The Jain and Greek Reincarnationists on Ahimsa and Karma

Published: 03.02.2012
Updated: 02.07.2015

The sacred Jain canon is two-fold, consisting of 14 Purvas and 11 Angas. The former are now lost while the latter still remain. Apart from Purvas and Angas there were several methodical expositions written in Prakrit and Sanskrit in the form of drama, poetry and moral tales. The Jain canon is preserved in original ardhamagadhi language. Vardhmana Mahavira or Jina the victorious one and the last of Tirthankaras is known to have reformed the sacred Jain canon revealed to him. Jainism, the oldest religion in India originated around the 6th century B. C. Although closer to Buddhism in many ways the Jain theory of ahimsa and karma makes itself distinct. There is a striking parallel between Jain teachings and of ahimsa and karma and those of ancient Greek reincarnationists. This study confines to their mystic traditions covering the period from the 7th century B.C. to the 5th century B.C.

Both Jain and Greek reincarnationist teachings aim at the release of the soul from the body, bandha and its attainment of pure bliss, moksha. Bandha is caused by Karma or action. Samsara or the cyclic process of rebirth or reincarnation could be prolonged depending on the nature of karma. Karma makes the soul reside in different bodies-human, animal, bird and insects while itself remaining the same substance. The karmic limitations determine one’s position and progress. The karmana sarira or corporeal body goes through an ocean of samsara. The need for the withdrawal from samsara is conspicuous in the teachings of Plato also, who writes: “the philosopher’s occupation consists precisely in the freeing and separation of the soul from body”. The same thoughts permeate from the Orphic, Elusinian, Dionysiac and Pythagorean mysteries.

Greece in the 7th Century B. C. was a place where controversial religious movements took place. The belief that the soul was in bondage of the body or bandha, its salvation through initiation and the constant repentence for having being born in a corporeal body, consolation for the good and the just and punishments for the evil and unjust and other related ideas permeated the religious scene. Although the pioneer in this movement was Orpheus who introduced a regular practice of rites there were others either contemporaries or predecessors who enjoined him in his mission. Among them were Musaeus, Onomacriturs, Pindar, Pherecydes, Philkippus, Aristeas and Hermotimus. These religious teachers spoke of sins attached to actions or karmas that cause reincarnation. This was new to the Greeks who knew of nothing else but the traditional Homeric view of the life after death. Accordingly the souls that leave the body never return from Hades. Only a privileged few were confined to a life full of bliss. The emergence of the mysteries with the possible links with Hindu and near-eastern influence took place around this period. It gave rise to the reincarnationists and reincarnationist views to be held as conspicuous in the mystic doctrines of the mysteries. The trend continued well in to the Hellenistis era.

According to the Jain canon, all things are divided into two: jiva or living and ajiva or non-living. The jiva are born according to karma. Karma take the form of punya, merits and papa, demerits. Jivas could be born as gods, men, animals and insects according to puynya and papa. Karma contains atomic particles called karma vargana. The link of these particles into the soul is known as asrava. Karma vargana are produced by word, mind and speech. They cause new births. Asrava are the channels through which karma vargana enter the soul. There is a difference between these channels and karma that enters through asrava. Thus the Jains teach two kinds of asrava - bhavasrava and karmasrava. Bhavasrava are caused by thoughts of the soul ‘and karmasrava are the entrance of the karma matter in to the soul.’

Bhavasrava are of five kinds-mithyatva or delusion, avirati, or want of control, pramada or inadvertence, yoga oractivities of the body, mind and speech and kasayas or passions. These five bhavasrava are again divided in to smaller categories. The present study on ahimsa and karma requires closer attention to the divisions of avirati - himsa or injury, anrta or falsehood, cauryya or stealing, abrahma or incontinence and parigrahakanksa or desire to possess things belonging to others.

The Jains teach that Ahimsa Parmo Dharmmo or non-injury is the highest religion. Ahimsa or non-injury to living beings depended on the kinship of all living beings which was a cardinal doctrine of the transmigratioin of souls. The Jain distinguish five classes of jivas: one sensed beings who possess only the sense of touch such as vegetables, two sensed beings who possess both touch and smell such as varieties of shell-fish, three sensed beings who possess smell, touch and taste such as lice bugs and ants, four sensed being who possess all senses except hearing and five sensed beings. The human beings, denizens of hell and gods are the best those possessing five senses were called samjins or those possessing manas or virtues. On a similar footing Empedocles regarded that human existence was the best of all incarnations. The birth of a lion was the best of all animal lives and the laurel was known as the best of all plants. Whether born as a human being or animal or plant just like the himself was born as a boy, girl, plant, fish and bird, Empedocles bases it on karma caused by himsa which is the cause of all sorrow in samsara. The Jains do not claim that all forms of himsa cause the same degree of karma. The vegetables do not move and therefore could be consumed with the knowledge that they, too, possess some degree of sense. In Jainism, there is a ban on the consumption of fruits with seeds. There is a parallel in Greek sources of a satirical note when the Stoics jeer at the Neo-Platonist and Neo-Pythagorean prohibition of himsa to ox and sheep as there should be one on cutting down fir and oak trees as well since according to them a soul was implanted in trees as well. In spite of such views there were some Stoics who, like the Jains, were total vegetarians. Among them were Zeno, Chrysippus and Dionysus of Heraclea who ultimately starved himself to death. But unlike the Jains the Stoics favoured a fleshless diet purely on matters of health.

