Why Jainism?

Posted: 01.07.2013
Updated on: 03.07.2015

A strong resistance to philosophical dogmatism and a respect for all life.


2013-2014 YJA Executive Board



A Video on Ahimsa: Made Available through the Pluralism Project at Harvard

The video above is made available through The Pluralism Project at Harvard.  The Pluralism Project speaks of seventeen religious traditions in the United States and offers excellent introductions to each of them.  

Those of us in the process community often turn to the website of the Pluralism Project for information and inspiration, and we encourage you to do the same. You can find an article on the pluralism project and process theology here.  

You may also be interested in the Center for Jain Studies at Claremont Lincoln University, where there is ongoing research on the intersection of process and Jain philosophy.



Degrees of Sentience in Jainism

Jainism divides living beings on the basis of their sensory organs (indriya) and vitalities or life force (praṇa). Accordingly, the higher the number of senses and vitalities a being has, the more is its capacity to suffer and feel pain. Hence according to Jainism, violence to higher-sensed beings like man, cow, tiger and those who have five senses and the capacity to think and feel pain attracts more karma than violence to lesser-sensed beings like insects, or single-sensed beings like microbes and plants. Hence Jainism enjoins its adherents to completely avoid violence to higher-sensed beings and as far as possible minimise violence to lower-sensed and single-sensed beings.

-- -- from Ahimsa in Jainism in Wikipedia


Gandhi and Jainism

Ahiṃsā does not merely indicate absence of physical violence, but also indicates absence of desire to indulge in any sort of violence.] This Jain ideal of Ahiṃsāprofoundly influenced Mahatma Gandhi; through his friendship with the Jain scholar Shrimad Rajchandra, it formed a basis of his satyagraha (truth struggle) against colonial rule and caused him to rethink many aspects of contemporary Hindu practices.[1] While Jainism is not a proselytising religion and as such has no organised system of advocating its doctrine, Jains have strongly advocated vegetarianism and non-violence throughout the ages

-- from Ahimsa in Jainism in Wikipedia


What are the core principles of Jainism?

Jainism is a religion and a way of life. Jains have five core practices that derive from the Anuvrata (lesser vows) that laypeople take and the Mahavrata (great vows) that monks and nuns take:

  • 1. Ahimsa (non-violence) is compassion and forgiveness in thoughts, words, and deeds towards all living beings. For this reason, Jains are vegetarians.
  • 2. Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness) is the balancing of needs and desires, while staying detached from our possessions.
  • 3. Astaya (Non-stealing) is the avoidance of taking that which does not belong to us or that we have not earned.
  • 4. Satya (Truth) is to speak the truth, however when speaking the truth would lead to violence it is preferable to remain silent.
  • 5. Bhramacharya (Celibacy) is the practice of reducing indulgence in order to reduce attachments in our lives.

-- from the Young Jains of America website


Anekantavada: The Relativity of Views

Philosophical and religious arguments about the nature and origin of reality are as old as human history. In India, sages and philosophers held many metaphysical views and were in constant dialogue and argument with one another. The Jains were active participants in the debates, and among their central tenets was the position referred to as Anekantavada. Translated literally, it means “no-one-perspective-ism,” in other words, the multiplicity and relativity of views. By this, Jains meant that in many cases the arguments espoused by the various participants in a debate all held some validity. Because the Jain position was able to overcome the apparent inconsistencies between the other views, however, it came closer to fully grasping the one underlying truth, satya. 

Likewise, contemporary Jains reject the absolutist “either/or” that characterizes much of traditional Western logic, taking instead the relativist stance that for every question there are many “right” answers that reflect from different angles and in varying degrees the one truth, satya. 

A well-known story from Jain mythology helps to illustrate Anekantavada. Five blind men have never seen an elephant. When one day an elephant is brought to the village, the five approach, touch and attempt to describe it. One man, who is standing by the trunk, describes it as a thick branch of a tree. The man who feels the tail disagrees, insisting it is rather like a rope. The man who touches the side, in turn, submits that the elephant is actually like a great wall. But the man at the elephant’s leg says it is like a pillar, and the man who gets hold of the ear describes it as a huge fan. Luckily, a wise sixth man is nearby to mitigate the dispute. He proclaims that, in fact, all are right, but only partially right. An accurate description of the elephant lies in combining the various partial views. Consequently, a complete understanding of any truth requires the consideration and acceptance of a variety of viewpoints.

