Scales of Perfection (14 Gunasthanas)

Posted: 19.02.2015
Updated on: 30.07.2015

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Scales of Perfection

The ultimate goal in Jainism - emancipation of the soul from the cycle of rebirth - is a very long and difficult road. This is surely why Jain doctrine has created a ‘Scale of Perfection’, which goes from total delusion to total omniscience. It presents the route to liberation in 14 stages. The scale has been named guṇasthāna, coined from Sanskrit words for the stages - sthāna - of qualities - guṇa. The scale allows lay men who are not necessarily Jain to become Jains, to reaffirm their faith in Jainism, to take the vows of monkhood and then to progress through the stages by eliminating the different forms of karma. At a certain stage, devotees are invited to leave their lay status and to become monks or nuns.

The theory of guṇasthāna is closely associated with the Jain doctrine of karma. This concept of karma is very complicated, with 148 main categories and numerous classes shaping the attributes of an embodied soul and influencing how karma plays out over one or more lifetimes. Aspects of these different categories are linked to the 14 stages of the guṇasthāna.

Approaching the sixth stage of the guṇasthāna, the individual can further develop spiritually only by becoming a mendicant. The step between lay and mendicant status is so great that the Jain doctrine proposes 11 more steps named pratimā to help lay people to make this important decision.

The history of the guṇasthāna concept is hard to trace, with only infrequent mentions in early Jain writings. The tenth-century text called the Gommaṭasāra - Essence of Mahāvīra’s Teachings - remained influential for centuries, particularly among Digambaras. In the 19th century, however, it seems that the ever-more involved theorising of the guṇasthāna may have helped the decline of its popularity among lay Jains. Contemporary Jains may well be unfamiliar with the complexities of the doctrine, even though the notion of spiritual progression remains a keystone of the Jain faith. In addition, scholarly work in this area is largely absent, although the great significance of the guṇasthāna in the path to liberation is accepted in Jain studies.

 

Journey to liberation

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Sacred symbols in rice
The nandyāvarta below three circles symbolising the three jewels of Jainism while the crescent at the top represents the siddha-śilā. The fruits represent souls at various stages while the auspicious symbols are in rice. Such offerings are common. Sacred symbols in rice

Image by Cactusbones - Sue Ann Harkey © CC A-NC-SA 2.0

The fundamental aim of Jainism is the realisation of the self, the liberation of the individual soul from the cycle of births because it has no karma. To reach this state of bliss, each believer must pay attention to the 'three jewels' of:

Accomplishing the first jewel makes it possible to achieve the second, which allows progression to the third. The concept of the guṇasthāna provides a framework in which to fully accept and practise the 'three gems' of Jain teachings.

Jain devotees should also concentrate their thoughts on the innate purity of the self and devote their entire lives to the attainment of this goal. It is so difficult that only monks and nuns are said to be able to achieve the state of realisation - siddhi. Formally described in the guṇasthāna, this process leaves aside the lay community, which is the larger part of the Jain community - sangha. However, lay Jains can advance spiritually within certain limits.

 

Fourteen 'Stages of Qualities'

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Fourteen guṇasthānas

The 14 stages of the 'scale of perfection' - guṇasthāna - map the soul's progress towards final liberation. Lay people can reach the fifth stage of partial self-control - deśa-virata - but to advance further they must become mendicants.

The 14 'Stages of Qualities' - guṇasthāna - chart the progress of the individual soul from complete delusion to omniscience, which is necessary for mokṣa - the emancipation of the soul. The guṇasthāna is closely linked to the Jain theory of karma, which is extremely detailed. Jain writings discuss 148 categories of karma, which demonstrate varying qualities and durations and govern different aspects of the embodied soul. At the various rungs of the ladder of guṇasthānas, different karmas rise and mature and then die away. At the top of the scale, the enlightened soul still retains karmas, but these disappear in the instant after it is freed from its body.

It is considered extremely difficult to move through the stages to enlightenment. It takes many, many lives in the cycle of rebirth to move from one step to another, and karmas exist and mature over many lifetimes, with more karmas being formed in each lifetime. These may mature in the next lifetime or come to fruition much later.

Lay people can ascend only to the fifth stage. Going higher up the ladder means becoming a mendicant.

