Absent Lord ► Victors ► The Cosmos ► Time

Posted: 14.05.2015

According to the Jain vision of things, in the karmbhumi regions of Bharat (our region) and Airavat, time moves through repetitive and very gradual cycles of moral and physical rise and decline. During the ascending half-cycle the human life span lengthens, body size increases, and the general level of happiness increases; these trends are reversed in the half-cycle of decline. The cycles are immensely long. According to one version,[1] a complete cycle lasts for a period of time equal to twenty korakorisagars. Korakori is a numerical expression equaling ten million multiplied by ten million, so by this reckoning an entire cycle takes 2 - - 1015 sagars. A sagar (or sagaropam) is a unit of time measurement. The same source (see also J. L. Jaini 1918: 90) asserts that one sagar equals one korakori, multiplied by ten, of units called addhapalyas, and an addhapalya equals "innumerable" uddharapalyas, each of which in turn contains "innumerable" vyavaharapalyas. A vyavaharapalya equals the time it would take to empty a circular pit with a diameter and depth of one yojan (8 miles) of fine lamb's hairs if one hair were removed every 100 years.[2] The point of these abstruse and fantastic calculations is, of course, to emphasize the nearly inconceivable vastness of the periods of time portrayed.

Each half-cycle is subdivided into six eras and each era is named according to how "happy" (sukhama) or "unhappy" (dukhama) it is (ibid.: 89). An ascending half-cycle thus evolves from dukhama-dukhama (severely unhappy) through dukhama (unhappy), dukhama-sukhama (more unhappy than happy), sukhama-dukhama (more happy than unhappy), sukhama (happy), to sukhama-sukhama (extremely happy) (renderings partly from P.S. Jaini 1979:31). The declining cycle is the reverse of this. We (in Bharat) are currently in the fifth age (often called the pañcam kal) of a declining half-cycle. When a descending half-cycle begins, all human wants are effortlessly satisfied by wish-fulfilling trees, and human beings attain an age of three palyas (presumably addhapalyas) and a height of 6 miles. By contrast, the last age is a time of extreme discomforts and lawlessness; miserable, dwarfish, with a height of one and one-half feet, humans live a mere twenty years. In a declining cycle such as ours, Tirthankars exist only during the fourth age (the first Tirthankar appearing at the very end of the third), and it is only during this period that liberation is possible. During the first three ages the general happiness discourages ascetic exertion, and during the last two ages the misery is too great. Our current fifth age began just after Lord Mahavir (the last Tirthankar of our half-cycle) left the world; it will last only 21,000 years.

These cycles, however, do not occur in all regions of the terrestrial world. The most significant exception is Mahavideh, half of which is karmbhumi. This means that there are Tirthankars active at the present time in that region.

The social and cultural world we know was the creation of Rsabh, the first of the twenty-four Tirthankars of our declining half-cycle.[3] As P.S. Jaini (1979: 288) points out, Rsabh occupies the functional niche of a creator deity in a tradition that denies creation. Prior to his advent, the world was a precultural paradise.[4] Because of the magical wish-fulfilling trees, toil was nonexistent. Old age and disease were unknown. Religious creeds did not exist. There was no family, no king or subjects, no social organization. As just noted, humans were 6 miles tall and their lives were eons long. Born six months before their parents' death, these extraordinary beings (called yugliyas) came into the world as mated sibling pairs. Each pair lived as a couple after puberty, and in time produced two similar offspring. In uncanny parallel with the theories of Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists, the Jains see presocial humanity as humanity without the incest taboo.

With the passage of the first three eras conditions deteriorated. The magical trees began to disappear and this resulted in shortages of food and other necessities. This led to the development of anger, greed, and conflict. Because of the crime and disorder, the frightened people met together and formed small family groups (kuls), and set persons of special ability in positions of authority. Here is Hobbes in a Jain guise. These individuals were called kulkars, and by establishing property rights and a system of punishments, they were able to maintain order as paradise dwindled away. The last of the kulkars was named Nabhi,[5] and he was the father of Rsabh.

Rsabh was the inventor of society, polity, and culture in our half-cycle of cosmic time. He was the first king, made so by the twins because of the troubles then occurring. He introduced the state (rastra), the enforcement of justice by punishment (dandniti), and society (samaj) itself (these terms are from Lalvani 1985:31)[6] He established the system of varnas, the ancient division of Indian society into functional classes.[7] He also taught such necessary arts as farming, fire-making, the fashioning of utensils, the cooking of food, and so on. His was also the first nonincestuous marriage, which established the current system of marriage. In the end he abandoned the world and became the first Tirthankar of our half-cycle of cosmic history. He was also the first to receive the dan (merit-generating gift) of food from a layperson, which in this case was sugar cane juice. So important was this event that Jains commemorate it in a calendrical festival (aksaytrtiya).

With Rsabh's advent, our corner of the world became redemptively active. He was the only Tirthankar of the third age; after him, in the fourth age, came the remaining twenty-three Tirthankars Of our current declining half-cycle. Each promulgated the same teachings and left behind the same fourfold social order of monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen. The penultimate was Parsvanath, with whose rite of worship this chapter began, and the last was Lord Mahavir. Soon after Mahavir's departure the window of opportunity for liberation closed.

The history of the twenty-four Tirthankars invests what would otherwise be a featureless timescape with moral and soteriological meaning. There is no beginning or end to the cosmic pulsations of the Jain universe, and in this perspective the face of time is blank. But within the cycles the passage of time can be converted into a significant narrative, one that has a direct bearing on the nature of the world experienced by men and women at the present time. The era of the Tirthankars thus seems to mediate between timeless eternity and the world that men and women know: The totally repetitive periodicity of the five kalyanaks belongs to eternity; the individuation of the specific careers of the twenty-four Tirthankars belongs to the particular history of our world and era.

Mahavir's departure inaugurated the history of the Jain tradition itself, established by Mahavir's followers. The ultimate locus of the sacred for the Jains, the Tirthankar as a generic figure, is no longer present in the world.[8] In the aftermath of their era, therefore, the task is to maintain some kind of contact with their presence as it once was. They are gone - as we have seen - utterly. But although the beneficence (kalyan) intrinsic to their nature exists no longer in embodied form, it can be transmitted from generation to generation by means of the lines of disciplic succession that link lineages of living ascetics with Lord Mahavir. Their teachings also remain, although we possess only an incomplete version. Although their kalyanaks no longer occur in our world, these events can be (as we have seen) evoked through ritual. And of course the social order they established - the fourfold order of Jain society - endures still.


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Title: Absent Lord / Ascetics and Kings in a Jain Ritual Culture
Publisher: University of California Press
1st Edition: 08.1996