While Jains have strong convictions, especially about such moral basics as ahimsa and vegetarianism, there is a resistance to philosophical dogmatism. Many Jains in the West see the Anekantavada approach as nurturing religious tolerance because religious views are approached as differing perspectives and therefore, perhaps, expressions of the same truth. An American Jain today puts it this way, “If a Jain sits down with a Muslim, for example, it is actually his duty to listen to the Muslim’s beliefs and to learn from him.”

By recognizing the relativity of views, Jainism has become a highly individualized religion. There is no central creed or set of dogmatic beliefs. There are as many paths to enlightenment as there are rivers to the ocean. Unlike creed-centered religions, Jainism focuses more on the questions of life than the answers. The tradition does not emphasize specific beliefs, but rather provides a framework of ethics within which the soul must find its own way to liberation.

-- from the page in Jainism in On Common Ground, a website for the Pluralism Project at Harvard: bit.ly/JQHAOJ


Ana Bajželj obtained her PhD in Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. Her research focuses on Indian philosophy, particularly Jain ontology. She held research positions at the University of Ljubljana where she completed the research project Philosophical relevance of death and dying. Throughout her PhD studies, she received several fellowships to study Jain philosophy in India. She studied Prakrits and Kundakunda's philosophy with prof. Kamal Chand Sogani at the Apabhramśa Sāhitya Academy in Jaipur

-- Center for Process Studies Media. If you would like to hear the lecture, click here.



Young Jains of America

According to the Pluralism Project at Harvard, there are about 3,000,000 Jains worldwide and 20,000 in North America.  The young Jains pictured on the left are among them; and they belong to Young Jains of America, the aims of which are:


  • *  To raise awareness about Jain ideals and principles in North America and the world;
  • *  To create a forum for sharing Jain religion;
  • *  To instill a sense of pride among youth about Jain heritage;
  • *  To address the problems, difficulties, and concerns facing Jain youth;
  • *  To assist and to promote charitable community activities;
  • *  To prepare youth, who ascribe to Jain values, to become successful leaders of tomorrow;
  • *  To develop friendships among the youth, who ascribe to Jain values; and
  • *  To foster and strengthen local Jain youth groups.


I hope the Young Jains of America succeed, not only for their sake but for the world's sake. 

Admittedly, their numbers are quite small compared to more populous traditions such as Christianity and Islam.  But it seems to me some of the ideals and principles of Jainism are at the healing edge of the evolution of human consciousness.  I focus on two: Ahimsa and Avekantavada

Ahimsa in Whiteheadian Perspective

Your best introduction to the spirit of Ahimsa is to watch the video on the left. Jains recognize the intrinsic value of all life; they know that all living beings, not human alone, deserve respect and care; they see value in multiple points of view and reject the idea that any single perspective has all the truth; they believe that non-violence begins with how we think and feel and speak, and not just in what we do; they advocate a gentle way of living in the world.  They do not ask or expect other animals to live in this gentle way, but they do think that humans can live in this way and, in so doing, humans can grow toward spiritual fulfillment.  

All this makes good sense to Whiteheadians, including those like me who are Christian and who are drawn to Jesus as a prince of peace.  Jainism emerged in India some 400 years before Christianity, and I cannot help but wonder if Jainism doesn't partake of -- and in some ways deepen -- a spiritual impulse toward which Jesus and other Jews were drawn.  The impulse is toward a life of non-harm, of forgiveness, of compassion.  In recognizing that such a life rightly extends to all living beings, not humans alone, Jains are spiritual pioneers: beacons for the future. Their vegetarianism is a practicing of the peace toward which Christians are drawn and from which Jesus, too, can learn.
Of course, it is unlikely that vast numbers of North Americans will convert to Jainism.  For Jains this is to be expected, because Jains do not typically reach out for individual converts.  Too often such evangelism, even if done in the name of love, is a form of violence.  Nevertheless, what the Young Jains hope, and what I hope, is that the principles of Jainism become more and more available as sources of wisdom available to people of many faiths and no faith.  
Already this has happened. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian influenced by Jainist ideal of non-violence, as mediated through the influence of Gandhi, who was a Hindu influenced by Jainism.  Our task in the 21st century is to keep learning.  In the spirit of the Young Jains of America, it is to become aware of, and learn from, Jain ideals.  One of the ideals is radical non-violence, including the practice of vegetarianism; and another is Anekantavada, or having respect for multiple viewpoints, including those of other animals.

