Trees and religion: Jainism

See part V of this series here.

Jainism, a religion from the Indian region, is also worthy of note within this series, despite being one of the smaller major world religions. Its origins are debated, as to whether the ancient Vedic religion pre-dated it or not (Shah, 1998), though such origins are clearly beyond the scope of this post. Therefore, with specific focus on the stance Jainism takes on the natural world, and specifically trees, one can observe that the stance adopted is one of marked non-violence (ahimsa) – greater than that of both Buddhism and Hinduism, in fact (Altman, 2000; Hall, 2011). The rationale behind this assessment – provided originally by Mahavira (the eminent ‘teacher’ of Jainism) – of plant life is that, because plants are able to respire, metabolise, reproduce, and die, they are living. In turn, plants are considered to possess independent life souls, which are encased within their physical structure (Arumugam, 2014; Tobias, 1991). Trees may even have multiple souls (Fynes, 1996). Such souls can be reborn into the body of an animal, and even a human – the reincarnation process is not limited to humans and animals (Hall, 2011). However, a soul can only be liberated following an existence in the human form.

Jain literature does however indicate that plants are not necessarily intelligent (though they can feel karmic emotions, such as anger, passion, and pride), and thus the acquisition of resources for life processes is perhaps only a survival instinct (Hall, 2011). Regardless, because the religion adopts the outlook of not harming living beings, plants (including trees) are not to be unjustly harmed. Fruits and other materials can, of course, be harvested from trees (Jainas are vegetarians), though the trees themselves cannot be uprooted, as this kills them (Altman, 2000; Sims, 2016). Unlike both Buddhism and Hinduism, Jainism also has no God – worship is considered something that interferes, and runs counter to, nature. Instead, as Tobias (1993) and Long (2009) write, Jainas revere. Trees are not excluded, in this regard. Mahavira speaks of trees as having inherent beauty, and instead of seeing them as suitable for their timber that can be used to construct buildings and other objects, they should be seen as “noble, high, round, with many branches, beautiful and magnificent” (Chapple, 2001).

Within the Jain religion, the following trees are considered to be of great importance: the acacia (Vachellia nilotica), bel (Aegle marmelos), bodhi tree or pipal (Ficus religiosa) and other figs (Ficus spp.), kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba), mango (Mangifera indica), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), and teak (Tectona grandis), amongst others (Begum & Barua, 2012; Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991; Chapple, 2002). With regards to the bel (Aegle marmelos), it it understood that the 23rd Jain teacher (the one before the eminent Mahavira) gained enlightenment under the tree (Ariharan & Nagendra Prasad, 2013). The pipal (Ficus religiosa), another highly-regarded tree, may act as a symbol of the Jain religion (Choudhury, 2012). Such aforementioned tree species, in addition to others not mentioned, may therefore reside within and around Jain temples (Kiernan, 2015; Lal et al., 2014).

The Ranakpur Jain Temple, which sits amongst wooded hillside. Source: Pilgrimaide.

In some instances, Jainas may also partake in the planting of trees (notably on degraded land), and perhaps most notably of the tree species seen as worthy of particular reverence. However, Jain monks and nuns may refrain from planting trees, as in disturbing the soil to plant a tree they may kill various soil micro-organisms, which goes against the non-violence aspect of the religion (Altman, 2000; Arumugam, 2014; Kiernan, 2015). On a similar level, monks and nuns will have a very strict vegetarian diet, because their holy scriptures forbid the consumption of raw plants. Of course, this means such individuals cannot even eat fruit, and as this is not wholly practical, there are deviations from the rule (Hall, 2011). Nonetheless, it does demonstrate exactly how highly Jains regard plants.


Altman, N. (2000) Sacred Trees: Spirituality, Wisdom & Well-Being. USA: Sterling Publishing.

Ariharan, V. & Nagendra Prasad, P. (2013) Mahavilva-a sacred tree with immense medicinal secrets: a mini review. Rasayan Journal of Chemistry. 6 (4). p342-352.

Arumugam, D. (2014) The perspective of environmental protection in Jainism: special reference to the concept of Parasparopagraho Jivanam. Global Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies. 3 (1). p25-45.

Begum, S. & Barua, I. (2012) Ficus species and its significance. International Journal of Computer Applications in Engineering Sciences. 2 (3). p273-75.

Chandrakanth, M. & Romm, J. (1991) Sacred forests, secular forest policies and people’s actions. Natural Resources Journal. 31. p741-756.

Chapple, C. (2001) The living cosmos of Jainism: a traditional science grounded in environmental ethics. Daedalus. 130 (4). p207-224.

Chapple, C. (2002) Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life. USA: Harvard University Press.

Choudhury, J. (2012) Tree worship tradition in India and origin of Jagannath cult. Odisha Review. June 2012. p55-57.

Fynes, R. (1996) Plant Souls in Jainism and Manichaeism The Case for Cultural Transmission. East and West. 46 (1-2). p21-44.

Hall, M. (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. USA: Suny Press.

Kiernan, K. (2015) Landforms as sacred places: implications for geodiversity and geoheritage. Geoheritage. 7 (2). p177-193.

Lal, H., Singh, S., & Mishra, P. (2014) Trees in Indian Mythology. History. 12 (29). p16-23.

Long, J. (2009) The Paradoxes of Radical Asceticism: Jainism as a Therapeutic Paradigm. In Derfer, G., Wang, Z., & Weber, M. (eds.) The Roar of Awakening: A Whiteheadian Dialogue Between Western Psychotherapies and Eastern Worldviews. Germany: Ontos.

Shah, N. (1998) Jainism: The World of Conquerors, Volume 1. UK: Sussex Academic Press.

Sims, L. (2016) Jainism and Nonviolence: From Mahavira to Modern Times. The Downtown Review. 2 (1). p1-8.

Tobias, M. (1991) Life Force: The World of Jainism. USA: Jain Publishing Company.

Tobias, M. (1993) Jainism and Ecology. In Tucker, M. & Grimm, J. (eds.) Worldviews and Ecology: Religion, Philosophy and the Environment. USA: Bucknell Press.

Trees and religion: Jainism

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