The stages are detailed in this table:

 

'Fourteen Stages of Qualities' - guṇasthāna

Stage

Sanskrit term

English meaning

Detail

1

mithyātva

wrong belief

The soul is bound by the karma of delusion - mohanīya-karman. The soul has not yet been awakened to Jain belief and so it ignores the Path of Liberation. It is heavily bound by passions and attachments.

2

sāsvādana

the taste of right belief

The individual is ‘rehabilitated’ after a fall from a higher stage. The Jain has only the ‘taste’ of the 'right belief' - samyag-darśana - but his faith has to be reaffirmed.

3

miśra

mixed

This is a transition between the wrong belief of stage 1 and the right belief in stage 4.

4

avirata-samyag-dṛṣṭi

right belief without self-control

This is important because the believer is now truly a Jain and cannot go back to the wrong belief of the first stage. He has right belief - samyag-darśana - but still lacks self-control.

5

deśa-virata

partial self-control

The individual has partial self-control and is now ready to take the vows of the Jain lay man - aṇu-vratas. The 'believer' thus becomes an 'active member' of the Jain community.

6

pramatta-virata or sarva-virata

complete self-control with carelessness

This marks the passage from secular life to becoming a mendicant. The devotee has complete self-control, though still demonstrating some carelessness, yet is ready to take the vows of Jain mendicants - mahā-vratas. This step is very high indeed, which is why there are some degrees between the fifth and the sixth guṇasthāna, as detailed in the pratimā.

7

apramatta-virata

complete self-control without carelessness

The mendicant now has complete self-control without carelessness, and so can observe all the vows without any faults.

8

apūrva-karaṇa

new process

Having become practised in self-control, the mendicant is engaged in the new process of struggling to stop the secondary passions or emotions - no-kaṣāyas - through meditation.

9

anivṛtti-karaṇa

no return process

The mendicant reaches the point where he or she cannot return to a lower stage and tries to destroy the secondary passions through meditation.

10

sūkṣma-saṃparāya

war against the subtle passions

The mendicant wars against the subtle passions - kaṣāyas - through meditation.

11

upaśānta-moha

one whose delusion is pacified

From this stage, the monk becomes a 'perfect ascetic', free from attachment, but has not yet attained omniscience. Stages 9 to 11 make a separate scale named the ‘Ladder of Pacification’ - upaśama-śreṇi - from which a fall is still possible.

12

kṣīṇa-moha

one whose delusion is destroyed

The ascetic free from attachment has now destroyed delusion. He or she has not reached omniscience but the passions are completely eliminated. From here, there is no return possible to a lower level of spirituality.

13

sayoga-kevalin

omniscient one who still has activity in the body

The sayoga-kevalin is an omniscient being who still has physical activity. The soul is still within the body, in order to achieve the lifespan - āyus - of the particular ascetic.
This is the stage attained by eminent Jain persons, the Jinas, the Arhats and so on.

14

ayoga-kevalin

omniscient one without any activity

The ayoga-kevalin is an omniscient without any activity, remaining completely still.
This is the instant before death when all the categories of karma are destroyed, including those that:

The top of the ladder leads to mokṣa, in which the soul is perfected - siddha - having become free of all karmic particles. On the death of the physical body, the soul rises up to the siddha-śilā, where it dwells for eternity experiencing its own realisation.

However, Digambaras do not believe that women can reach liberation as they hold that nudity is part of complete detachment and self-control - expressed in one of the five 'fundamental vows' of mendicants - and that women cannot go nude. This is because Digambara followers believe that women's bodies contain microscopic beings that men's do not, and which hinder the level of spiritual purity they can achieve. In addition, traditional social attitudes towards women make it impossible for them to shed their clothes as part of advanced spirituality while the scriptures stress the dangers for monks who mix with women.

Wiley states that 'A Digambara nun (āriyikā) takes the vow of non-possession in a modified form, and she wears a white sari. Therefore, she is classified as an advanced celibate layperson in the 11th pratimā.' (159)

 

Theory of karma

The elaboration of the guṇasthāna is closely linked with the theory of karma.

At every stage, some of the 148 categories of karma - the prakṛtis - must be unbound from the soul so it can progress to the next step. At the top of the scale, none of the karmic categories bind the pure soul and thus it can be liberated.

