Global Relevance Of Jain Religion

Posted: 26.03.2009
Updated on: 30.07.2015

N.P.  Jain

1.1 Introduction

Jain religion has, over many centuries, survived the vicissities of history and the competing space claimed by other faiths in multi-religious and multi-cultural India. It may have today a limited following of around 10 million people only, but it has made an abiding impact on India’s cultural heritage with its central focus on the practice of non-violence as life ethics. Jain religion has not been a proselytizing religion, but its compassionate philosophy has inspired ethical and humanitarian values in thought and conduct on individual as well as collective level.

Global relevance of Jain religion and philosophy in contemporary times could perhaps be more fully appreciated if one looks at it broadly from six angles:

    1. Jainism as a Religion of ‘Ahińsā ‘ (Non-violence).
    2. Jainism as a Religion of ‘Aparigraha’ (Restraint and Detachment).
    3. Jainism as a Religion of Environment.
    4. Jainism as a Religion of Live and Let Live.
    5. Jainism as a Religion of ‘Anekānta’ (Multifaceted Reality / Non-absolutism.
    6. Jainism as a Religion of Vegetarianism.


1.2 Religion Of Non-Violence

Jain scriptures describe Non-violence as a supreme religion (Ahińsā Parmo Dharma). Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of Ahimsa in the 20th century once said that there is no other religion which has explained and espoused non-violence as systematically and comprehensively in depth and detail in its applicability to life as Jainism. He interpreted Jain concept of Ahimsa as one bearing the courage of practising it. That is how he mustered the courage to take on the mighty British Empire, and successfully led India’s unique non-violent struggle for freedom from colonial rule.

Martin Luther King was inspired by Gandhi’s experiment with truth and non-violence. In his bus campaign at Montogomery, USA, Martin Luther King said: “The chronicle of 50,000 negroes who took to heart the principles of non-violence, who learnt to fight for their rights with the weapon of love and who in the process acquired a new estimate of their own human worth

Gandhi was himself greatly encouraged from the outcome of his non-violent protest against apartheid in South Africa, and felt emboldened to launch a countrywide non-violent movement in India for freedom. But non-violence was not a tactical weapon for him. In keeping with the Jain concept of Ahimsa, he practised it in his personal life as well. His moral fibre was strengthened because he embraced the comprehensive Jain view that non-violence has first to be fully ingrained in one’s thoughts, emotions, psychology and intellectual outlook. It should then with the same consistency and transparency find an echo in one’s behaviour as well as expressions.

In contemporary times, humanity that is disraught with escalating violence at all levels of life and is hankering for stable peace may have a lot to learn from Jain concept of Ahińsā. Jain scripture “Yogaśāstra” says:

“Reverence for life is the supreme religious teaching,
Non-injury to life is the supreme moral guidance,
Giving freedom from fear to life is the supreme act of giving,
Non-violence to life is the supreme renunciation.”

Carl Sagan, the renowned American scientist summed it up succinctly. About Jain view of Non - Violence. “There is no right to life in any society on earth today nor has there been at any time with a few rare exceptions such as the Jains of India.”

Romain Rolland has thoughtfully observed in this context that the sages who discovered the law of non-violence in the midst of violence, were greater geniuses than Newton and greater warriors than Wellington. Non-violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute.

The growing and increasingly terrifying spectre of terrorist violence and cruelty has become a matter of grave concern. Tackling terrorism has been likened by U.S. President George Bush to waging a III World War. However, violence cannot be defeated by more violence. The way out, in the ultimate analysis, is spreading the culture and practice of non-violence. Non-violence in Jain vocabulary is not the mere opposite or negation of violence. It is the point of origin of all good virtues like forgiveness, friendliness, tolerance, self-control, fearlessness. It is the very anti-thesis of ego, anger, envy, hatred, vanity, lust, avarice, hoarding, selfishness, revenge and retaliation. Thus, the Jain doctrine of Ahimsa is relevant for every sphere of human existence for promoting progress with peace, growth with serenity, and happiness with equanimity.

