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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part One
Oriental Religions

Chapter 5

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University


Jainism is a sectarian offshoot of Hinduism, whose origins are traditionally dated with the lifetime of Vardhamana Mahavira (599-527 B.C.), a contemporary of Buddha. The name itself is derived Jina (conqueror), which his followers applied to Mahavira in much the same sense that Gautama’s disciples called him the Buddha or “enlightened one.”

Mahavira is often mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures as “the naked ascetic,” and, according to his own account, he was the twenty-fourth and last of a series of prophets who expounded the true meaning of Jainism, in opposition to the Hindu Vedas and on the sole basis of logic and experience. Although confined to India, Jainism has played a major role in shaping the religious culture of the Orient, quite out of proportion to its relatively small number (a few million) adherents.

Origins and Development

Like the founder of Buddhism, Mahavira was the son of a leader of one of the wealthy tribes living in the region north of the Ganges. Also like Buddha, he is supposed to have left home in the late twenties to become an ascetic, searching for a means of deliverance from the endless cycle of deaths and rebirths that has repelled Hindu malcontents at every period of Indian history.

The guiding inspiration of Mahavira’s teaching was the example of his parents. His father had belonged to a religious sect strongly opposed to the idea of Vedic revelation. Sharing the common Hindu fear of rebirth, they enjoined a peculiar method of avoiding it, by committing suicide. Their purpose was not to induce violent death, but slowly to drain away vital energy by deprivation of food. In this way the life-force was reduced to a degree of extinction which made it incapable of further transmigration. Mahavira’s father converted his wife to the same faith, and in due time both underwent the form of “martyrdom” to which they were committed.

At first Mahavira was dejected by his parents’ death, and for a time reacted against the ideals they taught him. Gradually he became reconciled to the underlying theory that liberation is not possible except through self-renunciation, and embarked on his quest of wisdom. He wanted none of the existing religious systems, whether Hindu or heretical, and to show his complete withdrawal from civilized life he dispensed with every convenience and worldly possession, including all clothing.

After some twelve years of meditation and mortification, Mahavira discovered full enlightenment and became a “perfected soul” (kevalin) or “conqueror” (jina). Immediately he sought to find recruits, and was remarkably successful among the mercantile classes. Thirty more years of preaching and direction were finally terminated at the age of seventy-two, by the rite of voluntary self-starvation (sellekhana), which is still practiced by his more devoted followers. The place of his death is localized at Pava, a village not far from modern Patna, and to this day a great center of pilgrimage for Jain devotees. Most modern scholars believe he died in 468 B.C., or sixty years later than the traditional date.

By the time of his death there were about ten thousand Jains, some of whom formed themselves into monastic communities of men and women. Surprisingly, the harsh practices required by believers seemed to attract some people, and the standing wonder is that the group has remained substantially intact for over twenty centuries.

Occasionally Jain monks have tried to spread their doctrine outside of India, but there were few converts. Like Buddhism, the Jainists have suffered a great schism. Mahavira organized an order of monks of various superiors. About 300 B.C. the superiors were reduced to two, who jointly ruled the whole community. Then came a famine in Northern India, and one head (Bhadra-bahu) migrated to the South with many monks and lay members of the order. Years later a remnant returned north, but in the meantime a cleavage had set in.

By the first century of our era, there were two chief branches of Jains: the “white-clad” Shvetambaras and the “sky-clad” Digambaras. The difference between them are not philosophical but natural, and to a certain extent theological. Where the “white-clad” allow their members to own property and permit clothing, the “sky-clad” insist that a true Jain should own nothing, not even clothes, and therefore encourage the practice of going naked. The “sky-clad” hold that a perfect saint goes without food, at least in anticipation of his final deliverance. They deny that salvation is possible for women, whom they call “the greatest temptation in the world” and “the cause of all sinful acts.” Women are never admitted to the ranks of arhats (saints) and may never become nuns. Mahavira, they claim, never married and they encourage leaving one’s parents regardless of their need. The Digambaras are localized mainly in South India.

The most numerous ‘white-clad’ Jains admit women to full membership in the monastic order, as candidates for Nirvana. Normally monks and nuns are accepted only after their parents’ death or evident independence of their children. They use images in private and public worship, and clothe them, and have often remonstrated with the southern segment for their idolatry in deifying Mahavira and other famous jinas.

Although Jains as a rule have little use for scripture and are, in fact, called Nirgranthas-- people having no books---‘white-clad’ adhere to a biblical canon which they say was systematized by the Council of Patali-Putra (Patna) about the end of the fourth century B.C. But even they admit that it has a traceable history and was given final shape only in the fifth century after Christ.

