Outline of Jain Beliefs
What is it which prompts a prince, used to the best things in life, to abandon his material and worldly pleasures, and to adopt a life of strict asceticism austerity?
Two and half millennia ago, Lord Mahavira (599-527 BCE) did precisely this, at the age of 30.
He spent years in silent contemplation, living a simple and austere life. At the age of 42 he attained Enlightenment or Omniscience, which the Jains called Kevalgnan, and for 30 years shared his message of universal spiritual upliftment until, at age 72, his soul left embodiment for good and he attained Moksha or Nirvana.
Lord Mahavira is a historical figure and he is mentioned in Buddhist texts, being a contemporary of the Buddha, but from an older, established tradition. He is a Jina, or victor, having overcome his inner enemies. A Jain is one who worships a Jina.
In addition to being a Jina, Lord Mahavira is a Tirthankar, a ford-maker. He has made a ford for us so we can cross over from this world of embodied existence (Sansar) to the state of Moksha, Liberation.
He is the last of 24 Tirthankars which Jains believe to have existed in this particular part of the time cycle. The 23rd Tirthankar, Lord Parshvanath, is also a historical figure. It is typically one or more of these 24 Tirthankars who Jains worship.
The Jain tradition is a unique, distinct and ancient part of the culture of South Asia. Often considered to be a sect of Hinduism, it is actually an independent religious tradition.
Like Buddhism, Jainism is considered a Shramanical tradition, as opposed to a Brahminical Hinduism.
While the Tirthankars are worshipped, they are considered to be mortal human beings, who attained Moksha and left behind a religious order and shared the eternal message of Jainism. We believe in them as exemplary beings, whose path we can follow to realise the same exalted states they achieved. In Jain philosophy, any living being, if it so wishes, can attain Moksha, or liberation, and become a Jina.
Each and every living being is, by nature, a soul. Each is eternal, unique and identical, apart from the circumstances of its embodiment. This state of embodiment has been driven since time immemorial by the Law of Karma. Just as gold is found in ore, so our soul is embodied, and the process of purification will lead to its shining liberation.
Despite our spiritual nature, we identify with the body we currently occupy and animate. Without a soul, a dead body is literally lifeless and will not function. The mind, the breath, the senses are all driven by the soul or Atma or Jiva. This soul is the seat of consciousness, which is its defining characteristic. The body is cast off from one life to another, in the same ways as we change clothes.
The misidentification of ourselves as bodies is a function of our delusion. This delusion generates a sense of “me and mine” toward the body, its relationships and its circumstances, with which we have a merely ephemeral, temporary association.
This generates feelings of like and dislike towards situations which are positive and negative for the body, and these are expressed as the quartet of passions, namely anger, ego, deceit, greed, which lead to various vibration activities in the soul, seens as thought, words and actions. This delusion, these passions, and these vibrations drive the process of Karma, in a seemingly vicious cycle. The Jain path is the path of breaking this cycle.
If we realise that we are souls by nature, and that all living beings possess a soul like ours, then this must have a dramatic outcome on both our vision and our ethical conduct. Jains believe in the cultivation of friendship and compassion towards all living beings. These virtues are to be practiced until they become a state of being, rather than conditional on any particular soul, just as a rose give fragrance, regardless of whether anyone is there.
Jain ethics are driven by the principle of Ahimsa, non-violence. This traditionally governs diet, business and professional practice, and general conduct. Jains are usually strict vegetarians: In addition, many do not even eat certain vegetables and fruits, as their cultivation, harvesting or consumption would entail more damage to living beings: in the West, there is increasing adoption of Veganism amongst younger members of the community. The scriptures and codes of conduct contain injunctions against certain professions involving harm, or the exploitation of other lives.
The religion and practice of Jainism, as with other South Asian traditions, is best expressed as Dharma. Dharma can be considered three ways: “Dharma is the nature of things;” it is that which protects us from conduct which is not beneficial to the Soul; and it is the path to Moksha.
Dharma thus brings us closer to the our own true nature, or soul. It generates conduct which will free us from Karma, and it is the path to Moksha or freedom from Karma.
“Right Belief, Right Knowledge, Right Conduct constitute the path to Moksha”
These three are seen as the three Jewels of Jain Dharma. Right belief, at one level, is the belief in our true nature as Soul, and not as body; a belief in the True God, True Dharma and True Guru; it can also be understood, at another level, as the very experience of the soul, of self-realisation. Right Knowledge refers to the insights that are conducive to faith, such as that body and soul are separate. Right Conduct ultimately also resides in the soul, in that our inclinations, thoughts, words and deeds are governed spiritually, and, ultimately, that we become still in the experience of soul.
The nature of the soul has already been described as eternal consciousness. It is our own sense of identity. Also intrinsic to it are the qualities of bliss and energy. In an embodied state, all of these are obscured by Karma, but in the state of Moksha, we experience them in infinity. The state of Moksha is thus freedom from Karma, but, more positively it is the experience of eternal, infinite consciousness, bliss and energy.
The soul is free from the duality of pleasure and pain, from like and dislike, and from the ups and downs of mundane life. Even before the state of Moksha, in self-realisation, one can experience this bliss and peace, even if momentarily, right here and now.
It is this potential to realise the joy and ecstasy of self-realisation, to cultivate a state of selflessness, and equanimity, and to live in harmony with all living beings, which inspires me on my journey.