Jain Religion

Jainism is one of the great religious traditions of India with millions of adherents, tens of thousands of them spread across the world. Nonviolence to humans as well as to animals is one of the fundamental contributions of Jainism to world philosophy. Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer - to take only two examples - have been greatly influenced by Jain nonviolence, and the origins of vegetarianism are also credited to Jainism.

According to Jain biologists, there are 8.4 million living species upon the Earth. This amazingly long list of species was prepared by the Jains over 2,000 years ago. They include eagles, swans, whales, tigers, elephants, snakes, worms, bacteria, fungi, air, water, fire, rocks, and everything which is natural and alive. Jains are animists - for them, everything natural is living, and all life is sacred. Any kind of harm to any form of life is to be avoided or minimized. Of course, the sustenance of one form of life depends upon the death of another, yet the followers of Jainism are required to limit the taking of life even for survival.

Human beings are only one of those 8.4 million species. They have no more rights than any other species. All living beings, human and other-than-human, have an equal right to life. Not only do humans have no absolute rights - to take, to control, or to subjugate other forms of life - but they also have extra obligations to practise nonviolence, and to be humble in the face of the mysterious, glorious, abundant and extraordinary phenomena of the living world.

One story best expresses the Jain attitude toward animals. Once Parshwanath, a young prince, arriving as a bridegroom with his marriage entourage to the house of his bride, saw near the house an enclosure of animals, tightly packed, waiting to be slaughtered. Shocked by the cry of the animals, the prince enquired, “Why are those animals being kept in such cruel conditions?” His aides replied, “They are for the feast of the wedding party.”

The young prince was overwhelmed with compassion. Arriving at the wedding chamber, he spoke with the father of the princess. “Immediately and unconditionally all those animals enclosed to be slaughtered for the marriage feast must be freed,” he said. “Why?” responded the father. “The lives of animals are there for the pleasure of humans. Animals are our slaves and our meat. How can there be any feast without the flesh?!”

Prince Parshwanath was puzzled. He could not believe what he had just heard. He exclaimed, “Animals have souls, they have consciousness, they are our kith and kin, they are our ancestors. They wish to live as much as we do; they have feelings and emotions. They have love and passion; they fear death as much as we do. Their instinct for life is no less than ours. Their right to live is as fundamental as our own. I cannot marry, I cannot love and I cannot enjoy life if animals are enslaved and killed.” Without further ado he rejected the plans for his marriage, he discarded the comfortable life of a prince, and he responded to his inner calling to go out and awaken the sleepy masses who had been conditioned to think selfishly and kill animals for their pleasure and comfort.

According to the story, the animal kingdom welcomes Parshwanath as the prophet of the weak and the wild. They gather around him when he calls for kindness. The birds sit upon the tree nearby; fishes come to the corner of the lake where Parshwanath is seated. Elephants, lions, foxes, rabbits, rats, insects, and ants pay homage to him. One day, finding Parshwanath being soaked by the heavy rain of the monsoon, the king of the cobras stood on his tail and created an umbrella with his huge head.

Thousands upon thousands of people in villages, towns and cities are moved by the teachings of Parshwanath. They renounce meat and take up the work of animal welfare. The princess whom Parshwanath was going to marry was so inspired that she decided to remain unmarried and dedicate herself to the care of animals. Having lost a daughter and would-be son-in-law to the cause of animal compassion, the King himself underwent anguish and yet experienced transformation. He announced that all animals were to be respected in his kingdom, and that there would be no hunting, no shooting, no caging and no pets.

There are twenty-four Great Liberators in the Jain Lineage. Adinath was the first. Parshwanath was the twenty-third. Such Liberators are called tirthankaras. The twenty-fourth was Mahavir who lived 2,600 years ago. He revived the Jain religion as it is practiced today. All the twenty-four Great Liberators have an animal associated with them, symbolizing that in Jain teachings the place of animals is central. Love is not love if it does not include love of animals, according to Jain teachings. What kind of compassion is it which adores and reveres human life, but ignores the slaughter of animals? This is the challenge of the Jains.

Mahavir was called Jina which means the conqueror of inner enemies such as ego, pride, anger and delusion. Thus followers of Jina became ’Jains’.

Mahavir, born as a prince, simply realized that there is more to life than the endless pursuit of fame, fortune and power. In fact, fame, fortune and power are the bringers of ’unhappiness’. They create fear and curtail freedom. This notion was not based in any intellectual or philosophical theories; rather it was based in his own experience. He left the kingdom for the forest in search of wisdom, liberation and enlightenment. After a long life of meditation and contemplation, Mahavir came to the conclusion that there are three essential elements which bring true liberation of the soul. He called them ahimsa (nonviolence), sanyama (simplicity) and tapas (practice of austerity).

Ahimsa (nonviolence)

Mahavir said that nonviolence must begin in the mind. Unless the mind is compassionate, nonviolence is not possible. Unless one is at ease in the inner world, one cannot practise nonviolence in the external world. If the mind is condemning other people yet the tongue speaks sweet words, then that is not nonviolence. The seeds of nonviolence live within the inner consciousness. Keeping consciousness pure is therefore an essential part of Jain nonviolence. Pure consciousness means consciousness that is uncorrupted, uncontaminated and undiluted with the desire to control others.

Why are we violent? Jains would answer that it is because people wish to control others. People say: “We own everything here. This world is for our benefit.” Those who eat meat say: “Animals and fish are there for our food.” Everything is for us and we are the masters of nature. This is the violence of the mind, which leads to physical violence.

Mahavir saw the world as a sacred place. The birds, the flowers, the butterflies and the trees are sacred; rivers, soil and oceans are sacred. Life as a whole is sacred. All our interactions with other people and with the natural world must be based on this sacred trust, on deep reverence for all life. Nonviolence of the mind should be translated into nonviolence of speech.

