The Unity of Indic Religions (II) – Jainism: Apart From and Yet Part of Sanatana Dharma

The Unity of Indic Religions (II) – Jainism: Apart From and Yet Part of Sanatana Dharma

(The previous part of this series of articles can be found here.)

Jains have always prided themselves as the best representatives of Indian civilization. Dr. S Radhakrishnan characterizes Jain philosophy as pluralistic realism. The realism, however, is permeated with a strong sense of ethical quest.  Jains are followers of Jina, the Victor, an epithet commonly applied to Vardhamana, the last Tirthankara (lit. ford-maker, spiritual teacher who has attained perfection) of Jainism. But it is applicable to all those men and women who have conquered their lower nature and realized the highest truth. Every Jiva is a potential Jina. The term Jainism, therefore, underlines the strong ethical character of the system.

Jainism has a lot in common with Buddhism and Hinduism, while possessing some original ideas and ideals. Like Buddhism, it denies the existence of an intelligent first cause (creator) of the universe, adores deified souls who have attained perfection, possesses clergy practicing celibacy, and regards it sinful to take life of any living creature for any cause. Like Buddhism, it is indifferent, if not opposed, to the authority of the Vedas.

Like Hindus, the Jains believe that their system has been proclaimed by a succession of great teachers of timeless antiquity. Vardhamana, better known as Mahavira (great hero), called himself no more than an expounder of tenets of a long line of twenty-three tirthankaras (path founders) most of whom were legendary. He was not so much the founder of a new faith as reformer of a previously existing creed of Parsvanatha, who is said to have died in 776 BCE. Shrimad Bhagavata Purana narrates the life of Rishabha, the first of the tirthankaras. Three tirthankaras — Rishabha, Arishtanemi, and Ajitanatha — are mentioned in the Yajurveda.

Since Jainism does not accept the authority of Vedas, it cannot claim validity of its system as a mere revelation by the Jina. Its claim to acceptance is based on its accordance with reality: Jain system is valid because its scheme of universe is based on logic and experience.

Before discussing Jain metaphysics and ethics, it would be instructive to have a look at its theory of knowledge, especially Syadvada.

Jainism admits five kinds of knowledge: (1) Mati or knowledge obtained through sense perception and aided by remembrance, recognition, induction based on observation and deductive reasoning; (2) Shruti or knowledge derived from signs, symbols and words; (3) Avadhi or direct knowledge of things even at a distance of time and place, clairvoyance; (4) Manahparyaya or direct (telepathic) knowledge of thoughts of others; and (5) Kevala or perfect knowledge encompassing all substances and their modifications uninhibited by time and space. Of the five, the first three types of knowledge are liable to error, while the other two cannot be wrong.

Chaitanya or consciousness is the essence of Jiva, and the two manifestations of Chaitanya are perception (darshana) and knowledge (jnana). The supreme objective of life is to cleanse oneself of impurities and attain Kevala jnana or absolute knowledge which is free from doubt (sanshaya), perversity (vimoha), and indefiniteness (vibhrama).

Anekantavada or pluralism has been an essential feature of Indian thought. To Jainism goes the credit of developing this liberality of spirit and tolerance of different viewpoints into an elaborate theory of syadvada (lit. maybe-ism) or saptabhangi naya (sevenfold relationship).

Jains are fond of quoting the old story of six blind men who each laid his hands on different parts of the animal’s body and tried to describe it. One who caught its ears thought that the creature resembled a winnowing fan, one who held its legs thought it was like a pillar, and so on. Only someone who saw the whole animal knew all these views were true but only partially. Almost all philosophical disputes arise because of a confusion of standpoints. Perfect knowledge is hard to come across in real life.

Syadvada holds that all knowledge is only probable. We cannot affirm or deny anything absolutely about any object. Every proposition is true, but only under certain conditions. Syadvada holds that there are seven different ways (saptabhangi) of speaking about a thing or its attributes depending on a point of view.

There is a point of view from which a substance or attribute (1) is (syad asti); (2) is not (syad nasti); (3) is and is not (syad asti nasti); (4) is indescribable/unpredictable (syad avaktavya); (5) is and is not  indescribable/unpredictable (syad asti avaktavya); (6) is not and is indescribable/unpredictable  (syad nasti avaktavya); and (7) is, is not, and is indescribable/unpredictable (syad asti nasti avaktavya).

Shankara and Ramanuja criticized the saptabhangi saying that contradictory attributes cannot co-exist in the same thing at the same time, any more than light and darkness. The Jains admit that a thing cannot have contradictory attributes at the same time and in the same sense. All they urge is that everything is of a complex nature, and it is necessary for us to know a thing clearly and fully. Attributes which are contradictory in theory can co-exist in life and experience. A tree is moving in the sense that its branches can move, but it is not moving in the sense that it is fixed at its place on the ground.