What the world needs today and would need even more tomorrow is increasing global commitment to the culture of non-violence. As Martin Luther King put it aptly:

“The choice is no longer between Non-violence and violence;
It is between Non-violence and non-existence

The global relevance of Jainism today lies in the need to bring home to the wider strata of global human society that Ahińsā has to become the bedrock of our individual as well as collective survival. Violence only fouls the atmosphere and nurtures more conflict, suspicion, hatred and intolerance. Non-violence has a tremendous potentiality to be the catalyst and the core civilizing principle of the new global order. After all it is only during periods of peace that culture, literature, fine arts, music and other humanities have flourished and taken humanity to elevated levels of sensitivity and appreciation.
Lord Mahāvīra has very eloquently elucidated the concept of Ahińsā Dharma covering thought, conduct and expression. He says:

“I cannot take what I cannot give back. No one can give back life. So no one should take it. In
happiness and suffering, in joy or grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.

We should refrain from inflicting upon others such injury, suffering or pain as would be undesirable or unbearable if inflicted upon ourselves. We must endeavour to develop equanimity towards all living beings and elements of nature in this universe.”

Jain scripture Ācārańga, 12/3/63 says:

“The instinct of self-preservation is universal. All beings are fond of life and like pleasure. They hate pain, shun destruction like life, love to live and avoid untimely death. To all life is dear. Hence all breathing, exciting, living sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused nor tormented or driven away.”

Mahāvīra has also explained the concept of Ahińsā in deeper philosophical terms as follows: “There is nothing so small and subtle as the atom nor any element so vast as space. Similarly, there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence, and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life.”

Ācārya Candanājī of Vīrāyatana has interpreted Ahińsā thus:

Ahińsā is a true and unconditional surrender of our own identity for the welfare of others. Ahińsā is not a mere principle of a particular religion; it is in consonance with the true nature (Vastū - Svabhāva) of all living beings.”


1.3 Religion Of Restraint And Detachment

 Aparigraha – the spirit and practice of restraint and detachment leading upto renunciation is very central to the Jain philosophy. Jain religion does not make renunciation as a compulsive principle for all followers, but offers a road map for it through steady progress towards limitation of one’s wants, desires, needs and growing pace of detachment. The culture of Aparigraha is rapidly acquiring global relevance.

Humanity is caught up in the whirlpool of ever increasing wants, needs and comforts, interalia, on account of rapid strides in science and technology. This has increased human greed and envy, and has led to over-consumption as well as wasteful consumption and rapid depletion of earth’s precious non-renewable natural resources.

Practice of “Sańyama” (self-restraint) is vital in this age of unbridled consumerism, which often leads to over-indulgence, waste and abuse of resources. With increasing pressure of world population (which has already crossed the six billion mark) on limited global natural resources, the future holds out very grim prospects for survival. This is even more so when 75% of world’s resources are benefiting only 25% of world’s population living in highly developed countries.

Voluntary self-restraint is also imperative for fencing in the otherwise uncontrollable craving, passions and lust. Jain scriptures say that it is owing to attachment that a person commits violence, speaks lies, commits theft, indulges in lust, and develops yearning for unlimited possessions. Possessiveness and greed are the main causes of creating tensions in the life of individuals and societies.

Uttarādhyana Sutra says, “If somebody gives the whole earth to one man, it would be enough. The more you get, the more you want. Your desires increase with your means.” Samantabhadra writes in Ratnakarańda Śrāvakācāra, that “just as no fire is ever satiated with any amount of wood, no sea is ever content even with waters of thousands of rivers, similarly no human being is ever content with satisfaction of his wants.”

The Jain techniques of practising self-restraint comprise of fasts, abstinence, restricted quantum or total giving up consumption of specific food and other items for a certain period or even for the entire life, eating below full appetite level, giving up eating after sunset and so on. Jains observe fasts without any food or water intake from one to a number of days. A renowned Jain monk Sahaj Muni created a record of 365 days of continuous fasting with intake of only boiled water drops daily. Clare Rosenfield, an American votary of non-violence and non-possessiveness writes:

“Through fasting one day a week, I too, in my own way, am gaining confidence in my health, in being able to be free from the need for food atleast one or two days at a time - from food - freedom from attachment.”

In addition to the foregoing outer forms of self restraint, Jain scriptures also highlight internal forms of restraint by way of repentance (Prāyaścita), humility (Vinaya), Serving others (Vaiyāvratti), self-study (Svādhyāya), Meditation (dhyāna), giving up attachment with one’s body or other possessions, bearing with patience and fortitude physical ailments or sufferings and keeping equanimity in the face of tensions, and disturbances.

