Concepts Of Freedom, Law and Justice in Jainism

Posted: 22.05.2009
Updated on: 30.07.2015

Concepts Of Freedom, Law and Justice in Jainism


Meenal  Katarnikar

In order to understand the notions of law and justice in any society, it is very essential to understand the theoretical framework of freedom as has been established in or granted by that society. And the reason is very simple. The notions of law and justice make sense only in and for the society of free human beings.

At the face value, the title of the presentation creates the impression that it is a discussion of the relation between freedom and the other legal concepts at spiritual level as explored in the Jaina religio-philosophic tradition. Even though this impression is not completely incorrect, the emphasis of the present discussion will be on the relation between freedom and the legal concepts in the political-social context as conceived in the Jain tradition. And here, there may be some conceptual problem. Political concepts are in themselves, incompatible with, or at least far away from any system of religion, or for that matter, even ethics. All religions conceive man as a moral, spiritual agent. None of them, or very few of them conceive the life of the state as independent of moral faith, or as the highest kind of life for man. As a consequence, any purely formalistic, secular concept of freedom and its relation to legal concepts would be irreligious or in other words non-derivable from the religious tenets. In short, deriving any secular notion of freedom from the religious doctrines of Jainism appears to be inconceivable.

Apart from this general problem of the relation between religion and political theory, there is a specific problem with reference to Jainism.

Jainism belongs to an ascetic tradition. According to its basic tenets, the highest goal of human life is spiritual liberation, which can be obtained by the entire denial, renunciation of the mundane life. In human society, there is a large group of non-ascetic people, but they do not have any right to spiritual liberation unless and until the embrace the ascetic life. Mundane life, or to use a proper Jaina word, a householder’s life can be pious, but not worthy of spiritual liberation. On the background of such a radical negative attitude towards ordinary, non-spiritual life, it seems inconceivable to have any significant social-political theory referring to freedom.

Moreover, the concept of spiritual freedom is defined as total empting of the active life that can be obtained by radically non-violent way of living. The extreme emphasis on extreme nonviolence and on inactive life is theoretically in contradiction with any secular idea of freedom that involves freedom to do something along with freedom from something, and also with any possibility of political freedom that embeds a partial coercion if not complete.

Although these conceptual difficulties are there in chalking out any socio-political concept of freedom in Jaina theoretical framework, there is one major reason to find out the threads of such notions, and the reason comes from the history of India. During the medieval period, there were a number of kingdoms that patronized Jaina religion and there were few kings who adopted Jainism. This is an attempt to find out those thought- constructions of individual and state freedom of Jainism that might have attracted these rulers, who were technically the Sravakas, the householders, and also to see the relation between such freedom and violence - which is inevitable aspect of state and which is the first and foremost taboo in the Jaina tradition.


Jain Concept of Freedom:

As a sramanic tradition, Jainism rejects a socio-centric or any other type of secular view in which the society and the state stand as the externally available saviors of man. According to it human happiness is determined by a transcendent cause, i.e. the past karmas of the individual. Each individual is subject to his own separate destiny.

As a philosophy, Jainism stands on the four pillars; viz Atmavada, Lokavada, Karmavada and Kriyavada. Soul by itself is imperceptible, it is perceived only through the medium of body. The word is also an ultimate Reality just as the soul is. The whole system of karma, in its turn is governed by kriya-action. The fundamental cause of diversities, changes in the world is action. So long as there are vibrations, disturbances in soul, it will result in continuous transmigrations. Cultivating discipline in our bahaviour towards other souls and material substances is the fundamental basis of nonviolence.

The Jain conception of freedom is thus, that of the autonomy of the spiritual will which is characterized by selflessness, tranquility, steadfastness and energy, in the face of temptations posed by egoistic impulses and external objects. In other words, freedom can only be gained by a moral discipline, that too by following the praxis of nonviolence in a radical manner. Any other conception of freedom can only be a perversion of truth and an abuse of words.

In ancient Indian society, a varied system of traditional rights, civil and political, existed which was largely of popular origin and was fundamental in Brahmanical law codes. The Jainas did not seek to replace this traditional system of law and institutions by any comprehensive alternative. It may also be admitted that the early Jaina canon does not evince any systematic interest in the reformulation of legal and political institutions. However, it does reflect over ideas and values which involve the state and connect it with a general philosophy of life.

The Indian faith recognizes one absolute and unconditional right, that of life. It is not a right created or recognize by law. To a certain extent, respect for life is admitted by all ethical, social and political systems but many of them subject it to significant restrictions such as the context of human life. Indeed, all political systems presuppose the justification of killing as punishment and of killing as part of a soldier’s duty. Practically all legal systems recognize the right to kill in self-defense.

In Jainism, that respect to a life includes its life, happiness and freedom. Killing, inflicting injury and pain, compulsion abusing, all these are modes of violence and violate the respect to living beings of all orders, from the microscopic to the human. The Jaina principle of ahimsa has a characteristic and unique comprehensiveness since it prohibits the use of force in any manner against any form of life.

