Religion and Morality (Ethics) - Jaina Perspective

Published: 12.11.2008
Updated: 03.01.2011

1.0 Introduction

Jainism is one of the oldest living religions of the world. It represents the continuation of indigenous Śramaṇic culture that is at least as old as the Vedas themselves, so far as the literary evidence goes, though the archaeological evidence takes Śramaṇism far back to Harappan civilization, which is regarded as non-Vedic in origin and outlook. The Jaina faith has, no doubt, influenced Vedism on the one hand and Buddhism on the other, though being influenced by them in the course of its gradual development.

1.1 Religion and Morality not Identical

There is no denying the fact that Jainism is humanistic in its approach and spiritualistic in its depth. An unbiased eye can look into it religious fervour and moral earnestness. These two elements are so greatly intertwined in it that one is apt to confuse religion with morality and vice versa. The fact is that one cannot be reduced to the other. In practice, though the two are closely associated, yet, they are quite distinguishable. Jainism subscribes to the view that “religion if taken seriously and rationally will be deeply moral; but it is not morality”[1]. The two are not identical. Thus it will not be contradictory to aver that a religious man will be necessarily moral. But a moral man may not be necessarily religious. In other words, religion is coextensive with morality, but morality is not always coextensive with religion. A man may be moral without being religious. All this shows that the realms of religion and morality are theoretically distinguishable. The Jain faith vehemently criticizes the view which identifies religion with personal and social morality, and which defines it merely as “the consciousness of the highest social values”. The Jain saints and sages have always exhorted us to look beyond the mere moral nature of man to transcendental horizons of life, thereby justifying that social righteousness is not the be-all and end-all of human life. This is not to decry social morality, but to save religion from being identified with it, and to keep the domain of religion as quite distinct from that of morality.

1.2 Religion and Theology not Identical

Side by side with the tendency of identifying religion with morality, there is witnessed another tendency of defining religion in theological terms, i. e. with reference to God, the creator of the universe. Since Jainism does not uphold the idea of God as the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the world, the above definition does not bring forth the characteristic feature of religion. If this definition of religion is adhered to, Jainism, Buddhism, Sāṅkhya, Yoga and Mîmāṅsā are excluded without any justification. Now the question arises: What constitutes the universal core of religion? The question can be answered by considering the utterances of the saints and mystics all over the world, in all cultures, religions, places and ages. Pratt rightly concludes, “Religion is not so much theology as life it is to be lived rather than reasoned about”. [2]

1.3 Religion as a Transcendental Mystical Experience

Religion is a transcendental mystical experience, which is permanent, trans-subjective, blissful, intuitive, super sensuous, infinite, incommunicable and ineffable. It is the non-conceptual state of existence wherein all differentiations disappear. “To be emptied of all empirical contents is the universal character of that experience.”[3] “What is left is the pure ego, the self itself, seeing itself as reflected in itself.”[4] Brightman rightly remarks, “Mystical experience is immediate, but cannot be called immediate experience of God, it is rather an immediate experience of the self, which may be taken as a sign of the reality of God, provided philosophical thought finds this idea tenable.”[5] Thus the Jain view of religion lays stress on realizing the transcendental nature of the self, which the individual feels as his own. This shows that theology does not find favour with Jainism, so is the case with theological definition of religion.

After setting aside the sociological and theological definitions of religion let us now proceed to discuss the characteristic features of Jainism as a religion. The question now confronts us: What are the constitutive factors that endow Jain faith with religious fervour? In other words, how Jainism has occupied itself with religious outlook? The answer can be searched in delineating.

  1. The nature of self.
  2. The goal of human pursuance.
  3. The doctrine of Karma.
  4. The meaning of spiritual awakening (Samyagdarśana).
  5. The incentives to spiritual life.
  6. The spiritual perspective of Ahiṅsā.
  7. The practice of devotion.
  8. The observance of Sallekhanā as the spiritual welcome to death.
  9. The stages of spiritual development known as Gūṇasthānas.
  10. Moral practices like Aṇūvrata, Mahāvrata etc.

