How Nonviolent Religions Handle Bedbugs

A guide to controlling pests without incurring karmic debt.

Many Jainism followers cover their mouths to avoid breathing in insects. | OhMyIndia.com

If you know one thing about the form of worship known as Jainism, it’s probably that Jains don’t kill insects. Many Jain monks and nuns even wear fabric over their mouths to avoid breathing in insects or microbes, and sweep ahead of themselves while walking to avoid treading on bugs.

Like Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism embrace to various extents the tenet of ahimsa, which forbids harming any living thing. Islam similarly forbids the killing of bugs. In researching this article, I even read comments from many Christians who abhor having to kill small insects, even though their scripture doesn’t explicitly prohibit it.

Practically speaking, insects and other vermin are harmful. The mosquito may be the world’s most dangerous animal — it kills far and away more humans than any other creature (as evidenced by the current outbreaks of dengue fever and the Zika virus). Flies and roaches can also spread disease. Bedbugs are lately on the rise.

With all that in mind, here’s a look at how spiritual-minded folks have approached the vermin problem:

Buddhist communities have historically gone to great lengths to avoid killing insects. In his book “An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues,” Peter Harvey explains how villagers in Burma in the 1970s were “generally unwilling to assist in DDT spraying to kill malaria-spreading mosquitoes.” Similarly in Japan, prayers were said for dead vermin, and one pest-control company even set up a shrine to memorialize white ants they’d killed. Across the Buddhist world, people controlling pests sought to do so with either “loving kindness” or at least “a lack of cruelty.” Indirect methods were sometimes used, like laying poison-baited food, but only poisoning some of the pieces so that the vermin were actually “choosing” to eat the poisoned ones.

Ants eating oil mixed with Borax, the main ingredient in many ant killers. | cturtletrax/Getty

Shamini Jain, a psychologist and the founder of the Consciousness and Healing Initiative, told Dose that if she finds the odd bug in her house, she’ll just carry it outside. But if there’s an infestation, she says most Jain households she knows will call the exterminator:

“It’s not a comfortable thing for us to do. I personally have heartache every time I have to do it. The only rationale for it is if we don’t take care of the problem, if there really is an infestation, it will just get worse, and there would be even more bugs to kill. I have sometimes used natural alternatives, like for ants, and that has worked well. Things like red pepper, turmeric powder, actually prevent ants from crossing a line. And it doesn’t kill them.”

From my years spent living in Southeast Asia, I know that making sure there are no standing pools of water near your house is a good guard against mosquitoes. A line of Borax will keep ants, centipedes and other insects away from your house, though it may kill some of them, too.

One Muslim sheikh says it depends on the situation. It’s okay to kill dangerous creatures like scorpions, wild dogs or rats, even around the sacred Kaaba in Mecca, the sheikh, Muhammad Salah, told the Islamic satellite channel Huda TV.

But Salah said harmless insects like ants should be protected:

“If one has bugs or flies at his house or roaches it is okay to spray them with insecticide and kill them as long as they are harmful. But especially concerning honeybees and ants, if they are not harmful you can just expel them or remove them peacefully.”

Killing with fire, Salah added, is off limits because it’s reserved for God.

One Buddhist asked spiritual leader and scholar Lama Zopa Rinpoche how to prevent her husband from accumulating bad karma when he killed household pests. The Lama advised her to read the Arya Sanghata Sutra, which would purify her husband (and the pests, too).

“You could recite it out loud so not only your husband hears it, but also all the animals. Also, you could play it (there is a Tibetan and English recording) so that everyone can hear it, including all the animals, insects, and even the wasps. This way everyone gets purified. This is an excellent thing to do.”

So to sum up: What Buddhism and many other religions agree upon is, if you must kill pests but want to avoid bad juju, keep in mind that it’s a practical necessity, take no pleasure in it, and don’t be vindictive or cruel.

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