By Jayaram V
I adore so greatly the principles of the Jain religion,
that I would like to be reborn in Jain community - George Bernard
In the ancient world, the Jain tradition was known as the
The sramanas were ascetics, who led pure and austere lives, without
possessions, wandering from place to place and subjecting themselves
to rigorous austerities and self-discipline.
They focused on renouncing the causes of sin and suffering to
achieve liberation from pain and the cycle of births and deaths.
Through the teachings of Parsvanatha and Mahavira, the last two
of the 24 Thirthankaras, the tradition grew into an organized religion,
attracting a sizeable following in various parts of the Indian subcontinent.
To those who are familiar with Hinduism, the beliefs and concepts
of Jainism sound familiar, making one wonder whether there was any
connection between the two in some remote past.
There is an argument that Jainism was a popular ascetic tradition
of India with its roots in prehistoric times, whose beliefs regarding
soul, nature of existence, liberation, austerities, time, karma
and incarnation of souls found their way into Hinduism directly
or indirectly and enriched it greatly with a strong spiritual and
In this article we will discuss some of the important concepts
and core beliefs of Jainism, by knowing which we will gain a fair
understanding of how it differs from Hinduism.
Three Tier Universe
Jains acknowledge a three tier universe, consisting of an upper,
middle and the lower worlds.
The universe is eternal and indestructible. It has no creator
and it is indestructible. From time to time some aspects of it however
may undergo changes.
The upper world is known as siddhasila, inhabited by eternally
free and pure souls, who remain permanently in a state of pure bliss
The middle world is inhabited by embodied beings such as humans,
plants, animals and beings with inert bodies (inanimate objects),
subject to the law of karma.
The lower world is inhabited by beings, passing through various
stages of punishments for the sin they incurred upon earth. They
return to our world of embodied souls when their punishment is complete.
Jains view the world in which we live to be full of misery and
suffering and the souls that inhabit it are not free because they
are attached to matter or substance and vulnerable to the inflow
of karmic matter.
As the Akaranaga Sutra describes, the living world of ours is
afflicted, miserable, difficult to instruct, and without discrimination.
In this world full of pain, the individual beings suffer by their
Jiva and Ajiva
Jainism views the whole universe in terms of two eternal, independent,
indestructible and coexisting components, Jiva and Ajiva, which
are similar in some respects to the concept of Purusha and Prakriti
of the Samkhya school. Jiva is interpreted differently as being,
embodied soul and conscious soul. Ajiva is the lifeless inert matter
having qualities (gunas) and atoms (paramanus). In a being Jiva
is the soul and Ajiva the physical body. Jiva is the dynamic aspect
and ajiva the passive aspect. Jiva is the subject and Ajiva the
object. Jiva is the knower and the enjoyer, while Ajiva is the known
and the enjoyed, perceived by the Jiva through the senses. The Jiva
contains three types of consciousness: knowing, feeling and willing,
while Ajiva being inert has no consciousness. For the embodied soul,
Ajiva is the allurement, the trap. It comes in many shapes - love
for the sense objects, attachment to possessions and material things,
desire for sensual pleasures, identification with body and so on.
For a Jiva, the Ajiva in which it is caught is a burden, a baggage,
which reduces the brilliance of its consciousness and its ability
to experience bliss, which is its true nature.
According to Jain tenets, karma is a kind of Ajiva or inert substance,
made of fine particles of matter, invisible to the naked eye, but
present every where in the universe. It is the binding force and
the source of bondage and misery. As an embodied soul engages in
various actions, the karmic matter flows into its body and clings
to it like an impurity, according to the nature of its actions.
The karmic substance is an impurity which leaves its imprint upon
the soul and according to its deeds. As a result the soul loses
its freedom as becomes bound to a vicious cycle of actions and consequences
or causes and effects. Unlike the Atman of the Upanishads, the soul
of Jainism has plasticity and dimension. It has the ability to expand
or contract, according to the size and shape of the body in which
it resides. In a womb it enters like a small seed. But as the body
begins to grow it also expands correspondingly to fit into its shape
and size. At the end of its current corporeal life, it contracts
again into a seed and leaves the body to begin a new journey in
another body according to its karma.
Jainism envisions a universe filled with innumerable eternal
souls in varying degrees of perfection and purity. Soul is the basic
unit of consciousness which makes all experience possible because
it is capable of perception and experience both in its mundane state
and its pure state. Based on their level of perfection three types
of souls are recognized. The Nityasuddhas are eternally pure and
perfect. They are impervious to the inflow of karmic substance.