The Jains believe that causing himsa to the five sensed being as worse because they sense pleasure and pain. Destruction of human life was condemned on grounds of compassion. But the prohibition of himsa which was taboo in most Greek mysteries depended on purity and mystic reasons. Domestic fowl was taboo at the Elusinian mysteries. Fish was taboo at the Haloa and so was a Pythagorean ban on 4 types of fish - seat-nettle, red nullet, erythrionos and blacktail. Flesh of particular animals and particular parts of animals were taboo for the Pythagoreans. There is a contradiction when some traditions record that sacrificial victims could be consumed on the basis that such victims do not possess souls of our kin. Furthermore the Accousmatici, who resembled the white clad Swetambara Jains, at were allowed to sacrifice a white cock, occasionally.

A ban on the slaughter of human beings was raised by Orpheus when be turned a hitherto cannibalistic mythical race in to an agricultural and vegetarian one. Among the sources that record Orpheus prohibition on bloodshed are Aristophanes, Euripedes and Plato. This prohibition earned him the stature of a culture hero. Slaughter of animals is equated to that of human beings in Empedocles when he fears that one’s own kin could be incarnated in the form of the animals slaughtered for food.

The sacred Jain scriptures mention that those who indulge in himsa descend to hell directly. They could be reborn as tigers, wolves, hawks, cats and such beasts of pray. In keeping with this Jain teaching is that of Plato’s regarding the assumption of births. Those who have been lawless and violent on earth will be born as wolves, hawks and kites. Although they will not necessarily retain their earthly characteristics they might bear the feelings of their last minutes, say the Jains, and be born in a nicha gotra or low caste.

Pythagoras forbade himsa to a particular dog who was being beaten and in whose yelps he recognised the voice of a friend of his who was dead. Poythagoras is known to have avoided those who caused himsa to animals such as butchers and hunters. The inhabitants of the abstract Age of Gold are known to have practised ahimsa. The “Purifications” of Empedocles provides a picture of their life style. The other components of avirati-anrta, cauryya, abhrahma, parigraha coincide with perjury, a well-known religious offence in Greek teachings. Perjury is an offence in Homer Hesiod and Pindar. Empedocles takes perjury or violation of oaths to that of bloodshed and himsa. He writes as follows:

“There is an oracle of Necessity an ancien decree of the gods, eternal, sealed with broad oaths that when any one of the daimons whose lot is long life sinfully stains his dear limbs with slaughter and following Hate has sworn a false oath these must wander thrice ten thousand seasons far from the blessed being born throughout the time in to all the forms of mortal creatures which exchange on grievous way of life for another”.

The earliest religious teachers in Greece laid down punishments for the sinners and rewards for the just. The Greek eternal sinners like Ixion, Tityous and Tantalos are shown to suffer for their various sins on the wheel of suffering. This is none other than the samsaric wheel of rebirth. The soul has to pay penalty for the sins committed. These sins coincide with the Jain 'papa', which have a tendency to bind the soul to bandha of body or the karmic sarira.

Unlike the Greeks, the Jains are rich in their concepts of karma. The Jains teach four types of karma which enter the soul and hinder its perfection. They are jnanavaraniya, darsanavaraniya, vedaniya and mohaniya. These prevent the acquisition of jnana, right perception, bliss of soul and right attitude of the soul respectively. Then there are other four karmas which determine the length of time in life ayushka karma on the age of peculiar corporeal body, nama karma or nationality and caste, gotra karma and the inherent quality of the soul which prevents merit, antarya karma. The Jains note five kinds of knowledge which are prevented from being acquired due to karma. They are mati-jnana or ordinary cognition, sruti-jnana or memory, avadhi-gnan or higher cognition, manah-paryaya or mind-reading and finally the kevala-gnan, or the knowledge of all times, past, present and future.

Karma, therefore, has to be purged away for it does a considerable damage to the soul - it causes new births, it hinders the acquisition of knowledge and it makes the soul travel through the samsaric cycle in sorrow and above all it hinders the muni from becoming Siddha which coincides with the Hindu Jivanmukhi and Buddhist Nirvana. The process of purging away of karma is known as nirjara. Nirjara is completed when the soul attains moksa or liberation from the bandha and reaches lokakas. The Jain muni then becomes Siddha. In lokakasa as Siddha he remains motionless. On a similar footing the Orphic mystes becomes one with Aither, the initiate at the Eleusinian mystes with Demeter and the Bacchic mystes with Bacchus. The Jain rules of nirjara are stricter and complicated than the Greek. However they coincide with the purificatory and expiatory rites of the Greek mysteries. Orpheus bade his disciples to engage in the Orpheoteletai or rites of good conduct.

