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One of the most remarkable creations of Indian civilization is the philosophy and religion of Jainism.

The Jain community in India today is an esoteric group of no more than about 4 million, yet wielding considerable influence despite its small numbers and with a literacy rate of over 90 % for both males and females. They are also a prosperous and united community. Unlike Buddhism which spread to Afghanistan, Central Asia, China, Japan and South East Asia, Jainism remained confined among small sections of India’s population without feeling the need to proselytize its teachings beyond its congregation. Their largest presence is in the state of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Their ascetic traditions are however ingrained in Indian culture and their customs and way of life are  well-known. The orders of Jain monks and nuns are ubiquitous and most Indians are familiar with their curious traditions.


Jain monks and disciples

Gandhi’s Non-Violence is a tenet that finds its origins in Jain philosophy and patterns of behaviour. Their monks and nuns are at pains not to cause harm even to bacteria through the practice of wearing masks on their mouths so that their breathing may not inadvertently cause the death of microorganisms. Their practice of sweeping the floor before taking the next step is to avoid stepping on an unwary insect. Indeed Non-Violence or Ahimsa is practiced to such an extreme as to encompass even the inanimate world. A monk must abjure violent movements so as not to disturb the equilibrium even of atoms. For the same reason he must not snap his fingers, squeeze objects  or vigourously fan the air. If he should fall from a boat he should drift gently with the current rather than make for the shore with violent flailing strokes so as not to disturb the atoms of water. Nor should he briskly dry himself but allow the moisture to evaporate. Insects and bugs that annoy him must be allowed their freedom and not be brushed away and never killed. The principle axiom of Non-Violence and non-killing of any life form has its corollary in the universal observance by monks and the lay order of strict vegetarianism for all Jains. The vegetarianism is of an extreme kind in that even root vegetables ( onion, garlic, ginger, carrot, potato etc) are all prohibited because they may harbour organisms under the earth.


Diksha: the ordainment of a Nun

The Jain practice of seeking periodical forgiveness from all acquaintances through sending letters and cards is another example of the extreme Non-Violence observed. The practice of renunciation by Jain householders is also legendary. Forsaking family, wealth, home and individual identity to join the ranks of monks and nuns is not uncommon. Often one is invited to such ceremonies. Even young men and women adorn themselves as brides and grooms only to renounce every vestige of ownership, personality and family links, much as when Christian nuns are dressed as brides to wed Christ. Rich businessmen give away their wealth to charity and join the orders of monks penniless. Extreme renunciation involving giving up food and water in an eventual suicide is also practiced by some elderly Jains who wish to forsake all physical bondage for ultimate salvation. This starvation unto death (Santhara) is practiced despite being against the law. Indians are more than familiar with these esoteric and curious practices of the Jains.




The Tirthankars

Vardhaman Mahavir, a contemporary of the Buddha is considered the founder of Jainism – like the Buddha, he was also a prince who renounced the world as a youth, not to attain a novel enlightenment but to follow a pre-existing religious discipline to attain to the state of a Tirthankar ( a maker of the river crossing) provided for in that ancient discipline. The concept of a Tirthankar allows for an individual to go beyond the material physical state and even beyond the ethereal and heavenly realms into a supernal zone at the peak of the Universe, into a kind of splendid isolation of total release and salvation. Mahavir according to the Jains was not therefore the founder but the last of 24 such super humans who achieved that pristine state of release and bliss.

16. Mahavira omniscience

Vardhaman Mahavir’s enlightenment

This would indicate an antiquity going well beyond the first millennium B.C. Historically, Mahavir, a contemporary of the Buddha, died in 526 B.C. Parasvanath the Tirthankar before Mahavir would have lived in the 8th or 9th century B.C. though there are no historical records to prove it. If some allowance is given to at least some of the remaining 22 Tithankars as being not purely mythological, it would take the Jain religion even further into remote antiquity.

