Anne T. Mocko (PhD ’12) contributes the next installment in our new extended issue with her essay, “Attending to Insects.” The essay is part of Professor Mocko’s current Enhancing Life manuscript, Eco-Karma: What Western environmentalists might learn from Indias Jains, a book designed specifically for a non-specialist audience, either a popular readership or an undergraduate classroom. Mocko says that the manuscript project “falls somewhere between cultural criticism and environmental humanities, using explanations of core Jain practices and concepts to critique Western habits of inhabiting the world. This is a direction of scholarship and writing that is new to me, as a Historian of Religions and a South Asianist—a direction that was made possible by the unique character of the Enhancing Life Project as an interdisciplinary, public-oriented inquiry into how to collectively live better.”

The November-December issue of the Forum features the Enhancing Life Project, which takes aim at addressing one of the most basic human questions—the desire to enhance life. This desire is seen in the arts, technology, religion, medicine, culture, and social forms. Throughout the ages, thinkers have wondered about the meaning of enhancing life, the ways to enhance life, and the judgments about whether life has been enhanced. In our global technological age, these issues have become more widespread and urgent. Over the last two years, 35 renowned scholars from around the world in the fields of law, social sciences, humanities, religion, communications, and others, have explored basic questions of human existence. These scholars have generated individual research projects and engaged in teaching in Enhancing Life Studies within their fields, as well as contributed to public engagement in various ways.

Over the next month and a half, Enhancing Life scholars associated with the Divinity School will share essays and reflections on the Enhancing Life Project that will explore its implications for their own scholarship and teaching. We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your comments and questions below.

Posted Essays:

  1. William Schweiker, Enhancing Life and the Forms of Freedom
  2. Anne Mocko, Attending to Insects
  3. Kristine A. Culp, “Aliveness” and a Taste of Glory
  4. Heike Springhart, Vitality in Vulnerability: Realistic Anthropology as Humanistic Anthropology
  5. Andrew Packman, Enhancing Racialized Social Life: The Implicit Spiritual Dimension of Critical Race Theory

The Enhancing Life Project was made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and the support of the University of Chicago and Bochum University, Germany.

by Anne T. Mocko


In the West, many of us would describe ourselves as animal-lovers. What we tend to mean by that, though, is that we like to engage only with certain animals—animals for which we have some affection, such as domestic dogs and cats, or ‘cute’ animals like koalas and dolphins, or interesting zoo animals like elephants and sloths. We tend to permit non- humans into our lives and spaces only if they please us, entertain us, love us, or at the very least do not frighten or annoy us.

Our society tightly controls the conditions under which even acceptable animals are allowed to engage with us. When non-human life forms trespass against the terms we set, we often react negatively, even violently. Government officials are on call to come round up domestic dogs or cats uncontrolled by a human being, and they often euthanize those animals who don’t get accepted into a human home. Local governments euthanize bobcats or bears that make their ways into towns and cities, and authorize ranchers to shoot wolves on their properties. Many of us fence our lawns and gardens off from rabbits or deer. We might spray chemicals onto slugs or beetles that have the audacity to feed themselves on our roses or cabbages, and companies pump chemicals into our decks to make them inedible to termites. Most of our indoor spaces are sealed up against life forms from the outside, and if ants or bees or mice or spiders should enter ‘our’ domains, we trap or crush or maim or poison them—or else hire someone else to do this “dirty work” on our behalf.

Through all of these practices, Americans accustom themselves to prioritizing the physical and emotional comfort of humans above the lives and bodily integrity of non-humans. We permit ourselves, and we permit one another, to deprive other beings of their lives simply because we do not like them or do not want them living in proximity to us.

This casual approach to the lives of non-humans has largely gone unchallenged in the Abrahamic traditions. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, religious life is consistently framed as a relationship between humans and God, and only secondarily or tangentially as a relationship between humans and the non-human world. In each tradition’s scriptures, the non-human living world is generally positioned as the stage and support-cast for a drama that is actually about people. In most ritual contexts of these religions, humans gather in spaces with only other humans in order to pray and worship. Believers are emphatically enjoined in prayer and song and sermon to focus their own attention on God; they may be instructed to practice mercy and compassion toward other humans, but they are usually only vaguely encouraged to attend to the rest of the world.

