Jainism and Ethics

Ronald Huntington


Ron Huntington, former professor of religion at Chapman University and co-director of the Chapman University Albert Schweitzer Institute, was preparing a textbook on world religions at the time of his death. A chapter of the textbook was to introduce Jainism, the religion from the Indian subcontinent that stresses ahimsa, radical non-injury or nonviolence, as a way of life. On account of the probable influence of Jainism and the ethical principle of ahimsa upon Schweitzer and his ethic of Reverence for Life, the chapter prepared by Ron Huntington is reproduced here.

At the beginning of this century Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India, estimated that half the mercantile wealth of India passed through the hands of Jains [the vowel sound is often pronounced as "eye" and sometimes as "ay"]. The statement is remarkable when we consider that less than one-half of one per cent of Indians profess this little known religion. It is even more remarkable to discover such apparent worldly success in a community whose doctrines advocate a more thoroughgoing asceticism than those of any other religion. Mahatma Gandhi was born in a part of India where Jainism is widespread and admitted that he was strongly influenced by its followers. Perhaps we may find a clue here to Gandhi’s paradoxical life of practical political involvement coupled with an equally intense saintly detachment. We may also recognize similarities to Albert Schweitzer's ethic of reverence for life.

The religion of the Jains is sometimes presented as one of the two great "heresies" from Hinduism, along with Buddhism. While in the strict sense this is not wholly inaccurate, since Jainism does not acknowledge the authority of the Vedas, it is better to emphasize the numerous similarities with Hinduism than to posit a kind of rebellion against it. If it were not for the altogether obscure beginnings of the Jain religion, which may precede Hinduism in some of its concepts, we might even characterize it as a reformation movement within the parent religion.

The Pathfinders

Jains regard their religion, like the universe, as having existed eternally – without ultimate beginning or ending. Like a giant cosmic respiration process extending over inconceivably lengthy eons, the universe has its alternating cycles of moral decline and ascent. If one pictures a clock with the twelve representing the peak of ethical achievement and the six being the lowest ebb, our present age is at the number five.

As goodness declines, so also is there a need for religion to be restored periodically. Thus in each ascending and each descending cycle twenty-four humans are born whose work is to remind the world once more by their life and teaching of the forgotten truth. Such a figure is called a jina, victor or conqueror, and a Jain is therefore a follower or "son" of the one who has achieved victory over the ceaseless round of universal history. More vivid is the synonymous term, tirthankara [tear-tun-kuh-ruh], which literally means "ford-finder." This comes from a time when India, vivisected by rivers, was without bridges, and it was often necessary to explore for hundreds of miles in order to find a shallow spot to cross. The tirthankara is one who has discovered for all humans the place to ford the stream – the stream of unending striving, suffering and reincarnation.

In our particular cycle the last of the twenty-four tirthankaras was Mahavira, an elder contemporary of the Buddha. Born in the sixth century B.C.E., both men entered an age in which there was a need for religious revitalization among the masses. Hinduism had increasingly become a matter of complex sacrificial offerings and rituals under the control of the Brahmin priesthood or, under the influence of the Upanishads, an inward withdrawal into a world of meditation and rarefied metaphysics. With such fertile ground for the growth of a new religion, it is not surprising that Buddhism began at such a time nor that Mahavira was until recently regarded as the founder of Jainism by those outside the faith. Now it is recognized that the preceding tirthankara, Parshva, was also a historical figure who lived some 250 years earlier. While there is nothing to prove that Parshva was the real founder of Jainism, we may be forgiven some skepticism about the historicity of earlier tirthankaras in view of the fabulous life-spans and physical dimensions attributed to them by Jain tradition.

 

Older Than Methuselah. According to a twelfth-century Jain account Arishtanemi, the twenty-second tirthankara, lived eighty-four thousand years before Parshva, was sixty feet tall and died at the age of one thousand years. Compared to Rishabha, the first tirthankara of this cycle, Arishtanemi must be regarded as something of a dwarf who died in infancy, for Rishabha was no less than three thousand feet tall and lived for more than seventy trillion years! Comparable claims, though varying greatly in degree, are found in most of the world’s religions. Needless to say, many Jains take such astronomical figures no more seriously than Jews, Christians and Muslims faced with the lesser but still incredible ages of patriarchs like Methuselah, Noah, Abraham and others.

It is not enough to dismiss these assertions as the idle fantasies of naive minds. Although they defy any ultimate historical verification (or absolute disproof!), the appropriate questions to ask concern why such claims were made and what world-view underlies them. The headwaters from which flow the answers to these questions are the two general themes of the meaning of death and the meaning of history.

The ancient assumption is still widespread that there is a connection between morality and longevity. The perverse proverb that "the good die young" has never gained acceptance despite its shallow utility when a specific instance temporarily disturbs our more deeply held – and more desirable – view. Death, the ultimate disease of humankind, is a punishment for some failure, and conversely, old age is a valued reward. From this point the rivers of explanation run a variety of courses, depending on the definition of "the good" and the intellectual sophistication of an age or culture. A long life may be held to be the result of acceptable sacrifices to the gods, obedience to divine commands, vegetarianism, jogging, or the pursuit of wisdom. The list is suggestive, not exhaustive, for each modern centenarian improvises some response to the reporter’s inevitable question.