The possessive instinct becomes so powerful in the midst of material attractions that acquisition of more and more comforts or commodities becomes almost a habit. Overcoming of possessive instincts is possible only with resolve, conviction, self-control and strong will power. In this context, Jain religion should not be interpreted as very austere, compulsive and demanding Dasvaikālika Sutra says, “Balam thamam ca pehaye”, meaning one has to undertake the spiritual practices according to ones capacity and competence. Aparigraha should be proceeded with in steady and gradual stages with a sense of delight and enthusiasm and not being compelled to it because of any ritualistic dictat.

Thus, the Jain concept of Aparigraha has tremendous relevance in the contemporary times, when ever-increasing availability of newer and newer commodities, comforts and conveniences are multiplying human wants multifold. Man is caught up in the whirlpool of never satiated desires. That is what has caused tensions and stress even after enjoying limitless comforts and luxuries. Practice of voluntary self-restraint in steadily increasing measure can bring to human beings much solace and contentment. It is individual as well as collective practice of self-restraint that can eliminate exploitation, egoistic domination and accumulative culture. Thus, aparigraha can emerge as the sensitivity medium of growing spirituality.


1.4 Jainism As A Religion Of Environment

Jain ecological consciousness is grounded in a judicious blend of divine holism and vision of nonexploitative science and technology. This scientific approach, reasoning and practices prescribed by the Jain religion are highly relevant today when environmental concerns are on the top of human agenda. The survival of earth along with all the spices on it is dependent upon the harmony of its existence with forces of nature. Human beings are a species among millions of other species on earth. Philosophically one could even say that whatever be the tremendous achievements or superior capabilities of human beings, we are just one of the players in the infinite universe of infinite time and space. We have to learn to respect and safeguard the divine balance of nature. The more we disturb it by polluting the atmosphere and degrading the environment, the more we are moving towards our own annihilation.

Jain religion’s emphasis on treating environment as sacred is on the same wavelength as the view expressed by the renowned western thinker T.H. Huxley, who said,

“The question of all questions for humanity is the determination of man’s place in nature, and his relation to the cosmos. Whence our race came, what sort of limits are set to our power over nature and to nature’s power over us, to what goals are we striving; these are the problems which present themselves afresh with undiminished interest to every human being on earth.”

Jain religion has analysed different aspects of environment in great depth, with sound logic and scientific approach. There are seven basic constituents of the environment: (1) Living beings, (2) Earth with its surface as well as underground properties and resource-potential, (3) the water resources in the form of vast oceans, lakes, rivers, waterfalls and underground water tables, (4) the air around us, (5) the sound factor, (6) the fire, and (7) the vegetation in the form of plants, trees, fruits, vegetables and herbs. All these constituents are vital elements in a ‘living’ environment, which supports and nourishes life.

Jain philosophy also puts focus on the need to remove mental, thought-based, expression-based and body movement based pollution. This is internal environment in a human being, which shapes his personality, psychology and attitudinal culture. Jain religion highlights how 17 types of internal restraint (samyam) could enhance serenity in human personality.

Jain saint Ācārya Mahāprajňajī has very thoughtfully observed:

“To establish harmonious coexistence behaviour with birds, animals, insects, earth, water, fire, air and vegetation is for human beings a devoted pursuit of Ahimsa. Ahimsa comprises in protecting the legacy of nature. The creation of the universe is a mutually supportive web. If a single strand of the divine web is touched, it would sensitize the entire web. All the animate as well as inanimate elements in the universe are inter-linked precisely as pearls in a chain.”

Jain religion as a religion of environment reflects ethical sensitivity towards the nature, which is on the same wave length as its focus on reverence for all life, and the imperative of living harmoniously in a world of contradiction and pain, selfishness and exploitation, greed and cruelty. Michael Tobias, a noted American Jain scholar has profoundly observed in his book, “Life Force - The World of Jainism”:

“Jainism is a momentous example to all of us that there can and does exist a successful, ecologically responsible way of life, which is abundantly non-violent in thought, action and deed.”