There have been remarkable religious individuals within the Abrahamic traditions whose spiritual lives have involved profound connection with non-human life, such as Francis of Assissi or Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari. But most average believers do not develop this connection, because the routine practices of their religion do not focus their attention in this direction. Christian worship traditions include little or no routine ritual involvement with animals or plants (outside the occasional ambitious Christmas pageant or ‘blessing of creation’ service), and Christians are rarely directed to perform any specific actions related to non-humans in their lives outside of the confines of church. Hence most Christians build no embodied moral relationship with the non-human world as part of their religious lives. Jewish and Muslim traditional dietary observances do explicitly consider the treatment of animals as part of the production of kosher/halal food—but the practice of regulating the proper slaughter of animals for human consumption clearly subordinates non-human life to human needs.

Jainism is radically different. Jains attend to the safety and comfort of non-human beings on a routine basis, and they specifically cultivate attention to life forms that are not cute or attractive or pleasing to humans. On the contrary, Jains spend a lot of time and energy attending to insects, as well as to life forms they are not even able to see (the micro- organisms they classify as trasjivs and nigodas).

One Jain I met explained that cultivating awareness, compassion and care toward insects is basically a shortcut to developing a much broader moral capacity. If you only cultivate compassion for other humans, you can only develop moral responsibility toward beings that are fundamentally similar to yourself—whereas if you can cultivate compassion for ants, worms, spiders, and the non-visible beings in a puddle, then you will have developed the ability to care about all scales and complexities of beings. You will be able to live into a responsible relationship with anything alive, whether or not you have anything in common.


Being on the lookout for life

In India, in the subtropical climate where the majority of the world’s Jains live, the world teems with life all year round. Ants scurry across roads and tables and temples, monkeys can sneak through an untended window, mosquitoes thrum throughout the monsoon months, and miniature pipal trees dig out homes for themselves in the cracks and crevices of streets and walls. Indian homes are more open to the outside than American homes: windows are often unscreened, doors often stand open throughout the day to offer access to a courtyard or porch or rooftop. This means that in order to practice ahimsa—to avoid causing death or physical suffering to living beings—Jains have to observe their surroundings constantly, and take constant measures to protect the non‐human lives around them.

Young Jains doing the morning puja at Kenton temple in Harrow, North London, England.

One of the most basic routine commitments of Jains is to not directly kill an insect on purpose. As one nun repeatedly told me, ‘If you crush one ant, it will come back eight times, ten times in next lives to crush you.’ Devout Jains (especially on the way to temple) might carefully scan the street in front of them, in order to avoid unintentionally crushing a beetle or worm, and Jains avoid walking through grass to keep from trampling small life. Jain houses, courtyards and temples tend to feature smooth, light-colored floors (particularly white marble), which make it easy to spot traveling insects and avoid treading on them. Many adult Jains do not eat after sunset, because more insects are around and might land in your food, where they could be accidentally eaten—and in the time before bright electrical light, it would have been far more difficult to see the insects to protect them. The constant habits of protecting insect lives begin young, though: Jain parents are swift to chastise or punish a child who steps on an insect or slaps a mosquito, and I recently observed a young girl lecturing her even younger brother on the appropriate way to observe a beetle without poking or crushing it.

Jain households do not use pesticides, and they never crush wasps or spiders or even mosquitos. In this regard, they are quite different from their Hindu neighbors. During a recent monsoon season when I was staying in Udaipur, India, I watched as Hindus carelessly swatted at mosquitos that buzzed near them or landed on their skin—but the Jains I observed in the same situation were cautious to do no such thing. Instead, the Jain commitment is to try to keep the insects from coming into the paths of danger in the first place. Accordingly, the Jain houses and offices I visited were more likely than Hindu buildings to have screened or closed-glass windows. Also, all Jain buildings had numerous electric fans scattered around, even in spaces that also had air-conditioning, on the theory that mosquitos couldn’t or wouldn’t fly through a stiff breeze to come bite them. Keeping the space relatively closed, and keeping the air within the space moving constantly, peacefully turns away mosquitos without damaging them.

