Traditional display for Diwali, 'the festival of light' celebrated in all Indic religions.

Traditional display for Diwali, ‘the festival of light’ celebrated in all Indic religions.

Jainism and Sikhism are two smaller but significant Indic religions, which like Buddhism split off from Hinduism. In addition to their shared cultural origins (including belief in the Karma, Rebirth, and Liberation of the soul) they also both put a particularly strong emphasis on universal love. In this post I have a look at Jainism.[1]

In a close parallel to Buddhism Jainism began with a heterodox Hindu ascetic teacher, Vardhamana Mahavira, who was a elder contemporary of Buddha (there is no record of them ever meeting though there are references to Mahavira in some Buddhist scriptures). Again like Buddhism, Jainism is an atheistic religion. More coincidentally Mahavira like Buddha was the son of a local ruler and renounced his high caste status to become an itinerant teacher.

The fundamental difference Jainism has to Buddhism is that it’s focus is physical and physiological (on the world and the body) rather than psychological (on consciousness and happiness). That’s not to say that it has a positive view of the body- liberation of the soul from it is still the form of salvation sought. Rather, Jainism is immersed in the worldview of animist materialism, what anthropologists have often labelled a ‘primitive’ belief system where all matter is considered to be alive.[2] All plants, rocks and anything of the earth, in any physical state, are believed to have souls.

More fundamentally, this belief conceives of all entities on analogy with solid matter. The biggest example of this is that the principle of Karma -in other religions the supernatural law of the cosmos- is in Jainism merely a corrupt form of matter which attaches to and clouds souls, conditioning them for rebirth appropriate to their worldly deeds. Thus in Jainism all karma is bad karma, a presence in the soul. Lest the comparison be hastily made, this is very different from Christianity where sin is a lacking brokenness and grace the presence of wholeness (like good karma).

Jainism’s soteriology is quite distinctive. When a soul (like that of Mahavira) is perfected through wisdom and the shedding of karma it enters everlasting bliss, not in union with the life of the divine (since there is no god), nor in self-annihilation, but in becoming an omniscient being whose flawless contemplation of reality allows for self-sufficiency.

In terms of morality, Jainism is undoubtedly the strictest of the religious traditions alive today. Together with its atheistic pessimism this largely explains why it has so few adherents. On the Jain’s view of the world:

“When a match is struck a fire-being is born (the soul of which may one day become that of a man), only to die again when the match is blown out. In every stone on the road a soul is locked in a prison of silent suffering, unable to escape the careless foot that kicks it or to cry out its pain. By the fact of its incarnation the soul has suffered the loss of its pistine purity, and its pains are greater the more tightly it is bound in matter, in one of the lower forms of life. In the infinitely repeated round of birth and death and rebirth the soul’s agonies know no bounds”.[3] Life’s “few moments of happiness in no way compensate for the essential horror of existence.”[4]

Still, Jainism strongly opposes fatalism and determinism (the explanation given is Anekāntvāda– the doctrine that there is more than one perspective from which any truth can be seen), so it is not wholly without optimism. It is also life-affirming in that it takes the Hindu prinicple of ahimsā (non-violence) much more seriously than any other ideology:

“To injure living beings, even unwillingly, is to engender the most harmful of karmic effects. To injure with deliberate intent has the gravest of consequences. And since the whole universe throbs with life, this means in practice that a Jain’s diet and livelihood are severely restricted.  …  He may not be a farmer, for when ploughing the soil he might injure animals and plants, not to speak of the earth itself. He may not ply certain crafts, for the metal on the blacksmith’s anvil and the wood on the carpenter’s bench suffer excruciating pain as they are worked. Instead, he will follow the safe professions of trading and money-lending and most likely become a wealthy merchant or prosperous banker.

Jains go through special ceremonies at birth, marriage and death as do members of most religions. But there is a difference, the rites through which the Jain passes are Hindu rather than Jain. And it is often Hindu priests or officials who perform them [since Jains fear they might incur karma from performing them].”[5]

Indeed, a key reason why this strict conduct emerged was that there was very little need for differentiation between monks and lay people compared with other religions. The duties of the layperson are therefore almost as stringent as those of a highly disciplined ascetic. The main differences are the laypeople can marry, and that monks can never bathe or drink unfilted water, and can never light or put out a fire. there are even twenty four days in the year when laypeople are meant to live as monks. The main festival of the Jain calendar, new year’s day, is preceded by the fast of Paryshana, in which laypeople as well as monks must entirely abstain from food and drink, and repent their sins for one day.

Jain scripture is not a particularly important part of the religion (especially because much of it has been lost) but it can give us some insight into their moral views. For one thing, Jainism sees charity in the same way as Christianity:

  • “He who is asked for alms should always give.” (Compare Luke 6:30)
  • “Children, old men, the poor, and the sick, should be considered as the lords of the atmosphere.” (Assuming this means ‘given special respect’, this too is one of the central messages of the Synoptic Gospels.)

But it’s pacifism is much more pronounced, particularly in it’s respect both for women:

  • “One should never strike a woman; not even with a flower.”

And for the power of the Word (in the sense of the gift of communication):

  • “Utter not a word by which anyone could be wounded.” (Though it must be said there are similar messages in many of the Psalms.)

These points testify to a great religious tradition of love for all humankind. But it worries me that this right attitude might be practised here for the wrong reasons. Let me explain. I think humans should be loved with a love that is particular to us, a love of what we are, not in spite of what we are, a love that cherishes our creative imagination, rational agency and fundamental dignity. Instead of this, Jainism seems to advocate a love of humanity based on a generalised love of the whole cosmos, a universal love that encompasses insects, plants and stones. But stones are inactive objects, and I don’t want to be loved as an object, it as as a person that I want to be treated and want to treat others. Of course this is begins to misrepresent the Jain view on the basis that I do not believe in rebirth or the ensoulment of all objects, which is not something I wish to do, regardless of how implausible that worldview is.

Yet I do believe that this worldview leads to a flawed working out of what love means. Again unlike Christianity it allows euthanasia, and moreover it encourages it. When a monk feels himself to be no longer of use to the community and a burden upon others, he is meant to starve himself to death (a practice called sallekhna) and it is not very unusual for laypeople to do this to work off a particularly large amount of karma. While I understand that we should not judge the beliefs of an animist worldview by our own more scientific one, it does seem to me that this is not a way to build a community based upon unlimited love for others.

Finally, a more light-hearted point, indeed a fact worthy of Terry Pratchett novel, the controversy behind the one major schism in Jainism is whether or not monks can wear clothes!


[1] My major source is Basham, A. L., ‘Jainism’, In: The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths, 3rd edition, (1977), Zaehner, R. C. (ed.), Hutchinson, London. The quotes from Jain scripture are sourced from the appendix to C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.

[2] Jainism shares this with the Sānkhya school of Hindu philosophy. It can be read more charitably in the context of panpsychist philosophy.

[3] A. L. Basham, p. 257

[4] A. L. Basham, p. 258. See the parable ‘The Man in the Well’ in the final section of this overview.


More Indic Religions: Jainism


2 responses »

  1. When posting this on Facebook I recieved criticism for the sloppy writing:

    “I don’t want to be loved as an object, it as as a person that I want to be treated and want to treat others.”

    I tried to indicate by the last phrase that the sentence as a whole was refering love of others as as much as oneself but I realise it looks like I might just be talking about egotistical love.

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