Taken from That Which Is (Tattvartha Sutra), published by Harper Collins, 1994. © IOJ 1994.
The image of the Jaina as a person of peace and goodwill- a committed vegetarian who believes non-violence (ahimsa) towards all beings is the foundation of all spiritual practice – is strongly imprinted on the Indian psyche. Indeed it can be said that the Jaina community has often been a morally uplifting factor in the life of Indian society as a whole. Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the greatest champion of non-violence in our age, said he had been deeply influenced, particularly in the development of his theory of non-violence as a political instrument, by the revered Jaina layman Raychandbhai Mehta with whom he exchanged letters. “Three people have influenced me deeply, Tolstoy, Ruskin and Raychandbhai: Tolstoy through one of his books … and Raychandbhai through intimate personal contact.”1
Jainism does not fall under the broad umbrella of the Vedic (Hindu) traditions. It is a non-theistic religion with its own sacred texts and Jinas, or “Spiritual Victors”. Mahavira, the most recent Jina, lived in the sixth century BCE in northern India during a period in which the non-Vedic sramana religions proliferated. The sramana religions rejected the authority of the Hindu scriptures (Vedas) and deities, denied the efficacy of sacrifice and, most importantly, displayed pronounced antagonism to the tradition of Brahmanical (priestly) supremacy. Jainism is one of the two extant sramana religions and the only one to survive in India. The other survivor, Buddhism, disappeared from India by the fourteenth century. Today there are approximately seven million followers of Jainism, the vast majority of whom live in India.
Jaina (also pronounced Jain) means “a follower of a Jina”. The Jinas are the Spiritual Victors – human teachers who have attained infinite knowledge and preached the doctrine that there is eternal liberation (moksa) from worldly suffering when the bonds of spiritual ignorance are broken. This doctrine is not exclusive to Jainism; it is at the root of virtually all Indian philosophies and indeed, until the ninth century, “Jina” was used as a gen¬eric term in India for enlightened spiritual teachers. The Jinas are also called Tirthankaras, “builders of the ford (which leads across samsara, the river of suffering)”. Jainas believe that twenty-four Tirthankaras appear in each ascending and descending half of the time cycle, have done so from beginningless time, and will continue to do so forever. Their teachings are neither received through divine revelation nor manifested through some inherent magical power (as the Vedas are said to be). It is the individual human soul itself which, aided by the earlier teachings, comes to know the truth. Worshipping or following the teachings of a particular Jina, there¬fore, has no special significance as nothing new is taught, and the path remains always the same. Even so, it is natural that those teachers who most immediately precede the present age would be remembered more readily. Thus we find that the first Jina, Rsabha, and the last few Jinas ¬Nemi, Parsva, and especially Mahavira, the final teacher of the current time cycle – are taken as objects of a certain veneration. These last three Jinas are often regarded as the historical teachers and have been so placed by modern scholars. Nemi seems to have flourished in Saurashtra and to have been a contemporary of Krsna. 2 Parsva has been verified as a spiritual teacher who flourished in Varanasi in c. 850 BCE. Buddhist texts refer to the large number of nirgrantha ascetics (“unattached ones”, as the Jainas were then known) who followed the fourfold restraint identified with the teachings of parsva.3
Tradition has it that Vardhamana, later hailed as Mahavira or Great Hero, was born in 599 BCE in the kingdom of Vaisali in the Magadha region (near modern Patna). His father was a warrior chieftain and his mother was the sister of the Vaisali ruler.
Although the scriptures assert time and again that the Jina is a human being, born of human parents, the Jaina laity is usually raised to regard him more as a superhuman with fantastic attributes whose career is marked by a fixed and rather stylized set of supernatural occurrences. Thus, the life story of Mahavira begins with a series of dreams by his mother which indicate that she will give birth to a universal monarch or a great saint. Mahavira’s birth is said to have been attended by numerous marvels and his saintliness is evidenced in the stories of his childhood acts of non-violence and bravery.
When the Jina-to-be was thirty years old, the gods appeared miraculously and urged him to renounce the householder’s life so he might awaken to his destiny, shaped by his many previous lives of great virtue. Mahavira renounced the world and wandered alone for twelve years engaging with resolution in severe penances. The most important of these voluntary mortifications involved complete fasting, abstaining from both food and water sometimes for as long as a week at a time. The practice has made an indelible impression upon the Jaina psyche; even today many of the Jina’s followers occasionally undertake long waterless fasts as a major expression of the holy life. This emphasis upon fasting, more than any other single factor, distinguishes the religious practice of the Jaina lay people from that of the Hindu communities which surround them. Jaina monks and nuns undergo rigorous fasts as a regular aspect of monastic life.