Harmful, harsh, untrue, unnecessary, unpleasant and offensive speech is violence. Skilful use of language is a sacred skill. Mahavir insisted that we must understand others fully before we speak. Language can express only partial truth; therefore nonviolence is an essential guide to our spoken words. In this context Mahavir put a very high value on silence. A Jain monk is called muni, which means ’the silent one’.

Nonviolence of mind and speech leads to the nonviolence of action. Ends cannot justify means. Means must be compatible with ends. Therefore, all human actions must be friendly, compassionate and unaggressive. Do no harm. No ifs and no buts. No compromise. Mahavir’s nonviolence is unconditional love to all beings.

Thus nonviolence is the paramount principle of the Jains. All other principles stem from nonviolence. Nonviolence is first and last. Because all life is sacred we may not violate or take advantage of those life forms which may be weaker than ourselves. Ahimsa is much more than “Live and let live”: it is “Live and love.”

Sanyama (Simplicity and living within the limits)

The second principle is sanyama, which means ’simplicity’: ’self-restraint’, ’sufficiency’ and ’frugality’.

Being satisfied with less is sanyama. The idea that whatever we have, or however much we have, is never enough is the source of anguish. Jains are required to move from ’more and more’ to ’enough!’.

For Jains there is nothing lacking in the world. There is the abundance of Nature. Only when we want to own, control and possess it, we create scarcity. Because we can never possess everything, we always want more. This possessiveness is the source of scarcity. The moment we are satisfied, and don’t want to control and possess, we have abundance. Paradoxically this abundance, according to the Jains, is only available to those who can learn to live within the limits of one’s needs.

Tapas (The Spiritual Practice of Purification, Austerity, Sacrifice and Fasting)

The principle of tapas (literally ’heat’), or self-purification, is one of the most significant contributions of Jain religion. As humans purify their physical body, they also need to purify their inner soul. The mind gets polluted with harmful thoughts. The consciousness gets contaminated by ego, greed, pride, anger and fear. Souls suffer because of desires, attachments and anguish. So Mahavir devised ways to purify the minds, the souls and the consciousness, and he called this tapas.

Fasting, meditation, restraint, pilgrimage and service to others fall within the category of tapas. It is a kind of soul exercise to keep the inner world healthy and pure.

There are four practices to which every Jain aspires in order to attain inner liberation. The first is satya (truth), which means understanding and realizing the true nature of existence and the true nature of oneself. It means accepting reality as it is and being truthful to it, seeing things as they are without judging them as good or bad. It means “Do not lie” in its deepest sense: do not have illusions about yourself. Face the truth without fear. Things are as they are. A person of truth goes beyond mental constructs and realizes existence as it is.

Living in truth means that we avoid manipulating people or nature because there is no one single truth that any mind can grasp or tongue can express. Being truthful involves being humble and open to new discoveries, and yet accepting that there is no final or ultimate discovery. Truth is what is: we accept what is as it is, speak of it as it is, and live it as it is. Any individual or group claiming to know the whole truth is by definition engaged in falsehood.

Ultimately, existence is a great mystery.

The second is asteya (non-stealing), which means refraining from acquiring goods or services beyond one’s essential needs. It is difficult to know what the essential needs are, so Jain religion requires that we assess, examine and question, day by day, what is our need and what is our greed. The distinction between need and greed can be blurred and therefore the examination of need should be carried out with honesty. The principle of asteya includes “Do not steal.” The Jain understanding of this goes further than any legal definition. If we take more from nature than meets our essential need, we are stealing from nature. For example, clearing an entire forest would be seen as a violation of nature’s rights and as theft. Similarly, taking from society in the form of housing, food and clothing in excess of one’s essential requirements means depriving other people and is therefore theft. If we are using up finite resources at a greater speed than they can be replenished, then we are stealing from future generations.

The Jains would give first and then take. Taking before giving is ’stealing’.

The third is bramacarya. This principle has been closely associated with the proper sexual conduct: bramacarya is love without lust. For monks, bramacarya means total abstinence, and for laypeople it means fidelity in marriage. Any thoughts, speech, or acts that demean, debase, or abuse the body are against the principle of bramacarya. The body is the temple of pure being, and therefore no activity should be undertaken which would defile the temple of the body.

The fourth is aparigraha (nonpossessiveness), which means nonaccumulation of material things. If no one hoards, owns, possesses or accumulates anything, then no one will be deprived. Aparigraha means sharing and living without ostentation and without a display of wealth. Dress, food and furnishings should be simple, elegant, but minimal. “Simple in means, rich in ends” is the Jain practice. When we spend too much time in the care of possessions there is no time for the care of the soul.

Aparigraha means not to acquire what is not necessary, recognizing that whatever you acquire will bind you tightly. Free yourself from nonessential acquisitions and you will be liberated. For Jains it is a moral imperative to live simply so that others may simply live.

There are about four million Jains, mostly in North West India. Outside India Jains are found in East Africa, Great Britain and USA. Almost all of them are of Indian origin. Jains do not covert others to their religion. They believe that there is no one single truth, there are many truths. This system of multiple truths is known as Anekant which simply means no one conclusion, no single reality, no one god. Neither monism nor dualism, but pluralism is at the heart of Jain philosophy.

Some Jains are image worshipers. They have built many great temples of exquisite beauty and intricate architecture. Temples such as at Ranakpur and at Mt. Abu in Rajasthan are supreme examples of artistic and sculptural achievements. Then there are other Jains who do not follow the path of image worship. The building of temples and rituals of image adoration is too worldly for them. They are the minimalists of the Jain tradition and prefer the way of meditation.

Further readings

Satish Kumar is Programme Director of Schumacher College. His autobiography, No Destination, is published by Green Books
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