Jainism
An “Unorthodox” Response to the Vedic Tradition
 
Unlike the Upanisadic movement, which maintained its connection to the Vedic tradition despite shifting its focus from ritual to speculative philosophy, many of the movements that arose in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE (such as Jainism and Buddhism) were explicitly non-Brahmanical and non-Vedic.
    Orthodox vs. Unorthodox
    Severing Ties with the Vedic Tradition
    The new systems put forth as options during this period indicate the failure of Vedic religion to meet popular needs. Sacrificial rituals provided no release from samsara, and the way of release taught in the Upanishads was not only unavailable to most people but still basically speculative in its results. The times required, in contrast, a means of salvation both more certain and, at least in principle, more accessible to all those who sought escape from worldly distress and endless rebirth.
           These requirements were met by many of the systems proposed in the late sixth and early fifth centuries. Most of these were unencumbered by elaborate textual or doctrinal traditions. Their teachings put primary emphasis on personal training in a method or program of salvation available to anyone willing to learn it. They stressed personal effort and practice, not theoretical speculation; proof of their validity was found in personal experience, not textual authority or logical argument. Their doctrines and explanations centered on the experiences of founders and teachers who served as examples of what others could also do with proper effort. Such messages had great appeal in an anxious age when men asked what they must do to be saved. (The Hindu Religious Tradition, 53)
     
     
    He was squatting on the terrace, wearing only a loincloth despite the chill January air, when my friend and I reached the top of the stairs to the small Shiva temple we had found during our hike in the Himalayan foothills. With his black ascetic’s topknot, flowing beard, and necklace of wrinkled brown rudraksha seeds, he looked like someone dropped there from another dimension. He seemed lost in meditation. We walked on past him, our interest caught by a small roofed structure in front of the temple proper. “I wonder what this is,” said my friend. From behind us came the answer, in fluent English, “It’s the dhuni, the hearth of the Nath Yogi who lived here before me. I don’t get visitors very often. Can I offer you ladies a cup of tea?”
           Our host, we learned during the long conversation that followed, was a disciple’s disciple of the famous twentieth-century guru Swami Shivananda. He had come to this remote place looking for quiet in which to practice his sadhana, spiritual discipline. The tea with milk that he served us, the small gas stove on which he cooked it, his beads, the orange robes he slipped into, the small pot he used for cooking, and the few other possessions in his small room behind the temple had all been gifts, because he may earn no money and lives only on offerings made to him. He had broken all ties with his family, with caste identity, and with status. Although still a young man, he will never marry. Even his old name was gone: a new one was taken at the initiation that brought him fully into the circle of his guru’s closest disciples. (Living Hinduisms, 43)
     
    One set of ideas most sadhus share is a premise that humans are beings held in a special type of bondage that limits their potential and subjects them to rebirth. The mechanism of this bondage is karma, a force that people set in motion through past thoughts and deeds. Within each person lies a center of power and intelligence, usually called a soul in English, that can bring freedom if only that person can tap into it or separate it from karma. To do this, people must understand the sources of their bondage and/or must put into practice a proper spiritual method.
           Methods used by sadhus to break the hold of karma vary from physical austerities to forms of mental retraining, such as study and meditation. But all entail some form of renunciation. At the most extreme, this may be a break with all forms of civilized behavior: wearing clothes, grooming one’s hair, eating cooked or cultivated foods, speaking politely. At the least, one may simply renounce some attitude that normally accompanies an action, for example, the expectation that one should always gain some payback for one’s good behavior. Most commonly, sadhus renounce the social institutions that consume human energies and bind us with attachments: marriage, family, property, caste, or class status. (Living Hinduisms, 44)
     
     