In this comprehensiveness, the principle is apparently inconsistent with ordinary secular life. The Jainas themselves realized this, and held that while the monks ought to seek to realize ahimsa fully, the man of world or householder could follow it with limitations. It is this limited principle of ahimsa which ought to form the guiding principle of legislation and policy. By following this upasakadharma, i. e. limited principles of conduct; the householder has an opportunity of training himself till he gets matured for renouncing the world. The essential principle of human conduct and society is the recognition of the self as value lying beyond the instinctive process of nature and the recognition of similarity between oneself and others. In their ignorance, men tend to disregard these principles, but rational reflection prepares them for such recognition and spiritually enlightened persons guide them in this regard.

Thus, in the wider society, the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ coupled together with passions like pride etc. that indicate violence hold together family; lead to economic life as well. The human society which is driven by the conflicts and violence will be saved by the force and authority of the state. Orderly and peaceful human society would necessarily require the use of supreme force of sovereign power in society. The canons attribute the origin of punishment and coercion to the simultaneous growth of greed in men and niggardliness in nature. The close relation between the origin of coercive power in society and the fallen nature of man, according to Jainism, is not temporal but transcendent, and the state along with other institutions is a support to the life of virtue which leads man to rise from the fallen nature.

Violence continues in civil society, and even assumes greater proportions by becoming organized. The very institutions of family and property, which seek the protection of the state, themselves flourish on violence. Thus, within the imperfect conditions of human life, even though state is indirectly good, it is at the same time necessarily evil on account of its coercive nature.

The above discussion makes it clear that political power in its various forms was recognized as one among several preconditions of moral and religious life. Following from this, it was further recognized that obedience is rightfully due to political authority where relevant.
It is important to note one point. It is true that kings and officers at that time tended to follow a system of cruel punishments and we must remember that despite modern penal reforms there is still no limit to the ferocity of the state when it feels itself threatened or is moved by an inhumane ideology. Nevertheless, the attitude in early Jaina canon deprecates such cruelty in the penal system, and tends to place the policemen and executioners as parallel to the robbers and murderers.

Thus, according to the canon although kings are required for the practice of dharma, their own practice is tainted by dharma. The Jainas did seek to advise the rulers and hoped that enlightened rulers would help to the cause of dharma.

Thus, the king should follow the right faith and do his duty without regarding himself as a morally privileged person. The people should follow the example of the king. The laws of the state should not be contrary to the principles of spiritual wisdom, which decree nonviolence, equality and non-possessiveness. If the political life of man ceases to function as a support for his spiritual life, it can only promote evil.


Jain Concepts of Law & Justice:

On the background of this notion of freedom and the rule of the state, the concepts of law and justice in the Jaina tradition will be understood better. Moreover, these terms, which are the key concepts in legal matters can be analyzed properly on the background of the modern secular political concept of freedom even though they have wider application in moral and religious realm of human life.

In the British of the laws prescribed by the Jaina texts on the following topics:


    1. Adoption and Sonship
    2. Property
    3. Inheritance
    4. Stridhana
    5. Maintenance
    6. Guardianship

The Jaina Law was originally a part of "Upasakadhyayana Anga” which is now lost. The exiting other sources of the Jaina Law are the following texts:


    1. The Bhadrabahu Samhita
    2. The Arhan Niti
    3. The Vardhamana Niti
    4. The Indranandi Jina Sam,hita
    5. The Adi Purana

It has been observed by the scholars that none of these texts contains the entire law. And it is quite evident from the list of topics too, as they cover only 'civil procedure code' and not the 'criminal procedure code'.

It is open to the scholars to find out the injunctions regarding various types of punishments for various types of crimes as found in Jaina texts.

The aim of this lecture is not to enlist various laws related to the above-mentioned topics, but to find out the basic principles of Jaina Law and Justice.

Following observations can be made regarding these basic principles:


    1. Jaina Law is not the off-shoot of either the Hindu Law or the Buddhist Law.
    2. Both, the notion of Justice and the nation of Law are fundamentally based on religions sanction rather than mundane social or legal sanction.
    3. Gender equality or more correctly, respect for women is reflected quite sufficiently in this code, but there are discrepancies. A lot of respect is shown for Mother and Wife, but somehow a daughter is not been given that due share.
    4. The basic principles of the religion are maintained properly through these codes. For instance, the necessity of donation, social undertaking, and reverence to the monks has been considered properly.


Main Source-books:


    1. 1." Selections from the Jaina Law", pub. By Jaina Vidya SansthanaDigambara Jaina Atisaya Khsetra Shri Mahaviraji, Rajasthan
    2. 2.”Jaina Political Thought” by G.C. Pande, Pub. By Prakrit Bharati Sansthan, Dept. Of Jainism, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, 1984.
Share this page on: