Yoga, Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism are indigenous traditions of India in which nonviolence is a central virtue. In his book "Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions", Chapple sets out to explore their practices, find parallels with the Western culture and address issues of the contemporary world.
Chapple's book is both historical and constructive. On its pages, the author reflects on nonviolence (ahiṃsā) as a global concept from a variety of perspectives. He presents Christian pacifism in human interactions (1993:xiii) in stark contrast with Jainas concern for all life force (Chapple 1993:11). He examines models that prioritise material progress over that of a human (Chapple 1993:62) through the lenses of contemporary theories akin to Jainism, such as Gandhi’s and Gaia theories (Chapple 1993:71-72). Furthermore, he correlates medical laboratory scientists with Hindu priests sacrificing animals in rituals (Chapple 1993:42, 111), and shows how violence in both of them is susceptible to minimisation (Chapple 1993:11, 45-46). Although it’s up to the reader to speculate whether the present-day environmental crisis was preventable, Chapple credibly shows that a selection of world-renouncing practices can be successfully applied to this problem.
The book is divided into two parts, comprising a total of seven chapters. These can be further classified as either historical or reflective. The first category guides the reader through an interdisciplinary scholarship, field research and study of the earliest texts. This strongly addresses the inconclusive literary scholarship Chapple’s predecessors arrived at (Chapple 1993:4-5). On this newly established ground, the author introduces a well-founded history of ahiṃsā—giving prominence to Jainism—and its wide spread to East Asia.
Nevertheless, the choice of the Jaina homogeneous practice as a point of reference runs certain risks. First, Jainism can be, and has been, seen as “extremist” (Chapple 1993:21) and “fundamentalist” (Chapple 1993:86). Specifically, the path of nonresistant death by means of fasting (Chapple 1993:99) can be misunderstood, if it’s not examined in depth. Second, it requires a new point of departure – Buddhism as a religion unconfined by its principles for a global spread (Chapple 1993:20). Subsequently, the book simplifies the two traditions. It presents them as inherently compatible by failing to make the constraints imposed on the presented scope explicit. Another possibility would be to analyse one tradition through the lenses of the other. Such an exercise would construct a more comprehensive toolbox for reforms in modern models of development. For instance, the author could recognise that intention is valued higher than nonviolence in the Buddhist thought, something which Jains disapprove of (Bronkhorst 2007:18-19). Nonetheless, the author arrives at this possibility through the exceptions composed for Jaina lay people (Chapple 1993:10).
Conversely, where Chapple successfully contrasts two belief systems, such as Chinese Confucianism and Buddhism (1993:31), there is disappointingly no explanation how the two polarised systems co-existed. Such exposition would assist in a comparative study of countries adopting new philosophies. It would also help determine possible cultural vehicles for new values.
But the book, to a great degree, compensates for these oversights. In his reflective studies, Chapple investigates whether culturally rooted perspectives are useful to employ in a fundamentally different worldview (Chapple 1993:68). Of particular interest to me was an all-embracing animal-testing model where each agent—the animal, the sick and the scientist—is rendered similar attention (Chapple 1993:45-46). Equally imaginatively, Chapple launches into the Mahābhārata’s interplay of violence and nonviolence in the multiplicity of life (Chapple 1993:80). He shows how the self-other boundary is in fact blurred (Chapple 1993:82) and injects Jaina intellectual nonviolence (Chapple 1993:88) to arrive at cultivation of reverence for all sentient beings (Chapple 1993:112). Following the Jaina view that no religion is incorrect but incomplete (Chapple 1993:86), he reorients the focus away from the ideology towards shared global ethics (Chapple 1993:117). He compellingly reasons that, for the adoption by diverse cultures, shared ethics is a more satisfactory vehicle for self-discipline and transformation of the self—and of the world (Chapple 1993:62).
Throughout this exploratory yet concise book, the author considers a wide range of theories and puts them to work in a unique and unbiased manner. He proves that the principle of ahiṃsā poses ethical challenges that can enrich modern societies and, in theory, help solve global contemporary issues. His skilful juxtaposition of Asian thought and Western challenges sparks a desire for action and shows signs of hope. By now, there is a general consensus on the solution in the Western society visible in sustainability science. Appreciation for nature is also present in the culture and reassembles that of ancient China where Buddhist vegetarianism eventually paved its way to the future (Chapple 1993:31). Therefore, the book fully lives up to the aspirations. Furthermore, it’s a groundwork synthesis to draw upon.
Having said that, this assessment of modern problems through the ancient lenses shows the need for further adaptation – in the language and abstraction itself. First, ahiṃsā and the irreducible to oneself universe could be demonstrated through communities one lives in to inspire noninjurious interaction and dialogical relationship with nature (Chapple 1993:117). Second, the two worldviews are not as distinct. Both deal with the concepts of suffering and freedom. Whether the practice of moderation in the commoditization of nature is a restraint, is a matter of perspective.
Chapple, Christopher Key, 1993. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
Bronkhorst, J., 2007. Greater Magadha: Studies in the culture of early India. Leiden: Brill.
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