This canon consists of the reputed teaching of Mahavira, organized in three divisions and much of it now available in English. But the ‘sky-clad’ repudiate the canon, claiming the main body of Jain literature was destroyed about 789 A.D. by order of the Hindu protagonist of Vedanta philosophy, Sankara, for which the northern Jains say ‘no evidence exists.’ Southern Jains admit that some books were saved in Nepal and in Mysore, the headquarters of South India, where a colossal statue of Gomtesvara, a favorite deity, is the focus of a popular pilgrimage.

Theory and Significance

According to Jainist metaphysics, there are in the world only eternal souls (jivas) and eternal non-living material elements (a-jivas). These exist in contact, yet in such a way that man’s jiva is fettered by what its own activity has gathered about it. A web of false knowledge and evil deeds has been spun into everyone’s life, from which he must extricate himself by gradual freedom from gross matter, from dependence on sense perception and by breaking ultimately from all contact with the lifeless a-jivas.

Souls still struggling from release are said to be in bondage. Once they attain deliverance (mukta) they reach certain degrees of perfection determined by previous merit. Five classes of salvation are distinguished, ranging from the lowest siddha to that of the highest Lord of Jainism, exemplified by Mahavira himself.

Descriptive of the state enjoyed by the ‘perfect souls’ to which every devout Jainist aspires are the rare qualities they possess. They can avert famine in a broad area, about eight miles radius, by a simple act of the will; they remain raised above ground whether walking, standing or sitting; they are able to face everyone simultaneously in all four directions; they can destroy all destructive impulses in persons around them; they are completely immune from all possibility of pain and disturbance; they live without food, possess mastery of all sciences and arts, and their bodies do not cast a shadow.

In addition to these, the souls in perfection acquire the attributes of perfect knowledge, power, perception and happiness; yet not all are alike, even to the extent that some retain their bodies and others do not.

There is no place for God in Jainism, which has constructed a complicated theory of Karma and Karmic matter. Karma is that general energy of the soul which causes its attachment to matter and its subsequent defilement, a kind of link between matter and spirit. All the effort at liberation, therefore, must be directed to controlling Karma, and all by autonomous activity. Any mediation of divine grace or forgiveness is rejected as evading the problem of sin, suffering and redemption. Each person must work out his own deliverance.

Jainist commentators speak of eight kinds of Karma, and as many as one hundred forty-eight subdivisions. Knowledge of these categories is a great help to knowing what stage in the process of deliverance has been reached, and what means have yet to be used to complete the purification.

Closely tied in with this primary duty of ‘evolving and perfecting’ the soul, one’s own and that of others, is the idea of ‘non-hurting’ of life (Ahimsa) irrespective of its distinction into higher and lower. It is sometimes called the main ethical principal of Jainism, to which even the principle of truth may be sacrificed. “Hurt no one” is a sacred mandate which enjoins love and compassion for all living beings. Jainists build asylums and rest homes for aged and diseased animals, where they are kept and fed until they die a natural death.

If a man desires salvation under these conditions, he subjects himself to innumerable hardships to be rid of the Karma already had and avoid new Karma not yet acquired. He may not kill anything, even unintentionally, and the involuntary stepping on an ant may have serious consequences for the soul. Injury with deliberation is more grave than harm caused without reflection, but both are inexorably punished by the accumulation of Karmic matter with dire consequences for the indefinite future.

Not only living things, but everything in nature must be respectfully treated. Water and fire, for example, may not be abused at the risk of increasing one’s possession of Karma.

Jain writers have developed an intricate system of ethics, based on the theory of Karmic matter. One of the most influential was Umasvati Acarya, whose commentary is dated somewhere after the third century A.D., and accepted by all orthodox Jains. In context he is speaking of how to stop the flow of Karmic matter into the soul. “It is produced,” he says, “by preservation, carefulness, observances, meditation, conquest of sufferings, and good conduct.” Each method has its own classifications.

Thus preservation means “proper control over mind, speech and body.” Carefulness requires taking “proper care in walking, speaking, eating, lifting, and lying.” The observances are manifold: “forgiveness, humility, straightforwardness, contentment, truth, restraint, austerities, renunciation, non-attachment, and chastity.” Subjects for meditation should be “ transitoriness, unprotectedness, the cycle of life and death, loneliness,” and such problems as the nature of the universe and the difficulty of attaining the right path in the practice of virtue. Right conduct, which implies all the preceding, consists of “equanimity, absolute non-injury, freedom from subtle passion and passionless conduct.”

