By Jayaram V
Either you are with God or against God, this is one approach.
I do not believe in God, but I believe in my Self, this is the second
approach. I do not believe in God, but I believe that my Self is
God and divine, this is the third approach. I do not believe that
God exists, but I believe that some souls can attain godhead through
perfection, this is the fourth approach. Except for the first, the
creed of Jainism meanders through the rest of the approaches without
compromising its essential doctrine. An outsider may find it difficult
to categorize Jainism purely as either theistic or atheistic. However,
a Jain would consider his faith as theistic rather than atheistic
because he or she believes in the essential divinity of the individual
Soul and its eternal existence in an eternal reality personifying
the highest perfection. In the following discussion we understand
why it is so.
One of the interesting features of a few religious traditions
that originated in India is their disbelief in the existence of
the Creator God. Samkhya, Buddhism and Jainism believe in the predictable
and routine functions of Nature and its divisibility. However, they
do not acknowledge the transcendental existence of the eternal principle
we identify in the field of philosophy as tie singular cause of
causes and in religious practice as God. The idea that one can be
atheistic and yet religious, is a paradox for many, especially those
who are brought up on the notion that the belief in God and religious
practice go together and cannot be separated.
In Christianity and Islam, without pledging faith in God and
without submitting to His supremacy and His inviolable law, one
cannot be part of the congregation or the community of the followers
and find a safe passage through the gates of heaven. In Hinduism,
Jainism and Buddhism the belief in God is not a prerequisite to
practice religion or achieve liberation.
They place more emphasis upon individual responsibility and personal
salvation through righteous conduct and assiduous practice of the
teachings left behind by enlightened masters. In this journey what
helps them are detachment, renunciation, the absence of desires
and inner purity. When the individuality of a being disappears,
the individual becomes free from the things that define him and
limit him. When the boundaries of separation are obliterated in
the inner world that exists in each of us, one becomes part of the
ocean existence and cease being an individual subject to duality
and ignorance. In this process whether one may resort to God, or
a deity is a personal choice, depending upon the path one chooses
and the choice one makes.
Hinduism is not an atheistic religion. However, it offers a wide
range of choices to its followers to test their beliefs in the waters
of life and make their own decision. Also, in Hinduism, belief in
God is not an essential prerequisite for achieving salvation, although
it is desirable, since it increases the chances of attaining the
final goal. Hinduism is very flexible in letting people make their
choices and finding truth through trial and error, by reposing faith
in the doctrine of karma, according to which every individual is
subject to the consequences of his or her actions. Hinduism, Buddhism
and Jainism believe in the law of karma. However, they differ with
regard to its cause and continuation.
God is a great enigma which none can truly fathom. Students of
modern science know how difficult it is to understand the origin
and nature of the material universe. If we have such difficulty
with the reality with which we interact continuously, imagine the
extent of problem we may have in knowing the invisible and transcendental
reality called God whom we cannot reach under normal circumstances.
None can mentally and definitively construct the vision of the material
universe, even though it is partially in the field of our observation
and it is even more difficult to envisage the spiritual realm that
defies all known laws of existence and is clearly beyond our perception.
These three traditions suggest that religious aspiration begins
with a person's inborn inclination, according to his or her previous
karma, leading ultimately through self effort to an inner opening
in which Truth is perceived or experienced beyond the barriers of
conditioned mind and limitations of scriptural or temporal authority.
Therefore, according to them religion is a means to self exploration
and spiritual effort to arrive at Truth and should not be construed
as an authoritarian and coercive dogma that suspends free inquiry
and demands unconditional surrender to scriptural injunctions or
a messianic teaching under the weight of authority or fear of blasphemy
In all the Indian religions, knowledge gained through personal
experience is more valid than knowledge gained through scriptures
or teaching. The latter becomes credible and important without valid
personal experience and or direct cognizance. One may resort to
blind faith and scriptural authority in the initial stages of spiritual
effort, but in the end one must reach the object of such a faith,
in a state of non-duality, to experience oneness with it and become
absorbed in it.
In this approach one can discern an underlying truth that if
nonviolence is the suggested method to achieve perfection, the tradition
that upholds it cannot violate the same principle to accomplish
its aims. Like the many dualities of life, faith, which is a facilitator
in the beginning becomes an obstacle at some stage on the spiritual
path and ha to be renounced to transcend the mental constructs and
intellectual notions and experience the truth directly.
In Buddhism and Jainism faith in the teachings of those who have
reached perfection and experienced the truth directly takes precedence
over blind faith in the existence an eternal Being. Both deny the
very existence of God as an absolute and eternal entity and do not
acknowledge His role as the creator of the world and the reality
in which we live.
In Buddhism, any discussion about God is regarded as futile
because it is of little value in the liberation of an individual.
Speculation is considered the function of an idle mind, which is
prone to distractions. It would not lead to mitigation of human
suffering or the liberation of an individual. What matters most
is the personal effort and the sincerity with which the Eightfold
path is practiced. The Buddha advised his disciples to remain in
the present, mindful of their immediate perceptible world, to know
the true nature of their existence and find suitable remedies to
the problem of their suffering.
