The Institutionalization of the Ethics of “Non-Injury” toward All “Beings” in Ancient India

Jacobsen, Knut A.
Environmental Ethics Vol. 16/3 (1994), pages 287-301

The principle of non-injury toward all living beings in India was originally a rule restraining human interaction with the natural environment. I compare two discourses on the relationship between humans and the natural environment in ancient India: the discourse of the priestly sacrificial cult and the discourse of the renunciants. In the sacrificial cult, all living beings were conceptualized as food. The renunciants opposed this conception and favored the ethics of non-injury toward all beings (plants, animals, etc.), which meant that no living being should be food for another. The first represented an ethics modelled on the power that the eater has over the eaten while the second attempted to overturn this food chain ethics. The ethics of non-injury ascribed ultimate value to every individual living being. As a critique of the individualistic ethics of noninjury, a holistic ethics was developed that prescribed the unselfish performance of one’s duties for the sake of the functioning of the natural system. Vegetarianism became a popular adaptation of the ethics of non-injury. These dramatic changes in ethics in ancient India are suggestive for the possibility of dramatic changes in environmental ethics today.