Absent Lord ► Introduction ► Jain Basics

Posted: 04.05.2015

Despite major sectarian differences there is enough common ground among Jain groups that one may legitimately speak of "Jainism," a Jain religious tradition in a general and inclusive sense. Who, in this sense, is a Jain? The answer is in part supplied by etymology. "Jain" means "a follower of a Jina." The term Jina, in turn, means "victor" or "conqueror," by which is meant one who has achieved complete victory over attachments and aversions. A Jain is someone who reveres and follows these personages and regards their teachings as authoritative. This is the sine qua non of all forms of Jainism.

The term Jina itself tells us something of great importance about Jainism. Jainism's emphasis on nonviolence might foster the impression that this is a tradition that emphasizes mere meekness or docility. Such an impression, however, would be quite mistaken. Martial values, albeit in transmuted form, are crucial to Jainism's message and to its understanding of itself. The Jina is a conqueror. As we shall see later, he is also one who might have been - had he so chosen to be - a worldly king and a conqueror of the world. But instead the Jina becomes a spiritual king and transposes the venue of war from the outer field of battle to an inner one. As I shall show, the metaphor of transmuted martial valor is basic to the tradition's outlook and integration.

The Jinas are also called Tirthankaras (in Hindi, Tirthankars, which form I use from this point on). This term means "one who establishes a tirth." The word tirth has two meanings. Its primary meaning is "ford" or "crossing place." In this sense, the Tirthankar is one who establishes a ford across what is often called (by Hindus as well as Jains) "the ocean of existence." The term also refers to the community, established by the Tirthankar, of ascetics and laity who put his teachings into practice; such a community is itself a kind of crossing place to liberation. A Tirthankar is a human being. He is, however, an extraordinary human being who has conquered the attachments and aversions that stand in the way of liberation from worldly bondage. By means of his own efforts, and entirely without the benefit of being taught by others, he has achieved that state of omniscience in which all things are known to him - past, present, and future. But, before final attainment of his own liberation, the Tirthankar imparts his self-gained liberating knowledge to others so that they might become victors too. Thus, he establishes a crossing place for other beings.

By either name - Jina or Tirthankar - these great personages are the core figures of all forms of Jainism. Not only are their teachings central to Jainism but they themselves are also Jainism's principal objects of veneration, and this is true whether or not they are actually represented by images in temples. However - and this is a fact crucial to this study - they are not believed actually to interact with their worshipers. This is because they are no longer present in our part of the cosmos. They came, achieved omniscience, imparted their teachings, and then they departed. And when they departed they became completely liberated beings. In this condition they have withdrawn entirely from any interaction whatsoever with the world of action and attachment. They dwell forever at the apex of the cosmos in a condition of omniscient and totally isolated bliss. Their former presence, however, has left strong traces in the world. They left their teachings behind, and also a social order (called the caturvidh sangh) consisting of four great categories: sadhus (monks), sadhvis (nuns), sravaks (laymen), and sravikas (laywomen). The monks and nuns are those who most directly exemplify the Tirthankars' teachings in their manner of life. The term sravak and its feminine counterpart, sravika, mean "listener." The sravaks and sravikas, that is, are those who hear the Tirthankars' teachings. The Tirthankars also left behind them a kind of metaphysical echo of the welfare (kalyan) generated by their presence that continues to reverberate in the cosmos and that can be mobilized by rituals and in other ways at the present time (Cort 1989: 421-22).

An infinity of Tirthankars has already come and gone in the universe, and indeed there are Tirthankars teaching at the present time in regions of the cosmos other than ours.[1] In our region, twenty-four Tirthankars have appeared over the course of the current cosmic period. The last of these was Lord Mahavira (hereafter I shall use the Hindi form, Mahavir), who lived, taught, and achieved liberation some 2,500 years ago. In our sector of the world there will be no more Tirthankars until after the next cosmic time-cycle has begun. The twenty-four Tirthankars who have come and gone in our region are the principal beings represented by images and worshiped by image-worshiping Jains. It is true that Jains also worship deities who are not Tirthankars. But as we shall see, the worship of such beings - if, indeed, it is worship at all - is seen as entirely subordinate to the worship of the Tirthankars themselves.

