Jainism: An Outside Perspective

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Spirituality is universal. Through a religion, spirituality is observed and attained by members of different kinds of societies (Skorupski, 1976). Every society necessitates a body of faith to satisfy spiritual needs of its population. Interestingly, the manifestation of such body of faith varies from one society to another (Skorupski, 1976). In fact, Western and Oriental religions are often said to be polar opposites on certain aspects of faith (Skorupski, 1976). Some religions advocate for certain things that others totally disdain. Not only does this demonstrate the complexity associated with spirituality and religion, but also it somehow exhibits the importance and universality of spirituality itself. The fact that religions and other manifestations of a spiritual faith are present in almost all societies, regardless of varying historical backgrounds, political institution or human intervention is a testament to its necessity (Skorupski, 1976).

Accordingly, many scholars have taken an interest in studying various forms of religions around the world in an effort to describe and analyze these as institutions that contribute to the larger society. Jainism is a religion in India where it has had an immense historical and cultural influence (Rai Jain, 1974). It is often cited that it is one of the earliest religions in the world (Prasad Jain, 1954). Having an immense influence in the larger Indian society, Jainism is thought to have a significant contribution to the development of Hinduism, as well (Stevenson, 1915). People who believe in Jainism are called Jains. Though, Jainism can be found in many other countries in the world, Jains can be mostly found in India. Mahavira is the founder of Jainism as mentioned by theologians and comparative religion scholars, though this is often challenged by Jains by saying that Jainism existed even before Mahavira has founded the religion. This religion will be the main topic of this paper.

Having said all of these, this paper will attempt to discuss and analyze various facets of Jainism as a body of faith. More specifically, the paper will analyze certain tenets of the religion using author’s personal beliefs and experiences of Jain rituals as a backdrop for such analysis. Moreover, it will attempt to compare and critique other various forms of religions to contrast and understand what Jain belief structures and doctrines stand for. As a part of trying to understand the essence of the Jain philosophy, the author had also visited a virtual Jain temple as an attempt to experience what Jains practices are.

Before delving to the main discussion, it is perhaps imperative to provide more information regarding the main topic. The whole Jain philosophy is a complex system of beliefs and rituals (Prasad Jain, 1954). Jains do not necessarily believe in the existence of a one supreme being that created the whole universe (Rai Jain, 1974). Instead of focusing on worshiping a supreme being, they choose to focus on life and actions which can affect the soul and emulate lives of twenty-four Tinthankarat (past monks worthy of emulating) (Rai Jain, 1974). Like many other religious philosophies, soul and actions are an integral part of the Jain philosophy (Prasad Jain, 1954). They believe that the universe is a continuous cycle of life, hence, its beginning and ending is irrelevant to an individual’s existence (Prasad Jain, 1954). Correspondingly, Jains believe in the transmigration of the soul and that death is a mere passage of one’s soul transfer to another creature (Rai Jain, 1974). Furthermore, Jains also believe that all living creatures have an equally valuable soul. This explains their sensitivity towards killing or harming lives of humans and animals alike. They believe that a strict rule of nonviolence should be followed. No life should be executed apart from its natural course. Even the life of insects and the smallest microorganisms should be valued. They behave and act as carefully as they can, so as to stay true to such creed. They make sure that they do not accidentally kill bugs and other insects when walking on streets, or when sitting down or lying on the floor to sleep. Boiling water even requires a particular kind of repentant ritual because of microorganisms killed upon the act of boiling. Jains also practice vegetarianism, since eating meat requires killing animals.

As already stated earlier, some do not directly consider Jainism as a religion (Skorupski, 1976). This is mainly because of the lack of a formal unified institution to represent sects and communities who believe in Jainism (Skorupski, 1976). However, its influence in the spiritual life of its millions of members is still undeniable. More importantly, the contribution of the Jain philosophies to the greater Indian culture is immeasurable (Stevenson, 1915). For example, Jainism is often noted to have a vast influence over the Sramanic Indian Culture and Philosophy (Stevenson, 1915). As a matter of typification, sociologists usually classify or label general cultural or philosophical tendencies in India as either Brahmic or Sramanic (Stevenson, 1915). Hindu and Aryan people are considered to be under the Brahmic tradition, while Jainism is considered to be under the Sramanic tradition. Jain texts and scriptures are often used to study this sub-culture, thereby proving the influence of religion on the Indian society (Stevenson, 1915).

However, it is necessary to note such influence. It is clear that the mere presence of religion in the country proves its influence. This influence has a deeper and more profound implication to the community or social life. It is vital to note this role because Jainism does not only prove to be a religion, with its temples and scriptures inside the Indian society, but more importantly, it advocates for a certain branch of philosophy suggestive of how its members should live. Jainism is a lifestyle and it is not a mere membership to a religion. It cuts across various aspects of life of a Jain. Not only within the spiritual realm, but also within a Jain’s conduct; their way of thinking, the way they eat and even the way they regard their relationships with other creatures.