When there are insects in the house, Jains work to remove them without damaging their bodies. If a mosquito is intrepid enough to bite, a Jain should blow it off their skin or allow it to bite, rather than crush it. Ants should be swept aside, and food should not be left accessible to tempt them. At a child’s birthday party I attended, someone noticed that a spider was crawling across the floor, and three mothers swooped in to gently lift the spider onto a piece of paper, so that they could remove it outside before one of the small party guests accidentally stepped on it.

While any Jain might sidestep a worm in the street or scoop up an ant or spider when they see it in the home, monks and nuns need to be even more careful. Since non-violence is their full-time, life-long commitment, every action needs to be undertaken while scanning the world around them for insects. In addition to using their whisk (explained below), monks and nuns are expected to watch the ground with every step they take, to avoid damaging tiny bodies. Renouncers who wear robes are expected to examine the cloth on a daily basis to see if there are insects in the folds of their garments, and to gently encourage the insects to go elsewhere to avoid accidental injury. Before monks and nuns accept food, they must inspect every side of every morsel for the presence of a bug. If they find ants crawling in an upashraya where they are staying, they cannot simply scoop them into a tray and deposit them out the window (which would satisfy the demands of a layperson’s morality, but which might result in the ants becoming disoriented and lost from their colonies). Instead, last summer I watched a junior sadhvi spend nearly an hour on her knees with a single peacock feather, gently discouraging ants from walking into the nuns’ room, turning individual ants around to follow the line in which they had entered the upashraya back to their homes.

These small insect-attentive gestures are built into the routines of a devout Jain life, much in the way that swatting flies or spraying roaches are part of the routine daily repertoires of many Americans. But the implications for how each set of practices teaches the practitioner to relate to the world could not be more different. Where American behaviors toward insects indicate that small lives are disposable and are subject to the comforts and whims of those who matter—the humans—Jain responses toward insects imply that small lives matter profoundly, and that it is the responsibility of humans to attend to and protect the integrity of even irritating or biting and stinging lives. In other words, Jain habits towards insects imply that it is necessary for those with large bodies to be mindful of the possible impacts of their actions. They insist that humans must protect those whose bodies are made vulnerable by their size—even or perhaps especially when respecting and protecting those smaller lives is inconvenient or uncomfortable.


Cover your mouth

Among Shwetambar Jains, one of the most common disciplines used to teach the body non-violence (ahimsa) is the muhpatti: a cloth to cover the mouth. This mouth-covering is used to protect the world from the impacts of one’s body, and it is employed when the Jain in question is performing religious activities—meaning that laypeople must cover their mouths when they perform temple worship, and monks and nuns must cover their mouths when they live their moment-to-moment daily lives.

There are several different practical forms of muhpatti. When laypeople go to temple and wish to enter the inner worship space to honor the central jina statue, they must wear a muhpatti—but they also must have their hands free in order to complete their worship. Accordingly, they typically keep a bandana or kerchief specifically for temple use, and when they reach the temple they will fold the cloth into a triangle or strip, place it over their mouths, and tie the ends behind the back of their heads. Lay people may also hold a small square of cloth in front of their mouths as muhpatti when they sit in meditation.