If we add to this the frequently encountered belief that the stream of history has run a downward course form some remote Golden Age, the conclusion is inescapable that people lived longer in "the good old days." The determinants of the actual ages assigned to the legendary heroes vary. Numbers regarded as symbolically auspicious in a given culture have their influence. Semi-historical reminiscences may compress an entire tribe, clan or dynasty into a single person. And these in turn must be fitted into or stretched over a comprehensive scheme of world history – eras, dispensations, ages or cycles which are themselves often determined by number symbolism. Finally, the desire of each religion to demonstrate its own value by testifying to its antiquity cannot be overlooked.

The primary point remains, an affirmation of the greatness of past saints. There is no correlative need to minimize those of the present, unless originality is carelessly defined as utter novelty instead of in its basic sense of "returning to the source." Once people become conscious of a historical process they seek to comprehend it by means of orderly patterns. They call these systems discoveries, revelations, superstitions, insights or deductions, according to their explanations of the origins of the ideas. And the value of these systems lies not in their historical veracity but in their ability to embrace and enhance present life and meaning.

Mahavira. It is tempting to examine the outward events in the life of a great person in an attempt to understand inner development, much as one hopes to find in an account of Franz Schubert’s family, friends and poverty some clue to the Unfinished Symphony. This can be deceptively misleading in the case of Schubert and downright impossible with Parshva and Mahavira. Even if all the biographical data were available, the single important thing about the tirthankaras is their victory, which transcends all accidents of time and place. A biography points out differences, whereas the pathfinders are all the same. As if to underscore this, the Jain sculptures of the twenty-four tirthankaras in any temple are identical but for a small identifying emblem on the base; for example, a lion signifies Mahavira. This is merely an aid to the unlettered worshiper, just as the caption under a picture enables the reader to identify the subject. Such emblems are used in many religions; one thinks immediately of the representations of St. Mark with his identifying lion on European churches and especially in Venice, where he is the patron saint.

Recognizing the relative unimportance of the external details of Mahvira’s life, we may summarize them very briefly. He was born near the center of early Indian civilization in the Ganges Valley, not far from where the Buddha gained his enlightenment. His parents, as tradition affirms of all twenty-four tirthankaras, were of the kshatriya or warrior-ruler case, not Brahmins. This has given rise to inconclusive speculations whether Jainsim and Buddhism, which was also founded by a kshatriya, were attempts to restore that caste to its former preeminent position. Given the name Vardhamana ("the increasing one"), nothing is known of the future tirthankara’s childhood and youth. Apparently he married and had a daughter prior to the death of his parents when he was thirty. At that time he received permission from his older brother to become a mendicant. Plucking his hair out in five handfuls – traditional practice only required shaving the head – the young man spent the next twelve years "self-exiled from the universal farce of the force of life," in Heinrich Zimmer’s apt phrase. After the first thirteen months he discarded what minimal clothing he had worn, equally avoiding shade in the torrid Indian summer and shelter in the chill of winter. At the end of the dozen years he reached his goal of kaivalya [kie-vuhl-yuh], described below. Mahavira taught for thirty years after that time and, again like the Buddha, he used the common vernacular of the area rather than the classical Sanskrit of the Brahmins. When he died at the age of seventy-two as a result of voluntary self-starvation, the record claims over half a million lay and monastic followers of Mahavira’s doctrine. Although there is reason to regard this figure as inflated, the more interesting detail in view of later sectarian development is that women comprised more than half the total.

Kaivalya. There have already been indications in Mahavira’s life story of an uncompromising severity. We may therefore expect to find a certain coldness in Jain characterizations of the ultimate state, at least as seen from the unenlightened perspective. Since these descriptions vary from those given by Hinduism we shall adopt a different term for the Jain goal, although this does not imply any necessary distinction in the experience itself. The scriptures of the two religions tend to use moksha, kaivalya and several other terms interchangeably.

Kaivalya is literally solitude, isolation, the state of not being connected with anything else. In contrast to some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, the common sense of the Jains led them to affirm the real existence of the world around us, including our own bodies. The Hindu concept of maya, that the world of our experience is in some sense less than real, was entirely rejected. That same Jain common sense refused to equate the world with Atman/Brahman or any other unifying principle. This universe is not only there; it is there is all its multiplicity. Jainism demanded neither denial nor deification of the world, but detachment from it. Existence is not an evil in itself, and kaivalya does not imply cessation of it.

The absolute self-sufficiency of the tirthankara is the result of an intentional withdrawal from the world, physically as well as psychologically, into a state of total imperturbability. On a lower lever, most of us have had the experience at times of becoming so engrossed by our thoughts that we failed to notice noises, smells, visual distractions, and even physical discomforts. One aspect of kaivalya is simply this shutting off of the senses that relate us to our outer environment. But there is another level of perceptions that is completely inward, including our awareness of hunger, thirst, and other physical and mental satisfactions and longings. This level must also be shut off. What then is left? What is that which exists in utter isolation and enjoys the perfect self-sufficiency that is kaivalya? The Jain answer is the individual perfected jiva, and we must inquire into the meaning of that term before summarizing the concept of kaivalya.

The Living and the Dead

Jainism resembles Sankhya and Yoga among the orthodox Hindu philosophies in dividing the universe into two basic types of substances, which the Jains call jiva and ajiva [jee-vuh and uh-jee-vuh]. Jiva means "alive" and ajiva "not alive." Each category contains an infinite number of atom-like parts, eternally existing and eternally separate. Every discrete object in the entire universe is inhabited by a single jiva, the essence of which is consciousness. Hylozoism, the belief that everything is alive, has been advocated by various philosophers, and the term is applicable to Jainism if the distinction between "everything is alive" and "everything is inhabited by life" is not overlooked. To clarify the Jain view, let us ask some questions that quickly arose in debates with Hindu and Buddhist philosophers. Where does the jiva dwell in an object? What happens to this jiva when, for example, a clay pot is dropped and shatters into many pieces? Is there a difference between the jivas inhabiting, for instance, a clay pot, an ant and a human being? And lastly, how does the jiva become imprisoned in a mass of non-living matter (ajiva) in the first place?