Besides these positive precepts, the faithful Jain must practice austerities which demand “fasting, eating less than one’s fill, daily renunciation of delicacies, sleeping in a lonely place, and mortification of the body” -- done externally. Internal austerity includes “expiation, reverence, service, study, giving up attachment to the body, and concentration,” which means, “confine one’s thoughts to one particular object.” This, in turn, demands avoidance of “wicked falsehood, theft,” and “preservation of objects of sense-enjoyment”; and conversely, fixes on the contemplation of “the subject matter of scripture teaching, the knowledge and conduct of people, and the nature and constitution of the universe.” [1]

Not all Jainists are equally obligated. The “three jewels” of right faith, right knowledge and right conduct are not of the same value, since right conduct alone really delivers the soul from the cycle of reincarnations. To insure doing the right things and to persevere in the practice, the faithful take vows or solemn pledges. If they are laymen they take the first set of twelve pledges: never intentionally to take life, i.e., to destroy a jiva, never to lie nor exaggerate, never steal nor take what is not given, never be unchaste by marital infidelity or unclean thoughts, curb desire by giving away all excess at least at the end of one’s life, avoid such occasions of sin as unregulated travel, limit the number of things used, guard against unnecessary evils, keep fixed periods of sinless meditation, observe special times of limitation, spend some days as a monk, and give alms to support the ascetic community.

At the approach of death, the Jain layman is urged to take the vow of “non-attachment,” by which he disposes of all his possessions and refrains from taking food. One evidence of the effectiveness of the ‘twelve’ promises is the very low rate of civil and criminal offenses committed by Jainists in India.

The eleven intermediate pledges may also be taken by the layman as an intensification of his moral life and a prelude to the life of an ascetic. Where the layman is satisfied with observing moderation, the ascetic (arhat) binds himself to the strictest self-denial. His five vows forbid any injury to anyone (or anything) and stealing, which amounts to using or taking nothing (even a trifle) without the owner’s permission; require absolute sincerity in speech, chastity that precludes even thoughts involving sex pleasure, and renunciation of attachment for any person or thing.

Their ethical standards are considered the most glorious part of Jainism, which in one respect are very simple---based on the fundamental duty of ahimsa (non-injury). But in reality they are most demanding, as illustrated by the number of rules covering every phase of conduct. Cruelty alone is analyzed into nine types, each more subtle than the preceding.

Yet if Jainist ethics are specified to an extreme, Jainist philosophy is the opposite. According to Jainism, the Buddhists err in their doctrine of change and nothingness, terminating in the Nirvana; Hindus are also wrong in their theory of absolute identity of the soul with divinity. The proper attitude for the mind with respect to reality is aloofness from categorical affirmation or denial. Anekantavada is the principle of many-sidedness, whereby a person never positively affirms or denies anything. His judgment is always a qualified “maybe” (Syad).

There are seven point of view (Nayas) possible, say the Jainists, each more complex than the other. At the simplest is the judgment that, “Maybe it is” or “Maybe it is not,” and at the most abstruse, “Maybe it is and is not, and is inexpressible.” In other words, no affirmation is ever absolutely true. Everything has an infinite number of qualities, each of which can be expressed in only a limited sense. So that to be “sincere in speech” for the Jainist requires the severest self-control to keep from ever stating anything except provisionally.

Although Jainism has never been a popular religion, its influence on Hindu thought has been out of all proportion to its size. The theory of “many-sidedness” has introduced a form of religious relativism that is not typically Hindu. No doubt the ebb and flow of the cosmic process is from the universal point of view absolutely determined, and Jainism is built on this settled conviction. But from the viewpoint of the individual believer, a man has only approximate certitude. His very freedom of moral choice is only relatively true; and the life-struggle consists precisely in striving after that emancipated condition where the “perfect soul” can survey the whole of space and time and know the fullness of absolute truth. The resulting influence from an educated and highly cultured Jain society has been two-fold: skepticism about the objective superiority of any single religious system, whether Hinduism, Jainism or Christianity; and pragmatism in the moral order, on the assumption that discipline pays and self-control is effective, but neither should be bound to any absolute values, not excluding the existence of an ultimate supra-human deity.

Symbolic of the deep effect of Jainism on modern Hindu thought is the part it played in shaping the career and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Born in Kathiawar, where Jainism is strong, he was much influenced by the ascetic sadhus whom he met in his youth, especially by the famous Jain teacher of the last century, Raichand Bhai, of whom he speaks with great veneration in his autobiography.

Gandhi was always a great absorber, not the least of Jainist principles that claimed to reform a dormant Hinduism in the sixth century B.C. He felt the same kind of reformation was needed today. The Jain monk, Becharhi Swami, helped Gandhi go to England for his studies, after administering an oath to Gandhi, that he would not touch wine, women, or meat. In later life, when passive resistance became the Mahatma’s main instrument for India’s independence, he declared, “Many take me to be a Jain,” since he followed so closely in the footsteps of Mahavira, whom he called “the incarnation of compassion and non-violence.”

Thanks to the wealth and education of the Jains in India, there seems little likelihood of their absorption by the great body of Hinduism. More likely the Hindus will continue to be affected by the disciplinary ideals of a people whose religion forbids injury to any living thing, and encourages persuasion of others to follow the same path of final deliverance.

Chapter 4 - Jainism


[1] Tattvarthadhigama Sutra, IX, 2-36.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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