    Mahavira
    The 24th Tirthankara (Fordmaker)
    Jainism’s major teacher for this age is Mahavira or Mahavir (“The Great Hero”). He was a contemporary of the Buddha and died approximately 527 BCE. Like the Buddha, he was the prince of a kshatriya clan and renounced his position and his wealth at the age of thirty to wander as a spiritual seeker. The austerities he undertook while meditating without clothes in the intense summer heat and winter cold are legendary. He often undertook total fasts of at least two days, not even drinking water. In Jain scriptures it is written that six times he fasted for two months at a time, and once he fasted for six months straight. Swarms of mosquitoes and ants often bit him. Humans also tormented him. He was repeatedly arrested and mistreated by officials who mistook him for a common thief, not recognizing him as the son of their king. ... Finally after twelve years of meditation, silence, and extreme fasting, Mahavira achieved liberation and perfection. For thirty years until his death at Pava, he spread his teachings. His community is said to have consisted of 14,100 monks, 36,000 nuns and 310,000 female and 150,000 male lay followers. They came from all castes, as Jainism does not officially acknowledge the caste system. (Living Religions, 121-122)
     
     
    The Jain teachings are not thought to have originated with Mahavira, however. He is considered the last of twenty-four Tirthankaras (“Fordmakers”) of the current cosmic cycle. ... The first Tirthankara introduced civilizing social institutions, such as marriage, family, law, justice, and government, taught the arts of agriculture, crafts, reading, writing, and mathematics, and built villages, towns, and cities. Twenty-three more Tirthankara followed over a vast expanse of time. ... The extreme antiquity of Jainism as a non-Vedic, indigenous Indian religion is well documented. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures refer to Jainism as an existing tradition that began long before Mahavira. (Living Religions, 122)
     
      
    The Man in the Well
    A Jain Parable
    A certain man, much oppressed by the woes of poverty, left his own home, and set out for another country. He passed through the land, with its villages, cities, and harbors, and after a few days he lost his way. And he came to a forest, thick with trees … and full of wild beasts. There, while he was stumbling over the rugged paths … he saw a mad elephant, fiercely trumpeting, charging him with upraised trunk. At the same time there appeared before him a most evil demoness, holding a sharp sword, dreadful in face and form, laughing with loud and shrill laughter. Seeing them he trembled in all his limbs with deathly fear, and looked in all directions. There, to the east of him, he saw a great banyan tree. …

    And he ran quickly, and reached the mighty tree. But his spirits fell, for it was so high that even the birds could not fly over it, and he could not climb its high unscalable trunk. ... All his limbs trembled with terrible fear, until, looking round, he saw nearby an old well covered with grass. Afraid of death, craving to live if only a moment longer, he flung himself into the well at the foot of the banyan tree. A clump of reeds grew from its deep wall, and to this he clung. While below him he saw terrible snakes, enraged at the sound of his falling; and at the very bottom, known from the hiss of its breath, was a black and mighty python with mouth agape, its body thick as the trunk of a heavenly elephant, with terrible red eyes. He thought, “My life will only last as long as these reeds hold fast,” and he raised his head; and there, on the clump of reeds, he saw two large mice, one white, one black, their sharp teeth ever gnawing at the roots of the reed-clump. Then up came the wild elephant, and, enraged the more at not catching him, charged time and again at the trunk of the banyan tree. At the shock of his charge a honeycomb on a large branch which hung over the old well, shook loose and fell. The man’s whole body was stung by a swarm of angry bees, but, just by chance, a drop of honey fell on his head, rolled down his brow, and somehow reached his lips, and gave him a moment’s sweetness. He longed for other drops, and he thought nothing of the python, the snakes, the elephant, the mice, the well, or the bees, in his excited craving for yet more drops of honey. (Sources of Indian Tradition, 56-8)

     

    Jiva & Karma
    Jainas see the universe as a vast organism, pulsating with life. Countless billions of jivas (souls) pervade the universe. Some are ensnared in the bodies of humans, gods, animals, or plants; others are trapped in air, earth, or fire bodies. But all are inherently pure and capable of omniscient knowledge — which means that liberation is possible for all. These jivas have always been ensconced in matter, but since they are inherently pure, the person who can check the defiling and obstructing influx of karmic matter and exhaust the already present accumulations of karma can achieve liberation from the bondage that subjects a person to the round of births and deaths and the accompanying suffering.
           Bondage occurs when karmic matter, which pervades the entire universe, enters a person through the channels provided by speaking, thinking, and acting. This karmic matter defiles the purity, limits the energy, and obscures the knowledge of the soul. Every act, physical and mental, attracts a certain amount of karmic matter, but those that are prompted by desire or hate and those that hurt other living beings are the worst, attracting the greatest amounts of defiling and obstructing karma. Because of the original defilement of the soul’s bliss, the karmic matter attracted by human action “sticks” to the soul, like dust sticks to a beautiful gem, obscuring its purity and brilliance. (The Indian Way, 109; cf. Living Religions, 123-125)
     