Jains respond that the jiva cannot be localized in any part of an object but permeates it entirely, just as the light from a lamp fills a room. Although the clay was in its entirety the abode of a single jiva, the moment it is broken other jivas immediately occupy each fragment. This argument necessitates two additional assertions about the nature of the jiva. First, it is capable of expansion and contraction, instantly adapting to the size of its home. Second, remembering that the number of jivas is infinite, it follows that there are jivas that are not embodied in this world. They are still a part of the cosmic process of evolution and transmigration, however, and may simply arrive here as a result of becoming disembodied in one of the numerous higher or lower worlds than ours. Indeed this ascent and descent of jivas is the tide of the universal life-process, continuous and everlasting. The Jain shares with the Hindu the assumption that heavenly beings -including gods - and the denizens of the several hells are all subject to the universal laws of karma and reincarnation. The gods are to be regarded as jivas wearing temporarily favorable masks, but they are in need of liberation or kaivalya no less than other beings and must eventually be reborn in human form to achieve that goal.

Jivas are classified according to the number of sense-organs they possess. For example, a plant’s jiva has only the sense of touch, while the jivas of animals possess all five of the normal senses. The human animal shares with the gods and certain hellish beings an additional inner sense-organ called manas [muh-nus] or mind, by means of which we are able to think rationally. With the final question as to how the jiva becomes imprisoned in a body, we come to the unique Jain conception of karma.

Karma. As in Hinduism, karma is the law of cause and effect applied to the moral realm. But while the Hindu is content to state that karma is the abstract valency resulting from activity, and that it determines one’s future birth, the Jain tendency to see reality in concrete terms leads to defining karma as a subtle form of ajiva, that is, a material substance having color and weight. Just as gold is found in alloyed form in mines, so jivas are found in varying degrees of karma bondage. Although the jiva is by nature transparently lucid, karma particles flow into it through its sense organs. By the glue of desire or distaste, they attach themselves to the jiva, clouding, obscuring and coloring its innate consciousness, and also weighing it down.

Depending on the amount of karma attached to it, each jiva has a "specific gravity" and rises or falls in the universe, conceived in the form of a giant cosmic person. According to Jain belief, the world in which we now live is located at the waist level of this cosmic being. All actions create new karma, but ethical activities produce karma that is more quickly sloughed off. The process of living burns up karmic substance but also attracts fresh supplies, and this conflagration continues until we realize that abstention is necessary from action of every type. Even virtue is a fetter, and one must cultivate perfect non-activity in thought, speech and deed. Once the jiva has been relieved of every gram of karmic ballast, its natural buoyancy causes it to float to the very top of the universe, where it remains eternally diaphanous and omniscient, an "independent bubble that enjoys solitary effervescence," basking forever in its own self-effulgence.

Summary of Kaivalya. We have now come full circle back to the Jain concept of kaivalya. By comparing it with Hindu thought, we can see clearly the similarities and differences.

First, like Hindu moksha, kaivalya is not the product of good deeds, thoughts or intentions, but results from the absence of all karma, good or bad. Second, while the conquest of karma for the Hindu is essentially a psychological process, for the Jain it is in the broadest sense a physiological endeavor. The Hindu Atman is a passive observer behind the scenes, unaffected by karma and eternally free if the person would only recognize it. The Jain jiva is actively involved and changed by the accumulation of karma that fastens it to the cycle of rebirth. Separation of the jiva from lifeless matter (ajiva) is not a change of consciousness to overcome illusions or delusions, but a gradual and difficult process of disentanglement worked out in real time and real space, in an actual historical process in a real world. Third, unlike the Hindu Atman the freed jiva does not recognize any unity with some larger cosmic reality, but maintains a separate existence at the summit of the universe. Having no sense organs, it is marked by an omniscience that results from direct awareness rather than sensory input. The jiva in the state of kaivalya can be pictured as a sphere with mirrored surfaces on the outside and the inside. Impermeable but radiant from the outside and utterly self-sufficient and blissful inwardly, it is like a self-contained universe that neither influences nor is influenced by anything outside itself.

It remains to be said that the Jain is fully aware that the process of achieving kaivalya is a difficult one. The last person to attain it is believed to have died sixty-four years after Mahavira, and it is expressly admitted that some jivas will transmigrate for all eternity. There is a cause for optimism, however. Jainism rejected all ideas of fatalism and held that the sole prerequisite for kaivalya was birth in human form. "Pluck the fruit of human birth," says one Jain scripture, urging us not to take this life lightly. Now we see through a glass darkly – literally! – but the process of cleansing that glass is in our power and could begin immediately.