Jainism opposes all theories that do not emphasize ethical responsibility. It rejects the theory of creation of the world by God or its development out of Prakriti or its unreality on the ground that they cannot account either for the origin or for the end of suffering. Intelligent subjects cannot be a product of lifeless elements. To say that the soul remains majestically aloof from all that happens around it through mechanical combination and separation of elements divests it of all moral responsibility. The fatalistic view that all things are fixed by nature in advance leaves no room for individual effort. Jainism insists that the individual can make or unmake himself in the world and the soul has a self-identity which it preserves even in the ultimate condition.

The whole universe consists of two everlasting, uncreated, and co-existing but independent entities of jiva and ajiva. Jiva has consciousness and is the enjoyer. “What knows and perceives the various objects, desires pleasure or dreads pain, acts beneficially or harmfully and experiences the fruits thereof is jiva.

Ajiva or jada, which is enjoyed, has no consciousness. Whatever can be touched, tasted, seen, smelt is ajiva. It is the object. The cosmic process is explained in terms of substance (dravya) and its modifications into different forms or paryaya. Substance is that which always exists, and which has no beginning or end. It has inherent qualities (i.e., materiality in atom), undergoes modifications, and performs some functions. Substance with its qualities must exist in some form or state. This mode of existence is paryaya. Gold as a malleable and ductile metal is dravya; ornaments are its paryaya.

Animate beings are composed of soul and body. Their souls are distinct from matter and are eternal. Ajiva is divided into two main categories: those without form (arupa) such as dharma, adharma, space (akasha), time (kala), and those with form (rupa) as pudgala or matter. Pudgala is the physical basis of the world. Everything in the world except soul and space is produced from matter.

The link between jiva and ajiva is karma or action. We are what we are because of our past karma. Interestingly, Jainism holds that karma is material (paudgalika) in nature, a substantive force, matter in a subtle form. Karma entails the effects of merits and demerits. Subtle matter ready to be transformed into karma pours into the soul. Wrong belief (mithyadarshana), non-renunciation (avirati), carelessness (pramada), and passions (kashaya) goad the soul into performing action, building karma.

Each act, good, bad, or indifferent, produces certain pleasant or painful consequences. Having produced its effect, the karma vanishes from the soul. If this process of discharge continues uninterruptedly, all taint of matter will be abolished. Unfortunately, as it happens, the purging and building up of karma go together, sending the soul into an endless cycle of samsara. Tainted and weighted down by karma, the soul loses its purity and forgets its real nature.

Nirvana lies latent in self, and only needs removal of causes which prevent manifestation of knowledge. Absolute separation of jiva from ajiva is moksha. It is the goal of all endeavors. It is possible through samvara, by which we can block the channels through which karma finds entrance into the soul, and nirjara which utterly and entirely washes away the karmas committed previously. When all impediments are removed the soul becomes all-encompassing knowledge unlimited by time and space.

Nirvana is not annihilation of soul, but its entry into unending bliss. It is an escape from the fetters of body, though not from existence. The liberated soul has infinite consciousness, pure and comprehensive knowledge and understanding, absolute freedom, and eternal bliss. Even in perfection, the soul retains its individuality. Jainism believes in plurality of liberated souls.

For nirvana or kevala jnana, lower nature must be subdued with high spirit. Wrong karma leads to inflow of subtle matter and bondage; right conduct leads to stopping and shedding of karma. The road to restoration to the soul of its innate radiance of knowledge passes through three jewels (triratna): faith in Jina, knowledge of his doctrine, and perfect conduct. “Belief in real existence or tattvas is the right faith, knowledge of real nature without doubt or error is real knowledge and an attitude of neutrality without desire or aversion to qualities of external objects is right conduct”. These three form a single path and are to be pursued simultaneously.

Jainism extols five main virtues: ahimsa which is not mere abstention from violence but positive kindness towards all creatures; Satya or truthfulness; asteya or non-stealing, i.e., honorable conduct; brahmacharya or chastity in thought, word, and action; aparigraha or renunciation of all worldly possessions and interests. The last ideal is sometimes interpreted to mean that good men should go naked. It only means that so long as we are conscious of sexual distinction and open to a sense of shame, salvation is distant from us.

Jainism enjoins us to be indifferent to pleasure and pain. It regards patience as the highest good and pleasure as a source of sin. Extreme self-mortification through rituals and fasting are often observed even by members of the laity. Diksha (renunciation) of people in the prime of youth is allowed. Shedding one’s body by giving up food when one is incapable of observing rules of conduct is part of the Jain tradition.

Since Jainism attributes souls not only to all living creatures but also to plants, natural elements, and inanimate substances, it has developed the theory of non-violence in great detail and emphasizes its practice with utmost diligence.

The Jain theory of Karma and denial of God has been challenged by Vedanta and Buddhism. Shankara, in his commentary on the Brahmasutras (III, 2, 38 and 41), argued that actions by themselves cannot produce their fruits at a future date; the fruits must be administered by a conscious agent, i.e., Ishvara. Buddha, in Majjhim Niakya, criticizes the Jain emphasis on destruction of unobservable and unverifiable karma so as to end suffering, rather than eliminating greed, hatred, and delusion which are observable and verifiable.