 

Classes of karma

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Snakes and ladders
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Western game of snakes and ladders is probably based on a Jain visualisation of the unsteady progress of the soul through the cycle of rebirth. This 19th-century chart shows the uncertain path of spiritual development, involving many ups and downs.

The 148 categories of karma are classified into eight main groups - the mūla-prakṛtis. These are divided into several secondary sets - the uttara-prakṛtis. Each category is defined by elements, such as duration, intensity and quantity, and presents different aspects. Among those aspects, three are particularly important for the guṇasthānas:

  • bandha - bondage - the period after the karma has entered the soul and during which it remains dormant before producing its effect
  • udaya - maturity - when the karma comes into effect
  • sattā - existence - the total length of time the karma is bound to the soul.

 

Karma and the guṇasthānas

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At every stage of the guṇasthāna, certain categories of karma do not bind the soul any longer and others do not come to maturity or fruition any more. The existence of all the categories of karma is attested all along the scale. Some categories disappear in the 12th guṇasthāna.

The 11th stage is an important step as only one category of karma can bind the soul - the sāta-vedanīya-karman, which causes the feeling of what has been obtained. However, 59 categories of karma can still come to maturity. At the 14th and final stage, none of the categories bind the soul, but 12 categories come to maturity and 85 categories are still in existence.

Based on information given in Glasenapp 1915, this table presents details of the categories of karma - the prakṛtis - involved at every stage of the guṇasthāna.

Numbers of karmic bondage, maturity and existence at guṇasthāna stages

guṇasthāna level

Karmic bondage

Karmic maturity

Karmic existence

1

117

117

148

2

101

111

147

3

74

100

147

4

77

104

148

5

67

87

148

6

63

81

148

7

58

76

148

8

58

72

148

9

22

66

148

10

17

60

148

11

1

59

148

12

1

57

101

13

1

41

85

14

0

12

85

The graph shows at a glance how progression through the scale provokes the fall of the karmic bondage.

 

Duration of karma

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The theory of karma gives also an idea of the time taken by the karma to fall or mature. This is the duration - sthiti - calculated with a minimum and a maximum.

The minimum a karmic category binds the pure soul is one muhūrta - approximately 48 minutes. The maximum can total 70 koṭakoṭi sāgaropama - 7 x 10225 years. If the maximum is followed, it could be a very long path through the scale of perfection!

 

Eleven 'Steps of Perfection'

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Fourfold community
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

This manuscript painting shows the 'fourfold community' of Jains listening to a Jina. All four parts of the Jain community are crucial and interdependent. Lay men and lay women are shown on the top rows with monks and a nun below

 

Progressing from the lay part of the Jain community to the mendicant element is understood to be very difficult. To help the lay person move from the fifth guṇasthāna up to the sixth, the Jain doctrine proposes 11 more steps - the pratimās.

The Sanskrit term pratimā means 'image' or 'statue'. In particular, it refers to the Jinas represented in art in the kāyotsarga posture. This involves standing as immobile as a statue, with arms held loosely alongside the body, which is seen as a model to follow because it is associated with very deep meditation.

The 11 steps are meant to allow lay people who wish to progress spiritually to live increasingly similarly to the mendicant lifestyle. The pratimās involve meditation and gradually renouncing activities and habits to improve self-control and improve detachment.
The table gives details of the 11 pratimās.


'Eleven Steps of Perfection' - pratimās

Stage

Sanskrit term

English meaning

Detail

1

darśana

step of belief

The lay person simply has a firm faith in the Jain teaching.

2

vrata

step of taking the vows

The believer becomes a full 'member' of the Jain community by taking the fundamental vows of all Jains, namely to:

3

sāmāyika

step of equanimity

The lay person practises meditation in the posture of kāyotsarga and tries to consider everything with the same eye, giving the same weight to all points of view.

4

poṣadha

step of fasting during holy days

The devotee fasts on certain days, training to face the difficulties of fasting.

5

sacitta-tyāga

step of renouncing food containing living beings

The lay person pays attention to the habits of daily life by rejecting food containing living beings. Examples include roots and tubers, such as potatoes, onions and aubergines.

