Dec 18, 2008

Jaina Dharma: An Assessment

By MSN Menon

The Jainas were the first to carry their civilising mission to most parts of India. And if we were the supreme trading nation for two thousand years, we should be thankful to them for their pioneering work. —Author.

The Jainas were the first atheists of India. That is, in a formal sense. They did not believe in an omnipotent Supreme Being or creator. Instead, they believed in an eternal universe governed by natural laws based on the interplay of gunas. And they were the first to worship idols. That was 2500 years ago.

But the Jainas were not the first to doubt the existence of God. Doubts were expressed even in the Vadas and the Upanishads Of the six great systems of Indian Philosophies (Darshanas) four are atheistic. They are Samkhya, Nyaya, Yoga and Vaisesika.

Samkhya of Kapila is the oldest and most profound philosophic system known to man. It asserts that the universe was not created by God. It was always there. Both Mahavira and Buddha were profoundly influenced by Samkhya.

Nyaya of Gautama is a system of logic rather than a philosophy. Development of logic led to the development of language. And the development of language led to the development of literature. Nyaya is based on Samkhya.

Yoga of Patanjali is independent of the Vedas. It sought liberation by the control of the senses. Yoga is not a theistic system.

Vaisesika of Kanada tends to atheism. It saw no need for God in the cosmic system.

There was a kind of ‘Jainism’ even before Mahavira. There is mention of a Parasva who preached avoidance of injury to life.

The Jainas believe in unity in diversity. This they called Anekantavada—a central principle of Jainism. It argued for the many-sidedness of truth. It legitimised the diversity of religions. Naturally, Jainas were against absolutism in thought, speech and deeds—a virtue of the greatest significance in the evolution of human civilisation. Such an approach led to tolerance, samabhava, generosity and humility.

Good Reader, Mahavira and Buddha lived at a time when atheism was on the rise. It was already in the air. They were, therefore, not the first propagators of atheism.

The Jainas, however, deserve our thanks for propagating a religion free from rituals and sacrifices and the caste system. And for scattering the Vedic gods. The concept of monarchic god (Indra, for example) up in a heaven among the clouds, directing the world from above, seemed absurd. (Both Islam and Christianity continue to believe in a god on the cloud directing the world from above.)

So, by the time of Yajnavalkhya (12th century BC) the Vedic gods were in decline. Yajnavalkhya’s god (Brahma) was “limitless in time and space,” “as small as a grain and as big as the universe”—an entirely different concept. Naturally, there was no point in making sacrifices to a “limitless God.”

Jainism believes in an infinite number of souls. They are evolving into perfect souls. Jainism also accepts the theories of Karma, Incarnation and Free Will.

This is the background to Jainism. Was there any wonder, then, that the Jainas gave up the supernatural and, therefore, the rituals and sacrifices and shifted the entire emphasis of their faith to an ethical life. They adopted ahimsa as the main tenet of Jainism.

But can there be an ethical life without a god? Yes, it is possible, they say. Ethics must be independent of revelation. According to Grotius, one of the greatest law-givers of Europe, “the principle of law must stand even if we suppose that there is no God.” An ethical life is possible, the Jains reasoned, by following Right Belief, Right Knowledge and Right conduct. They called it the Three Jewels. The Tattvaartha sutra deals with the ethical life of the Jainas. A real Thirukural of the Tamils.

The concept of Dharma is fundamental to Hinduism. It is like Tao to China and Logos to Greece. Dharma is above the gods. It forms the basis of both Jainism and Buddhism.

Once the Jainas developed the principle of Anekantavada, they were bound to be tolerant of other faiths. Thus, they accepted the legitimacy of Islam and Christianity. But, alas, Islam and Christianity do not accept the legitimacy of other faiths. They say that the Quran and the Gospels are the last words of God!

The Jaina thinkers believe that men can attain divinity and that God is only the highest, noblest and fullest manifestation of all the powers that lie latent in the soul of man.

Magadha was the centre of Mahavira’s activities. Conversion of Emperor Chandragupta to a Jaina monka and of the Vaisyas, who controlled the city council of Pataliputra (Patna) en masse(because the Brahmins would not agree to elevate their caste status) were momentous. They continued to control trade and were primarily responsible for the construction of the trade route from Patna to Broach(Grujarat). In the process, they set up Jaina colonies all over the route.

Continuous famine for 12 years during the region of Chandragupta forced the Jaina community to migrate to Karnataka. We know from the architectural history of Kerala that they had a powerful presence in Kerala. And they also established themselves in Tamil country, Thus, at one time, the entire peninsular India was under the influence of the Jainas.

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