    Once drawn to a jiva, karma materializes and limits it, giving it a body and set of physical characteristics, a lifespan, and a determined level of basic luck and intelligence. All these have natural lifetimes and hence gradually wear out, only to be replaced by karma drawn in by subsequent actions. To liberate the jiva, one must therefore, accomplish two aims: purge from one’s jiva all the karma that infects it and prevent further karma from attaching to the jiva.
     
     
    To accomplish the former, Jains have used ascetic techniques: fasting, standing or sitting still for long times, and exposing themselves to the elements, as well as milder practices such as confession, study, meditation, and service to senior members of their communities. To accomplish the latter, they observe thorough-going forms of five moral restraints: avoiding harm to others [ahimsa], lying, sex, stealing, and ownership. (Living Hinduisms, 48)
     


     
    To perfect and purify themselves as quickly as possible, Jains try to eliminate within themselves any false mental impressions, negative tendencies, or passions, and to develop pure thoughts and actions. Through this process, the veils of karma are lifted and the soul experiences more and more of its natural luminosity. In the highest state of perfection, known as kevala, the liberated being has “boundless vision, infinite righteousness, strength, perfect bliss, existence without form, and a body that is neither light nor heavy.” (Living Religions, 125)
     
    During the thirteenth year [after becoming a sramana or “homeless wanderer”] … [the Venerable One] being engaged in deep meditation, reached the highest knowledge and intuition, called Kevala, which is infinite, supreme, unobstructed, unimpeded, complete, and full. When the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira had become a Jina and Arhat, he was a Kevalin, omniscient and comprehending all objects; he knew and saw all conditions of the world, of gods, men, and demons: whence they come, whither they go, whether they are born as men or animals (cyavana) or become gods or hell-beings (upapada), the ideas, the thoughts of their minds, the food, doings, desires, the open and secret deeds of all the living beings in the whole world; he the Arhat, for whom there is no secret, knew and saw all conditions of all living beings in the world, what they thought, spoke, or did at any moment. ... In the fourth month of that rainy season [at the age of 72] … the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira died, went off, quitted the world, cut asunder the ties of birth, old age, and death; became a Siddha, a Buddha, a Mukta, a maker of the end [to all misery], finally liberated, freed from all pains. (Indian Religions, 98 [Kalpa Sutra])
     
     
    Developments in Jainism

    From the 12th Century ...
    ... to the Present
     
    The Monastic Community
    The First Schism

    After Mahavira’s death, his teachings were not written down because the monks lived without possessions; they were initially carried orally. In the third century BCE, the great Jain saint Bhadrabahu predicted that there would be a prolonged famine where Mahavira had lived, in what is now Bihar in northeast India. He led some 12,000 monks to southern India to avoid the famine, which lasted for twelve years. When they returned, they discovered that two major changes had been introduced by the monks who had remained. One was relaxation of the requirement of nudity for monks; the other was the convening of a council to edit the existing Jain texts into a canon of forty-five books.
           Eventually the two groups split into the Digambaras, who had left and did not accept the changes, and the Svetambaras, who had stayed near Mahavira’s original location. 
    (Living Religions, 122)
     
     
     
    What are some of the other differences between the two traditions?
     
     
    The Status of Women
    The two orders also differ on the subject of women’s abilities. Digambaras believe that women cannot become so pure that they could rise to the highest heaven or so impure that they would be reborn in the lowest hell; they cannot renounce their clothes and be naked; they cannot be such skillful debaters as men; they are of inferior status in society and in the monastic order. They can be liberated only if they are reborn in a man’s body. Svetambaras feel that women are capable of the same spiritual achievements as men, and that the nineteenth Tirthankara was a woman. In truth, even Svetambara nuns are of a lower status than monks, but they still comprise the great majority of Jain nuns. Of today’s approximately 6,000 Jain nuns, fewer than 100 are Digambaras. (Living Religions, 122-123)
    • Mahavira ordained many female ascetics, establishing a strong tradition of nuns (though there are few in the Digambara tradition today).
    • Malli, the 19th tirthankara (fordmaker), was a woman (though Digambaras say “she” was a man).
    • Marudevi (mother of the first jina, Rsabha, was the first person in this time-cycle to attain liberation.
     