6

rātribhakta

step of renouncing sexual enjoyment

The lay person renounces sexual enjoyment during the daytime, which is a first step before complete celibacy. It is sometimes read as rātri-bhukta-tyāga - the ‘renunciation of eating at night’ - which prevents accidentally harming living beings.

7

brahmacarya

step of complete celibacy

The devotee accomplishes total celibacy.

8

ārambha-tyāga

step of renouncing daily activities

This step marks a real transition from the 'householder life' to that of a mendicant, in that the devotee does not take an active role in the normal duties of the household and business.

9

parigraha-tyāga

step of renouncing possessions

This step sees the lay person definitively leave the life of a householder by renouncing all possessions.

10

anumati-tyāga

step of renouncing permitted activities

The devotee only eats what other people give him and does not cook his own food, which is permitted before this stage. Even advisory roles in standard household and business life are given up.

11

uddiṣṭa-tyāga

step of renouncing prescribed food

This point marks the lay person's final stage towards initiation as a mendicant. He or she is now ready to attain the sixth guṇasthāna and to take the vows of monk or nun.
The devotee lives with a group of ascetics, adopting the mendicant lifestyle. After this preparatory stage, the novice may progress to full initiation as a mendicant.
The Śvetāmbara tradition names this step the 'becoming monk' - śramaṇa-bhūta.
The Digambara tradition has more parts in this stage, namely the:

  • junior monk - kṣullaka - who wears three pieces of cloth, and the junior nun - kṣullikā
  • monk - ailaka - who wears one piece of cloth.

The Digambara belief that souls cannot be emancipated while embodied within women means that women are technically not permitted to become nuns among the sect. The highest pratimā level a Digambara woman can reach is the 11th stage, according to Wiley (2004). Therefore she remains a lay woman, although she lives as a mendicant and takes the vows of a mendicant, albeit with a slightly modified vow of non-attachment.

 

History and reception

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Nineteenth-century Jain trader
Image by J. Forbes Watson & J. W. Kaye © Smithsonian Institution

This 1869 photograph from 'The People of India' shows a Jain merchant in Lahore, now in modern Pakistan. As part of the fourfold community, lay Jains donate money to temples and give alms to mendicants.

 

It is quite difficult to trace the history of these two scales of perfection in Jainism. Literary references are sparse until the first list of the guṇasthānas appears in the Digambara text called Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama - Treatise in Six Parts, composed around the third century CE. The Tattvārtha-sūtra, the only scripture accepted as authoritative by both main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara, also mentions the guṇasthānas.

The most influential text to discuss the guṇasthāna is Nemicandra's two-volume work, the Gommaṭasāra - Essence of Mahāvīra’s Teachings. Written in the tenth century, it remained persuasive for centuries, especially among Digambaras. Writings on the scales of perfection became more technically involved during the 19th century, which may have helped reduce their readership among lay Jains.

Although nowadays Jains retain the idea of spiritual progression, the formal, highly technical theories of the scales of perfection are far less widespread than in previous centuries. Scholarly interest in the concept also seems to be quite unpopular, with the work of Von Glasenapp in the early 20th century followed some eighty years later by more modern research. Despite this lack of substantial academic investigation, scholars of Jain studies generally recognise the importance of the guṇasthānas in the journey towards liberation.

 

Early references

The Uvāsaga-dasāo - Ten Lay Men - is the seventh Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon and describes right conduct for lay Jain society. It does not evoke the guṇasthānas but mentions the pratimās. This text invites the devotee to reaffirm his faith in the Jain doctrine and encourages him to focus on his inner religious life. Thus the 'Story of Ānanda' shows how a lay man feels ready to progress through the stages of being an upāsaka, becoming the steady 'ideal lay man' who is the central figure of the text.

Then that Āṇanda, the servant of the Samaṇa, engaged in conforming himself to the standards of an uvāsaga. Perfectly, in thought, word and deed, he practised, maintained, satisfied, accomplished, proclaimed and completed the observance of the first standard of an uvāsaga according to the sacred writings, according to the rules prescribed in them, according to the right way, and according to the truth.

Then that Āṇanda, the servant of the Samaṇa, completed the observance of the second standard of an uvāsaga, and likewise that of the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh standards.