According to some occidental scholars, particularly Heinrich Zimmer, the Jain religion therefore is perhaps the oldest religion of India and must pre-date the Vedic and Brahmanical Hindu traditions. Zimmer asserts that Jainism was an indigenous faith already existing before the Aryan invasions into India which took place between 2000 and 1000 B.C. and therefore pre-dating the Vedas which emerged around 1500 – 800 B.C., followed by the Upanishads. Jainism was therefore pre-Aryan and non-Vedic. Jainism denies the authority of the Vedas and the orthodox traditions of Hinduism, though Hindus generally regard the Jains to fall within the broad definition of Hindu. According to Zimmer Jainism belongs to the body of indigenous Indian thought reflected in the philosophies of Sankya, Yoga and Buddhism which are the other non-Vedic Indian systems. It would appear that their indigenous Indian thought re asserted itself after the Aryan invasions and succeeded eventually in integrating its thought to produce a synthesis in the Bhagavad Gita, becoming the foundation of modern Hindu thought.


Jain Cosmic Man

Jain cosmology conceives of the universe in the shape of an anthropomorphic Cosmic Man not unlike Emanuel Swedenborg’s Christian notion of God as a giant human form as expressed in his visions. Jainism like Buddhism does not speak of God. It does not allow for a moment in creation or for that matter a creator. The universe has always existed without a beginning or without an apocalyptic end. Brahmanism on the other hand speaks of cycles of creation and dissolution (Pralaya). Yet it is not atheistic, rather as Zimmer asserts it is transtheistical.



The Tirthankara is portrayed as a life denying monolith whose posture (Mudra) of Kayotsanga indicates inner absorption and dismissal of the body as reflected in his limp limbs on either side of the hips. They display no individuality, no personal mask, in a state of mystic calm and anonymous serenity and perfect isolation, aloof, nude ( no vestige of ego) and majestic and beyond any earthly solicitude.

The Jain conception of the Universe as a Cosmic Man is neither spirit nor matter but both together – Spiritual matter or materialized spirit. This unit contains souls (Jive) and Karmic matter ( A-Jiva). The pure and pristine souls are overwhelmed by the Karmic matter and engulfed and infiltrated by it. Any violence pollutes the crystal soul by colouring it in dark shades of matter. Any action whatsoever provokes an influx of Karmic matter into the soul, brighter shades for good deeds, darker hues for evil. Release from the bondage of matter is achieved by shutting off action of any kind, particularly violence against others, above all non-killing of any being – that can produce the very darkest colouring. Thus the seeds of further Karma have to be denied lest their fruit ripen to produce further Karmas in the form of suffering and physical experiences – gradually with the denial, the colors of all shades dissipate and disappear and the crystalline originality of the soul force is restored in all its purity. The heat of asceticism burns up all pleasures and pains and the Karmic seeds already present finally extinguish.

images (17)The Jiva (soul) and the Ajiva (matter) are distinct within the body of the Cosmic Man. The Jain concept is a kind of Materialistic Dualism of the two. The Jiva here is not the same as the Atman of Brahmanical Hinduism. Whereas the Atman is a manifestation of Brahman, the Universal Essence, and therefore has divine essence, the Jaina Jiva though eternal and unborn is not divine even though in its original state it has a perfect clarity. There is no divinity in the Jiva because there is no original God as creator or super spirit, embracing His creation. The Jiva is not any divinity , it is just itself. Neither does the Jiva upon liberation from Karmic bondage merge with any Universal Essence from which it emerged like in the case of Hinduism’s Atman. It does not merge upon liberation but merely ascends to the highest realms, the apex of the cranium of the Cosmic Man, there to abide with other liberated Jivas as separate entities. At that apex of the Cosmic Man reside the 24 Tirthankaras in their splendid isolation. As against this Materialistic Dualism of the Jain concept, the Brahmanical concept is that of the unity of matter and spirit, two sides of the same coin of Brahman (rather than a Cosmic Man) which constitutes the Monism of Hindu thought.