What to Do Before Doing Nothing

Up to this point we have intentionally emphasized the unequivocal demands placed on the Jain by his idea of perfection. The primarily physical world-model of Jainism, in contrast to the nonmaterial concept of reality in Hinduism, tended to de-emphasize psychological factors. Although not denying the importance of thought processes, Jainism tied the concept of karma much more to the deed than to the intention motivating the deed. For example, Jains and Buddhists are both vegetarians, but the Jain automatically accumulates bad karma if he accidentally eats meat from his begging bowl; this is not true of the Buddhist. It takes only a little reflection to realize that there is a fundamental truth in the Jain position. However good my intentions may be in helping another motorist to change a flat tire, they are of little practical value if the car slips off the jack. Despite its lack of explicit psychologizing, Jainism must have had an intuitive awareness that humans are prone to rationalize their actions to themselves and put those actions in the best possible light. It has continually shown itself unwilling to allow its followers this false comfort. Like its Indian compatriots, Hinduism and Buddhism, it has regarded the conquest of self-delusion as absolutely essential to religious progress.

The ultimate ethic of Jainism, as we have seen, is abstention from all activity, since actions of any type produce karma. That this abstinence extends even to eating is evident from Mahavira’s self-starvation. Although that practice is still regarded with approval by the Jains (and it might be argued that the concept of human dignity dictates not only the right to live but the right to choose not to live), it is hedged by many restrictions. Obviously it is foolish to take one’s own life without first being purified from all karma, since that would simply bring about another incarnation. With this in mind, however, starvation is allowed if the person is thoroughly ready for another life by reason or decrepitude, incurable illness, or a physical or mental condition making the performance of duties impossible. A healthy body is to be guarded from disease, but a hopelessly unhealthy one is to be rejected as one discards a worn-out garment that is beyond repair. The contemporary controversy over euthanasia (mercy killing) would arouse little debate in the Jain community.

Earlier we referred to ethical activities producing karma that is more easily cast off, and this implies that there are intermediate steps to the ultimate goal. These steps are the practical ethics of Jainism. Much of the territory covered by Jain ethics is familiar, whether from the Bhagavad Gita, the Ten Commandments, or the Analects of Confucius. Jain yoga practices are not essentially different from those of Hinduism and Buddhism. The distinctiveness of Jainism is found rather in those elements of traditional morality that are singled out for special emphasis, and in particular the cornerstone of Jain ethics, ahimsa [uh-him-sah].

Ahimsa. Of the conditions governing earthly existence, none is more tragic to contemplate than one stated bluntly in the Bhagavata Purana, a Hindu text: "Life is the life of life." In its starkest form, this means that in order to remain alive each of us must daily impose the death penalty on other living things, or at least serve as an accomplice in premeditated murder. Putting it another way, this inevitable and unceasing slaughter proclaims an ethic of power pressed into the service of a consciously or unconsciously egotistical judgment that the life of the victim is less worthy of continuance than that of the slayer. The major portion of Mahavira’s teaching, and of all Jain ethics, is concerned with this grim and sobering fact.

Ahimsa, non-injury, is the first of the five vows required of a Jain monk, and the other four are considered by Jain commentators merely as details of the first. All life is sacred to the Jain, and intentional or unintentional harm done to any living thing produces bad karma. Recalling that every object is inhabited by a jiva, we see that Jainism expands Albert Schweitzer’s famous concept of reverence for life into reverence for the entire universe. Ahimsa also has affinities with Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns of satyagraha ("truth-force"), in which injury to others was strictly forbidden even at the expense of one’s own life. There are similarities too with the writings of St. Francis of Assisi. Yet no other religion has stressed the pivotal importance of this principle of non-injury as consistently and broadly as has Jainism. Certainly the rape of the environment so long a part of Western civilization and only recently beginning to be recognized as a problem of tremendous magnitude would have been unthinkable in a Jain society.

It would be entirely wrong, however, to see ahimsa in any sentimental light. The Jain doctrine of non-injury is based on rational consciousness, not emotional compassion; on individual responsibility, not on a social fellow-feeling. Hindu monism could regard injury to others as injury to oneself; the Jain held that there were innumerable separate jivas and therefore could not use the Hindu rationale. The motive in Jainism is self-centered and entirely for the purpose of individual kaivalya. And yet, though the emphasis is on personal liberation, the Jain ethic makes that goal attainable only through consideration for others.

Except for those who have gained kaivalya, the perfect practice of ahimsa is obviously impossible. Jainism is eminently practical in its dictates in this regard, yet unwilling to compromise further than is absolutely necessary. Hinduism was normally content to symbolize its reverence for all life by its treatment of the cow. Jains rejected this kind of symbolic allegiance to a principle as too easy a method of placating one’s conscience.

Ahimsa in Practice. Three groups of distinctions governed the application of the principle of non-injury in daily life. First, the Jains distinguished between lay members of the community and the ascetics, and recognized different gradations among the latter. The lines are not rigidly drawn, however. Lay members of the Jain community have always been considered members of the ascetic order, and many engage in a periodic temporary retreat as monks or nuns. The traditional twelve vows of the Jain householder are essentially the same as the five vows of the monk, differing only in the vigor of observance that is expected. Moderation is the keynote for householders, and severity for ascetics. There is a single ethical code for all, and the ascetic life is a continuation of the householder’s life, without new rules being imposed. Although the monks exert religious control over laity, the latter are given the right to excommunicate a monk who is deemed to have fallen below the standards established by the entire community. This close relationship between monk and layman is undoubtedly one of the important factors in the survival of Jainism in India. Buddhism, which tended to regard laity merely as patrons of the order of monks and established no organic connection between the two, virtually disappeared from the land of its origin.

