Jainism from a Theosophical Perspective

Posted: 04.06.2012
Updated on: 02.07.2015



The paper was first published in Sunrise Magazine (March 1973)


The mighty task of bringing together the various factions and of and revitalizing the great philosophy underlying the ancient Vedas was undertaken by two great luminaries born in the line of Kshattriyas, who vehemently revolted against animal sacrifice and the ritualized Vedic religion. These two spiritual sons of India were none other than Vardhamana Mahavira and Gautama Sakyamuni, both godless and yet most godlike, both endeavoring to save mankind from the trammels of samsara or the cycle of repeated earth-existences.

Vardhamana, a contemporary of Gautama the Buddha, was born in Magadha in the sixth century BC. He was the son of a Kshattriya chieftain who ruled the principality now known as Northern Bihar, and received his early education from the royal preceptors who instructed him in all branches of the Vedas, Atma-vidya and other sciences. At the age of thirty, when both his parents died, the prince renounced all worldly possessions and retired into the forest. For twelve years he practiced rigorous self-mortification and meditation and at last realized the highest truth. After having completed a systematic course of severe austerities and penances prescribed for a Jain prophet, he became a jina or conqueror, the 24th tirthankara in a succession of spiritual teachers, and was henceforth known as Mahavira, 'great hero.'

The first tirthankara was Rishabha-deva who probably lived in the Rig-Vedic period. He was described by the poets Bana and Mayura as the incomparable saint, higher than the highest deity of the Hindu pantheon. According to the account given in The Cambridge History of India, the 23rd tirthankara was Parsvanatha, a historical person who lived 250 years prior to the birth of Vardhamana. Jain narrative literature written in Prakrit and other Indian languages extols the unexcelled virtues of the twenty-four tirthankaras, a word literally meaning "ford-maker," one who guides the souls to the opposite shore of the ocean of transmigration. Like his predecessors, Mahavira dedicated his life to the propagation of the ethical philosophy based on the principle of non-injury or Ahimsa. The followers of Jainism abstain from causing injury even to the tiniest creatures, and always strictly adhere to the command that one should not kill. There are hundreds of didactic ballads in the vast Jain literature which illustrate the predominance of this virtue over all others.

Ahimsa is like a loving mother of all beings,
Ahimsa is like a stream of nectar in the desert of samsara,
Ahimsa is a course of ram-clouds to the forest fire of suffering,
The best healing herb for the beings tormented by the disease
Called the perpetual return of existence is Ahimsa.
The king of hills may waver
And cold the fire may grow,
The rock may swim in the water,
And the moon send forth rays of heat
The sun may rise in the West
But in the killing of beings
Religion can never consist.

Many a European Indologist who had not thoroughly studied this unique system of philosophy based on the cardinal tenet of non-injury, erroneously stated that it was an offshoot of Buddhism, misled by the fact that some doctrines were common to both systems. But when they delved deeper they discovered the fallacy of their assertions. Granted, both philosophies strongly rebelled against the animal sacrifice and polytheism of the Vedas, but they were two rival orders varying considerably in every other respect.

Jainism teaches the doctrine of the soul and Buddhism the doctrine of the non-self. Jainism explains the permanence of matter whereas Buddhism maintains the impermanence of every compound. Reality according to Jainism is something which is characterized by continual appearance and disappearance in the midst of permanence; the underlying substantiality of matter is eternal, while the various forms and modes of substance undergo transformation and change. On the other hand, Buddhism holds that all compounds are subject to change and dissolution, whether they are animate or inanimate.

The terminology of the Jain metaphysics greatly differs from that of the Buddhist. Jainism upholds the atomic structure of the universe, and its philosophy advocates a pluralistic realism. Its atomic theory may be called more scientific than that of Leucippus and Democritus. According to modern physicists matter has no substantiality other than being a center of energy from which radiation and waves of light travel - which closely approaches the Buddhist definition of matter - whereas the Jains strongly argue that matter has permanence. It is substance, dravya, that which can be seen, felt, smelled or tasted. At the other end of the scale is jiva the 'life' or non-corporeal entity involved in every object or being. The entire phenomenal universe may thus be divided into two major categories, the two extremes, as it were, namely jiva and pudgala, the latter term denoting primordial matter, the aggregate of atoms. In Jain philosophy the universe with its jiva and non-jiva (or ajiva) categories is called maha-skandha, the great aggregate.

In Buddhist terminology, on the other hand, this term skandha issued to indicate the five groups of mental and physical phenomena of existence, corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. And while the word pudgala in Jain metaphysics means gross matter, throughout Buddhist literature it invariably had quite an opposite meaning -- a person or individuality, soul or even atman.

The Jains consider jivas as endowed with cognition, conation, and feeling. Uncreated, and hence indestructible, the souls or jivas manifest in physical bodies in this concrete world, and thus imprisoned they have to depend on the sense organs to acquire knowledge from the objective world. In this way the jiva becomes the enjoyer of the fruits of its good and evil actions, and remains entangled in the cyclings of samsara, creating a karmic body which does not leave it until the final liberation of the soul from the bondage of births and deaths.