In more recent times, Dr Radhakrishnan has said that Jain logic can only make sense against the background of Upanishadic monism. All change presupposes a constant, he points out. He also doubts the validity of the Jain belief in plurality of liberated souls.

It is easy to understand why Jainism survived in India, while Buddhism did not; and why its growth remains limited.

Despite some important differences, Jainism shares with Hinduism the four basic pillars of Indian philosophy: jiva or soul distinct from body, law of karma, punarjanma or rebirth, and moksha or emancipation. Ethical values of non-violence, non-stealing, tolerance, charity, and compassion make Jains welcome neighbors.

Though small in number Jains are a highly organized community. There is a close interaction between the sharavakas (laity) and the sadhus (monks). The monk order is highly systematized. It is possible to trace antecedents and the career of every monk in all important detail. The Jain community is closely interlinked with the larger Hindu society at the social level.

Jainism has no missionary zeal. Like other systems of Indian thought and belief, Jainism believes in the possibility of non-Jains attaining nirvana if only they followed the ethical rules laid down. Ratnashekhara says at the beginning of his Sambodhasattari that “no matter whether he is a Shvetambara or a Digambara, a Buddhist or a follower of any other creed, one who has realized the selfsameness of the soul, i.e., looks upon all creatures as his own self (cf. Atmavat sarvabhooteshu in the Bhagavad Gita), attains salvation”.

As Mrs. Stevenson explains in her Heart of Jainism (p. 18-19), the character of Jainism enabled it to throw out tentacles in its hour of need. Unlike Buddhism, it has never cut itself off from the faith that surrounded it. It had always employed Brahmins as its domestic chaplains to preside over the ceremonies of birth, marriage, and death as also temple worship. Then again, among its heroes it found a place for some of the favorites from Hindu pantheon such as Rama, Krishna, and the like. Many Jains worship Ganesha, Hanuman, and Goddess Amba.

Unlike Buddhists, the Jain laity was an integral part of the system. So, when Muslim invaders swept over the land, Jainism simply took refuge in Hinduism which opened its capacious bosom to receive it. To the invaders they seemed an indistinguishable part of the larger Hindu society.

Attempts are made sometimes to present Jainism as a revolt of the fair-minded Kshatriya against the clever, unscrupulous Brahmin. However, if at all there was to be a revolt against the privileged classes, it would be led by other classes and not Kshatriyas who were as much a part of the privileged classes as Brahmins. The Jains are not opposed to the caste system but relate it to conduct and character instead of birth. At the same time, they condemn exclusiveness and pride born of caste. The Sutrakrutanga denounces the pride of birth as one of the eight kinds of pride by which man commits sin.

However, as Dr Radhakrishnan points out, Jainism shares with Buddhism a pessimistic view of life in this world as a calamity to be avoided at all costs. Both admit the ideal of negation of life and personality. Both believe that life is too short and too precious to be wasted on worldly pursuits. They glorify poverty and purity, peace, and patient suffering. The materialistic view of karma leads Jainism to place more emphasis on outer acts than on inner motives, in comparison with Buddhism.

Jainism does not believe in a supreme being distinct from the world called God. It reveres arhats or the omniscient souls, who have overcome all faults. Strictly speaking there is no room for bhakti in Jain system. When prayers are addressed to arhats, they cannot and do not return answers to the prayers because they are utterly indifferent to what happens in the world and are free from all emotions. Following the teachings of tirthankaras and not devotion to them is the way of nirvana, although meditation or adoration of Jina sanctifies the soul. Such a strict system could not appeal to the masses, in spite of halting compromises made from time to time.

The last few decades have seen a tendency among Jains to assert their separate identity. It is spurred not so much by abstruse philosophical theories as by more mundane social and political considerations. Jain leaders have rightly noticed that India’s post-independence polity places a premium on being non-Hindu. In January 2014, the Indian Central Government awarded minority status to the Jain community, bringing them on par with Muslims, Christians, Parsees, Sikhs, and Jews. The move was welcomed by a section of the community for the very practical reason that now Jain temples and trusts, which have enormous wealth in terms of cash and properties, will be spared interference from the government. Also, the Archeological Survey of India would not be able to tamper with their temples or other holy sites. It is a sad commentary on the mindset, not of the Jain community leaders, but of the politicians on prowl for vote banks.

Editor’s note: This is the second in the three-part series of articles on the unity of Indian religions. We include this series in India Facts as a counter to the Hinduphobia prevalent among sections of the Indian public and non-Indian provocateurs.

Virendra Parekh

Virendra Parekh is a senior journalist of 45 years’ standing. He writes in English and Gujarati on economics and politics as also on issues related to Indian civilization, history and cultural nationalism. Currently, he is Executive Editor of Vyapar, a 72-year-old Mumbai-based Gujarati bi-weekly economy, business and investment.