Jain Philosophy And Modern Economics - Conflict Or Complimentarity [1]

Published: 07.01.2007
Updated: 30.07.2015

While economics and religion apparently seem to be aliens, there have been several attempts to bring forth convergence between the two. The Jain way of life is known for its austerity and curbing of wants, while, to an outsider at least, economics is all about exploitation of resources for the satisfaction of wants. Hence, at first look, economics and Jainism seem to be going exactly opposite.

Acharya Mahaprajna wrote Economics of Mahavir1994 wherein he tries to propound a new concept of economics of non-violence. In fact, in the world of economics itself, there is a vigorous new thrust being given to economics of non-exploitation, which seems to be coming extremely close to Acharya Mahaprajna’s notion of economics of non-violence. This paper tries to project that path of convergence.

The Economic Path and the Spiritual Path

All economic activity and all spiritual activity have a common genesis - the disequilibrium of the mind. The state of things as it is and the state of things that we want is not the same - which is the cause of all activity. This is exactly what is referred to as “wants”. When we try to adjust the without (external world) to fit the within (the internal world), the result is all economic activity. When we try to adjust the within to fit the without, the result is all spiritual activity. They have the same root cause - disequilibrium of the within and the without; they have the same end result - equilibrium of the within and the without.

The paradox of economic activity is, as is admitted in the very basics of economics, that wants are endless, and as we satisfy our wants, there come up new wants. Therefore, economic activity might reach milestones, but never reaches the destination - the full satisfaction of all wants.

Gandhian economist Dr J K Mehta tried to reconcile philosophy and economics. In 1962, he wrote a book titled A Philosophical Interpretation of Economics. Dr Mehta argued that the end of human endeavour was “wantlessness”. Spiritualism and economics both try to attain the same thing. A want, if satisfied, ceases to exist. However, the problem is that it gives rise to other wants. Therefore, economic activity never reaches the ultimate state when wantlessness is attained. In fact, if that were so, economic activity will be self-destructing.

One can never expect to get “ultimate” answers from economics, or, for that matter, any social science. If there is a want, economic activity aims at satisfying the want. But, then you have more wants, and satisfy the same, which leads to more wants in turn. Wants are like hydra-headed monsters. So, economic activity does not lead to a total satisfaction - it leads to more economic activity.

The essential distinction between economics and spirituality is one of long term: economics can answer questions relating to satisfaction of economic needs, development and material well being, but the ultimate question as to where does all such activity ultimately lead to, gets into the realm of philosophy. Therefore, economics finds its convenience in talking about the short term: as Keynes mentioned, in the long term, we are all dead.

The Jain Path

On the contrary, all philosophies, unlike social sciences, try to get into the ultimate question - hence, the basic quest of philosophy has been the ultimate happiness. Realising that ultimate happiness lies inside than outside, philosophy has always focused on self discipline, curbing of wants, curbing of senses that lead to wants, and so on.

Among all Indian philosophies, Jain philosophy is perhaps on the stricter side of self control. It treats all desires as arising out of karmas, essentially mohniya karma which makes one long for pleasures, and loathe all pains. The Jain path is regarded as quite austere. Jain agamas reiteratively preach giving up of attachment to worldly desires, possessions and all forms of parigrahas. In Acharang [2/ 86], he preaches freedom from all longings and all shackles of possession.

While to the ascetic, the Jain path is one of compete non-possession, to the householder, the rigors of the rule are much lesser. The proscription seems to be only one of earning wealth by wrong means, and being attached to wealth. (Uttaradhyayan 4/2 and 4/5)

Materialism and Jain Philosophy

Jain philosophy was intensively opposed to materialism. Jain literature refers to 4 branches of philosophy prevalent then - kriyavad, akriyabad, vinayvad and agyanvad. Akriyavad did not believe in soul or its eternity, and therefore, did not hold jiva responsible for its pains or pleasures. Akriyavad seems to be a materialistic school of thought, and references in historical literature relate materialism to the preaching of sage Brihaspati, Charvak, or a school of thought called lokayat. The famous lines attributed to Charvak seem to epitomise the concept of materialism: as long as you live, live life happily; drink ghee even if you have to borrow money to do so. Once the body is turned into ashes, where is coming back to the earth?

Mahavir was vociferously opposed to this idea of materialism or akriyavad. One of the essential vows of a Jain ascetic is that he renounces akriya and adopts kriya.

Jainism believes in eternity of the soul, and holds the self as responsible for all pains and gains. Material possessions are cause and consequences of karma, and karma in turn creates the bondage that makes atma bound to the cycle of birth and death. Hence, if economic activity is essentially material, Mahavir is fundamentally opposed to the idea.

Chanakya and Jain Philosophy

Famous historical character Kautilya [aka Chanakya, Vishnugupta] composed his epic Arthasastra circa 250BC. Kautilya’s book is essentially a compilation of a sort of civil code - it prescribes duties for the king, the subjects, laws of commercial conduct, etc. At the same time, it lays down several ideals for the king. Unlike present day economists, Kautilya did not carry out studies of man’s economic behaviour, but since large part of his writings are dedicated to welfare, the work is generally regarded as one of oldest works of economics.