Dharma, adharma, akasa and kala are the other four dravyas or "substances" of Jainism, which together are said to produce a harmonious cosmos. Dharma and adharma are here used technically, with a peculiar meaning, and hence should not be confused with the Hindu connotation of righteousness, duty, or their opposites, unrighteousness, etc. In Jain philosophy, dharma means the principle of action; pervading the whole universe, it is always connected with akasa or space, and is responsible for all the movements in the organic and inorganic spheres. To clarify its true nature, the following illustration is used: although the fish is endowed with the necessary abilities to swim, if there is no pond with water, it cannot do so. The function of dharma is compared to the presence of water in the pond. Its opposite, adharma, is also a dravya devoid of form. It is the principle of rest and is likened to the branch of a tree on which a bird can perch when it wishes to stop its flight. Dharma and adharma are not causal, but rather non-operative conditions which allow motion and rest; yet the latter are determined by the jives or ajivas which possess the intrinsic potency to move or rest. As said, they are non-atomic and non-corporeal states invisible to the senses, and are coextensive with akasa. According to Jainism, without these two principles the world would disintegrate without form or order into infinitesimal atoms, into chaos without the systematic constitution of the cosmos. Among Indian philosophers, only the Jains expounded these two categories of motion and rest.

Akasa dravya is the category which gives accommodation to the four others, namely jive, pudgala, dharma and adharma. Akasa or space is infinite in extent, and divided into two: the space which encompasses the visible universe with all its jivas and ajivas (loka-akasa), and the space which may be termed the void or the beyond (aloka-akasa). The last and sixth dravya is time or kala, without which the change which everything in the universe undergoes in the course of evolution and involution cannot be understood.

As indicated above, when jive (spirit) is dominated by pudgala (matter), it becomes chained to the wheel of birth and death, the process by which each individual attracts to itself the subtle karmic molecules which shroud its pure, intrinsic intelligence (atman). When the jiva realizes its true nature, it immediately resolves to extricate itself from the bonds of this karmic body. By practice and discipline, meditation and austerity the aspirant begins the upward march, and his attention is concentrated on destroying the accumulated karma of the past. When at last the spirit is free from the shackles of matter, it rises naturally to higher realms and abides in its inalienable state of infinite bliss, infinite wisdom, infinite power and eternal peace. Thus, while it may be said that the jiva has no beginning, yet has an end, it can also be maintained that the liberated jiva does have a beginning but no end. For though it is completely free from the bondage of matter and the ocean of samsara, it is not free from existence, and enjoys the eternal bliss of nirvana. In this manner every jiva has the potential of becoming an omniscient jina or 'conqueror.'

There is no room in this thought system for the introduction of an artificial creator who is responsible for the creation of the universe. We are the creators of our own selves. Even the tiniest atom is itself a universe of life. Mahavira pointed out that myriads of tiny microscopic jivas within an atom and that that whole world of life is struggling for final emancipation from the domination of matter.

Jains were the first to attempt a scientific study of ancient biology. They regarded even the plants as having souls, and classified them as one-sense jivas. They described the universe as a unity in multiplicity. Spirit and matter, although opposed to each other, are coexistent eternal categories that can never be totally destroyed, for while there may be impermanence of external forms, the substantiality of matter per se never undergoes destruction.

The Jains have two different codes of ethics for laymen and monks. To realize final emancipation or nirvana, first and foremost, both householders and ascetics must adhere to the rules of ahimsa or non-injury, and then the three jewels (ratnatraya): right belief (samyak darsana), right knowledge (samyak jnana), and right conduct (samyak charitra). These virtues should be practiced simultaneously as one follows the path which leads to ultimate liberation. A more rigorous code of disciplinary ethics is prescribed for ascetics.

It is unfortunate that Buddhist and Jain literatures present in such profusion the controversies, dialogues and arguments which took place during the lifetimes of Mahavira and Buddha. As Professor M. Winternitz pointed out, there is so much they both have in common, that one can understand why Jainism was long considered merely as a Buddhist sect; yet they differ in essential points. He goes on:

Jainism lays far more stress than Buddhism on asceticism and all manner of cult exercises, and in contrast to the Buddha, Mahavira taught a very elaborate belief in the soul. All that the two religions have in common, is the ancient Indian "ascetic morality"... the points of contact, too, between Buddhist and Jaina literature, are precisely those which they both share with the whole of Indian ascetic poetry.

In that glorious age when Buddha was born, there lived in the holy land of Aryavarta several other eminent philosophers or sages besides Mahavira Vardhamana, who was considered foremost among them. It would lead us too far afield to go into the various religious and philosophical cults prevalent during that specific period, but they all are part of the historical context in which Buddha appeared to set the Wheel of the Sacred Law in motion -- the eternal Law that is forever valid, for the past, the present, and for eternities to come.

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