Five Vows and Six Avashyakas - The Fundamentals of Jaina Ethics [7]

Published: 03.07.2005
Updated: 02.07.2015


The emphasis on the Avashyaka-Sutra up to this point has veiled the metaphysical framework of the various issues. The question is raised as to what this all amounts to. Even the minutest instruction is – theoretically at least – linked with an overriding philosophy.

Jainism is a religion of salvation ("Erlösungsreligion"). Every look at the relevant Indological publications shows that in Jainism as in Buddhism the whole system is based on the idea of rebirth and transmigration. It is assumed that (a) man, like any other living being is reborn after death. It is also assumed that (b) rebirth, i.e. the continuous change from one existence to the next is by no means desirable, but painful and that the process must be ended under all circumstances. The cosmic law which holds this entire process together is that of karman. According to this notion, every deed results in punishment or reward in the next existence. However, it is not reward (e.g. rebirth in heaven) which matters but final emancipation, i.e. escape from the entire process. This is brought about by the destruction of the karman, karman understood as matter which is attracted by the soul (intrusion of unwholesome external material) and then attached to the soul. The description of this karman and of its annihilation is complex and not uniform. However, there remains the simple truth that whatever is recommended or prescribed in a religion of salvation is (in the long run at least) conducive to salvation. Good deeds are never in vain.

The teachings of rebirth had already become widespread in India at the time of Mahavira and Buddha. The question of how Jainism resolves the problem of rebirth is another matter, however. General ethical rules and special rules for the monk as described above are the decisive factors. All the efforts involved lead to the ultimate release of the soul, brought about by the destruction of its karman. Contrary to Buddhism, salvation is not described negatively (concept of nirvana). Rather, it is portrayed, with an astounding amount of topographical detail, as abiding in a distinctly defined realm of blessed souls at the apex of the cosmos. The Jaina texts furthermore emphasize that, on the search for salvation, man is thrown upon himself. The world of Jainism is replete with gods of every description (Jainas are against being labelled as atheists), but these deities do not interfere in human life -- neither as assistants with earthly matters nor as aids to salvation. It is only logical that the Tirthankaras, for their part, are not gods. They do enjoy high honour, however (cf. Avashyaka II), and therefore, to a certain degree, they fill the vacuum left by the absence of truly present gods.

The heavenly domains inhabited by Jaina deities are situated below the realm of the blessed souls (among them the souls of the Tirthankaras). Thereby the world of the gods belongs to the general cosmos, which is governed by the law of rebirth. In particular, the Jaina gods -- like all other beings -- must be reborn as humansbefore they can achieve salvation. In agreement with the general Indian conception, the Jaina cosmos is roughly speaking tripartite: There is a heavenly world (of gods and demigods), an earthly world (of men, animals, plants, and elements), and an underworld (hell with its sinners). All of these, however, build an extremely complex supercosmos in Jaina dogmatics. In this supercosmos, not only topography, but also its inhabitants, their living conditions, and the deeds of the sixty-three "great men" of Jaina mythology (Tirthankaras, emperors, kings) are described in the most accurate detail.

Within Jainism there exists a school which quite generally denies the possibility of salvation for women (Bibliography Note 19). That is to say it denies that, in principle, women can already be released in their next existence (as is the case with men). This should be mentioned, even though we will not concern ourselves with the particulars of this controversy here.

A religion of salvation is a system which non-initiates approach with particular expectations. A certain amount of lucidity and coherence is expected, as well as a transparent idiom in the modern descriptions which makes the subject matter comprehensible. Matters being as they are, laymen press forward and find that the more they become involved with such a system, and the more informationthey collect, the more questions arise. As far as authenticity is concerned, we have been guided by the Avashyaka-Sutra which covers a fairly wide range of subjects. However, authenticity does not automatically provide lucidity and coherence. No doubt, in Jainism, these are to a large extent warranted by the general line of argument. But even then there remain open questions for the modern reader (and in some cases already for the ancient reader).

Naturally, even the earliest Jainas recognized and acknowledged in a general manner the difference between killing a water-being (when using water for one purpose or another) and killing a deer (while hunting) -- and killing a human being. This natural world-view was to some extent, but not very effectively, supported by the concept of a hierarchy of beings (classes). Moreover, the identity of all souls was such a fundamental truth that no argument could have produced true differences: There were many types of living beings, but there was only one type of soul, and at least in the context of possible himsa it was the soul that mattered and not the being with its specific features. Thus the Jaina concept of ahimsa became idiosyncratic from the point of view of ordinary ethics.

However, the total equality of all beings was a theoretical matter and caused few practical problems. No doubt, the monk was always afraid of killing (crushing, hurting, molesting) water-beings and other small and smallest creatures. But he did not practise ahimsa even in the case of small beings, but only in their case. That a monk (or a lay-follower) did not injure higher organisms was a matter of course and required no special regulations and considerations. Besides, the lay-follower lived mainly in the "fear of food". For him, ahimsa was in the first place strict vegetarianism and above that careful distinction between admitted and prohibited vegetarian food (a distinction which was largely based on archaic views on plant-life). In other words, the Jainas lived (and acted) in a small world where the absence or presence of hierarchical order was a matter of little consequence, and this is the situation up to the present day.

Another problem is the path to salvation. Not only do we not have a Jaina theory of karman-annihilation (how to annihilate the noxious karman), we also do not get a systematic and co-ordinated presentation of the virtues which ultimately lead to the annihilation of karman. We find impressive lists of virtues and vices, but no ethical theory. There are (a) precepts which are in keeping with the various statutes of ancient India, and there are (b) peculiar precepts like the rigorous ahimsa and the rigorous asceticism which are conditioned by the specific philosophy of Jainism. Additional variety is created by some rules which received due attention in our article but do not all belong to the bed-rock of Jainism: the eulogies on alms-giving, rules concerning repentance and asking for forgiveness, and ritual (including deportment). Alms-giving is the sine qua non of Jaina monasticism, but it is also an altruistic virtue within a religion which otherwise views human individuals in isolation rather than in communication. Repentance (as well as the combination of repentance, and asking for forgiveness, with confession and atonement) creates specific problems as it does not harmonize with other (more theoretical) approaches to the question of sin (evil acts) and of the karmic consequences of sin. Thirdly, ritual is natural to some extent, but Jainism produced along with conventional ritual extremes of ritualization, and these are not in keeping with a philosophy of salvation. The only link between all the injunctions is then an unnamed common denominator which consists of discipline, self-denial etc.

Most of these features can be regarded as natural if oppositions are considered a normal analytical instrument (e.g. "the monk as solitary being: the monk as social being"), but they are disturbing if a harmonizing approach is the standard.


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