Having been anchored to Indian culture, Jainism is also often critiqued because of its similarities and differences to other religions and cultural traditions in India. It is often compared to the pre-Vedic Dravidian culture (Rai Jain, 1974). This is mainly because of similarities in the simplicity and unsophisticated nature of their philosophies. For example, both believe in the transmigration of the soul and the notion that ill-natured actions correspondingly bring about an ill-natured effect to the actor or the notion, more popularly known as Karma (Rai Jain, 1974). Jainism is also often compared to Buddhism (Prasad Jain, 1954). This is mainly due to the fact that Buddha and Mahavira have had similar origins (Rai Jain, 1974). They both based their teachings and philosophies on the Nirgantha Dharma. Buddha chose to challenge the scripture by conducting “quests of enlightenment”, while Mahavira chose to stay true to the traditions on its own. Buddhism, hence, is considered to be a rival sect (Rai Jain, 1974).

There are many available materials in Internet for people who wish to study the religion. Through an extensive Internet search, one could, in fact, peek in to the world of a Jain. Videos and anecdotes which capture the daily routines and general conduct of a Jain can be viewed and read about. Even rituals and ceremonies are recorded with commentaries from Jain monks and nuns. It has been already stated earlier that no one being is worshipped in Jainism. Instead, Jains are more concerned on emulating lives of famous people who walked on earth like their founder Mahavira and other monks and nuns who are regarded highly in their religion. These monks and nuns are expected of a different kind of devotion and honor, compared to lay men Jains. In turn, they are rewarded certain benefits from the Jain community. These monks and nuns are also responsible for conducting daily activities inside their temples, as well as overseeing particular ceremonies.

Just like any other religion, certain daily rituals are advised to be practiced by Jains. Six (6) practices are generally expected of them, namely: (1) meditation and prayer, (2) honor to the Tirthankara, (3) respect for spiritual teachers or the monks and nuns, (4) repentance for the things one has done wrong, (5) control of the body by holding a fixed position during meditation, (6) renunciation of certain pleasures, activities, foods, for a fixed time (Stevenson, 1915). These practices can be done either inside comforts of their own home shrine or inside their community temples (Stevenson, 1915). Honoring the Tirthankra requires the Jain to be dressed simply, to pass around the image of the Tirthankra three times and them to wash the image with water or milk with saffron (Stevenson, 1915). This should be all done while reciting a prayer called Panca Namaskara. Rice and other forms of material offerings are then offered in front of the image of the Tirthankra. Rice grains are also arranged in front of the image to represent the symbols of Jainism – the swastika, three dots and a crescent moon. Aside from the Panca Namaskara, other types of prayers are also repeated. Finally, prayers for repentance for any harm caused to living creatures, for salutations follow to the twenty-four Tirthankara and to all monks and nuns and for virtues and goodly deeds of all the Tirthankara follow and the devotee expresses the desire and intention to emulate them are made (Stevenson, 1915).

Videos which illustrate these practices were quite helpful in conveying the degree of devotion and commitment that is necessary in conducting such rituals. Though, these rituals were conducted regularly by Jains, an air of deep personal reflection and meditation can be easily seen. Apparently, it was deeply personal and spiritual not only because of the environment within which these rituals were done, but also because of the personal regard of devotees to rituals. It can be seen in their eyes. It was as if they were doing something beyond what their human bodies were exhibiting. There was a warranted levity and spiritual significance to their actions. They were not merely routines or rituals to speak. It was not only a part of their life. It was in essence of their life and there was no confusion in their actions and beliefs.

The video of the rituals was fascinating and  by the experience Jains were having. Ones puny understanding of the religion revolves around the idea that they practice vegetarianism and that they are somehow related to Buddhism in India. Reading and exploring various facets of their spirituality was a process of widening one’s personal beliefs and spiritual convictions. Trying to understand their philosophies and the sensibility behind such philosophies challenged judgmental notions about Jains, it was evident that there was much compassion and simplicity in the lifestyle they were advocating. Thinking about it now, one believes this is something that one cannot just jump into. One is used to restrictions and limitations one’s own present religion has on one’s life right now and knowing that there are even more restrictions and limitations beyond what one can understand are a part of the reality of Jainism is a refreshing thought. This, in turn, rewarded one of an unsurpassable amount of respect to people who can live this way. This is not only because of the fact that this is something one thinks one cannot do, but also because of satisfaction and happiness that is apparent in the way Jains live their lives.

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