Annie Besant on Jainism [III]

Published: 03.07.2012
Updated: 02.07.2015

Let us look more closely at right conduct, for here the Jaina practice becomes specially interesting; and wise are many of his ways, in dealing especially with the life of the layman. Jainas are divided into two great bodies: the layman, who is called a Srāvaka, and the ascetic, the Yati. These have different rules of conduct in this sense only, that the Yati carries to perfection that for which the layman is only preparing himself in future births. The five vows of the Yati which I will deal with in a moment, are also binding on the layman to a limited extent. To take a single instance: the vow of Brahmacarya, that on the Yati imposes of course absolute celibacy, in the layman means only temperance and proper chastity in the life of a Grhastha. In this way the vows, we may say, run side by side, of Ahimsa, harmlessness, Sūnriti, truthfulness, Asteya, not taking that which is not one's own, uprightness, honesty, Brahmacarya, and finally Aparigraha, not grasping at anything, absence of greed - in the case of the layman meaning that he is not to be covetous, or full of desire; in the case of the Yati meaning of course that he renounces everything and knows nothing as “mine”, “my own”. These five vows, then, rule the life of the Jaina. Very, very marked is his translation of the word Ahimsa, harmlessness: “thou shalt not kill”. So far does he carry it in his life, to such an extreme, that it passes sometimes almost beyond the bounds of virtue; passes, a harsh critic might say, into absurdity; but I am not willing so to say, but rather to see in it the protest against the carelessness of animal life and animal suffering, which is but too widely spread among men; a protest, I admit, carried to excess, all sense of proportion being lost, the life of the insect, the gnat, sometimes being treated as though it were higher than the life of a human being. But still, perhaps, that may be pardoned, when we think of the extremes of the cruelty to which so many permit themselves to go; and although a smile may sometimes come when we hear of breathing only through a cloth, as the Yati does, as he breathes continually touching the lips that nothing living may go into the lungs; straining all water and most unscientifically boiling it - which really “kills creatures, which if water remained unboiled would remain alive - the smile will be a loving one, for the tenderness is beautiful. Listen for a moment to what was said by a Jina, and would to God that all men would take it as a rule of life:

“The venerable One has declared... As is my pain when I am knocked or struck with a stick, bow, fist, clod, or potsherd; or menaced, beaten, burned, tormented, or deprived of life; and as I feel every, pain and agony, from death down to the pulling out of a hair; in the same way, be sure of this, all kinds of beings feel the same pain and agony, etc., as I, when living they are ill-treated in the same way. For this reason all sorts of living beings should not be beaten, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor deprived of life. I say the Arhats and Bhagavats of the past, present and future, all say thus, speak thus, declare thus, explain thus; all sorts of living beings should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This constant, permanent, eternal, true law has been taught by wise men who comprehend all things.” [Uttaradhyayana, Bk II, i, 48, 49]

If that were the rule for every one, how different would India be; no beaten and abused animal; no struggling, suffering creature; and for my part, I can look almost with sympathy even on the Jaina exaggeration, that has a basis so noble, so compassionate; and I would that the feeling of love, though not the exaggeration, should rule in all Indian hearts of every faith today.
Annie Besant with Henry Olcott (left) and Charles Leadbeater (right) in Adyar, Madras in December 1905


Then we have the strict rule that no intoxicating; drug or drink may be touched; nothing like bhang, opium, alcohol; of course nothing of this kind is allowed; even so far as honey and butter does the law of forbidden food go, because in the gaining of honey the lives of bees are too often sacrificed, and so on. Then we find in the daily life of the Jaina rules laid down for the layman as to how he is to begin and end every day:

“He must rise very very early in the morning and then he must repeat silently his mantras, counting its repetition on his fingers; and then he has to say to himself, what am I, who is my Ishtadeva, who is my Gurudeva, what is my religion, what should I do, what should I not do? ”

This is the beginning of each day, the reckoning up of life as it were; careful, self-conscious recognition of life. Then he is to think of the Tirthamkaras, and then he is to make certain vows. Now these vows are peculiar, as far as I know, peculiar to the Jainas, and they have an object which is praiseworthy and most useful. A man at his own discretion makes some small vow on a thing absolutely unimportant. He will say in the morning: “During this day” - I will take an extreme case given to me by a Jaina - “during this day I will not sit down more than a certain number of times”; or he will say: “For a week I will not eat such and such a vegetable”; or he will say: “For a week, or ten days, or a month, I will keep an hour's silence during the day”. You may say: Why? In order that the man may always be self-conscious, and never lose his control over the body. That is the reason that was given me by my Jaina friend, and I thought it an extremely sensible one. From young boyhood a boy is taught to make such promises, and the result is that it checks thoughtlessness, it checks excitement, it checks that continual carelessness, which is one of the great banes of human life. A boy thus educated is not careless. He always thinks before he speaks or acts; his body is taught to follow the mind and not to go before the mind, as it does too often. How often do people say: “ If I had thought, I would not have done it; if I had considered, I would never have acted thus; if I had thought for a moment that foolish word would not have been spoken, and that harsh speech would never have been uttered, that discourteous action would never have been done.” If you train yourself from childhood never to speak without thinking, never to act without thinking, see how unconsciously the body would learn to follow the mind, and without struggle and effort, carelessness would be destroyed. Of course there are far more serious vows than these taken by the layman as to fasting, strict and severe, every detail carefully laid down in the rules, in the books. But I was telling you a point that you would not so readily find in the books, so far as I know and that seemed to me to be characteristic and useful. Let me add that when you meet Jainas you will find them, as a rule, what you might expect from this training - quiet, self-controlled, dignified, rather silent, rather reserved. [The details here given are mostly from the Jainatattvādarsha, by Muni Atmārāmji, and were translated from the Prakrit for me by my friend Govinda Dasa]

Pass from the layman to the ascetic, the Yati. Their rules are very strict. Much of fasting, carried to an extraordinary extent, just like the fasting of the great ascetics of the Hindu. There are both men and women ascetics among the sect known as the Svetāmbaras; among the Digambaras there are no female ascetics and their views of women are perhaps not on the whole very complimentary. Among the Svetāmbaras, however, there are female ascetics as well as male, under the same strict rules of begging, of renouncing of property; but one very wise rule is that the ascetic must not renounce things without which progress cannot be made. Therefore he must not renounce the body; he must beg food enough to support it, because only in the human body can he gain liberation. He must not renounce the Guru, because without the teaching of the Guru he cannot tread the narrow razor path; nor discipline, for if he renounces that, progress would be impossible; nor the study of the Sūtras, for that also is needed for his evolution; but outside these four things - the body, the Guru, discipline, study - there must be nothing of which he can say: “it is mine”. Says a teacher:

“He should not speak unasked, and asked he should not tell a lie; he should not give way to his anger, and should bear with indifference, pleasant and unpleasant occurrences. Subdue your self, for the self is difficult to subdue; if your self is subdued, you will be happy in this world and in the next.” [Uttaradhyayana, i, 14, 15]

The female ascetics, living under the same strict rule of conduct, have one duty which it seems to me is of the very wisest provision; it is the duty of female ascetics to visit all the Jaina households, and to see that the Jaina women, the wives and the daughters, are properly educated, properly instructed. They lay great stress on the education of the women, and one great work of the female ascetic is to give that education and to see that it is carried out. There is a point that I think the Hindu might well borrow from the Jaina, so that the Hindu women might be taught without the chance of losing their ancestral faith, or suffering interference with their own religion, taught by ascetics of their own creed. Surely no vocation can be nobler, surely it would be an advantage to Hinduism.

And then how is the ascetic to die? By starvation. He is not to wait until death touches him; but when he has reached that point where in that body he can make no further progress, when he has reached that limit of the body, he is to put it aside and pass out of the world by death by voluntary starvation.

Such is a brief and most imperfect account of a noble religion, of a great faith which is practically, we may say, on almost all points, at one with the Hindu; and so much is this the case that in Northern India the Jaina and the Hindu Vaishyas intermarry and interdine. They do not regard themselves as of different religions, and in the Hindu college we have Jaina students, Jaina boarders, who live with their Hindu brothers, and are thus from the time of childhood helping to draw closer and closer together the bonds of love and of brotherhood. I spoke to you yesterday about nation-building, and reminded you that here in India we must build our nation out of the men of many faiths. With Jainas no difficulty can well arise, save by the bigotry that we find alike among the less instructed of every creed, which it is the duty of the wiser, the more thoughtful, the more religious, the more spiritual, to gradually lessen. Let every man in his own faith teach the ignorant to love and not to hate. Let him lay stress on the points that unite us, and not on the points that separate us. Let every man in his daily life speak never a word of harshness for any faith, but words of love to all. For in thus doing we are not only serving God, but also serving man; we are not only serving religion, we are also serving India, the common Motherland of all; all are Indians, all are children of India, all must have their places in the Indian nation of the future. Then let us, any brothers, strive to do our part in the building, if it be but by bringing one small brick of love to the mighty edifice of Brotherhood; and let no man who takes the name of a Theosophist, a lover of the Divine Wisdom, ever dare to say one word of harshness as regards one faith that God has given to man, for they all come from Him, to Him they all return, and what have we to do with quarrelling by the way?



Compiled by PK

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Anger
  3. Annie Besant
  4. Aparigraha
  5. Arhats
  6. Asteya
  7. Body
  8. Brahmacarya
  9. Celibacy
  10. Digambaras
  11. Discipline
  12. Fasting
  13. Greed
  14. Guru
  15. Hinduism
  16. JAINA
  17. Jaina
  18. Jina
  19. Madras
  20. Muni
  21. PK
  22. Prakrit
  23. Tirthamkaras
  24. Vaishyas
  25. Violence
  26. Yati
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