It should be clearly understood that, from the standpoint of the Jain tradition itself, the Tirthankars were in no sense the creators of Jainism. From an outsider's point of view, Mahavir can be seen as someone whose teachings drew upon traditions existing at the time, and who probably elaborated on those teachings in his own distinctive way.[2] From the Jain point of view, however, Mahavir created nothing, for the teachings of Jainism have existed from beginningless time and will never cease to exist.[3] It would be a major mistake, moreover, to think of Jain teachings as resembling speculative philosophy in any way. From the tradition's standpoint, Jain teachings do not stand or fall on rational arguments; rather, the sole and sufficient guarantee of their validity is the Tirthankars' omniscience. These teachings are not only regarded as unconditionally true; they are also enunciated for one specific purpose and for no other reason. That purpose is the attainment of liberation from the world's bondage.

In common with other South Asian religious traditions, Jainism teaches that the self or soul is ensnared in repeating cycles of death and rebirth. Liberation is escape from this cycle. The Jains believe that the cycle is without beginning or end; neither the cosmos nor the souls that inhabit it were ever created, nor will they ever cease to be. Each soul has therefore already been wandering from birth to death to birth again from beginningless time, and unless liberation is attained, the soul will continue so to wander for all of infinite time to come. Thus, the stakes are high indeed. As a Jain friend once put it to me, "Bondage is anadi (beginingless) but not necessarily anant (endless)." But whether one leaves the cycle or not depends entirely on one's own efforts, and what is required is not easy.

Central to the Jain view of the predicament of the soul is the distinctive Jain theory of karma. The concept of karma is basic to all South Asian religious systems, but the Jains have given it a unique twist. In general, the term refers to actions and their results. We act and experience the results of our acts; that is, we consume (and must consume) the fruit (phal) of our actions (karmas). Because actions inevitably have consequences, our actions and their results constitute a self-replicating concatenation that pulls the soul through the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The Jains share this general view with other South Asian systems, but they also - as others do not - maintain that karma is an actual physical matter that is attracted to the soul by an individual's actions and adheres to the soul because of the individual's desires and aversions (rag and dves). This view is one of the most distinctive features of the Jain belief system.

The accumulations of karma on the soul are responsible for the soul's bondage. This is because they cover the soul and occlude its true nature, which is omniscient bliss. The keys to liberation, therefore, are two. First, one must avoid the accumulation of further karma. Violent actions are particularly potent sources of karmic accumulation, and this is the foundation of the tradition's extraordinary emphasis on non-violence. Second, one must eliminate the karma already adhering to the soul. The fact that karma is viewed as an actual physical substance means that the most radical measure will be required for its removal. This radical measure is ascetic practice of great severity. The tradition's recurrent image is that of asceticism as a kind of fire that burns away the soul's karmic imprisonment; hence, ascetic values are central to the tradition's highest aspirations.

The Jains visualize the attainment of liberation (moks, nirvan) as a process that occurs in stages (called gunasthan s), although it can occur very quickly in the case of certain extraordinary individuals. Liberation is preceded by the attainment of omniscience (kevaljnan), which is an innate quality of the soul that becomes manifest when certain occluding karma's are removed. After a period of time (which may be quite lengthy) during which certain remaining karmic matter is removed, the body ceases to function; then, after the last karmic vestiges are shed, the soul rises to the abode of the liberated (siddh sila) at the very top of the cosmos. There it abides in omniscient bliss for all of infinite time. The liberated beings are known as siddh's, and are infinite in number. Among them are the liberated souls of the Tirthankars and also the liberated souls of others who did not, as did the Tirthankars, find the path to liberation on their own and teach it to others.

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