2.1 Ethics

Now the question is: Is ethics possible without religion in Jainism? According to Jainism those who are not spiritually awakened can lead a moral life. Thus in Jainism ethical living is possible without religious living. The equivalent expression in Jaina ethics for the term ‘right’ and ‘good’ is Śubha. We all know that ethics deals with right and wrong, good and bad. Here the question that confronts us is this: How to determine according to Jainism, what is morally right for a certain agent in a certain situation? Or what is the criterion of the rightness of action? The interrelated question is what we ought to do in a certain situation or how duty is to be determined? The answer of Jaina ethics is that right, ought and duty cannot be separated from the good.

2.2 Teleological Theory of Right Accepted in Jaina Ethics

The criterion of what is right etc. is the greater balance of good over bad that is brought into being than any alternative. Thus, the view that regards goodness of the consequences of actions as the right-making characteristic is termed the teleological theory of right as distinguished from the deontological theory of right which regards an action as right simply because of its own nature regardless of the consequences it may bring into being. The Jaina ethics holds the teleological theory of right (Maximum balance of Ahiṅsā over hiṅsā as the right-making characteristic).

2.3 Act-Teleology accepted: Rules as Guiding Moral principles

The question now arises whether Jaina ethics subscribes to act-approach or rule-approach in deciding the rightness or wrongness of actions. It seems to me that though the Jaina Ācāryas have given us moral rules, yet in principle they have followed that every action is to be judged on the goodness of the consequences expected to be produced. Since to calculate the consequences of each and every action is not practically possible, Jaina have given us guiding moral principles in the form of Aṇūvratas and Mahāvratas, Gūṇavratas and Śikṣāvratas and so on. This means that Jaina ethics accepts the possibility that sometimes these general moral principles may be inadequate to the complexities of the situation and in this case a direct consideration of the particular action without reference to general principles is necessary.

May be, keeping this in view, Samantabhadra argues that truth is not to be spoken when by so doing the other is entangled in miseries;[6] Svāmi Kumār in the Kārttikeyānuprekṣā disallows the purchase of things at low price in order to maintain the vow of non-stealing.[7] According to moral rules exceptions can not be allowed. This implies that Jaina ethics does not allow superstitious rule-worship but at the same time, prescribes that utmost caution is to be taken in breaking the rule, which has been built up and tested by the experience of generations. Thus according to Jaina ethics, acts are logically prior to rules and the rightness of the action is situational.

2.4 Teleological Nature of Duty:

It is of capital importance to note here that according to Jaina ethics, duty is not self-justifying; it is not an end in itself. “The very nature of duty is to aim beyond itself. There can no more be a duty to act, if there is no good to attain by it.” Thus, duty is an extrinsic good, good as a means; this does not deprive duty of its importance in ethical life, just as health does not become unimportant by its being extrinsic good. (The pursuance of Aṇuvratas for the householder and Mahāvratas for the Muni may be regarded as dutiful actions).

2.5 Evaluation of the Moral Worth of an Action

We have so far considered the criterion by which we are to determine what we morally ought to do in a given situation, how the rightness or wrongness of action is to be decided. But the question that remains to be discussed is: How the moral worth of an action is to be evaluated? How does, in Jaina terminology, an action become puṅya and pāpa engendering? In other words, how does an act become virtuous or vicious, praiseworthy or blameworthy, morally good or bad?

    1. It is likely that an act by the criterion of rightness may be externally right but internally immorally motivated. A man may seem to be doing things according to a moral rule, but it may be with a bad motive.
    2. Again, an act by the standard of rightness may be externally wrong, but it may be done with a good motive. For example, one may kill the rich in order to serve the poor.
    3. An act may be externally right and done with good motive.
    4. An act may be externally wrong and done with a bad motive.

Thus there are four possibilities:

    1. Right act and bad motive,
    2. Wrong act and good motive,
    3. Right act and good motive
    4. Wrong act and bad motive.

The third and fourth category of acts, which according to Jaina ethics may be called Śubha (auspicious) and Aśubha (inauspicious) acts. The first category of acts (right act and bad motive) may look proper externally but its moral significance is zero. All deceptions are of this nature. The moral worth of the second category of acts (wrong act and good motive) is complicated and can be decided only on the nature of the case.

