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Volume 2, Number 4

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Ahimsa parmo dharma
- A look at Jainism

By Sucheta Shetty
 

Jainism is a religion that flourished in ancient India during a time when there was a lot of discontent with the ritualistic sacrifices and the caste system of the Vedic religion known today as Hinduism. There was a time when Jainism and Buddhism together threatened the very existence of the Vedic religion as it was practiced then. And though Hinduism did manage to survive and gain back the widespread acceptance it once enjoyed, Jainism still retains some strongholds in parts of Northwestern and Southern India. The Jain population worldwide is estimated to be around 4 million.

The essence of Jainism is captured in the phrase “Ahimsa parmo dharma,” which means “Non-violence is the supreme religion.” At the foundation of Jain philosophy is a respect and love for all of life in its myriad shapes and forms. It considers all creatures equal and respects their right to exist. It aims at working towards the welfare of all and urges its followers to rise above ignorance and inaction to reach complete knowledge and bliss - called Moksha, or freedom from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Basic Beliefs

Jains believe their religion has always existed, just like the Universe, which they believe has no beginning and no end. As such, they do not have the concept of a Creator God. They believe each individual can attain perfect knowledge and reach a stage wherein all personally accumulated karma has been worked off. In achieving this, one attains Godliness. Such souls are called Siddhas and are revered as role models by the Jains. Jains believe that even the lowliest being can become a Siddha and that Moksha is not restricted to any particular class of people. Each soul has immense potential for infinite knowledge, infinite cognizance and infinite power, waiting to be released. The only thing holding back the realization of this potential is the karma accumulated by the individual.

In Jainism, the Universe is seen as self-regulated according to eternal cosmic law. It consists of six Dravyas - substances or universal entities - that can be broadly classified into living and non-living beings. Five of the Dravyas are non-living beings: Pudgal, which is matter; Akaash, which is space; Dharmastikaaya, the medium of motion; Adharmastikaaya, the medium of rest; and Kaal or Samaya, meaning time.

A detailed explanation about the non-living Dravyas can be found at here.

Living beings, called Jiva, make up the sixth Dravya. Living beings are further classified on the basis of the number of senses they possess. Creatures that possess only the sense of touch are categorized by their medium of existence. Prithvikaaya is the category of souls that exist in the form of earth, Apakaaya is a soul that exists in the form of water, Agnikaaya is a soul that exists in the form of fire, Vayukaaya is a soul that exists in the form of air, and Vanaspatikaaya is a soul that exists in the form of vegetation.

Then there are the creatures that possess more than one sense. Creatures such as worms and leeches possess two senses: touch and taste. Creatures that perceive the three senses of touch, taste and smell are another grouping and include ants and lice. Beyond that, there are creatures like bees and flies that possess not only touch, taste and smell, but also sight. Finally, there are those creatures that possess all five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing - creatures like human beings, animals and birds, as well as heavenly and hellish beings.

Each of these realities is said to have an existence known as Sat. Each entity or reality undergoes continuous changes, like creation and destruction. This is called its Paryaya. In the midst of these changes its basic qualities remain unchanged. These attributes are called its Gunas. Thus, each Dravya has three aspects: Utpada (origin), Vyaya (destruction) and Dhrauvya (permanence).

This can be illustrated with the example of gold. A gold bangle can be melted (destruction) and used to make a pair of earrings (origin). However, whatever form it exists in, the qualities of gold remain the same (permanence). A similar process takes place in living beings with the various stages of life: birth, childhood, youth, old age, death, rebirth. Yet, through it all, the basic qualities of the soul remain the same.

Jain philosophy also enumerates nine fundamental truths, or Tatvas:

1. Jiva (soul)
2. Ajiva (non-living matter)
3. Punya (results of good deeds)
4. Paap (results of bad deeds)
5. Asrava (influx of karmas)
6. Samvar (stoppage of karmas)
7. Bandh (bondage of karmas)
8. Nirjara (eradication of karmas)
9. Moksha (liberation)

A very good illustration and explanation of these Tatvas is available here.

There is also the philosophy of Syadvada (relativity). Syadvada is also known as Anekantvada, or the Doctrine of Manifold Aspects. It describes the world as manifold; an ever-changing reality, an infinity of viewpoints depending on the time, place, nature and state of the viewer and that which is viewed. What is true from one point of view is open to question from another. Absolute truth cannot be grasped from any particular viewpoint alone. Absolute truth is the sum total of all the different viewpoints.

The philosophy of Syadvad is the art of picking the right angle to view something at the right time and the right place. At the same time, other viewpoints are also to be taken into consideration in their due importance. Relativity is considered a form of mental non-violence.