Monks and nuns from the Murtipujak sects use this type of hand-held muhpatti, but on a more routine basis: they continuously keep a folded white handkerchief in one hand, which they will then hold up about an inch in front of their mouths when they speak—especially when they are reciting a religious text or giving a sermon. Monks and nuns from the Terapanthi sect, by contrast, will wear a muhpatti on their faces at all times. For them, the mouth-covering consists of a small rectangle of stiff white cloth, attached to cotton threads that tie behind the ears, more like a surgical mask than a handkerchief or bandanna. While different practitioners can use different kinds of physical mouth-coverings, there is nevertheless an overall commitment among all Shwetambar Jains to wear muhpatti when one is being explicitly religious. There are a few different explanations as to why the muhpatti is important. Some people explain that if you do not cover your mouth, an insect could fly in, and you could accidentally inhale or swallow it, causing himsa. More often, people explain that the breath from your mouth is hot, and that if you do not shield microscopic beings in the air from it, they could be scalded or burned. Still other people consider the muhpatti to be a shield that prevents saliva from accidentally leaving the mouth and thereby either sullying religious books and spaces or giving rise to micro-organism lives and deaths.

All of these explanations seem variously plausible, but it would be a mistake to assume that there is one “right” or “original” logic that produced the practice. Instead, it is useful to start from the practice itself. It seems likely that the muhpatti serves as a more general spiritual discipline, a habitual reminder that every human body is constantly impacting the world with every breath—meaning that all of the specific impacts listed above can fall generally into that worldview. Shwetambar Jains are invited through the practice of mouth-covering to conceptualize religious practice and religious space as an exercise in restraining the self, and so the muhpatti can be understood as one mechanism among many for limiting the body’s impact on the world.

Not all Jains cover their mouths, however. Digambar Jains uniformly reject the muhpatti—and neither renouncers nor laypeople cover their mouths during temple worship, prayer, or religious recitation. However, Digambar Jains do not follow a different practice because they reject the general idea that the world needs to be shielded from human breath. On the contrary, Digambars keep their mouths uncovered because they insist that holding a cloth to the mouth will actually increase the likelihood of accidental violence to small lives: they claim that if one keeps a cloth near to the mouth, saliva will moisten the cloth, and microscopic beings (trasjivs) will arise in the cloth, only to die during subsequent handling. Therefore Digambar Jains forbid people from using the muhpatti specifically in order to protect the world from the possible negative consequences of such an innocuous activity as inhaling and exhaling.

The physical practice of restraining the impacts of one’s breath can thus vary between different types of Jains. Yet all Jains remain remarkably consistent in the styles of reasoning through which they make sense of their respective mouth-covering (or uncovering) practices: all Jains evaluate their actions based on the extent to which such actions are able to minimize the human body’s accidental impacts on the small lives around it.


Wielding the Whisk

In addition to protecting small living beings from the effects of one’s mouth and breath, Jain monks and nuns in particular must vigilantly shield insects from the possible impacts of their whole bodies stepping, sitting, or laying down in space. Beyond simply scanning the spaces around them, Jain renouncers also carry whisks at all times for the purpose of sweeping aside any small beings in danger of being crushed by their bodies. Any monk or nun must sweep the ground prior to sitting or laying down—or even prior to rolling over after laying down—and some sects even use longer-handled whisks to sweep the road before them as they walk. These whisks are one of the few objects that monks and nuns are permitted to possess and carry with them, and they thus constitute a major emblem of the renouncer commitment and lifestyle.

For Digambar Jains, the whisk is particularly striking as a visual feature of renouncers. Full Digambar monks renounce even clothing, and so they walk through the world fully naked, carrying only their whisk and a clay jug (to carry water for washing). Even the jug is often carried for them, in which case the whisk is the only object touching their bodies. The Digambar whisk (pichi) is a distinctively full bundle of peacock feathers, bound with a handle. The peacock feather is a resonant symbol of ahimsa: not only is it regarded as a paradigmatically gentle implement that can move a small body without damage, but each feather is obtained in a non-violent manner, since the peacock itself sheds the feather onto the ground where it can be collected without harming the bird. All Digambar monks and nuns carry this peacock-feather pichi, and in addition to sweeping the ground with it before they sit or lay down, they also use it to administer blessings to lay people. When a lay-person bows before a nun or monk for blessing, the renouncer will tap the seeker on the top of their head with the pichi. Digambar laypeople also will vie to receive discarded pichi whenever renouncers trade old implements for new ones; at several Digambar houses I have visited, a pichi was proudly displayed on a high shelf next to a photograph of an honored guru. Thus, for Digambar Jains, the peacock-feather whisk is a potent embodiment of ahmisa, both the community’s collective commitment to protecting the lives of insects and the pronounced vigilance of its renouncers.

