatever hole or crevice it crawled, spending the rest of our walk too anxious to forget and too disappointed I didn’t give her a proper chance to lower the rankings of the perceived rat army by one. 

They repulse me too. I’ve joked around that if a rat ever entered my apartment, the only appropriate solution would be to find a new lease.

And while I don’t have rats, I currently share my kitchen with a family of mice. One sleepless guard dog and three mice later, I hope the problem has eclipsed for the time being. After the dog refused to let my wife and me sleep, scurrying back and forth across the apartment whining because our apartment was being invaded by faster and smaller animals than her, I took a trip to the local department store and returned with sticky traps. Poison traps felt too inhumane and more importantly at the time, too risky with Honeydew so invested in the mouse capade.

I was working from home, about five feet from the fridge, when I heard the first one squeal. Stuck in the trap, prying its legs off, the small gray mouse squealed and shimmied as if it knew tomorrow was no longer assured. The trap I placed committed a horrible violence on such a precious creature. Without hesitation, the first thing I did was Google how to get the poor critter off the pad without further harming it: vegetable oil, my search engine correctly assured me, was the best quick home fix.  

At that moment, I experienced a “holy envy” of Jains. The Swedish Lutheran bishop and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl coined the term holy envy to identify the “[willingness] to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.”

My own Christian faith—a gradual move from Evangelical to Reformed to Catholic—felt inadequately prepared to respond to the cry of anguish in the small mouse. 

Of course, there are rich traditions of virtue ethics in the Christian tradition that, in theory, have a practiced, wise, and virtuous responses to such human to animal violence. I think in particular of the medieval theology of creatureliness. From Bonaventure to Aquinas, in medieval theology a “creature” wasn’t something vile or gnawish; the term would have conjured images of beautiful living beings created by God. That’s what a “creature” was: something created by God that shares in God’s idea of what that creature is. St. Thomas Aquinas thought God, in the simplest expression, was simply esse or being. Creation, then, is the outward procession of God’s esse. A creature is a creature because they participate in God’s being

But even if this theology is beautiful, good, and, I’d add, true—its expression still gives a special place to humans that comes at the behest of other lifeforms. It’s certainly true of mainstream Christian theological anthropology. Simply put: in many articulations of Christian theology, humans reflect God better than other animals. (Theology tangent: Technically speaking, I think Aquinas would say this isn’t true of reflecting God—since animals and humans alike are the result of the procession of esse, they reflect/participate in God’s esse equally; but I think Aquinas would say that God loves humans more since he wills more for them). And the real-world application of such theology often comes in the form of human-to-animal violence. Like my sticky traps. Like the “necessity” to kill every spider that cozzies up into a human-oriented indoor space. Like the fruit fly trap in your kitchen, or the insecticides on your vegetables. 

A stereotypical Jain monastic from either of the major sects wouldn’t have put themselves in my situation. Perhaps they wouldn’t have minded sharing their living space with the mice. Perhaps they would have used a more humane trap if they wanted to relocate the roden nest. Maybe they would have even waited until they caught all the mice and relocated them together, as a family. In one ancient Jain text, the speaker reflects on past lives and warns of the violence suffered as an animal in his former lives: “As a bird, I have been caught by hawks, trapped in nets, and bound with bird-lime, and I have been killed, an infinite number of times.” Even without believing in reincarnation, such stories keep their fundamental respect for life—that beautiful thing that everything has in common, that thing Aquinas might call “esse.”

Of course, such imagining is futile and, on some level, trite. I’m not even sure I’ve met a practicing Jain, and nor do I want to fetishize their religious traditions. And I don’t acknowledge the karmic philosophy that in part motivates ahimsa; but I do recognize a rich tradition of valuing all living beings that felt absent in my tradition at that moment when the joints in the tiny rodent’s legs started to bleed from pulling too hard. My disgust at the violence of my own action allowed me to glimpse into the ethical power of ahimsa

It makes me wonder. Jesus bled on the cross for several hours. There would have been plenty of time for a fly to land on his forehead sweat and rest for a moment. If a mosquito visited him only to fill up on his blood, the gospels make no mention of him complaining or flinching. It’s completely plausible that the last physical contact Christ had with another living being wasn’t with the Centurion but with an ever-so-despised insect. Maybe a mouse ran underneath his feet, maybe he blessed it in the vain of St. Francis’s Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, maybe he smiled when he saw it scurry with the fullness of its life. 

Maybe not.

3 Comments

  1. Moksha Khajuria

    What a wonderful read, Mr Polanski. I encountered this blog when I myself have a mouse in the house which we tried to drive out non violently three times, but despite our carefully it is somehow managing to come back into the house. Our house owners mouse traps such as you mentioned, but we were and are very clear about not using anything else but just plain catch and release traps that won’t hurt them. I loved your objectivity. I am a partially practicing Jain, btw. 🙂 Please feel free to connect, would love it.

    Reply
  2. Moksha

    Please pardon the typos

    Reply
    • Jain

      Reading Champat Rai Jain’s books will relieve you of holy envy.

      Reply

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