Brahmanism and Jainism however share the concept of the soul with the above major differences. They also share the concept of entrapment and entanglement of the soul by Karmic matter as a shroud or the mask of personality. Reincarnation is also a common theme in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu theology. If we regard Jainism as the original or aboriginal Indian faith (Zimmer) then it would appear that it bequeathed the concepts of Karma, the soul and reincarnation both to Buddhism and Hinduism. In fact reference to reincarnation only appears in the later Upanishads. The early Vedic Age makes no clear reference to it. It is only in the first millennium B.C. that transmigration became fused into Brahmanism, thereafter becoming a central doctrine of classical Hindu philosophy.

The Jain Cosmic Man comprises the whole Universe; the highest celestial regions where the Tirthankars reside, the lower celestial regions of the Indras (gods), the girdle where the Jiva assumes the mask of humans and as we proceed downwards, the masks of beasts, microorganisms and even the mask of the  atoms of inanimate matter, each as a shroud covering the Jiva or soul in the ongoing process of evolution or devolution.

The Jiva gets coloured by Karmic influx and only when all doors block out the Karmic ingress through abstaining from action, asceticism and penance that the Jiva begins to lose by burning off the colorization dispelling the effects of Karma and attaining to its original clarity. The adept shuns all temporal masks, sub-human, human or celestial – resisting the temptation to become even a god in the higher realms of the cosmic body by shunning even good deeds which are associated with good Karma – he allows no fetters whatsoever, no garb of elements, plants, animal, human or superhuman. In the Cosmic Man the Jivas are like the cells in a body, even the meanest atom has the capability to raise itself to the next realm of being.

The Jiva’s engulfment and colouring by Karmic matter is in the nature of a mask of personality. In Latin persona means the mask over the face of an actor through which he plays his part rather than the real nature of the actor. According to Christian philosophy the soul assumes a mask of personality which then stamps the wearer for ever, becoming fused with his essence. Thus Dante in his Divine comedy on his journey beyond the grave tours the spheres of hell, purgatory and heaven, meeting souls clearly identifiable with their personalities during life. Souls in Indian heavens and hells however do not retain the personalities from their lives. The mask which the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain souls wear during life are particular to the role they are playing in that life alone. The soul as actor remains anonymous. the aim of life is to get rid of the mask to get to the true nature of the wearer. At death the mask is set aside and during rebirth a fresh mask is donned.The final release involves casting away all masks and emerging pristine and untainted by Karmic consequence and defilement.


Ascent of the Jiva

The released Jiva ascends like a buoyant bubble to the dome of the universe, no longer restricted by Karmic gravity. He then enters the highest realms where there are no more any Karmic masks to wear. This highest sphere is ” whiter than milk and pearls, more brilliant than gold and crystal and has the shape of a celestial umbrella” (Jain scriptures). The Jiva now no longer dies with one personality nor does it get born with another because reincarnation has ceased. He joins other Jivas to reside in the cranium of the Cosmic Man, forever in an immaculate state of bliss. The Hindu Atman on the other hand does not merely cast off its last mask of personality but loses its separate identity as well in a final merger with the Absolute, like a drop falling into the ocean. The Jain Jivas who have won liberation are aware of the ultimate truth and while being omniscient with infinite knowledge are indifferent, unfeeling, unresponsive and in a state of ultimate bliss beyond earthly cares and concerns.

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Blissful Tirthankar

These liberated souls are in a state of total isolation. this is unlike the Hindu Brahman whose supreme divinity Vishnu incarnates periodically with compassion through a portion of his divine essence as Avatar to redeem the world or in the Buddhist case as a Bodhisattva for the amelioration of human suffering. The Tirthankara does not engage in such a descent. He remains cut off in a state of sublime unattached bliss (Kevalam). As we observed earlier worship of the Tirthankars is not undertaken to invoke their presence but merely to become inspired to the highest good which they have achieved beyond the joys and sorrows of the physical and even the celestial worlds.

The ideals of Non-violence (Ahimsa),non-killing and the consequent strict vegetarianism emerging from the Jain beliefs and faith appear most remarkable for the first millennium B.C. when constant warfare, violence, bloodshed, murder and mayhem and slaughter of animals for consumption would have been the order of the day. It is surely one of man’s profoundest assertions and a unique civilizing force embracing both humanitarianism, compassion towards animals and concern for ecology through respect for every atom of creation leaving us with profound admiration and awe for the unique event in world religious history that is Jainism.

I would like to conclude with two quotes from Heinrich Zimmer who in my view is the most eminent, brilliant, knowledgeable and incisive scholars of Indian philosophies, culture and civilization, whose writings have so impressed me in revealing the fathomless depths of my own culture.

We of the Occident are about to arrive at the crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ. This is the real reason why we become both vexed and stimulated, uneasy yet interested, when confronted with the concepts and images of Oriental wisdom. This crossing is one to which the people of all civilizations come in the typical course of the development of their capacity and requirements for religious experience, and India’s teachings force us to realize what its problems are…….The basic aim of any serious study of Oriental thought should be, not merely the gathering and ordering of as much detailed inside information as possible, but the reception of some significant influence…..Then we will join, from our transoceanic distance, in the world-reverberating jungle roar of India’s wisdom.”

”The supreme and characteristic achievement of the Brahman mind ( and this has been decisive, not only for the course of Indian philosophy, but also the history of Indian civilization) was its discovery of the Self (Atman) as an independent, imperishable entity, underlying the conscious personality and bodily frame. Everything that we normally know and express about ourselves belongs to the sphere of change, the sphere of time and space, but this Self (Atman) is forever changeless, beyond time, beyond space and the veiling net of causality, beyond measure, beyond the dominion of the eye. The effort of Indian philosophy has been, for millenniums, to know this adamantine Self and make the knowledge effective in human life. And this enduring concern is what has been responsible for the supreme morning calm that pervades the terrible histories of the Oriental world – histories no less tremendous, no less horrifying, than our own. Through the vicissitudes of physical change a spiritual footing is maintained in the peaceful-blissful ground of Atman; eternal, timeless, and imperishable Being.


Collosus of Sranvanbelagola – Gomteshwar




In all cultures, different faiths enjoin on us to do the same thing – excercise restraint, avoid extremes, abstain, fast, overcome passions, be frugal and thrifty, avoid greed, gluttony and licentiousness, share, give away and be generous rather than become acquisitive, egotistical and centred in serving the body’s demands  for pleasure and unlimited plenty. In a word a balanced life. They hold out the example of those who have gone further. Monks and nuns, Swamis, Gurus and sages, apostles and saints are demonstrated as examples of people who have indeed denied themselves all manner of pleasures and passions even overcoming basic needs through celibacy, abstemiousness and detachment both physical and emotional.

Is this then an exercise to prepare the soul for the time when it will leave the body at death, returning to its pristine state in an environment where physical need of food, sex and ego and egotistical attachments will become redundant, where fame and fortune, need and its satiation become meaningless? The Gita ( Hindu scripture) speaks of  renouncing ‘Kama, Krodh, Madh, Moh, Lobh’ – lust, anger, addictions and emotional attachment to ones family leading to excesses of greed – all attributes of a physical condition and irrelevant for an ethereal entity like the soul.

As we advance in age and the body loses its vitality, in any case many of these attributes get subsumed. Sex is no longer the driving force it used to be, the palate cannot be indulged in as before (burp), relationships get sublimated, progeny no longer arouse the same protective passion as they become self-reliant. The aging body which the soul inhabits has become less demanding and it becomes easier for the soul to realize its true ethereal essence without the ceaseless clamour for demands of the physical self.

Most cultures then enjoin on the individual to prepare for departure. In Hindu thought, there are four stages of life. Childhood, youth and family life, maturity and disengagement (Vanprasth). The last involves ending societal and familial obligations and attachments and proceeding (Prastha) to the forest (Van) for contemplation and meditation on the eternal verities.

The theme of renunciation (Sanyas) is a common one in religions emerging from India. Among Hindus the call to renunciation is advocated for the lay person, after all duties have been discharged and life lived to the full through the stages of childhood, family life and maturity. Among the Buddhists a family member so inclined may renounce the world and join a monastic order from childhood itself.