The Muktas are the liberated souls, who are freed from the cycle
of births and deaths and the ordeals of embodiment. They live in
a blissful and transcendental state, indifferent to what is going
on in different worlds. As freed souls, living in a state of pure
existence, they possess ananta jnana (infinite knowledge), ananta
darsana (infinite perception), ananta virya (infinite power) and
ananta sukha (infinite bliss). The thrid type of souls are baddhas
also known as sopadhi jivas. They are the bound souls, who are imperfect,
subject to the cycle of births and deaths and karma produced by
their own actions. Not all souls have the potential to become free.
To become free a soul needs to have bhavyatva, a special quality
that has to be activated by its karma to set the process of its
liberation in motion. Some souls either do not possess this quality
or can never activate it by their karma. So them remain bound for
Depending upon the number of senses they possess, the jivas are
divided into five categories, those having one, two, three, four
and five senses respectively. Plants have only one sense, the sense
of touch. The mammals have all the five senses. In between there
two are the jivas having two, three or four senses. Human beings,
gods and higher beings possess an additional sixth sense, called
manas or mind, which gives them the ability to think and act rationally.
The number of senses is an important criteria in selecting right
kind of food for consumption to practice the principle of ahimsa
or non injury. Since it is not possible to consume food without
indulging in some form of violence of injury to living beings, it
is better to select plants which have only one sense. Eating food
prepared by killing animals having two or more senses would lead
to greater sin and adverse karma.
One of the distinguishing features of Jainism is its belief
that souls exists both in animate and inanimate objects. The souls
are found every where, in every conceivable object, not only in
men and animals, but also in the plants, planets, stars, elements,
oceans, rivers, wood, metal and even a dew or a rain drop. The Jain
believe that there are planetary souls, elementals souls, ethereal
souls and souls living beyond the reach of our senses in invisible
and subtle matter. The condition of a soul depends upon the body
it occupies. The consciousness of souls which reside in inanimate
objects or elemental bodies remains in a latent state in contrast
to souls living in more dynamic bodies. The condition of one soul
per one body also does not apply in Jainism. Some times a multitude
of souls may occupy one body as in case of some tuberous plants.
Innumerable souls may also exist together as a loosely held cluster
occupying vast stretches of space encompassing the whole world as
one complex organism. They are called nigodas, which act like a
vast store houses of souls. Suspended in the atmosphere, the nigodas
keep filling the empty spaces automatically, whenever they are left
vacant by the departing or liberated souls. Like the major air currents
that crisscross our planet, the nigodasput great responsibility
on us to act carefully lest we harm some souls unknowingly.
Dharma, Adharma, Space & Time
Ajiva dravya or the inert matter is of two types, rupa (with
form) and arupa (without form). They are further divided into dharma,
adharma, space, time and pudgala. Of them only pudgala is matter
with form, which can be perceived through senses, and the rest are
formless. Unlike in Hinduism and Buddhism, dharma, adharma, space
and time are not some abstract concepts or processes, but objective
aspects of the universe, grouped under the category of substances
(dravyas) in order to distinguish them from the soul, which is not
a substance. In Jainism dharma and adharma do not represent merit
or demerit or right and wrong. They are the motivating or moving
forces of the things in the universe. If space is what holds things
like a container, dharma is what moves them and adharma is what
brings them to rest within that container. All things, both animate
and inanimate, occupy the space and are subject to movement (dharma)
and rest (adharma). Space, movement and rest are the three permanent
realities of the universe, within the field of our experience. All
actions of a Jiva are induced by the movements and rest of its body,
mind and senses, In other words, karma is induced by both dharma
and adharma. Dharma is what makes the inflow and out flow of karmic
substance possible and adharma is what makes it stick to the jiva
or rest in it.
Kala is another aspect of Ajiva dravya. It is unilateral and
without extension. It is a persistent continuation of successive
movements, strung together from the past into the present as one
endless continuum. Kala is both absolute and relative. The absolute
time, kala, is without a beginning and without an end, indivisible
and formless. The relative time, samaya, has a beginning and an
end. It has a form and it is divisible into seconds, minutes, hours,
days, months, years and so on. Relative time caused by changes in
the motion of things. It is also cyclical because it has an ebb
and flow in which the condition of souls fluctuate according to
a predictable pattern. As in Hinduism, in Jainism also time is perceived
as a destroyer because eventually in death as in liberation the
body of a jiva is temporarily destroyed.
Pudgala and The Atomic Theory
Pudgala is matter with form. It is what the bodies of jivas are
made of, or what the earth and the planets are made of. It has certain
perceivable qualities, shapes or forms and properties. It is what
is perceived and experienced by the jivas through their senses.