Anekantavada in Whiteheadian Perspective

Imagine a wave in the ocean rolling toward a distant shore.  From a Whiteheadian perspective we ourselves are the crest of the wave, always here-and-now and yet always influenced by a past that grows over time. Our souls are becomings not beings; we are always souls-in-process.

Amid the process we are always feeling and responding to the world from a particular point of view, seeking to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand.  Whitehead speaks of this desire to live with satisfaction as your subjective aim.

In Whitehead's philosophy as in Jainism, all living beings with seats of awareness are in the same situation.  Those that crawl, those that fly, those that swim, those that walk on four legs: they, too, are feeling and responding to the worlds they inhabit with subjective aims.  They, too, seek to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. They, too, are souls-in-process.

This does not mean that all souls are qualitatively identical.  There are different kinds of souls relative to different degrees and capacities for sentience.  But it does mean that all souls are "equal" in the sense that, moment to moment, they have value for themselves, inasmuch as they seek to survive with satisfaction, and that this value is objective: that is, part of the very nature of reality.  We humans may rank various forms of sentience as higher than others for practical reasons; we may decide with the Jains that it is more morally problematic to take the life of a cow than a cabbage.  But we rightly know that the whole of the universe is alive with feeling, with sensation of one sort or another, and that all living beings matter ultimately to themselves infinitely.  In this sense all souls are equal.  Accordingly it matters cosmically how we humans feel and respond to one another and to other sentient beings.

Karma and Freedom

In our case, our feelings include acts of perceiving, remembering, anticipating, reflecting, and knowing, including the emotions which clothe or permeate those acts.  Whitehead speaks of these feelings as acts of prehending the world, and he speaks of the emotions as subjective forms. In his philosophy, even our most intellectual activities -- our mathematical thinking, for example -- is a form of feeling.

Our responses are acts of decision: that is, of cutting off certain possibilities for responding to the world and actualizing others.  In these responses we have a certain degree of freedom, but always we are also shaped by decisions made in the past and by myriad influences in the past actual world. 

In a Whiteheadian context, karma would be the power of the past as it influences the present and also the act of responding to the past by creating a new future.  Some of the influences we receive from the past are the result of decisions we have made in the past, while some are the result of social, biological, and environmental conditions for which we are not responsible, but from which we may nevertheless suffer.  At least this is how a Whiteheadian would think of karma from the past. Some of it is self-created and some is world-created.   

Multiple Perspectives

Karma inherited from the past is part of what constitutes our experience in the present, but we are also creating new karma in how we respond to what we receive.  Our responses take the form of thinking, feeling, and acting; and the Jain ideal is that we respond as non-violently as we can in all that we do.  

Ordinarily we respond on the basis of what we know or think we know, based on many kinds of knowing: verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, visual-spatial, rhythmic-musical, bodily, emotional, and introspective.  Typically these modes of knowing are blended in particular acts of knowing.  Each has cognitive value but none is infallible. 

Our fallibility comes from the fact that we always experience and know the world from a particular region in the space-time continuum and from the fact that our experience is always shaped by our past actual worlds and our own aims and intentions.  By virtue of these factors we know things in partial ways.

Moreover, our perspective is different from moment to moment, because we are always changing.  Our perspective at age two differs from our perspective at age twenty-two, which differs from our perspective age forty-two.  In the life of a human being, there are as many perspectives as there are moments of experience, and each moment brings with it a unique perspective.  