Among the Jains ( according to some scholars the oldest indigenous faith in India), the phenomenon of renunciation assumes extraordinary proportions. One is occasionally invited to an investiture ceremony when an individual, be he or she  a bureaucrat, trader or politician, irrespective of age, suddenly feeling the call to renounce, decides to do so. At the well attended public ceremony, which resembles a marriage in its pomp and ostentation, the one who renounces , ascends a dias with a throne dressed like a groom or bride. Then one by one he places aside his glittering turban, or coronet as the case may be, casts off his brocade costume, gives away his jewels, allows his progeny or some charitable organization to take away all his wealth and severs all connections with society, family and friends. His last act is to be relieved of his very identity through a change in name ( assuming a spiritual name ). Having thus shed all aspects of ego he dons the white. simple robes of a monk and joins a monastic order with which he departs, never to return. This is equally true for women who dress as brides, relinquishing all finery on the dias and cutting off all links with family and society.

Jain monks then are required to sleep on mats on the hard floor, eating frugally and sweeping the floor as they tread the ground lest they inadvertently step on an ant or other living thing. They also are required to tie a band of cloth over their nose and mouth (like medical practitioners do in hospitals) lest by breathing out they inadvertently kill some micro organism! This is the most extreme form of the practice of non violence which influenced Gandhi in his non-violent movement. Another order of Jain Monks seek to rid themselves of every vestige of ego by discarding all apparel and moving around stark naked (Digamber). Their lay followers crowd around them when moving in public lest they invite ridicule by non Jain onlookers.

Occasionally a Jain nun or monk will take the extreme step of terminating life by gradually giving up food and water altogether (Santhara). While some argue that this is a form of ‘holy’ suicide and have approached the courts to stop the practice, orthodox Jains have asserted that it is their constitutional right to practice their religion unhampered. The issue has yet to be settled in court.



Buddhist monks seek to sever all connections with the material world by refraining from engaging in any economic activity to sustain themselves. They beg humbly from door to door and survive on alms. The begging is also intended to exterminate their ego.  The lay faithful householder generously bring food grain, vegetables and fruit and cooked meals for the monks at their door, considering their presence as a blessing for the household.

credit: Flickr Hive

Among the muslims the Fakir or holy wanderer, generally from the Sufi order of mystics, move homeless from place to place singing praise for the Almighty. The great Indian poet Kabir was one such and his poetry and songs extolling man to cast away his ego and merge with God find echoes in every corner of India to this day.


priest being ordainedThe ordinary catholic priest is another case in point. He gives up much with a smile to serve the community selflessly. A nun when ordained is also dressed like a bride (of Christ), much like  the Jain renouncer. Of course, in all ecclesiastical orders, East or West there is bound to be corruption. The lavish life styles of medieval and even present day clergy is well-known. No wonder the present Pope has sought to urge and enforce frugality and simplicity among his clergy. Some Indian monastic orders were equally known to have been more concerned with amassing wealth and political power than spiritual salvation.

All said and done, renunciation is big in India and poets and saints who wandered away from home and hearth, palace and pomp are hugely revered – to name a few we have Meera the princess, Sur the blind singer, Tulsi the author of scriptural poetry on Lord Rama, Nanak the founder of Sikhism, Raidas the mystic saint, Shanker the inspiration of Non Dualism, and Ramkrishna the mystic saint of the 20th century.

With such thoughts in my mind I composed a poem on disengagement which I wish to share with our readers:


     D I S E N G A M E N T


Time for disengagement,

As the essence of ruddy contours


And attractions abate.


The self same stamp

From driven insect

To warm bodies,

As the floor show circulates

Like a fallen cliche.


Not urging any more,

Not stirring,

As the instant realization:

This could not be for pleasure

Nor even to procreate

But a premise immaculate

For forging difficult mergers

Of souls incarnate;


Lest consciousness  constricts

When infected sunspots

Scar the spirit’s sun

And through incarnation –

Experience of ego’s annhilation,

We learn that we are one.


Then we may allow attractions to abate

As lessons done

And time for disengagement

Has begun.



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