Mahavira’s attainment of full enlightenment occurred exactly twelve years, six months and fifteen days after he set out upon the ascetic’s path. He had attained the state of infinite knowledge from which there can be no falling away and, in so doing, became the twenty-fourth and final Jina of the descending half of the present cycle. Mahavira spent the next thirty years preaching the doctrine of non-violence as the path to eternal liberation from worldly suffering. His initial circle of disciples, eleven converted Brahmans, is said to have grown in his lifetime to 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 laymen and 318,000 laywomen.4
In 527 BCE, at the age of seventy-two, Mahavira shed his mortal body and his soul passed into nirvana, ascending to the permanent resting place of all liberated souls (Siddhas) at the very apex of the universe. Today, over 2500 years later, his life and teachings continue to provide instruction and inspiration for Jainas in their daily lives..
Perhaps more than any other Indian religious tradition, Jainism is imbued with an emotional commitment to self-reliance. In the soul’s tormented struggle to free itself from its beginningless, and possibly endless, worldly bondage, neither Fate (niyati) nor the gods are at hand to assist. Even the Jinas are only able to help through their teachings. Jainas further believe that the soul has always been impure through its entanglement with the material world, just as a seam of gold has” always” been embedded in the rock where it is found. Following the logic of this analogy, absolute purification may be achieved if the proper refining method is applied. As can be seen in the Tattvartha Sutra, no other Indian school has invested so much energy in describing the precise mechanism of karmic bondage and release from that bondage nor has any other tradition conceived of the reward and retribution of karma as part of the unequivocal physical law of the universe. Karma is itself actual matter, rather than the sort of quasi- physical or psychological elements envisioned by other schools.
Seeking to comprehend every aspect of bondage, the philosopher-monks such as Umasvati produced a highly sophisticated analysis of the various types of material karmas, noteworthy not only for its coherent systemization but also for the deep psychological insight which it reveals. They correctly perceived, moreover, that no religious institution can survive without the strong involvement of the laity. Hence, they have not only played down the “inferior” nature of the lay path, but have shown their high regard for this path by producing numerous tracts on the particulars of lay conduct.5 The earliest surviving work which includes such particulars is the Tattvartha Sutra. However, the ascetic orientation of Jainism was certainly not lost; not only does the way of the ascetic retain premier status among Jainas, but even the lay discipline is far more strict than in most other religious communities.
The degree of a person’s advancement on the spiritual path, indeed the very fact of his or her commitment to the Jaina ideal, is indicated by the religious practices which are undertaken – particularly those involving various self-imposed restraints. The layperson’s “minor vows” (anuvratas) of refraining from evil actions are just a modified, relatively weak version of the real Jaina vows, the “great vows” (mahavratas) of the ascetics; they may curb evil behavior but they cannot bring a person to liberation. In practice, however, this point has not been stressed. Jaina teachers have been realistic enough to see that most new converts will be emotionally ready only for the layperson’s path.
To understand the basic restraints of Jaina lay life as well as those applied at later stages of the spiritual path, we must appreciate the Jaina preoccupation with ahimsa, non-violence. To abstain from violence is the foundational vow of Jainism from which follow the other vows to abstain from falsehood, theft, carnality and possessiveness. Great importance has been attached to non-violence by every Indian school, but none has carried it to the extreme of the Jainas. For them it is not simply the first among virtues, but the virtue; all others are simply elaborations of this central one. It is formalized in the ancient vow:
I will desist from the knowing or intentional destruction of all great lives [souls with two or more senses]. As long as I live, I will neither kill nor cause others to kill. I will strive to refrain from all such activities, whether of body, speech or mind.
When one takes this first vow, a commitment is being made to a lifelong code of conduct to which one must pay meticulous attention at every moment. Even though nowadays not many Jainas formally assume the vow of ahimsa under the guidance of an ascetic, certain non-violent practices are so basic that they functionally define membership in the Jaina community. A Jaina must never eat meat. Fermented beverages, honey and figs are also traditionally prohibited because of the Jaina belief in nigodas, microscopic single-sensed beings which inhabit almost every corner of the universe and are especially prevalent in sweet or fermented substances. However, serious as it is, harm done to nigodas is considered far less grave than that done to higher life forms. The refusal to eat meat constitutes the most basic expression of the Jaina commitment to non-violence. It may well be that Jainism was the first Indian tradition to preach so strongly against the taking of life; in any case, it certainly became the primary exponent of vegetarianism in India and contributed much to the eventual triumph of vegetarianism throughout the sub-continent.