Second, Jains distinguished between four types of injury – accidental, occupational, protective, and intentional. Protective injury is that which results, for example, when a hungry wolf is shot in a crowded chicken yard. Lay Jains are required to abstain entirely from intentional injury and, as far as possible, from accidental injury. All four types are forbidden to the monk. A widespread misconception needs to be corrected concerning occupational injury. Despite the inevitable destruction of life involved in such vocations as agriculture and soldiery, they are not forbidden to the Jain. More than half the Jains in southern India are engaged in farming, and the profession is mentioned without disapproval in Jain scriptures. Jains can also be, and some are, warriors. We may recall that all of the tirthankaras were of the warrior-ruler caste. It remains true nonetheless that many Jains have sought to avoid occupations that unavoidably entail injury, and this accounts for the disproportionate number who have entered banking, commerce and other mercantile trades.

The third set of distinctions concerns the classification of jivas according to the number of senses they posses, as mentioned earlier. The karma produced is directly related to the number of senses of the injured jiva. Injury to plants therefore has less serious karmic consequences than injury to animals. The laity try especially not to injure any jivas of two or more senses, that is, the moving ones. Vegetarianism is universal in the Jain community, but because of the danger of injury to insects, even such vegetables as potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and radishes are avoided.

The manifestations of this concern for life are legion among Jains. No furs, plumes or silk are worn. Leather is kept to a minimum and must in any event be from naturally dead animals. Food is eaten during the day, since there is too much danger of injuring insects in cooking at night. The Jain will not use an open light nor leave a container of liquid uncovered lest a stray insect be destroyed; even with this precaution, liquids are always strained before use. Monks and often some lay members will wear a cloth over their mouths to avoid accidental injury to insect life, and for the same reason a soft broom is used to sweep the path in front of one’s feet. Nor will a Jain step on any plant if it can be avoided. Foot travel is severely curtailed during the rainy season, following Mahavira’s example, because of the increased insect population during those four months. The preoccupation with ahimsa is further exemplified by a Jain hospital for stray or disabled birds in Delhi and a rest house for old or diseased animals in Bombay. In these and other sanctuaries, creatures are kept and fed until they die a natural death.

We have listed some of the ways in which Jains have sought to apply in their daily lives Mahavira’s appeal not to interfere in the lives of others. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that ahimsa only prohibited physical violence. An early Jain text says: "With the three means of punishment – thoughts, words, deeds – ye shall not injure living beings." Lying is defined by the Jain, for example, as speaking hurtful words. And non-injury must also be referred to oneself. Passions and desires cause self-injury, and proper practice of ahimsa includes not maiming oneself in overly extreme asceticism.

Jainism’s all-encompassing ethical principle can be summarized as follows: Do your duty, and do it as humanely as you can - not just toward other Jains nor even all humankind, but toward the entire world.

Perhaps, Maybe or Somehow

The evolution of Jain doctrines was a product in no small measure of dialogues with Hindu, Buddhist and other thinkers. There is evidence that Mahavira himself engaged in such debates, defending and refining his insights. While the considerable contributions of the Jains in philosophy, and especially logic, are more properly the philosopher’s domain, one aspect of Jain logic requires our attention as students of religion. That is the concept of multiple viewpoints, an idea surprisingly anticipatory of modern theories of relativity. To grasp the Jain view, a bit of background is necessary.

Hindu thought on the ultimate reality of the universe tended toward rather static conceptions. Insofar as Brahman and Atman were described at all, terms like absolute being, pure existence, unchanging and eternal were used. Buddhism’s approach, in contrast, was to deny any permanency whatsoever in a world visualized as continually changing. Early Buddhist philosophy denied the existence of an Atman behind the world process that Hindus were inclined to describe as maya, delusion. What the Hindu regarded as delusion, the Buddhist took as reality, and vice versa. The following chart will help clarify these two distinct and exclusive ways of thinking:

Hindu reality Buddhist reality
static dynamic
changeless changing
eternal temporal
space categories time categories
being becoming
the "One" the "Many"
universal particular

The modern philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote: "In the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux." 1 The necessity for philosophical self-consistency led Hinduism to make an absolute of the "something that abides," the "overwhelming permanence"; Buddhism for its part tended to absolutize the "flux" or change. It is as if the former described a river in terms of its water and banks, while the latter focused on its flow.

To counter the proponents of these diametrically opposed positions, Jains developed a position knows as syadvada [seeud-VAH-duh], the way or path of "perhaps, maybe or somehow." Syadvada states simply that judgments resting on different points of view may differ without any of them being wholly wrong. In a world where human beings are limited by space and time, where the eyes that look toward the north cannot simultaneously see the south, where the person who stands in Istanbul cannot at the same time be in Montreal, where finally we know that the airplane pilot of the twentieth century cannot concurrently be driving a chariot in the early Roman Empire, all judgments must necessarily reflect a particular viewpoint. A limited and incomplete judgment is called a naya [nuh-yuh], and all human knowledge is a compilation of nayas, judgments resulting from different attitudes. The Jains were thus able to accept equally the Hindu views of "being" and Buddhist views of "becoming," but took neither in the sense that their partisan advocates desired or found comforting.

Western thought has increasingly emphasized the importance of the "standpoint of the observer" in the post-Einstein era. We now realize that since the earth, sun and stars are all in motion, the point of stability is merely a matter of definition. We have learned that the Ptolemaic or geocentric view of the universe - that the sun revolves around the earth -and the Copernican or heliocentric view -that the earth revolves around the sun - are both human constructs. We need not decide ultimately between the wave theory of light and the particle theory, nor between a system of numbers founded on the decimal system or some other base. Each alternative can provide a frame of reference (a naya) for further judgments and practical use, and is in that sense true. But each contains an element of falsehood in assuming that a fixed point of reference exists in reality, whereas the fixed point is purely a definition.