Verses 70 to 71
translation by Hoernle, page 46, 1885

On the Digambara side, Kundakunda refers to the scales of perfection, mentioning both guṇasthānas and pratimās, but he never develops the theory. His own doctrine focuses on the purity of the self and follows an absolute point of view away from a conventional point of view where these scales take place.

The soul possesses neither stages of biological development (jva-sthāna) nor states of spiritual development (guṇasthāna), all these are modifications of the matter.

Samayasāra 2.17
translation by Zaveri / Kumar 2009

The one author to describe the scales is the philosopher Umāsvāti, whose authority is recognised by both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras. In the ninth chapter of his Tattvārtha-sūtra, he evokes the guṇasthānas in their ancient form. Indeed, the scale begins with the fourth stage, at the very moment when the individual becomes a resolved Jain.

The first complete list is given in the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama - Treatise in Six Parts. It is a voluminous treatise seen as a pro-canonical text by the Digambaras and the ultimate source of their teachings. Written around the third century CE, it provides a simple list of the 14 stages without any technical information.

The 'Gommaṭasāra'

Inspired by the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama, Nemicandra wrote in the tenth century a voluminous compendium named Gommaṭasāra - Essence of Mahāvīra’s Teachings. The work is divided into two books, with one each devoted to:

  • the soul, called 'Jīva-khaṇḍa', which lists the 14 guṇasthānas under the name of ‘compositions of the soul’ - jīva-samāsa
  • karma, called 'Karma-khaṇḍa', which goes into details of the karmic categories involved at each stage.

1) Wrong belief, 2) taste of right belief, 3) mixed, 4) right belief without self-control, 5) partial self-control, 6) complete self-control with carelessness, 7) the opposite (i.e. complete self-control without carelessness), 8) new process, 9) no return process, 10) war against the subtle passions, 11) pacification, 12) destroyed delusion, 13) Jina with still an activity, and 14) Jina without any activity must be understood as the fourteen compositions of the soul leading gradually to the realization.

'Jīva-khaṇḍa', verses 9 to 10
Gommaṭasāra

The Gommaṭasāra enjoyed great popularity among Digambara circles until the 18th century. The poet and merchant Banārasīdās provides a personal account of its influence in his autobiography, written in 1641. Inspired by the philosophy of Kundakunda, he believed that he could not devote his entire life to the realisation of the self or soul, because he was still attached to secular activities. Reading the Gommaṭasāra, Banārasīdās realised that one should act in harmony with one's place in the scale of perfection. He was then appeased and could continue to feed both his family and his inner life.
In the mid-18th century, the Digambara scholar Paṇḍit Ṭoḍaramal wrote a Gommaṭasāra-pūjā. This poem praises the qualities of the Gommaṭasāra, attesting to the long popularity of the text.

 

Increasingly complex theory

The theory of guṇasthānas then reached a complexity that lay society could not grasp easily.

In the 19th century the poet Daulatrām wrote a short treatise for lay Jains, called the Chahaḍhāla - Six Chapters or Six Shields. This text never refers directly to the guṇasthānas but the chapters of the book are organised to form a progression from delusion to realisation that is similar to the 'Scale of Perfection' of the guṇasthānas.

 

Contemporary attitudes

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Members of an extended Jain family outside a temple at Dīvālī. Festivals are popular times to take vows, which may be temporary or longer-lasting. Common vows include undertaking fasts or other dietary restrictions, remaining chaste or studying scripture.

Nowadays the notion of the 14 guṇasthānas seems to be more an object of study than a genuine practice among Jain lay society. The idea of a spiritual progression is certainly present but the technical aspects of the guṇasthānas do not seem to be very popular. At every stage of the guṇasthānas a certain kind of karma should ripen or fall, which is described by the treatises with great precision. A strong mathematical background is required to follow the theory, which perhaps means that most people cannot easily understand it.

Three main scholars have studied the guṇasthāna theory in particular. The German academic Helmuth von Glasenapp devotes to it a chapter of his thesis on the Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy, which was first published in German in 1915 and translated into English in 1942. In 1996, Sagarmal Jain wrote an entire book on the guṇasthānas, followed in 2007 by Sādhvī Darśanakalāśrī.

P. S. Jaini and Nathmal Tatia also evoke the guṇasthāna theory in their studies as being a major element of the Jain path to liberation.