    Why have women been prevented from playing more important roles in so many of the world’s religions?


    The Jina (Conqueror)
    • The Svetambaras maintain that the Mahavira continued to live a more or less “normal” life after his attainment of enlightenment.
    • The Digambaras maintain that he no longer ate, drank, talked or walked, but merely subsisted on divine morsels, which provided a kind of supernatural sustenance.

     
     
     
    Image Worship
    • Although most lay Jains worship images in one way or another, from a strict Digambara perspective one really should not worship images.
    • The Svetambara tradition is subdivided into three major branches: the Murtipujakas, who worship images, and the Sthanakavasis and Terapanthis, who do not.
     
    The Veneration of the Jina Images
    Religions of India in Practice (RIP), 326-332
    1. The worshiper enters the temple wearing pure clothes. Using the end of the upper-body cloth, s/he carefully sweeps the floor immediately in front of her/himself three times in order to remove any insects or other living creatures.
    a. S/he stands facing the image of the Jina, and says:
    I wish, O forbearing mendicant, to praise with strong concentration and with renunciation;
    .
    b. Doing the five-limbed prostration [kneeling with hands folded before the chest, then touching the floor with two hands, two knees, and forehead], she says:
    I praise with my forehead.

    2. Standing, s/he says:

    a. Instruct me, O Lord, according to my desire … I desire to do the absolution of faults. For injury in the course of walking, in going and coming, in treading on living things … for all those, may the wrong action be of no karmic consequence.
    .
    b. For those, as an additional effort, as penance, as purification, in order to be without the thorns of sinful karmas, for the destruction of sinful karmas, I stand in the body-renouncing posture (kayotsarga).
    .
    c. … I shall abandon my body in this place, in silence, and in meditation.

    3. a. S/he stands in the body-renouncing posture [hands held downward at the side of the body, palms facing inward and slightly removed from the legs, feet slightly apart, and eyes focused on the tip of the nose] … and silently recites once the Hymn to the Twenty-four Jinas or else four times the Namaskara Mantra …

    4. Repeat 1a and b.

    5. Seated in the yoga posture … s/he says:

    Instruct me, O Lord, at my wish, to do praise.  Should I perform image-veneration? It is wished.

    6. [Further recitations ...]

    d. Praise to the Arhats, the Lords, who cause the beginnings, the Tirthankaras, who by themselves have attained enlightenment, the best of men, lions among men, excellent lotuses among men … givers of insight, givers of the path, givers of refuge, givers of enlightenment … the victors, the conquerors, who have crossed over, who bring others across, wise, enlightened, liberated, who liberate others, omniscient, all-seeing. ... In this threefold manner I praise all the Perfected Ones, those who have been, those who will be in a future time, and those who are in the present.

    7. Repeat prostration.

    8. Recitation while seated in yoga posture.

    9. Singing of vernacular hymn.

    10. Recitation of hymn while seated in a yoga posture.

    11. S/he stands and recites:

    a. I do the body-renouncing posture to the images of the Arhats. For the sake of praising, for the sake of worshiping, for the sake of gifting, for the sake of honoring, for the sake of the reward of enlightenment, for the sake of liberation, I stand in the body-renouncing posture with faith, with intelligence, with steadfastness, with mindfulness, and with increasing absorption.
    .
    b. Except for inhaling, exhaling, coughing, sneezing … may my body-renouncing posture be unbroken and unhindered. As long as I have not completed the homage to the blessed Arhats, I shall abandon my body in this place, in silence, and in meditation.

    13. Silent recitation while remaining in the body-renouncing posture.

    14. Recitation of a vernacular hymn.

    15. Concluding prostration (as in 1a and b).

    • How does the above form of worship fit into the Jain conception of the path towards liberation?
    • How can the veneration of images advance one along the path?
     
     
    Despite the various differences in the beliefs and practices of Digambaras & Svetambaras, men & women, image-worshipers and non-worshipers, are there any fundamental principles that unite the Jain tradition?