The Five Maha-vratas: The Five Great Vows

Right Knowledge, Right Faith and Right Conduct are considered the three-fold path to liberation. In order to achieve Right Conduct, the five Maha-vratas are to be followed:

1. Ahimsa (Non-Violence): This is considered the highest principle in Jainism. Jainism strictly prohibits causing any kind of harm to any other creature, whether it is by deeds, words or even thoughts. It encourages harmonious and peaceful co-existence with other living creatures. It believes that if one feels compassion and love for other creatures, one cannot remain indifferent to their suffering. Jains are strictly vegetarian. In addition, they avoid foods whose consumption could lead to harming other creatures. For example, tubers and roots, like carrots, potatoes and garlic, grow under the ground and might have minute organisms living on them. The same goes for curds that have live bacteria. The Jain monks and nuns even go to the extent of pulling out their hair with bare hands instead of shaving with a razor to cause minimum damage to the organisms living in the hair. They are also advised to walk and move carefully so as to avoid killing tiny creatures like ants. A minimum of movement is recommended. They usually cover their noses and mouths with a piece of cloth to avoid breathing in organisms in the air. It is practically impossible to avoid harming all creatures in the course of daily activities, hence the rules are a little more lax for laypeople. However, intentional killing or injury is still prohibited. Harsh and hurtful words are to be avoided and thinking evil of another is also considered a form of violence.
2. Satya (Truth): Jains are advised to speak the truth at all times. The idea is to overcome greed, fear, anger, jealousy, ego, frivolity, etc., which are considered breeding grounds of falsehood. Only a person who has controlled these emotions and desires has the moral strength to speak the truth at all times. However, in keeping with the principle of non-violence in speech, if a truth is likely to cause pain, sadness, anger or the death of any living creature, then a Jain is advised to remain silent.
3. Achaurya or Asteya (Refraining from Theft): A Jain must not take anything that does not belong to him without the prior permission of its owner. This includes any unclaimed articles he may find lying on the street or even a blade of grass from another’s garden. Jain monks and nuns who survive by begging for food from laypersons are advised not to acquire more than a few mouthfuls of food per family.
4. Brahmacharya (Celibacy/Chastity): Jain monks and nuns are required to take a vow of celibacy. Adultery among laypeople is prohibited and they are required to be chaste in their deeds and thoughts. This is because sensual pleasure is considered an infatuating force that sets aside all virtues and reason at the time of indulgence.
5. Aparigraha (Non-possession/Non-attachment): This is based on the belief that desire for material wealth can lead a person to commit sin by giving rise to negative emotions like greed, anger and jealousy. Desires are ever-growing and they form a never-ending cycle. A person who wishes to achieve liberation from the cycle of life and death must acquire control over his senses and avoid attachment to material things, places or persons. Monks and nuns are required to give up attachment to material things (wealth, property, grains, house, books, clothes, etc.), relationships (father, mother, spouse, children, friends, enemies, other monks, disciples, etc.) and feelings (pleasure and painful feelings towards touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing).

Jains are required to refrain from committing the acts forbidden by these vows. This means that they should neither commit such acts themselves, nor have them done by someone else, nor encourage such acts.

The Tirthankaras

The Tirthankaras are individuals who acquired enlightenment through penance, meditation and following the Maha-vratas. These individuals then went on to preach the knowledge they acquired to the laypeople. They organized their followers into four categories: Sadhus (monks), Sadhvis (nuns), Shravaks (laymen) and Shravikas (laywomen). Mahavir (599-527 B.C.), the 24th and last Tirthankara, was responsible for popularizing Jainism during the period when Jainism was gaining favour with people throughout ancient India.

Twenty-four identical statues representing the Tirthankaras can be found in Derasars (Jain temples). The statues are identical because they represent the qualities and virtues of the spiritual leaders rather than their physical bodies. The only way to differentiate between these statues is a unique symbol at the bottom of each statue representing each of the 24 Tirthankaras. These statues are not meant for idol-worship but to serve as role models for Jains visiting the Derasar to pray and ask forgiveness for their sins. Jains do not ask for favours when they pray, nor do they pray to any specific Tirthankara or God or monk or nun. Penance is a very important part of Jain philosophy, and holy fasts form a major part of the Jain religious and social calendar. In addition to these, monks, nuns and sometimes even laypeople undertake their own individual patterns of fasting.

Jainism is a unique philosophy not only because of its insistence on non-violence and harmony and open-minded viewing of various aspects of truth, but also because it believes that each person is the master of his or her own fate. Liberation is the responsibility of each individual, and Jains are urged to take the necessary actions to achieve this lofty goal.