Sekhar, S.J., Vincent - Aikiya Alayam [Temple of Unity], Chennai, India.

Humanity seeks a culture of peace and understanding. In order to create such a milieu, ethical principles like respect for life and for the environment need to be emphasized. But it is also important to search for adequate metaphysical foundations for peaceful co-existence and smooth human interaction.

From the dawn of history, philosophy has almost exhausted the human brain with ideas attempting to understand and appreciate human identity, human life and the environment. Western and Christian metaphysics understands a person in terms of matter and form, body and soul, drawing inspiration from Hellenistic philosophy. Christian thinkers and theologians focus on man as the "image of God," speculating on the nature and significance of the human soul. They insist that human beings are superior to all sub-human life because of the spiritual entity called the soul. The superiority of the human person is further conveyed by the interpretation of Genesis 1: 26-31. On the common understanding of this passage, not only is every form of life and environment kept at the mercy of the humans but, sadly, all ethical considerations could recede to the background as a result of increasing human greed and selfishness.

Eastern wisdom, especially Indian wisdom, provides an ethos of diversity and easy accommodation. Everything is an expression of the one and the same Real. The Indian philosophical and religious traditions talk about this Real as the eternal Soul, the Brahman. The whole universe, both the material and the non-material, is its body. The eternal Being takes innumerable forms. It is not uncommon in Hindu and other Indian mythologies that God incarnates as a bird or as an animal in order to stage the drama of salvation for the well being of the world. Thus Godís spirit dwells in every living and non-living entity. Non-violence or Non-injury to all living beings (Ahimsa) derives its meaning and significance only from such a metaphysical consideration, and practices like vegetarianism are only an illustration of the Non-violent way of life.

Mahavira and Buddha, the founders of Sramana religions such as Jainism and Buddhism, highlighted this Non-violent culture of traditional Indian wisdom. The basic human experiences of pain and suffering led these Sramana thinkers to uphold Ahimsa (Non-violence or Non-injury to Life) as a code of conduct and as an absolute requirement for salvation or final Release (Moksa or Nirvana).

Ahimsa as an ethical principle has its metaphysical foundation in the concept of Jiva or Life force, named inadequately, as the Soul. Because it is essentially Life, Jiva is sacred and needs to be preserved. Jiva, in its original nature, is full of consciousness with perfect vision, knowledge, strength and bliss (Samayasara of the Jains, 2.3). This is true not merely of human beings, but of all living creatures.

In the process of salvation, which is the ultimate goal or end of life, the non-living substances (Ajiva) have a role to play. In the absence of the material universe, the embodied Jiva cannot discern for itself and climb the ladder of perfection. Only while living in this world can any Jiva become dispassionate and realize its true self. The Jiva in bondage has to live with the material universe and purify itself in the course of its life. Ultimately the Jiva in bondage has to realize that matter and other non-spiritual substances are not part of its self and, therefore, are to be shed completely.

Jaina concept of Jiva and Ajiva, then, provide an adequate metaphysical foundation to a new way of understanding of the universe. The same foundation also provides a new ethics embracing the whole of life and the environment in their integrity. This may sound animistic, but it is better suited in a world today where life needs to be acknowledged in its plurality and entirety for a happy, harmonious co-habitation and for a safe environment.