The Jain doctrine of syadvada is non-absolutist and stands firmly against all dogmatisms, even including any assertion that Jainism is the right religious path. Like Bernini’s pillared colonnade in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, syadvada reaches out to embrace all viewpoints (nayas) as containers of truth – and error – depending on the observer. Obviously Jainism does not resort to religious conversion, for it is both noncritical and noncompetitive in relation to other religions.

Although the phrase "the Middle Way" is traditionally applied to Buddhism, it is clear that in their concept of syadvada the Jains also have a claim to that title. Perhaps, maybe or somehow the truth may be discerned in the most contradictory assertions in this world of infinite complexity.

A Divided Community

Sects. After what has been said about syadvada, it may be surprising to find that Jainism split into two major sects, and has been subject to continued divisions and subdivisions over scriptural interpretation and minor elements of religious practice. Yet this is perhaps inevitable in a religion which, though a small minority in India, is so widely distributed geographically, and which at the same time seeks to structure every detail of life.

The historical origins of the great schism are obscure. It is possible that Mahavira already had followers representing two different views that predated his teaching. But one probable tradition ascribes the rift to a time of famine at the beginning of the Maurya Empire in the late fourth century B.C.E., when a portion of the Jain community migrated from its original home in the Ganges Valley to South India. Upon their return after the lengthy absence, they discovered that certain practices had changed among those who had remained behind. It is certain at least that the division was complete by the end of the first century C.E., and it has persisted to the present, with each group maintaining that it preserves the fundamental teachings of Jainism.

The names of the sects capture their primary difference – the Digambara [dig-uhm-buh-ruh] or "sky-clad," and the Shvetambara [shvet-ahm-buh-ruh] or "white-clothed." The former group places strong emphasis on not owning any personal property whatsoever, and hence their monks and when possible the lay members are to clothe themselves only in the sky, i.e., practice nudity. Other differences seem relatively minor to the outsider, and there are practically none about the basic creed of Jainism. For example, the Digambaras hold that the perfected Jain lives without food and that no woman can reach kaivalya. The Shvetambaras disagree and in turn advance two doctrines rejected by the Digambaras. First, Shvetambaras claim that Mahavira was conceived in the womb of a Brahmin woman and the embryo was then transferred divinely to the wife of a Kshatriya. Second, the Shvetambaras are the source of the tradition that Mahavira was married and had a daughter. Probably because of their view on women attaining kaivalya, Digambara texts do not mention this. Both sects agree that the original scriptures of Jainism, called the fourteen Purvas, were gradually lost. Digambaras assert that a secondary level of scripture, the eleven Angas, also disappeared, but Shvetambaras claim to have these books; they are the basic Shvetambara scriptures. The Digambara canon is much less well defined, undoubtedly because of their concentration on ascetic practices and owning nothing.

The probable influence of the Moslem conquest of India is to be seen in the formation of the Sthanakavasi [st/hah-nuh-kuh-vah-see] sect in the eighteenth century. The Moslem religion strictly forbids the use of images to worship. The Sthanakavasi reformers declared that statues of the tirthankaras were idolatrous, and condemned the ornateness of the Jain temples and rituals. They continue today as a subdivision of the Shvetambara sect, holding their religious meetings in puritanically severe buildings (sthanakas), from which the sect name was derived.

While all Jain sects would admit that nudity is necessary for kaivalya, even Digambara monks will wear clothes in public nowadays, justifying their practice as a concession to the human frailty in these degenerate times. Indeed, it is customarily required that the Digambara laity wear at least two pieces of cloth for all religious ceremonies. Among Shvetambaras, the monk is no longer a homeless wanderer except in theory, although Digambara monks remain stationary during the monsoon season in imitation of Mahavira and to avoid injury to the swarms of living things during that period.

Caste. As far as documentary evidence allows us to conclude, Parshva and Mahavira did not advocate a doctrine of caste, but they appear to have recognized four classes of people, basing the division on activities rather than birth. The development of caste in the Jain community has occurred mainly in the past thousand years and can be seen as (1) a natural extension of the hierarchical belief in jivas of varying numbers of senses, (2) a product of the seemingly universal human need for social status and prestige, and (3) most importantly, the influence of the Hindu social structure on a minority group living in their midst. Much more than among Hindus, caste is a social rather than a religious institution for Jains. But if the Jain religion as such does not acknowledge caste distinctions, neither has it obstructed their growth and practice.

Lists of the proverbial eighty-four Jain castes differ, but they show that the names were derived mainly from places of origin, not occupations. Occupational sub-castes were developed within this larger scheme. The majority of Jains consider themselves Vaishyas, and there are practically no Jain Shudras. Until the fourteenth century there were no food barriers, but complex prohibitions now govern inter-caste dining and marriages, though not as rigidly as in Hinduism. Exact parallels to the Hindu four castes are found among Jains in South India, and heredity plays the major role in determining caste.

The Current Scene. We may well wonder whether a religion of less than two million members, and gradually decreasing in proportion to the total Indian population, can afford the luxury of caste and sect divisions. More than half the Jain castes have fewer than five hundred members, and there are many bachelors not of choice but of necessity, due both to caste restrictions and a general Indian tradition against widow remarriage. The latter is further aggravated by the very early marriage of young girls, increasing the probability of widowhood. Since Jain theory holds that no one will attain kaivalya in the present age, it may seem rather futile to quibble over whether clothing or one’s sex makes a significant difference in reaching that goal.