Other living beings have perspectives, too.  This includes creatures who crawl, swim, walk, and fly.  They, too, have their ways of knowing and they, too, live from moment to moment.  This means that on our planet there are multiple perspectives from which aspects of the universe are known, all of which are valuable and none of which are absolute.  Hence the truth of the Jain ideal of no-one-perspective-ism or Anekantavada.  There are as many perspectives as there are moments in the life of each and every soul.

As a result of this fact, it is important to listen to the voices of other people and other living beings, seeking to learn from them when possible, and respect what they may know; and it is important never to absolutize one's own perspective as containing the whole truth (Satya).  

While there may be living beings who have become so enlightened that they see the whole of things, we best be careful not to pretend we have their knowledge.  For the Jains these are the enlightened ones: the Tīrthaṅkaras. But we are not among them.  Always we approach the world through limited perspectives which ought never be absolutized, and which ought never to function as means by which we close out the possibility that others can teach us.

There is no one perspective that has all the truth, and there are many perspectives that have some truth.  Our best approach in life is to be humble with the truths we know or think we know, to trust that Truth is always more than anyone's perspective of it, and to take the appreciation of multiple viewpoints as a spiritual virtue in its own right.   It is to practice Anekantavada.

-- Jay McDaniel

Want to learn more? Let the Pluralism Project at Harvard be your guide.

For a timeline of historical Jainism, click here.
For a timeline of Jainism in America, click here.
For a bibliography on Jainism, click here.

Jainism and God

Jainism is often described as a non-theistic religious tradition.  It sees the universe as a cycle of cosmic epochs without beginning or end, and it avoids speculating on a creator god who might be an animating principle for the cycles.  Whitehead, too, speaks of the universe as without beginning or end, but adds the idea of a divine reality who beckons the universe into forms of order and novelty relative to different cosmic epochs and who is filled with compassion for all living beings.  In Whitehead's philosophy there is a side of God which forever feels the experiences of all living beings in any dimension of the universe and weaves a unity out of what is felt.  Whitehead imagined this side of God as a Harmony of Harmonies or a deep Peace.

For Whiteheadians it is possible to imagine the Tirthankara as someone whose consciousness has become transparent to the Harmony of Harmonies and who, upon the end of the cycle of reincarnation, continues to live as an inspiration for all to follow. Moreover, in a Whiteheadian context the the very word "God" can also be used to name a spirit within each living being -- a spark of divinity -- which is worthy of utmost respect and which can become transparent to the Harmony in time.  This would be God as the initial aim within each creature, which is indeed God in the creature, moment by moment.  This aim is not only an ideal aimed at, it is also the act of aiming at the ideals.  On this view "God" names the sum of all souls seeking and perhaps finding liberation.  

This is what we hear in the words below from Vivek Maru.

Our conception of God really is the sum of all liberated souls.  So your soul, my soul, the soul in the blade of grass outside, the soul in the grasshopper playing outside at night, all of these souls in their purest form is "God" for us.  And what is beautiful about that is that this means that God is really within because the soul resting within me is God, and it's the same God as was within Mahavira and the God that will eventually come forth when my soul achieves moksha.

-- Vivek Maru, Harvard College, Class of 1997, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Click here to hear the audio on the website for On Common Ground.

Who cannot but hear beauty in the idea that the word "God" somehow names the soul in each of us, grasshoppers included.  From a Whiteheadian perspective the soul is reaching toward the Soul, and the Soul is in the reaching.

Perhaps there is an ultimate peace to which all souls awaken after many lifetimes and journeys.  Perhaps, in the end, we all evolve into Tīrthaṅkaras.  If the universe has no temporal end, there's time enough for all of us to awaken to the Soul within the souls.  We can hope.

But here on earth, in this lifetime, the possibilities are more modest yet quite beautiful.  Deep down, we seek a way of living that is deep and gentle, creative and receptive, forgiving and accepting -- no, delighted -- by the multiplicities of life.  The strength of this way of living is in communion, not domination.  How can we open the door into this more compassionate way of living?  Surely Jainism holds some of the keys.

-- Jay McDaniel


Seated Jain Tirthankara, Solanki period (ca. 900–1250), ca. first half 11th century India, Gujarat or Rajasthan; White marble; H. 38 7/8 in. (98.7 cm); Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1992.131




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