If Buddhism does not clearly confirm or deny the existence of
God, leaving the matter rather inconclusive and unanswered, Jainism
makes its stand very emphatic by denying the existence of God as
a universal and absolute Self responsible for creation, and leaves
no scope for ambiguity and uncertainty on the subject.
However, paradoxically, although Jainism does not believe in
the existence of the universal Supreme Self, we cannot categorize
it as an atheistic tradition because it has clearly elements of
theism. Jainism does not acknowledge God, but it does hold the faith
that there are innumerable individual souls in varying states of
bondage and perfection, which are both divine and eternal. It believes
in the eternal nature of individual souls inhabiting the different
regions of the universe, having the potential to reach their highest
state of perfection, through their individual effort. Jainism also
reposes faith in the teachings of Perfected Beings, or Arhats, and
the existence's of higher words populated by gods. Both are considered
venerable and worthy of emulation.
For a Jain, God is not the center of the world. Yet, a world
devoid of God can still be divine and eternal. He perceives divinity
or God's essential quality of perfection in the higher realm of
the universe and in the eternal, individual souls who are intrinsically
pure, having the ability to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent
according to their choices and individual actions. The world and
the soul are permanent realities which cannot be denied. Even the
materiality of our existence is not an illusion but a reality having
variable components called tattvas. Matter and substance are real,
just as the individual souls are. According to the Akaranga Sutra,
"He who denies the world (of fire-bodies), denies the self; and
he who denies the self, denies the world (of fire-bodies)."
Thus, in Jainism God is replaced by a permanent reality as individual
souls, who are eternal, uncreated and indestructible, who inhabit
the universe which is also uncreated and indestructible, subject
to the movement of repetitive time cycles stretching over millions
of years in which the souls pass through alternating phases of moral
decline followed by spiritual recovery, just as mechanically and
repetitively the day is followed by night and the night by day.
The God of Jainism or its highest operating principle is not
a giver of boons or a liberator of beings, but an ideal state of
eternal purity and blissful consciousness, to which humanity can
aspire through renunciation, intense self effort and purification.
A Jain, who has committed himself to the path of the Perfected Beings,
known as the Tirthankaras or Arhats or Jinas, aims to achieve such
a state of divinity not for the love of God or to be with God or
become like God because He is higher and superior, but to escape
from the existential suffering to regain the soul's lost freedom.
In short in Jainism, there is no place for bhakti.
Since Hinduism and Jainism, and Jainism and Buddhism coexisted
for long in the same region and their proponents interacted frequently,
Jainism has traces of both these traditions, just as the other two
imbibed some aspects of it. Thus, it appears that at some period
in the history of the religious development in India, the worship
of Lord Krishna found its way into Jainism. Arishtanemi, the 22nd
thirthankara, is linked to him. The result was the origin of the
community of Vaishnava Jains, an independent sub-sect of Jainism,
who worship Lord Krishna devotionally just as the Hindus do. However,
this development was an exception and should not be construed as
the standard Jain practice.
Jain scriptures question the existence of God both logically
and theistically. The Mahapurana declares that one should reject
all notions of some God creating this world. It asks, " f God created
this world, where was He before creation and where is He now and
how can an immaterial God create a material world?" It goes on to
conclude, "Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is,
without a beginning and without an end... Uncreated and indestructible,
it endures under the compulsions of its own nature, divided into
three sections- the hell, the earth and the heaven."
It is not that a Hindu cannot answer such a critical question
However his answers would not fit into the Jain's view of the world
and its eternal nature. For a Hindu the material world is unreal
and it comes into existence as God's projection or manifestations.
For a Jain the world is real because matter is real and uncreated.
While it may go through various states or conditions, it has always
been there and shall also remain forever, without a beginning and
without an end, just like the individual souls.
Although Jains do not acknowledge the presence of God, they acknowledge
the existence of higher beings called Arhats in heaven and some
gods. The gods are embodied souls who enjoy greater freedom and
a higher degree of purity, knowledge and intelligence. The Arhats
do not take any interest in the affairs of the world. They are completely
indifferent to what goes on here. However, they are interested in
the welfare of the world and in helping the imperfect souls to climb
the ladder of purity and righteousness through austere self-effort
to reach the world of perfect beings.
A Jain worship the Arhats not to gain favors from them, but to
cleanse their karma. The very act of worshipping the perfected beings
is construed beneficial since it has the purifying effect of reducing
the inflow of karmic material into their bodies and thereby hasten
their progress on the spiritual path. Thus, primarily the worship
of Arhats is not a devotional effort but a spiritual one. (A section
of Jains, however, do believe that the Arhats may remove bad karma
if you worship them).
The gods, on their part, keep a watch on the activities of the
world. They respond to our requests and sincere prayers and help
us in our good deeds. Many of them have similar names as the gods
of Hinduism but differ in respect of their status and potency. They
are not aspects of Supreme Self but individual souls who have reached
a higher state of existence through their good deeds. They are worshipped
for the good they do not because they are aspects of one Supreme
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