Though in Jaina ethical works, importance of good motive is recognised as contributing towards the moral merit of an action yet the Jaina Ācāryas have clearly stated that he who exclusively emphasised the internal at the expense of the external forgets the significance of outward behaviour. In consequence, both the internal and external aspects should occupy their due places. Ewing rightly observes, “they (good motives) lead us into evil courses on occasion if there is not at the back of our minds a moral consciousness which prevents this, so the strictly moral motive should always in a sense be present potentially.” [8]

2.6 Śubha (Good) and the Śubha (the Good) to be distinguished

We have said above that according to Jaina ethics right, ought and duty cannot be separated from the good. Now the question that confronts us is: what is intrinsically desirable, good or worthwhile in life according to Jaina ethics? What intrinsic values are to be pursued according to it? The answer that may be given is this: What is intrinsically good and valuable or what ought to be chosen for its own sake is the achievement of ‘Ahiṅsā of all living beings’, the attainment of knowledge etc.

But the basic question that remains to be discussed is the definition of good or Śubha. The question ‘what is good?’ is different from the question, as Moore says, ‘what is the good?’ i.e. what things are good? In order to understand the good’ or the Śubha the first step is to understand, what is good or what is Śubha?

2.7 Definition of Śubha in Ethics and of Dravya in Metaphysics

What, then, is good or Śubha? How is Śubha or good to be defined? According to the Jinist, Śubha is an experience in tune with Ahiṅsā. We can better understand the nature and importance of the question, ‘What is good or Śubha in the realm of ethics?’ when we find that it is like the question, ‘What is Dravya (substance) in the realm of metaphysics?’

The definition of Dravya given by the Jaina Ācāryas is: Dravya is that which is Sat[9] (being).’ Here ‘being’ is used in a comprehensive sense*) and not in any particular sense**). But no particular thing can be apart from ‘being’. Logically speaking, we may say that ‘being’ is the highest genus, whereas particulars are its species and the relation between the two is of identity indifference. Similarly, when I say that Śubha is an experience in tune with Ahiṅsā, I am using the term ‘Ahiṅsāin the comprehensive sense and not in any particular sense. But no particular Śubha can be separated from Ahiṅsā and Ahiṅsā manifests itself in all particular Śubhas.

*) Comprehensive meaning of Ahiṅsā: The oldest Jaina Āgama Āyāro (Ācārāṅga) remarkably pronounces that none of the living beings ought to be killed, ought to be ordered, ought to be enslaved, ought to be distressed and ought to be put to unrest. [10] It is a unique and unparalleled statement in the entire Jinist literature. I need not say that it basically embraces all the aspects of social experience in its normative perspective. The political organisation, the economic orientation and the institutional set up can easily derive inspiration from this ethically significant statement. Owing to the all-inclusive nature of Ahiṅsā the Puruṣārthasidhyupāya seeks to explain falsehood - truth, stealing - non-stealing, non-chastity - chastity, possession - non-possession etc. as forms of Hiṅsā- Ahiṅsā. This way of expression regards Ahiṅsā as the essence of all virtues, thus giving the supreme status to Ahiṅsā it deserves.
**) In a Particular sense, Ahiṅsā means only non-killing.

In a logical sense it can be said that Ahiṅsā is the highest genus and particular Ahiṅsās are its species, and the relation between generic Ahiṅsā and particular Ahiṅsā is a relation of identity in-difference. As for example, in non-killing and non-exploitation, though the identical element of Ahiṅsā is present, yet the two are different. So the above is the most general definition of Śubha just like the definition of Dravya. It may be noted that we can understand ‘being’ only through the particulars, similarly, the understanding of general Ahiṅsā is possible only through the particular examples of Ahiṅsā, e.g. non-killing, non-exploitation, non-enmity, non-cruelty, etc. Ahiṅsā is the most general definition like the definition of Dravya as that what is Sat. The former can be thought of evaluative, just as the latter can be thought of factually i.e. value neutrally.