He has further added,

 “We cannot vouchsafe the lunacy, under any name, or any guise, which hails the abuse of this earth and all her goodness. This life force within us, this frenzy to be born and reborn, to live and to die, to love and to understand. Short of these freedoms, our life is nothing. Without extending that hand of freedom to every other organism, there can be no solace nor can there be a moment’s respite. Jains were undoubtedly among the first people to focus upon this incantation, these basic rights, this animal and plant liberation, upon the multifaceted realm of what today we term environmentalism.”

The farsighted vision in regard to environment ingrained in Jain philosophy from its early beginnings is aptly mirrored in Mahāvīra’s famous words “ “One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, fire, air, water and vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them.”


1.5 Religion Of Live And Let Live

“Tattvārtha Sutra” by Umāsvāti written between 1st and 3rd centuries AD deals at great length, interalia, with the characteristics of different life forms and their interdependence as well as interconnection. The soul passes through several incarnations in the ongoing cycle of life and death. Depending on its Karmic attributes - good or bad, life form is changed in each incarnation. The central theme of Tattvārtha Sutra is summed up in the phrase, Parasparopgraho Jīvānāma (Tattvārtha Sutra Uma Swami V/22)meaning that all forms of life are mutually supportive. The Jain Tīrthańkaras have all along invoked and inspired an intense and constant awareness of communion and interdependence of human beings both with all living beings as well as elements of nature. Yogaśāstra written by Hemacandrasuri in the 15th century AD elucidates this by saying Atmavat Sarva Bhuteşu– treat all souls like you would treat your soul.

In Jainology to be human being is a gift in the evolution of life as it enables him to bring out his humanity towards other fellow living beings and nature - thereby achieve oneness with all life. It is human beings alone who are endowed with all the six senses of touching, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and thinking. They can with their power of reasoning; judgment and discriminating faculty develop the culture of coexistence by being compassionate, loving, friendly, forgiving, tolerant and broad-minded to the universe around them.

Far from being dogmatic, Jain religion has a well-defined and clearly articulated scientific base, which elucidates inter-related properties and qualities of animate and inanimate substances in terms of evolution and growth of atoms in and space.

The one-sensed life entities have the sense of touch but are immobile. They include Earth bodies, Air bodies, Water bodies, Fire bodies and Vegetation. The mobile two sensed (sense of touch and taste), three-sensed (sense of touch, test and smell), four sensed (sense of touch, taste, smell and seeing), five sensed (sense of touch, taste, smell, seeing and hearing) but without mind, and five sensed with mind (sense of touch, taste, smell, seeing and hearing). The concept of live and let live applies not merely to the inter-human relationships, but also to all these life bodies with varying degrees of sensitivity, awareness and feeling. In Jain philosophy, this is an integral part of the feeling of compassion for all life forms. Michael Tobias analyses it in the following words:

 “Jainism - India’s and possibly the world’s oldest religion is a quiet, overwhelmingly serious way of life, a cultural insistence on compassion, a sociology of aesthetics that has dramatically changed the world and will continue to effect change.”

The Jain concept of live and let live helps in removing the delusion crowding human minds engrossed as they are in material progress for themselves without caring for the interests of other lesser privileged human beings, as well as other living beings. Exploitation of cruelty, towards and insensitivity to other living beings arises out of narrow centric selfishness, greed and ego. But if one realises how entire life on earth is interdependent, one would avoid getting tied to evil karmas, and through live and let live move towards discovering the divine within. It is through ‘live and let live’ that humanity can tackle the rampant fear, hatred, deceipt and oppression at all levels.

Thus, “Live and let live” encompasses the virtues of tolerance (sahişaņuta), coexistence (sahaastitva), compassion (karuņā), large-heartedness (Sahridayatā), sympathy (Sahānubhuti), kindness (Dayā) and forgiveness (Kşamā). It is due to the diminishing focus on such attributes that the humanity is drifting towards escalating violence in all walks of life, annihilating terrorism and rapidly disappearing ethical values.

The true essence of the Jain art of living is “be happy and make others happy”, and one can be happy only when one makes others happy. The fountain source for the ethical art of living is the trinity of Ahińsā, Aparigraha and Anekānta. Together in an integrated manner they provide the framework for life ethics. Together they fortify the foundations of synthesis, equanimity and tolerance.