Despite calls for unity from those who clearly perceived the problems, conferences to revitalize Jainism at the beginning of this century did not cross sectarian boundaries. Although as a result of those conferences there has been a profusion of new organizations and social services – hospitals, schools, colleges, newspapers, libraries, educational and research scholarships, and rest houses for people and other animals – these have tended to foster separatist tendencies rather than overcome them. Human labors and financial resources continue to be spent on duplicating temples and community institutions for specific sects or castes. Liberal organizations like the Jain Young Men’s Association and the Jain Widow Remarriage Association, both of which sought to transcend secretarian divisions, have thus far had little impact on the Jain community as a whole. Especially since the beginning of this century, many Jains regard themselves and are regarded by others as Hindus, though there are recent indications of a countering tendency toward a new pride in their religion by other Jains.

It is true nevertheless that the number of Jains continues to dwindle slowly to the present day. Lest this be seen in the wrong perspective, however, we need to remember that the size of their religion is not of great concern to most Jains. Their world-view has been consistently held that Jainism would decline and eventually die out completely – to be reborn again in the history’s next ascending cycle.

Worship Without Divinity

There are few religious shrines in the entire world that can compare in ornateness, lavishness and astonishing splendor with the finest Jain temples, whether we speak of the white marble structures on Mount Abu or the sacred city of more than eight hundred and fifty temples at Shatrunjaya, both located in the state of Gujerat in western India. At these and other sacred sites, wealthy Jain families have spared no money or effort in erecting shrines worthy of their religious heritage. And yet if we inquire into the function of these temples, we find ourselves in a seeming quandary.

Let us summarize initially what Jain worship cannot be, in the light of what has already been presented about the religion. First, it should go without saying that there are no animal sacrifices, in view of the centrality of ahimsa. Moreover, inasmuch as the tirthankaras have achieved kaivalya and are therefore not in contact with the world, they cannot respond to worship, prayers or sacrifices. Nor can anyone or anything else. Each of the infinite number of jivas in the universe is pursuing its own evolution, a path of self-help unaided by any divine being. The concept of a god or gods above this process is wholly superfluous to the Jain world, and there is strictly speaking no room for devotional practices (bhakti). Finally, there are no real congregational rituals among Jains, although there are periodic festivals and sometimes personal occasions to which others may be invited.

The function of ritual worship in Jainism has been well stated by Jagmanderlal Jaini: "Faith brings us to truth; philosophy makes us grasp it; ethics makes us practice it; and ritual makes us one with it." 2 For convenience, we will consider Jain rituals under two main headings: regular observances at the temples, and periodic observances, such as festivals, fasts, pilgrimages, and rites for special individual occasions. In both categories, the outward forms resemble Hinduism, and on the popular level it is probable that even the motives and inner meanings do not differ significantly from Hindu worship.

Temple Worship. As a general rule, the Jain layman goes to his local temple every morning, usually accompanied by his wife. Formal worship consists of anointing the statues of the tirthankaras with colored paints. A temple attendant follows behind with a pail of water and a cloth to cleanse the images, for it is the act of the worshiper that creates good karma or merit, not its subsequent fate. The action is performed not for the tirthankara, but for the worshiper. The statue, like a mirror, is not affected by the one looking at it. The alabaster figures are temporarily colored, just as the jiva is colored by its karma, but the cleansing reveals once again their inner luminosity as a reminder to the worshiper of his ultimate religious goal.

In contrast to Hinduism, it may be seen that the priest has no necessary role in Jain temple worship. Since the object of Jain worship is self-transformation rather than to obtain the favor of any divine being, there is no rationale for the development of complex rites of propitiation or appeasement. The growth of a professional priesthood was further hampered by an early Shvetambara doctrine that no Jain should earn a living from his religion. The preservation of the religion was left to the monks, whose single duty other than seeking kaivalya was to preach, instruct and explain the doctrines of Jainism to the laity.

About seven centuries ago, however, Jain worship began to assimilate many characteristics from Hinduism, possibly as a result of the need for survival in the face of a common religious foe, Islam. Jains whose former role had been merely to take care of the images in Digambara temples gradually came to assume a priestly function. In Shvetambara temples, Hindu Brahmins were employed as priests, and we must recall that, as in Hinduism, the priest is a technician who is versed in the proper forms and rituals, not necessarily a religious person himself. With the coming of Hindu priests came the introduction of worship of Hindu gods and goddesses for minor boons, the offering of flowers and food to the tirthankaras, and the addition of caste and family deities. There is no scriptural support for these practices, of course, and they are ultimately inconsistent with Jain beliefs. But although they have been the target of criticism by some reformers, these rites continue to permeate Shvetambara Jainism and have reached to a lesser extent even into the conservative Digambara sect.

Periodic Observances. As Jainism came under Hindu influence, the mythology and heroes of the latter were transformed and adapted to conform to Jain principles, and Hindu festivals were reinterpreted. For example Divali, the popular Hindu festival of lights in the late autumn, was explained as a commemoration of the death of Mahavira, whose disciples lighted lamps when "the light" had departed from the world. Various ceremonies to mark significant moments in life, from conception to tirthankaraship, are largely modeled after comparable Hindu rituals. It appears that early Jainism was wholly unconcerned with such "rites of passage," but Digambara Jains today list fifty-three different occasions for such observances. Pilgrimages confer great merit as in Hinduism, and more than one hundred places are considered worthy of visitation by Digambara Jains. Few of these pilgrim goals are for both main sects, and the Shvetambaras have their own list, comparable in size. A pilgrimage to certain holy places entitles the Jain to adopt a special pilgrimage surname as in Islam, where the pilgrim to Mecca may from that time on add the title "Hajji" (pilgrim) to his name.

