The religion of Jainism is followed by an estimated 20 million devotees. Like Buddhism, it arose in the sixth century BCE, but unlike Buddhism, it did not have an dynamic missionary spirit. Its contentment lies in the quiet life. It originated in Benares, India, and spread westward and northward.
Jainism was founded by a series of 24 enlightened thinkers, named Tirthankaras, starting with Parshva and ending with Mahavira, who lived in the 4th or 5th century BCE (Chappell, p.214). The Acaranga Sutra, the earliest known Jaina text, describes a world inundated with life, and narrates the story of Mahavira’s life. Mahavira, in this Sutra, arrange a sequence of rules to aid one along the path to enlightenment.
These rules were intended to lessen and eradicate karma through a vigilant observance of nonviolent conduct. These rules include precise commands for when, what and how to eat; when and how to travel; where and when to defecate; and from whom to accept food, as well as lists of a variety of activities, including attending wedding ceremonies, to be avoided.
The philosopher Umasvati, and the author of the Tattvartha Sutra, who lived in the second or third century CE, developed a cosmological structure that is acknowledged by both the foremost branches of Jainism, the Digambaras and the Svetamabaras. It endeavours to clarify the place of the human being in a grand incessant reality.
According to Umasvati’s Tattvartha Sutra, there are 8,400,000 different varieties of life. These ‘lifes’ are all part of a beginningless round of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Each living being accommodates a life force or ‘jiva’ that inhabits and enlivens the host environment. When the body dies, “the jiva seeks out a new site depending upon the proclivities of karma generated and accrued during the previous lifetime. Depending upon one’s actions, one can either ascend to a heavenly realm, take rebirth as a human, animal, elemental, or microbial form, or descend into one of the hells as a suffering human being or a particular animal, depending upon the offense committed” (Chappell, p.209).
Jainism, in many ways, is a realistic religion. It not only holds that reality is pluralistic, but also that reality is many-faced. In order to maintain this stance Jainism develops a logic of sevenfold predication. The progress of this logic, consecutively, depends predominantly on the notion of avaktavya (the unspeakable). The Jaina’s conjecture that all the countless living beings, from a speck of dirt or a drop of water, to animals and humans themselves, have one commonality – the capability for tangible understanding.
According to the scholar Mysore Hiriyanna, the concept of avaktavya “must be expressible as neither”. This means that if we refute both existence and non-existence, if we counteract the two dissimilar elements of being and non-being together, the thing confuses all explanation. It becomes beyond description i.e. neither real nor unreal (Tripathi, p.187).
The philosophy, rituals, values, and customs of Jainism centre around the aspiration to be freed from the cycle of rebirth .The Jaina faith believes in karma and reincarnation; that each person beginninglessly lives one life after another, and will do so continuously unless he becomes enlightened. Karma canon explains that one unavoidably receives the value or demerit due; right or wrong actions not impartially done yield weal or woe, and no one can elude their due remuneration. Entrenched in these canons is a justice obligation; the receiver of the remuneration must be the doer of the action for which recompense comes – she, and not another.
Karma decides the path of one’s incarnation. Negative karma causes a downhill movement, both in this current cycle of birth and death and in future births. Positive karma liberates the negative, obligatory merits of karma and allows for a rise to higher realms, either as a more ethically pure human being or as a god or goddess. Eventually, the Jaina path of purification through its many firm ethical teaching may end in joining the realm of the perfected ones, the siddhas. These enlightened souls have released themselves from all karma, principally due to their dedication to total harmlessness (ahimsa), and “dwell in a state of eternal consciousness, energy, omniscience, and bliss” (Chappell, p.210 – 211).
A text from the Jainism doctrine, Jaina Sutras, states; “Those who do not know all things by kevala (knowledge), but who being ignorant teach a law (of their own), are lost themselves, and work the ruin of others in this dreadful, boundless Cycle of Births. Those who know all things by the full Kevala knowledge, and who are practicing meditation and teach the whole law, are themselves saved and save other” (Yandell, p.29).
The most desirable alteration- namely, enlightenment- neither transforms the character of the self or person or jiva (the soul), nor does it eliminate his ability for consciousness. After the soul is free, there remains perfect right-belief, perfect right-knowledge, perfect perception and the state of having achieved all. The soul has the nature of knowledge, and the understanding of this nature is Nirvana; therefore, one who is desirous of Nirvana must meditate on self-knowledge.
Speaking in a general way, the Jaina will say that the (beginninglessly) tainted state of the soul guides it to its incessant reincarnation in a variety of states. Continuation in such condition, branded by desire, entails actions which attract karmic matter; this matter in turn plays a role in the soul’s additional corruption, therefore to further incarnation. Consequently we have the essential practice through which one is held in the sequence of transmigration (samsara) (Yandell, p.23 – 24).
The Jaina believe that through respect for life in all its forms, including microorganisms and the elements, one can ascend to a elevated state of spiritual understanding.
Chappell, Christopher Key (2001) The Living Cosmos of Jainism: A Traditional Science Grounded in Environmental Ethics, Daedalus, The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts and Science.
Tripathi, R. K. (1968) The Concept of Avaktavya in Jainism, Philosophy East and West, University of Hawai’i Press.
Yandell, Keith (1997) Persons (Real and Alleged) in Enlightenment Traditions: A Partial Look at Jainism and Buddhism, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Springer.