With a special outlook on purity basedon ahimsa. In keeping with the Jain yoga, janana sraddha and caritra are these rites. The Orphics had perfect sraddha in their janana which consisted of the aetiological myth of the dismemberment of the child Dionysus by the Titans and that man who arose from the soot of the slain Titans ought to cultivate the Dionsyiac and purge away the Titanic. Vaggupti or absolute silence was another caritra observed by the Orphic initiates. Brahmacarya or celibacy was ascribed to the Jain muni. Although brahmacarya was ascribed to Pythagoras, in some traditions he is said to have wife and children. Orpheus himself is known to have descended to Hades, to fetch his wife.

These caritras or rules of conduct were observed by both the Jain muni and householder. The cardinal ethical virtue of the Jains, ahimsa was observed in the appearance of anubrata or small vows by the householders. The Jain muni observes the mahavrata or great vows on a stricter basis. Among them were digvirati or the necessity of walking without causing himsa to living beings, bhogopabhogamana or the avoidance of liquor and flesh, butter, honey, figs, certain other plants, vegetable fruits and restrictions on meals, anarthadanda which includes apadhyana or abstention from slaughtering enemies, pupopadesa or avoidance of agriculture which may cause himsa to insects, himsopakaridana or avoidance of giving tools which can be used for agriculture, pramadacarana or avoidance of associating music, theatre, gambling, sex-literature, siksapadabrata which includes samyikabrata or treatment of all beings with unity, desavakasikabrata or the peculiar practice digvirati more fully, posadhabrata or certain other prohibitions and atithisamvibhagabrata or to make gifts to guests.

All these anubrata and mahabrata aim at the purification of the soul. It is the Jain belief that the soul itself is pure and that karma is the cause of its contamination and bandha. Anubrata and mahabrata, peculiar to the Jain canon help destroy karma or rather burn karma, dhayanagnidagdha karma. The kasayas or passions are removed from the soul by self-control. Self-control, and courage that eradicate karma are the foremost features of the philosopher. Self-control, say both the Jains and Plato, leads to soul purification. It is by self-control of the kasayas that the asarana-bhavana or meditation of helplessness or the vanity of the sensory world could be fully realised. The philosopher keeps reminding himself that all life is a bandha. This itself is nirjara for by engaging in such though he prevents new karma from reaching his soul. The ten Jain dhamma, Jain dhayana and Jain yoga help man to be unattached to sensory pleasures. Constant indulgence in them will cause ananta jnana and darsana, infinite knowledge and sight respectively which culminates in the kevalin or the perfection of knowledge.

Once the cycle of rebirth ends, the soul is free to acquaint itself with the pure-being. The Jains declare this as Siddha in lokakasa. The Greek reincarnationists also believed that the initiated ones were promised a better future in their life after death. The tendency of the period between the 7th century B.C. and the 5th century B.C. was to value the salvation of the soul on ascetic prescriptions. The spark of the divine which man inherited had to be cultivated so that he could rise to the status of gods. He could thus enjoy the pleasures of the divine. All the Greek mysteries mentioned in this study promised a better future for the initiated. According to Sophocles, “How thrice fortunate are those among mortals who have seen these rites before going to Hades! For they alone have life there, while others have every kind of misery.”

Ahimsa to all living creatures was ascribed in the mysteries purely as a means towards purity. But it was closely associated with the belief in the transmigration of the souls. Karma was considered as a hindrance to the accomplishment of pure bliss or moksha. The karma was caused by himsa according to many reincarnationists. The Jains, on the other hand with their richly elaborated system of vratas laid stress on ahimsa as a vital cause that determined the karmic sarira to travel throughout the samsaric process. The Jain vrata are greatly enriched with generations of regular observances.


Compiled by PK

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Ajiva
  3. Ananta
  4. Angas
  5. Ardhamagadhi
  6. Asrava
  7. Avirati
  8. Bandha
  9. Body
  10. Brahmacarya
  11. Buddhism
  12. Caritra
  13. Celibacy
  14. Darsana
  15. Dhamma
  16. Gotra
  17. Gotra Karma
  18. Himsa
  19. Jain Yoga
  20. Jainism
  21. Jainsamaj
  22. Jina
  23. Jiva
  24. Jnana
  25. Jnanavaraniya
  26. Karma
  27. Karmas
  28. Kasayas
  29. Kevalin
  30. Lokakasa
  31. Mahavira
  32. Mati-Jnana
  33. Meditation
  34. Mohaniya
  35. Moksa
  36. Moksha
  37. Muni
  38. Nama
  39. Nama Karma
  40. Nirjara
  41. Nirvana
  42. PK
  43. Papa
  44. Parigraha
  45. Plato
  46. Prakrit
  47. Pramada
  48. Punya
  49. Purvas
  50. Pythagoras
  51. Samsara
  52. Sanskrit
  53. Sarira
  54. Siddha
  55. Soul
  56. The Pioneer
  57. Tirthankaras
  58. Vargana
  59. Vedaniya
  60. Vrata
  61. Yoga
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