Jainism : The World of Conquerors ► 6 ► The Culture ► 6.1 ► Jain Values and The Modern World

Posted: 23.12.2015

Recent centuries have witnessed revolutionary changes in many areas of human life. Standards of living, life expectancies, communications, social, economic and political values, science and technology have all undergone rapid change. The only thing that can be said with any certainty today is that the pace of such change is likely to accelerate.

The value systems of the past, whether ideological or religious, have been unable to retain the force they once had. In Western countries, identification with historic religious institutions, churches and synagogues has declined radically in the twentieth century. However, there is no evidence that the need of humankind for some form of spiritual expression has declined, but it is less clear where they can turn to find it.

Since the eighteenth century, and the advent of what has been termed 'The Enlightenment', there have been those who saw in technical and scientific advances, and in more open political forms, an opportunity for humanity to enjoy greater happiness. In Western nations, this was interpreted in the nineteenth century as the fruits of 'progress', but one need only look to the history of Europe in the twentieth century to see how cruelly betrayed we have been by these ideas. The worst wars, the greatest suffering, famines, poverty, exploitation of people, animals and the environment have occurred in the lifetimes of people alive today - they still continue.

Neither the political or economic systems, such as communism, socialism or capitalism, nor technological changes have stopped this exploitation, or the feelings of alienation, unhappiness and anxiety that accompany them.

No one could argue that these human problems did not exist in the past, but the difference today is that we are now more aware that humanity is capable, should it fail to show restraint, of destroying the whole world. We possess the weapons, nuclear, chemical and biological, to wipe out all life on Earth, and the environmental damage we inflict is capable of disrupting the entire world biosphere, poisoning the air, water and food upon which we all depend. This danger is the price we seem to be paying for 'progress'.

One common feeling expressed by people today is that of helplessness. The expression 'a small cog in a big machine' is often used to sum up how we feel about ourselves. Low self-esteem and a sense of being undervalued create stress, depression and psychosomatic illnesses, which are on the increase in modern societies.

Whatever one feels, it remains true that all individuals have an effect, however slight, on others around them in the complex networks of modern society. If we act, we influence; if we do not act, we influence; if we speak, we influence; if we do not speak, we influence; if we interfere, we influence and if we ignore, show apathy or tolerance, we influence.

The challenge presented to us is to try to identify the ideas and values, which will show us a way to deal effectively with the problems thrown up by modern living. To begin with, let us dispose of the myth that people today are in a situation of moral decline. The majority of people does recognise moral values and want to live by them.

While some have thought that better education, a better standard of living and increasing democratisation would bring a more rational and moral society, the situation has turned out to be more complex than the naive view supposed.

One of the central issues addressed by the world's major religious traditions is the ethical question of how one should live. What is a 'proper' way to live; what is the purpose of our lives? Not all traditions have arrived at the same conclusions and, here, we will describe Jain values and relate them to modern life and attitudes. The message that we hope will emerge is that although Jainism is extremely ancient, its wisdom is not at all irrelevant to modern human life.

Despite the accumulation of a mass of evidence to the contrary, there are still many people who believe that they can achieve happiness through material and sensual means, and attach great importance to external things: money, property, cars, food, drink, status, and sensual and sexual gratification. They behave selfishly, concentrating their attention and care upon themselves and a circle of family and friends. One cannot achieve permanent happiness through material things. It often seems that the more we have, the more we want. Happiness dependent on external materials or agencies is transitory and does not generate that deep inner contentment which people seek, but fail to find. Greed is the cause of much misery; Mahatma Gandhi was right when he said that there are resources enough on this earth to provide for everyone's need, but not a single person's greed.

Human attitudes and behaviour in the modern world pose many challenges, and here we discuss some of the issues facing humanity, and how Jain values can contribute to understanding and resolving them.

If we were to interview a hundred people and ask them what they thought was the purpose or meaning of their lives, what would they answer? Probably in many cases, if not all, they would say something about happiness, as it is a goal, which most people seek in their lives. But where or how is happiness to be found? Jainism is clear on this, to answer this question; one must understand how Jainism understands people. All humans have a soul, which is the 'true' person, the 'self', and the soul is always seeking to return to its pure or pristine form, in which it will be in a state of bliss. The material world of actions and attachments precipitate the accretion of karmic particles to the soul, preventing it from enjoying its true characteristics and happiness. It is clear, therefore, that to seek happiness in attachment to material, worldly things, including human relationships, is to be deluded. Jainism does not deny enjoyment of the good things in life, but they should be enjoyed and used in a spirit of detachment according to our needs, not to our cravings and boundless desires.