It is subject to modifications, but eternal. It embodies energy
and prone to motion (parispanda) and evolution (parinama). Everything
in the universe, except the souls is made out of pudgala. In its
gross form it is grasped by the senses, but the senses cannot reach
its subtle forms. The karmic matter is a subtle pudgala that becomes
attached to the bodies of the souls because of their actions.
Pudgula is made up of infinitesimally small atoms or paramanus,
which are eternal, cannot be created and indestructible. The atoms
are responsible for the qualities and nature of pudgala. Each atom
has some weight. The lighter atoms stay above and the weightier
ones below. Each atom occupies a certain point in space. The atoms
also possess certain qualities such as taste, color, smell and texture.
Atoms of the gross matter are much larger in size and occupy greater
area in space than atoms of the subtle matter. Things are produced
by the combination of atoms of dissimilar nature, prone to mutual
attraction. The movement of atoms in the space are caused by dharma
and adharma, which we have discussed before. Atoms have a tendency
to come together and form into aggregates (skandha) of different
types. Aggregates constitute one aspect of pudgala, the other being
atoms. Our material universe is in fact a giant aggregation of countless
atoms (mahaskandha), subject to change and transience made possible
by the aggregation and disintegration of atoms. The atoms are eternal.
So is the universe. What undergoes change is the combination of
atoms or the aggregates. Atoms are homogenous, but by developing
certain qualities and grouping themselves into various combinations
they manifest as numerous substances. Atoms have motion and can
travel swiftly from one part of the universe to another at infinite
According to Jainism Karma is a kind of matter (pudgalika) which
enters the body of a jiva according to the nature of its actions.
The karmic matter is present in the whole universe and has a tendency
to modify the future of a jiva by entering into it and creating
effects of merits and demerits. The karmic substance remains in
the jiva till it is cleansed through neutralizing actions. By indulging
in various actions and interacting with the external world, each
jiva keeps on attracting the karmic substance into itself which
leads to the development of a karmic body (karmana sarira). This
karmic body remains with the jiva through its various reincarnations
till the soul is completely liberated. Every action performed by
a jiva leaves upon it an impression and forms the basis for an action
or event in its future. The karmic substance envelops the soul and
camouflages its brilliance like a layer of black soot forming on
the glass of a lamp. This happens in case of both mental and physical
actions. Bhavakarma is the substance that enters a jiva through
its mental actions and dravya karma through its physical actions.
On account of karma a jiva passes through five different types
of karmic conditions. The first one is the Audayika state. It is
the normal state in which karma does its regular work. The next
one is Aupamasika state, in which karma is not removed but neutralized
and prevented temporarily from producing its results. In the Ksaayika
state, the jiva is able to remove its karma completely so that it
will not produce any effects, resulting in its liberation. In the
Ksayopamasika state, which is the next one, a jiva find itself in
all the three preceding states, that is some karma is present in
its normal state, some karma is neutralized temporarily and some
karma is permanently removed. In the fifth state a jiva is completely
immune to the effects of karma. This is the state of liberation.
The Ksayika and Aupamasika states are found in the holy men while
the Aupamasika state is normally found in pious and virtuous people
who perform good deeds.
Liberation in Jainism actually means liberation of soul from
matter including the karmic matter. For human beings it is freedom
from cycle of births and deaths and the impurity of karma. Karma
is what binds the soul (jiva) to the matter (ajiva). Jainism recognizes
seven tattvas or principles namely jiva, ajiva, asrava, bandha,
samvara, niraja and moksha. A jiva (soul) becomes free from ajiva
(matter or material body) through various stages to reach the highest
state of absolute liberation called moksha. Asrava is the flow of
kamric substance into the body of jiva. Bandha is the bondage that
binds the soul to the body, caused by wrong belief, non-renunciation,
carelessness, passion and the vibration caused in the soul by the
actions of the body, mind and senses. Samvara is that which prevents
the inflow of karma completely. Niraja is that which neutralizes
and eliminates all the previous sins and purifies the soul. Moksha
is the state of complete liberation, to which soul can reach to
experience its highest and purest state of blissful consciousness.
Jains take the concept of liberation to its extreme when they ultimately
subject their bodies to self destruction through fasting and other
austerities to attain liberation. Suicide is an acknowledged short
cut to liberation in Jainism. It is prescribed as an alternative
to extreme asceticism when one is unable to overcome attachment
and passions. A monk is also allowed to kill himself after twelve
years of ascetic practices to attain nirvana.
Suggested Further Reading
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