Shwetambar monks and nuns also carry whisks, but their whisks are made instead from unbleached wool threads wrapped within a cloth handle. At least once per day, each monk or nun will unwrap their whisk and inspect it carefully for any insects that might have crawled inside or become stuck during whisking; any insect that is discovered will be carefully lifted out and returned to the ground. Lay Shwetambar Jains do not receive blessings from these threaded whisks quite in the same way that Digambar Jains do. When they visit nuns and monks for advice and blessings, the renouncers do not use their whisks to touch them on the head, nor do laypeople obtain and cherish whisks previously used by their gurus. Lay Shwetambar Jains do, however, often have small whisks of their own which they use during meditation (samayik); in examples I have seen, these whisks are smaller and thinner than renouncers’ whisks, and the threads are attached to a wooden handle rather than bundled with cloth. The use of the whisk, however, is quite parallel: when preparing to meditate, the lay person must use the whisk on the floor prior to laying out a cloth and sitting down, in exact imitation of the gestures of renouncers.

Thus, much like the case of mouth-covers, Jains associated with different sects uphold a general discipline that they execute in unique and specific ways. While there are clear nuances between different kinds and uses of whisks, the sensibility that each whisk‐use implies and embodies seems very much the same. In each case, the person uses the whisk to move aside insects from where they are about to place their own body; in so doing, each whisk-user is reminded to watch for the presence of small life forms, to worry about the possible consequences of colliding a large body with a small one, and to protect the vulnerable body by peacefully removing it from harm’s way.

Through the multiple different disciplines for avoiding harm to visible insects, Jains attune themselves to the presence of smaller lives in their midst and work to minimize the negative impacts that their own bodies have on those smaller lives. This could not contrast more strongly to American approaches to insects. At our most benign most of us simply ignore the small; far more often, though, Americans willfully crush or poison insects in order to promote their own comfort. But what if we took seriously the insistence of Jains that humans with large bodies owe our compassion and protection towards life forms in small bodies? Without covering our mouths or whisking our seats, what kinds of acts could we take to live at peace with the insects around us? How might we change our relationships with our homes and buildings, our lawns, our foods in order to protect the spiders, ants, caterpillars, dragonflies, mosquitos with whom we share the planet?


Watching one’s water

Jains are responsible not just for diligently protecting the tiny but still‐visible bodies of insects; they are also called upon to protect the lives of non-visible living beings as well. These life forms (trasjivs and nigodas) are found in dampness, and they are understood to spontaneously arise in still water or other liquids. Particularly in Jain kitchens, one must constantly strive against creating environments in which non‐visible lives might proliferate and then die, lest one be karmically responsible for those tiny deaths.

The first such context in which Jains attend closely to the presence of non-visible lives is in drinking water. Jains assume that all water coming from a well, a tap, or any other source contains tiny non‐visible lives. The first precaution that must be taken is to filter all water for drinking through fine-woven cloth. Many Jain households have cloth filters tied around their taps, to capture all tiny beings in the water that comes into their kitchens before that water gets used for anything. Water to be directly drunk by the family will then be sent through an additional filter, such as a folded cloth over a clay jar. Shwetambar families generally filter drinking water for the family one time per day; Digambar families generally filter twice per day. The cloths for filtering are then rinsed or dried in a way to peacefully disperse any small lives they captured.