While human beings are conscious of their individuality, they are also social beings, dependent upon others. Selfish activities, greed and lack of thought for others may give us pleasure, but ultimately they are the real causes of our miseries; they cause violence to others and in doing so, harm us. Only by loving and respecting others, and practising tolerance, kindness, compassion and generosity, self-restraint and non-violence can we be 'true' to ourselves. In the Jain view, we may be individual souls, but our actions, which determine our destiny, tie us so closely to others that we should behave with as much concern for the welfare of others as for ourselves.

Although most people now live in democratic, 'free' societies, at times they have to act against their will. They have to do many things, which they dislike. The decisions of governments and authorities are imposed on them and often the people have no voice. This poses questions about the freedom. Faced with this dilemma, the Jain way is to judge how one should act in the light of the principle of ahimsaa; there are often ways to be found of complying with government decrees without compromising this principle.

Education is a moral act; knowledge and the ways in which it is classified and imparted are not morally neutral. Jains view education as a moral project to promote physical and mental well being and to help to bring about a good society based upon sound moral and spiritual values. Parents have an important role and responsibility in the education of their children; they cannot abdicate this responsibility to schools or teachers. Without their active support and co-operation, children cannot learn to the best of their ability. Parents have to educate by example, practising self-restraint and moral values. Jainism makes no apology for being conservative and seeing the family as the proper building block of society.

Human life depends upon other living beings: without plants and animals, humankind could not survive, and Jainism believes that all living beings have the capacity to feel and experience pain and pleasure in differing degrees. Science has confirmed the sensitive balances of the natural world, and practically all religions teach us to safeguard life on earth and to show compassion to living things, but clearly this is often lacking. Millions of animals, large and small, are killed daily for food, but this need not happen, as we can survive without such violence. Animals suffer and die in so-called sports and through hunting, for the satisfaction of human desires.

Besides animals, the plant kingdom is also suffering from the behaviour of humankind, resulting in desertification, deforestation and similar detrimental effects on large areas of the earth, which is intensifying the environmental imbalance still further. Violence in any form is the main cause of unhappiness in the world. As a result of human dietary habits the world is becoming more and more violent every day. Although the killing of animals and destruction of the natural world happen every day, it is not essential for human existence and its progress.

Jainism teaches that one should try to avoid harming nature in any way and live harmoniously with all life on this earth. More obvious forms of violence: crimes such as assaults, robbery, burglary, all types of dishonesty, and sexual offences are common in modern societies, causing fear and unhappiness. Jains believe that a society based upon their principles of 'non-violence and reverence for life', 'non-attachment' and 'relative pluralism' would lead to an improvement and fairness to all.

Modern societies are much more open about sexual matters than societies were in the past. The changed economic position of women has created a genuinely new situation. To Jains, the prevalence of family problems: single parenthood, illegitimate children, termination of pregnancies, and the many economic, health and social problems arising from sexual behaviour are avoidable. Jainism teaches sexual restraint, and there is little doubt that many of our current problems would not occur if more responsibility was exercised and attitudes were less 'liberal'. Jainism regards marriage, as an institution worthy of support and hence, divorce is very uncommon in Jain communities. As a result of Jain views on the nature of karma, it is also uncommon for widowed women to remarry. These women frequently devote their lives to spiritual pursuit, some even become ascetics.

Violence and abuse in families and apathy towards and neglect of elders are rare in Jain communities. The family problems common in much of society are minimised through devotion to Jain principles, supported by the belief in the operation of karma. Jains seek to be self-sufficient and take responsibility for their own lives, avoiding overdependence on the state or other agencies, and remain committed to the fulfilment of the duty of care and concern towards one another within families and across generations.

Jainism offers guidance on almost all the major questions of life, even in modern societies. Jains assert the positive value of life on the basis of the universal principles of non-violence and relative pluralism. Jain traditions stress the importance of individuals and of inner energy. Individual progress and the progress of society go hand in hand. Jain teachings could be summed up in the phrase 'live and help to live', and this is indicative of the high value Jainism places on each living being in the world as reverence for life should be maintained at all costs.

Jain teachings are rooted in morality, ethics and spiritual progress; they encourage people to reinforce these teachings through the practices in daily life, motivating people to reduce desires and attachment to possessions. If Jain teachings were followed from ethical perspective, much of the discord in society would be reduced. It is this spirit which has developed, to take one example, into the practice of vegetarianism. Jainism may be an ancient religion, but its message is very relevant to the needs of the modern world.

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Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998