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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

A religion which can trace its roots to Hinduism, Jainism was founded by Vardhamana Mahavira (599-527 B.C.). Despite its small number of members, about 2 million, it has had a large influence on Indian society.

The symbol of Jainism is a swastika under three dots in a horizontal row. These are below a crescent with a single dot above its center. As traditionally interpreted, the arms of the swastika signify the four types of existence to which a soul can be reborn: the god-world (top), netherworld (bottom), humanity (left), and animal-world (right). The three dots symbolize the “three precious stones,” right knowledge, right faith and right conduct, while the crescent with its dot stands for deliverance.

Vardhamana Mahavira. The founder of Jainism is mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures as “the naked ascetic.” Mahavira was the son of a leader of one of the wealthy tribes living in the region north of the Ganges river. According to his own account, he was the twenty-fourth (the last) prophet who expounded the true meaning of Jainism. He did this in opposition to the sacred writings of the Hindus, the Vedas, and solely on the basis of logic and experience. Like Buddha, he is supposed to have left home in his late twenties to become an ascetic. He searched for a means of deliverance from the endless cycle of deaths and rebirths that has repelled discontented Hindus in every period of Indian history.

After about 12 years of meditation and mortification, Mahavira discovered full enlightenment and became a “perfected soul” (kevalin) or "conqueror" (jina, the word from which Jain is derived). He immediately began to seek recruits and was remarkably successful among the mercantile classes. After 30 years of preaching and guidance he ended his life at the age of seventy-two by the rite of voluntary self-starvation (sellekhanna). This ritual is still practiced by his more zealous followers. He died in Pava, which has remained to this day a center of pilgrimage for Jain devotees.

History. At the time of Mahavira's death there were about 10,000 Jains (conquerors), some of whom formed monastic communities of men and women. Occasionally the monks tried to gain converts outside of India, but they were not successful. Jainism was split by a great schism in about the beginning of the third century before Christ. There were then only two monastic superiors, who jointly ruled the whole community. When a famine occurred in northern India, one superior migrated to the south with many monks and lay followers. Years later a remnant of this group returned north, but by this time a permanent cleavage had set in.

By the first century A.D., there were two main types of Jains, the “white-clad” Shvetambaras and the “sky-clad” Digambaras. Their differences are not philosophical but practical, and to a certain extent theological. While the “white-clad” may own property and wear clothing, the “sky-clad” insist that a true Jain should own nothing not even clothing. They therefore encourage the practice of going naked. In addition, the “sky-clad,” most of whom are to be found in southern India, teach that a perfect saint goes without food, at least in anticipation of his final deliverance from the cycle of reincarnations. They deny that salvation is possible for women, whom they call the greatest temptation in the world, and the cause of all sinful acts.

The Shvetambaras are less strict and admit women to full membership in the monastic order as candidates for final deliverance—nirvana. Normally, persons are accepted as monks and nuns only after their parents' death or after their children have shown themselves to be independent. They use images in private and public worship, wear clothing, and criticize the Digambaras for their idolatry in deifying Mahavira along with other famous jinas.

Religious Canon. Although the Jains are popularly called “people having no books,” the “white-clad” segment adheres to a religious canon. They claim that it was systematized around the end of the fourth century before Christ, although they admit that its history cannot be traced earlier than the fifth century after Christ. This canon consists of the reputed teachings of Mahavira. It is rejected by the “sky-clad” Jains who claim that most of their sacred literature was destroyed in about A.D. 789.

According to Jainist philosophy the world contains only eternal souls ( jivas) and eternal nonliving material elements (a-jivas). The two exist in contact, yet in such a way that man’s jiva is fettered by what its own activity (karma) has gathered about it. A web of false knowledge and evil deeds has been thus spun into everyone s life, from which it is necessary to extricate oneself. This is accomplished by gradually freeing oneself of gross matter and dependence on sense experience, by breaking all connections with the lifeless a-jivas. Souls struggling for release are said to be in bondage. Once they attain deliverance (mukta) they reach certain degrees of perfection determined by previous merit.

Jainism has constructed a complicated theory of karma and karmic matter. This karma, or general energy of the soul, causes the soul’s attachment to matter and its consequent defilement. Karma is thus a kind of link between matter and spirit. All the efforts at liberation, therefore, must be directed to controlling karma entirely by one’s own activity. Any mediation of divine grace or forgiveness is rejected as evading the problems of sin, suffering, and redemption; each person must work out his own deliverance.

Ethical Principles. Closely associated with the primary duty of “evolving and perfecting the soul” is the idea of the “non-hurting” of life (Ahimsa). It is sometimes called the main ethical principle of Jainism; everything else is subordinate to it. “Hurt no one” is a sacred commandment, which enjoins love and compassion on all living beings. Jains build asylums for old and sick animals where they are well cared for until they die.

If a person desires salvation under these conditions, he subjects himself to innumerable hardships to be rid of the karma already had and to avoid new karma not yet acquired. He may not kill anything even unintentionally; even stepping on an ant accidentally may have serious consequences for the soul. Not only living things, but also inanimate nature may not be maltreated. Water and fire, for example, should be respectfully used at the risk of increasing one’s possession of karma.

Influence. Because of its extreme demands Jainism has never been a popular religion. Its effect on Hindu thought, however, has been enormous. Its theory of “many-sidedness” which teaches that the mind can never really be certain about anything, has introduced a form of relativism that is not typical of Hindu thought.

Most Jains belong to the upper classes. The result of this influence from an educated and highly cultured society has been a questioning of the superiority of any single religion, whether Hinduism, Jainism, or Christianity. It has also brought about a theory of practical ethics that does not arise from obedience to a Supreme Being, but depends on the natural value of discipline and the benefits derived from self-control.

In view of their wealth and education, it does not seem likely that the Jains will be merged with the Hindus. It is more likely that the Hindus will continue to be affected by the disciplinary ideals of a people whose religion encourages them to persuade others to follow in their footsteps.

For further information read BUDDHA; HINDUISM; NIRVANA.

Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. 5, pp. 614-615

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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