Filtered water always has a ‘time limit’: even if is initially considered free from microscopic beings, Jains teach that tiny lives will begin to spontaneously flourish again in the water in a few hours. A household has to be vigilant and consistent in its practice, then, to ensure an available and suitably non‐violent drinking supply. This is a matter of social pride between Jains. When visiting a Jain home or business, a guest will receive a glass of water; the guest then drinks some or most of the water, to signal that s/he accepts that the hosts uphold a suitable standard of filtration and non-violence—but the guest will not drink the entire glass, in order to clearly signal that s/he is approving of the water and not simply thirsty. Where Hindus generally perform hospitality by offering chai, juice, or soda, Jains initiate social interactions with water, to affirm each others’ commitment to diligent filtration (and hence the preservation of tiny lives).

While water that has been cloth‐filtered water is—within a certain period of time— suitable for lay people, it is considered insufficiently freed from potential violence for the consumption of renouncers. Nuns and monks must instead only drink boiled water, to ensure that no living beings remain in the water to be killed by the consumer’s body. Boiling water creates violence, however, so it must not be performed by renouncers themselves— nor must lay people boil water specifically for renouncers (since that would create paap karma for the monks and nuns, based on indirect responsibility). Instead, when nuns or monks are known to be staying nearby, local Jain households begin holding higher standards for themselves in their own homes, including by having some or all of them drink boiled water; then, if monks or nuns arrive, their needs can be met based on what has already been prepared within and for the household—and the renouncer’s body has not created violent impacts of its own.

Drinking water is not the only context in which Jains guard against the proliferation of trasjivs and nigodas. Lay Jains try to avoid letting water stand in their homes; they promptly wipe up water from kitchen surfaces, and during monsoon rains they will try to prevent water from collecting in vessel or major puddles outside their homes. They avoid keeping water or other liquids standing for more than twenty-four hours, and they do not eat long-fermented foods. (This is a significant deviation from most Indian cuisine: it means no normal pickles and chutneys, and no standard yogurt—though they will sometimes make ‘refrigerator pickles’ that can be consumed same‐day, and they can make same‐day yogurt using almond‐skins or silver coins). Leftover foods cannot be saved and served for a later meal, because non-visible beings will have arisen and will be killed when the second meal is eaten.

Several of these disciplines resemble Western practices aimed at preventing the proliferation of bacteria, and indeed spiritual and biomedical hygiene practices may in many ways feel parallel. Where Westerners worried about germs are intent on protecting their bodies from the ever‐present possibility of infection and bodily sickness, Jains worried about trasjivs or nigodas are protecting their souls from the ever‐present possibility of the stain of violence. Importantly, though, the underlying attitude toward the world that Jain and germ practices encode is quite different. Western practices directed toward bacteria focus on the preservation of the self from disease: they encourage individual practitioners to worry about the ways that the world might harm them. Jain practices, by contrast, are about preventing harm to tiny non‐human lives, and they encourage individual practitioners to worry about the ways in which their own bodies might harm the world.

This is not to say that Jains welcome and wish to cultivate disease-causing pathogens, or that if they become ill they will not accept medication such as antibiotics that might kill a non‐visible microbe. Jains accept that keeping a human body alive will necessarily occasion violence to other life-forms on a nearly constant basis, and that the preservation of a complex, conscious life‐form takes precedence over the preservation of a simple one‐sense organism. Jain discipline (especially for laypeople) does not expect to be able to eliminate all violences entirely; instead, it strives to avoid and limit the violences that one’s existence imposes on the world—and to never be casual about the violences that one does impose.


Protecting electric lives

Perhaps the most counterintuitive aspect of Jain attention to microscopic lives is their attention to life-forms in substances that Western systems of knowledge classify as non-living. Classic Jain texts teach that there are tiny lives in ice, rock, and fire. While relatively few Jains cultivate disciplines toward rocks or ice, the idea of fire-bodied beings has entered into the disciplines of renouncers, and has provided an interesting resource for understanding electricity.

Jain monks and nuns refrain from using implements run on electricity: no electric lights, no electric fans, no cellphones, no computers. The rationale for this is that all of these appliances run based on tiny fire-bodies, in the form of the electrical currents running in the wires. In order to light a bulb, a fire-bodied being must be generated, must then travel on the wire, and must finally die in the bulb.