Insofar as Jainism differs today from Hinduism in its periodic observances, these distinctions center around voluntary fasting, the practice of total ahimsa. Theoretically the layman should enter a monastery and abstain from all food on each full-moon and new-moon day. While few now observe the full rite, it is still customary in our time for the layman to fast as a monk at least once a year, and many Jains of all sects undertake ten to twelve days of fasting in their homes every month. The most auspicious dates for fasting differ between sects, being determined by the priests in their role as astrologers.

The Jain New Year, falling in late July or August, is the occasion for a widely observed fast of monks and laity together, lasting eight days for Shvetambaras and fifteen for Digambaras. It is preeminently a time for penance, confession and renewal, and in that sense resembles the ten-day period in Judaism leading from the Jewish New Year’s Day to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Among Jains, the New Year fast is marked by repaying debts and asking forgiveness of others – Jains, non-Jains and even animals – for shortcomings during the preceding year.

A recent sociological survey of the Jain community suggests that the practice of fasting may be decreasing among the laity, although the limited sample used in the study does not justify a firm conclusion.3 It still remains true that the feasting and revelry associated with holy days in other religions are conspicuously absent from Jainism.

Conclusion

Like Buddhism, Jainism is a religion of purely human origin. Its teachings revolve around a fundamental injunction to avoid harm to all living things, traced strangely enough to a group of founders all of whom came from the warrior caste. Throughout its long history Jainism has shown itself capable of adaptation when absolutely essential, but has tenaciously held to its core doctrines. In fact its very refusal to change or compromise has in no small way contributed to its survival in a land where the waxing and waning of religious movements has been a recurrent phenomenon. Jain contributions to India religiously, commercially, and in a large secular literature of poems, dramas, fiction, science, and especially logic, are far out of proportion to their small and still diminishing numbers.

If one main purpose of religion is to keep the "is" and the "ought to be" in a tight tension, Jainism has been very successful. That tension is basically the responsibility of each individual Jain, but neither monk nor layperson has been afforded any comfort by the religion if the balance is tipped too far from the ideal toward the practical. Perfection for the Jain is not an abstract concept, but a state of being toward which every moment of every life should be a single step.

 


1. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1924), p. 513.

2. Jamanderlal Jaini, Outlines of Jainism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1916).

3.Vilas Adinath Sangave, Jaina Community (Bombay: Popular Book Depot, 1959), pp. 303-304 et passim.

Mahatma Gandhi was born in a part of India where Jainism is widespread and admitted that he was strongly influenced by its followers.
Jains regard their religion, like the universe, as having existed eternally…
In our particular cycle the last of the twenty-four tirthankaras was Mahavira, an elder contemporary of the Buddha.
The primary point remains, an affirmation of the greatness of past saints.
the single important thing about the tirthankaras is their victory, which transcends all accidents of time and place.
Kaivalya is literally solitude, isolation, the state of not being connected with anything else.
Jainism resembles Sankhya and Yoga among the orthodox Hindu philosophies in dividing the universe into two basic types of substances…
Jivas are classified according to the number of sense-organs they possess.
karma is the law of cause and effect applied to the moral realm.
…kaivalya is not the product of good deeds, thoughts or intentions, but results from the absence of all karma, good or bad.
…the Jain is fully aware that the process of achieving kaivalya is a difficult one.
The ultimate ethic of Jainism, as we have seen, is abstention from all activity…
Much of the territory covered by Jain ethics is familiar, whether from the Bhagavad Gita, the Ten Commandments, or the Analects of Confucius.
"Life is the life of life."
All life is sacred to the Jain, and intentional or unintentional harm done to any living thing produces bad karma.
It would be entirely wrong, however, to see ahimsa in any sentimental light. The Jain doctrine of non-injury is based on rational consciousness, not emotional compassion...  
Moderation is the keynote for householders, and severity for ascetics.
Vegetarianism is universal in the Jain community…
The preoccupation with ahimsa is further exemplified by a Jain hospital for stray or disabled birds in Delhi and a rest house for old or diseased animals in Bombay.
Do your duty, and do it as humanely as you can…
…one aspect of Jain logic requires our attention as students of religion. That is the concept of multiple viewpoints, an idea surprisingly anticipatory of modern theories of relativity.
The Jain doctrine of syadvada is non-absolutist and stands firmly against all dogmatisms, even including any assertion that Jainism is the right religious path.    
The names of the sects capture their primary difference – the Digambara or "sky-clad," and the Shvetambara or "white-clothed."
Parshva and Mahavira did not advocate a doctrine of caste, but they appear to have recognized four classes of people, basing the division on activities rather than birth.
The Current Scene
…the number of Jains continues to dwindle slowly to the present day.
Worship Without Divinity
The concept of a god or gods above this process is wholly superfluous to the Jain world, and there is strictly speaking no room for devotional practices…
In contrast to Hinduism, it may be seen that the priest has no necessary role in Jain temple worship.
Insofar as Jainism differs today from Hinduism in its periodic observances, these distinctions center around voluntary fasting, the practice of total ahimsa.
If one main purpose of religion is to keep the "is" and the "ought to be" in a tight tension, Jainism has been very successful.