2.8 Does definition of Śubha (Good) Require the Definition of Ahiṅsā?

It is all right that good is definable as the experience in tune with Ahiṅsā, but it may be asked: what is Ahiṅsā? Now the question ‘Ahiṅsā?’ in the value-world is like the question ‘What is Sat?’ in the factual world. Just as Sat is understandable through the particular examples of things like pen, table, book etc., so also Ahiṅsā is understandable through the particular examples of Ahiṅsā, like non-killing, non-exploitation, non-enmity, non-cruelty etc. When it is so easily understandable through examples, the craving for the definition of Ahiṅsā is pedantry, serving no purpose. Ahiṅsā can be taught by examples, just as in arithmetic 2+2 = 4 can be taught to a child with the help of an example like two balls + two balls = 4 balls and gradually the child learns to do big sums without examples. In the same way Ahiṅsā can be understood gradually. The argument of understandability cannot be adduced in the case of Śubha without definition. For understanding Śubha, definition is a necessity, but a similar necessity does not exist for Ahiṅsā in view of the above-mentioned facts.

2.9 Intrinsic Goodness as Ahiṅsā -Utilitarianism

The question that confronts us is: what is intrinsically desirable, good or worthwhile in life, according to the Jaina? What intrinsic values are to be pursued according to him? The answer that may be given is this: What is intrinsically good or valuable or what ought to be chosen for its own sake is the achievement of Ahiṅsā of all living beings, the attainment of knowledge, the leading of a virtuous life, and the experiencing of freedom and good emotions. Thus the criterion of intrinsic goodness shall be the fulfilment of ends, like Ahiṅsā, knowledge, virtues etc. We may say here that realization of goodness or Śubha is a matter of degree and this depends on the degree of fulfilment of ends.

An altogether good shall be wholly fulfilling the ends and wholly satisfying the seeker. The Jaina texts speak of the partial realisation of Ahiṅsā and the complete realisation of Ahiṅsā and of other ends. This theory of intrinsic goodness may be called Ahiṅsā -Utilitarianism. This means that this theory considers Ahiṅsā and other ends to be the general good.

2.10 Ahiṅsā as a Means and as an End

The Jaina recognises that Ahiṅsā can be both good as a means and good as an end. This means that both means and ends are to be tested by the criterion of Ahiṅsā. Whenever we judge that a thing is ‘good as a means’, we judge both that it will have a particular kind of effect, and that effect will be good in itself. It may be noted that ethical judgments regarding ‘good as a means’, may not be universally true; and many, though generally true at one period, will be generally false at another[11], whereas ethical judgments regarding ‘good in itself’ are universally true.

In both these kinds of good, the criterion of good as Ahiṅsā is to be adhered to. I may say in passing that the principle that “the end justifies the means” need not be rejected as immoral if the above criterion of means and ends is conceded. It may look paradoxical that Ahiṅsā is an end. But it is not so. Perhaps in order to avoid this misunderstanding that Ahiṅsā cannot be an end the Sūtrakṛtāṅga has pronounced that Ahiṅsā is the highest good. In a similar vein, Samantabhadra has also said that Ahiṅsā of all living beings is equivalent to the realisation of the highest good. [12] This shows that there is no inconsistency in saying that Ahiṅsā is both an end and a means. Thus, the expression Ahiṅsā -Utilitarianism seems to me to be the most apt one to represent the Jaina theory of intrinsic goodness.


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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Agama
  2. Ahiṅsā
  3. Aṇūvrata
  4. Buddhism
  5. Consciousness
  6. Delhi
  7. Digambara
  8. Dravya
  9. Gūṇasthānas
  10. International School for Jain Studies
  11. JAINA
  12. Jaina
  13. Jainism
  14. Karma
  15. Kundakunda
  16. Mahāvrata
  17. Mahāvratas
  18. Muni
  19. Paṅcāstikāya
  20. Pāpa
  21. Sallekhanā
  22. Samiti
  23. Samyagdarśana
  24. Sodha
  25. Sāṅkhya
  26. Sūtra
  27. Sūtrakṛtāṅga
  28. Vedas
  29. Vīra
  30. Yoga
  31. Ācāryas
  32. Ācārāṅga
  33. Ācārāṅga Sūtra
  34. Āgama
  35. Āyāro
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