This understanding of electricity and appliances does not accord with a Western understanding of the world. Nevertheless, thinking of electricity as a living being (or constantly flowing sequence of living beings) might provide an interesting counter-lens for framing the issue of energy conservation. The stakes normally seem very low for turning a light on or off in a room, because the electrical supply is consistent, easy, and cheap—but what if we thought about the lights we turned on as constantly consuming tiny lives? Would we be more likely to hesitate before turning the lights on in a sunlit room if we envisioned those lights causing a stream of tiny deaths? Would we be more vigilant about turning lights off when we left a space? Would we be more mindful about turning off or unplugging other electrical implements when they aren’t in use?

That may seem too strange a leap. But even for people uncomfortable with experimenting with this framing of the world, a Jain understanding of electricity could be modified slightly as a way to reframe electricity generated by fossil fuels. After all, even if oil or coal or natural gas is considered non-living (by people trained to Euro-American earth and biological sciences), these products are nevertheless held to be the products of long-dead formerly living beings. What if we were to associate electricity from these sources with the lives they once represented? What if oil, instead of being a mineral commodity, were rethought as being condensed animal bodies? Would we have an easier time limiting our consumption if we focused on developing compassion for the animals and plants whose deaths and bodies generated our fuel?



Jains can be downright obsessive about protecting tiny insect bodies—which can look from the West like a misplacement of priorities. Are they suggesting that insects are just as important, or even more important, than people? No. Jains acknowledge a hierarchy of beings, sorted according to their complexity and number of senses. Non‐visible beings are simple, one-sensed beings; insects are more complex four-sensed beings; animals are five-sensed beings, and humans are five-sensed beings with minds. The more senses a being has, the more susceptible it is to pain, and the more easily one might inflict himsa against it.

So Jains do consider humans to be special. Humans are not equal to fire-bodied beings or worms or chickens: they are superior to them. But Jain practice insists that being superior to other forms of life does not entitle humans to abuse or kill inferior forms of life. Indeed, the thing that makes humans fundamentally special is our capacity for moral discernment—our ability to anticipate the consequences of our actions, and to choose our paths accordingly. This means that humans have more responsibility toward the living beings around us than any other kind of creature. A lion kills and eats deer because it acts instinctively; it accrues some stain on its soul for the violence it commits, but because it cannot evaluate and choose its actions, the stain is relatively small. Humans, by contrast, can cultivate compassion toward other life forms—or not. They can choose to kill complex beings capable of feeling pain, or they can choose to protect even weird and difficult beings such as tarantulas or snakes. This makes the potential weight of their actions, their responsibilities toward the world, far heavier than for any other kind of being.

By attending to the lives and safety of insects, beings who are tiny and ‘other’ and inconvenient and unendearing, Jains are training themselves to be attentive to the lives and safety of all the myriad beings in between themselves and the truly tiny: rabbits and woodpeckers and beggars and cats and garment-workers and whales. They are watching the world for life in all forms, and working constantly to limit their impact on others. ♦


Anne Mocko is Assistant Professor of Asian religions at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where she has taught since 2012. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her research has primarily focused within the field of ritual studies, and she has been most interested in examining the capacity of ritual practice to inscribe narratives or ideologies into the lived realities of practitioners and observers. Her doctoral research was conducted in Nepal, and was focused on the effects and effectiveness of political ritual. She examined the ways that the royal rituals that had for centuries performed the king as the center of the government and nation were co-opted and transformed between 2006–2008 in order to remove the king and implement a party-based electoral government in the monarchy’s place. She is the author of several articles and book chapters, including “Nepal and Bhutan in 2014: New Governments, Old Problems” (co-authored with Dorji Penjore, appearing in the January 2015 issue of the Asian Survey journal). Her first book, Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal’s Hindu Monarchy, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

* Feature image: Courtesy of Regenstein Library, University of Chicago (Romana Klee). 

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