1.6 Jainism - The Religion Of Anekānta

In the search for ‘Satya’ and in the effort to achieve Samyak Darśana (Right and Rational perception), Samyak jňāna (Right and Rational knowledge), and Samyak Cāritra (Right and Rational conduct), Jain philosophy lays fundamental emphasis on truth not being absolute, but relative. For gaining access to pure knowledge and wisdom, one needs to rationally take into account multiple arguments, interpretation and view points concerning any issue. One should not proceed that one’s point of view is the only correct one. One should not harbour prejudiced and prejudged conception of any reality.

Ācārya Sushil Kumar observes:

“If knowledge is complemented by liberal, impartial and polite outlook, positive inquisitiveness, then it can become the source of tremendous self-confidence. On the other hand if knowledge is accompanied by a narrow, partial, intolerant and uncompromising attitude, then it leads to ethical and moral weakness. The Jain philosophy of Anekant promotes synthesis between conflicting viewpoints, helps in discovering the complete truth, and inculcates in one’s knowledge and wisdom elements of liberalism, politeness, tolerance and positivism. For the world of philosophy, Anekant is a great boon.”

Simply explained anekāntvāda represents multiple views of a reality. It is a doctrine of manifold predications and of relative pluralism. Some one who is a father to someone can also be a husband, son, brother or friend of some one else. All relationships are in their own place. If a person understands multiple aspects of truth, he will realize more fully his multiple duties and responsibilities as well. Thus, in anekānta and syādvāda, we analyze and take into account all possibilities and implications of a given object or a person without changing them. This is indeed the reflection of the theory of relativity and an identification of unity in diversity. Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, former President of India once observed that:

“Jain concept of anekāntvāda is indeed a reflection of a open-minded attitude towards life and its constituent elements. It helps in promoting synthesis and avoids needless conflicts. In a Parliamentary democracy, anekānta assumes relevance because of the existence of a ruling party and an opposition. The work can go on smoothly if the two sides make an effort to understand each other’s point of view on a given situation, and endeavour to reach an agreed view based on mutual accommodation and synthesis.”

Anekānta concept has considerable global relevance in the world of today often torn with conflicting viewpoints, prejudiced attitudes and desire to impose one’s point of view on others. In so far as spiritual orientation is concerned the philosophy of anekānta helps in shaping human thinking based on appreciation of others viewpoints, while searching for the path of truth. anekānta promotes harmony, tranquility and rational balance in one’s thoughts, conduct and expressions.


1.7 Jainism - Religion Of Vegetarianism

The foundation of vegetarianism is kindness towards other living beings (Jeev Daya). All life is precious. Why deprive any one from one’s right to live only to satisfy one’s appetite buds. In the Jain religion, vegetarianism is not just a food habit, but an entire way of life grounded on the concept of Ahimsa, tolerance, piety, and compassion. Connected with vegetarianism are not only religious and spiritual angles, but also ethical, emotional, nutritional and health promotional aspects.

Vegetarianism has the potential of shaping a more balanced life style, and promoting more judicious use of available food resources. Vegetarianism has the emotional and ethical perspective, environmental perspective and health perspective.

The sight of slaughterhouses could make one realise the ordeal of the animal being slaughtered for human consumption. The intense feeling of horror, anger, hurt, pain and suffering goes into the meat of freshly killed animals. When eaten such meat could shape in the emotional fibres of human beings a psychology of callousness, anger, revenge, hate, disgust and intolerance.

The environmental aspect is among other things, related to the rapid extinction of many species at the rate of almost 1000 species a year. This is seriously disturbing the life system pattern. A vegetarian diet becomes an integral part of human intake (āhāra) of what is simultaneously nourishing for the body as well as a tonic for the soul. It becomes an element in the spiritual uplift of human beings while serving to satisfy their appetite as well as taste buds.


1.8 Conclusion

As a humanitarian and compassionate philosophy, Jain religion has the potential of attracting universal appeal. The religious doctrines and rituals are for the adherents of the religion to follow. However, Jain principles have an abiding relevance for shaping global human values in the right direction of promoting stable inner and outer peace, well preserved environment, climate of tolerance and accommodation, attitude of restraint and detachment, psychology of compassion and piety and above all a non-violent world free from not only the destructive and terrorizing violence, but also the stress, tension, hostility and hatred that it arouses.

Share this page on: