Compassion in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Traditions

Compassionate Shiva, Buddha and Mahavira

By Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the spiritual importance of compassion and associated feelings in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.


We all suffer in our own ways. Therefore, let us have compassion for those who are good and who are bad, who are successful and who are not so successful, who are friends and who are not friends and who are humans and who are not yet humans. Jayaram V


In Sanskrit, the equivalent of compassion is karnuna. Other related words are anukampana (sensitivity), krpa (grace), daya (mercy), ghrna (revulsion at the suffering of others) and karpanya (mellowness of heart). Each word has its own specific meaning and used in different contexts. Karuna is a virtuous feeling which is generated in the mellowness of the heart. God is considered in Hinduism as a karunamayi, the very personification of compassion.

The Buddha and Mahavira exemplified it in their personal conduct and considered it cultivation an essential part of attaining liberation. Karuna or compassion is a higher virtue and the culmination of the practice of restraints and rules (yamas and niyamas) and all other virtues on the spiritual path. Its presence is imperative to enlightenment and its natural and spontaneous expression is the proof that one has overcome several mental and physical barriers and impurities and advanced on the path

Hinduism

In Hinduism, spiritual aspirants are advised to overcome their selfish desires, cultivate detachment, renounce worldly pleasures, absorb their minds in the contemplation of God or the Self, and cultivate oneness as part of their self-purification and self-realization. The presence of compassion is indicative of the person's spiritual grown,  inner awakening and discriminating intelligence.

Hinduism advocates compassion for all, as part of its universal message that all life forms are part of one large universal family (vasudaika kutumbam). Since, everyone and everything in the universe is a manifestation of God, who is also present in us as our very Self, it becomes necessary that we see his universal presence and extend the same feelings of love and devotion which we feel for him to all.

The virtue of compassion can be divided into three types, the pure, the impure and the dark according to the predominance of gunas namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Only those in whom the mode of Sattva (purity) is predominantly present can show selfless, unhindered, sattvic compassion to one and all. They help those in suffering as part of their service and devotion to God, as true Bhagavatas or servants of God.

Others may have compassion, but it will be tainted by Rajas or Tamas or both. In them, compassion will be conditional and subject to desires, attachments, delusion and personal agendas. Rajasic people may help others and show compassion out of pride, egoism, vanity or selfish motives, or to show off their wealth and power. Their compassion is usually conditional, unreliable and unpredictable. Tamasic people vacillate between extreme compassion and extreme anger and cruelty according to the situation.  When they show compassion, it is usually meant to deceive others and cause them harm in the end, or to achieve some destructive end.

According to Hinduism, everything in the manifested universe is an aspect or form of one ultimate Reality, who goes by many names. To experience that absolute and undeniable Truth "in all and all in oneself," this is the highest realization and ideal state to which one has to advance on the path of liberation. When one cultivates that vision of oneness, one is forever established in the universal love, the love of God, from which flows the heavenly compassion just as the River Ganga flows downward from the head of Shiva and purifies everyone in its path.

Love, kindness, sameness, nonviolence, non-stealing, charity, selfless service, equanimity, discriminating intelligence, devotion and other virtues are its outpourings only. Showing mercy (daya) to others is an important virtue and part of a householder’s obligatory duty. It is out of mercy that the householders are obliged to perform the five daily sacrifices every day to nourish five classes of beings, who depend upon others for their nourishment.

The noble quality of treating others as oneself is expressed through acts of compassion, charity and selfless service. It is considered a beneficial karma, which secures a place in the ancestral heaven and leads the soul to a good birth in the next life. Compassion clears the hurdles, earns the blessings of gods, seers and saints, and leads one on the path of gods (devayana) to the immortal world of Brahman.

Compassion is why one has to undertake the duties of a householder, produce children to facilitate the transmigration of suffering souls and help humans, all the sentient beings and the world as part of one's sacred duty to uphold Dharma and serve God. It is the surest means to overcome selfishness and selfish desires and engage in karma yoga or the yoga of selfless actions and service without desires and expectations.

Compassion is an essential practice and noble virtue in Hindu Dharma. It is out of compassion that a priest should use his knowledge and wisdom as part of his dharma to help fellow beings achieve proximity to gods and oneness with Brahman. It is out of compassion for the weak and the helpless and those who are in his protection, a warrior should use his strength and valor to fight in the battlefield. Again, it is because of compassion, a merchant should use his wealth and status to engage in acts of charity, while a commoner should use his physical labor and humility of character to serve the world and fellow human beings for the general good of all.

Universal compassion without cause, desire, attachment or expectation is much superior to compassion which arises from attachment, desire and weakness of the heart. Forgiveness is an important aspect of compassion only. Compassion is also the basis of nonviolence. Both virtues are interrelated. The practice of nonviolence leads to compassion and that of compassion to nonviolence.

Compassion arises spontaneously in those who become free from the impurities of egoism, attachment, selfish desires, delusion and ignorance. Knowledge of the Self and the realization that the Self is universal, infinite, eternal, all pervading, indestructible, also stabilize the feeling of compassion in one's heart and mind and make him look upon the world with universal love.

Lastly, compassion and nonviolence are important reasons why Hindus avoid eating meat and killing animals. Their tolerance for others is also a direct acknowledgement of the diversity in God's creation and the need for compassion to live in peace and harmony for the happiness of all. Again, it is out of compassion and gratitude that Hindus avoid harming cows and many domestic and wild animals which contribute to the wellbeing of the world.

Jainism

Similar ideas are found in Jainism and Buddhism also. The practice of nonviolence is central to Jainism. It is exemplified in every aspect of its principles, philosophy and practice. The practice of compassion is an integral part of its essential doctrine. Jain scriptures suggest that for the order and regularity of the world and for one’s own liberation, cruelly and violence in any form should be avoided, including unintentional acts of cruelty, violence, hurt or harm one may inflict upon others through carelessness or negligence. Killing any living being is considered a great sin in Jainism which produces bad karma and binds the beings to the cycle of births and deaths.

Buddhism

The idea of compassion is an important aspect of Buddhist ethics and monastic discipline. Just as the idea of nonviolence, it is deeply embedded in the essential doctrine of the Buddhist Dharma, the Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path. The Buddha practiced it and encouraged its practice for building the nobility of the character and cultivate loving kindness. Buddhism identifies it as one of the highest virtues which one has to cultivate on the path to Nirvana.

The Buddhist monks have to abide in compassion (karuna), loving kindness and universal friendliness (mitrata) to minimize the suffering they may cause to themselves and others through their thoughts words and actions. By cultivating right thinking, right views, right perceptions, right actions, one abides in the practice of nonviolence and compassion which leads to happiness and wellbeing (kalyana).

In Tibetan Buddhism, the virtue of compassion is taken to a new height by the practice of  not only wishing the wellbeing of the suffering souls but also transferring one's own good karma to them as an ultimate sacrifice. The virtue of compassion is also an important part of healing, praying and service in many Buddhist traditions. The Buddha prescribed the Middle Path rather than the extreme paths of asceticism and self-mortification out of compassion for the mind and body and the suffering souls. He did not want them to suffer further on the spiritual path through extreme self-denial and self-cruelty.

The Buddha also exemplified compassion in his personal life. He treated his enemies and critics with compassion and forgave them even when they tried to damage his reputation or physically harm him with secret plots. After receiving enlightenment under the bodhi tree, it was out of compassion he decided to teach the Dhamma to the suffering souls and help them find salvation. He gave up his own comforts to clothe the world with the knowledge of salvation.

The idea of compassion is given its greatest expression in the Mahayana Buddhism, in the conduct of the Bodhisattvas, who sacrifice and postpone their own salvation out of compassion to help the suffering humanity. The practice of mindfulness is an important adjunct to cultivate compassion. It is by mindfully observing the suffering one goes through and by oneself that one develops the tender feelings samvedana (compassion) and the urgency (samvega) of finding a permanent solution.

The practice of mindfulness along with the knowledge of the Dhamma increases our understanding of the suffering that is inherent in the entire existence, which is transient and unstable, and thereby deepens our feelings of compassion for all the suffering souls. It helps us understand our suffering as well as the suffering of others and thereby realize the need for compassion in all wakes of life. Suffering cannot be removed from existence, but through righteous conduct we can stop hurting each other, and to the extent possible minimize the pain and suffering we may inflict upon others through our thoughts, words and actions.

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