While Chanakya brought about the downfall of Nandas who were Jain rulers, both Chanakya and his protégé king Chandraguptra Maurya became Jain ascetics in later part of their lives.

In other words, while the face of Jainism that we know today is a greatly austere religion that allows limited scope for economic activity, it is clear that economists like Chanakya, having lived his working life, have resorted to Jainism towards the culmination.

Impact of Jain Philosophy on Jain Community:

Non-violence was the basic thrust of Mahavir’s teachings, and therefore, in the atichars (violations) to be avoided by a sravaka (follower), there were several industries/occupations which were considered avoidable. The 15 karmadans (avoidable vocations) are:

1 Angar Karm Activities relating to fire Engaging in those occupations that require excessive use of fire such as putting up brick kilns; running factories for making soap and oil and for making match boxes and crackers and engaging in industries to make alkalis like washing soda and ashes.
2 Vankarm Activity relating to trees etc Engaging in business activities that necessitate cutting of green plants and trees, such as getting a jungle cut; peeling fruits; making gum etc., or running
3 Shakat Karm Manufacturing and selling of vehicles

Bullock carts, tongas, motor vehicles, cars, buses, taxies, riksha

4 Bhatak Karm Giving vehicles or cattle on hire Or existing only on the hire money obtained thus.
5 Sphotak Karm Engaging in activities such as blasting the earth or breaking stones Cutting them into pieces; making a tank by digging the earth; cutting tunnels; digging wells or digging the land; getting tunnels made etc
6 Laksha Vanijya Business relating to wax Carrying on business in lac or wax or alkalis that necessitate killing of too many creatures; manufacturing blue; engaging in industries for making soap and other detergents.
7 Dant Vanijya Business in ivory Carrying on business in ivory; engaging in business activities in respect of musk, the hides of animals and the feathers of birds.
8 Ras Vanijya Business relating to rasas or tasty liquids etc. Making ghee, oil, butter and honey, alcoholic drinks and selling them.
9 Kesh Vanijya Carrying on business in hair Carrying on business in selling the hair of human beings or animals and dealing in cattle.
10 Vish Vanijya Business in poisons. Manufacturing different kinds of poisons or poisonous substances or destructive weapons and dealing in them.
11 Yantrapilan Karm Relating to machinery. Running industries with various kinds of machines selling them or getting them run for hire.
12 Nirlanchan Karm Relating to animals and birds. Cutting the limbs of animals and birds, drenching them in water or castrating them.
13 Dav Danav Karm: Burning and demolition. Setting fire to things or burning things such as forests, houses etc., out of enmity or spite,
14 ardahtalabshoshan karm Drying up of wells, ponds, etc.
15 Asatiposhan Karm Running a brothel for livelihood Keeping animals, birds etc., and showing them as an amusement for earning money. Carrying on business in meat, eggs etc.

Historians feel that the Jain community abiding by the above prohibitions could not engage itself in several occupations, such as farming, industry, mining, etc. One of the reasons why there is a dominant concentration of Jains in indigenous money-lending and hire purchase is because money lending business does not anywhere violate any of the above prohibitions. [See Abraham Eraly: Gem in the Lotus 2000, p. 225]

While Jainism propounded a life of absolutely no possession to a monk, to a householder, who follows deshvrata [renunciation of a limited rigour], there were codes of good conduct, and limits of possessions. Thus, the renunciation of non-stealing [adattadan virman] practiced by a householder is almost like ethics of good business:

  1. Buying stolen goods.
  2. Getting things stolen; encouraging the act of stealing and giving shelter to thieves.
  3. Breaching Government rules relating to customs, taxes and imports and exports; and also smuggling goods.
  4. Keeping false weights and measures and wrong balances.
  5. Adulteration of commodities.

Likewise, the violations of the rule of non-possession are essentially curbing of one’s worldly possessions:

  1. Keeping more money than the limit determined by a vow.
  2. Possessing lands, grounds, houses etc., beyond need.
  3. Possessing gold, silver. ornaments etc., more than necessary.
  4. Keeping excess of domestic articles and provisions.
  5. Keeping servants, workers and domestic animals and birds beyond the determined limit.

continued in:

Jain Philosophy And Modern Economics - Conflict Or Complimentarity [2]

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Acharang
  2. Acharya
  3. Acharya Mahaprajna
  4. Agamas
  5. Atma
  6. Body
  7. Chanakya
  8. Concentration
  9. Discipline
  10. Economics Of Non-Violence
  11. Ghee
  12. Jain Philosophy
  13. Jainism
  14. Jiva
  15. Karma
  16. Karmas
  17. Kriya
  18. Lac
  19. Mahavir
  20. Mohniya
  21. Mohniya Karma
  22. Non-violence
  23. Ras
  24. Science
  25. Soul
  26. Uttaradhyayan
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