Absent Lord ► Victors ► The Cosmos ► Cosmos as Pilgrimage

Posted: 17.05.2015

The soul's career in the cosmos is sometimes likened to a pilgrimage. A good example of the use of this metaphor is to be found in a book (Arunvijay, n.d.), put into my hands by a Jaipur friend, consisting of a collection of rainy season discourses given by a Tapa Gacch monk named Arunvijay.[1]

The soul, he says, is on a pilgrimage through the cosmos (a samsar yatra),with the final destination being liberation. His account begins with the nigod, beings who have not yet begun the pilgrimage. Infinite in number and packed into every cranny of the cosmos, these tiny beings mostly just wink from one identical existence to the next. The nigod's, he says, are a kind of "mine" (khan) or reservoir of souls, infinite in extent and inexhaustible. To begin the pilgrimage, a soul must leave this condition; only then does a soul enter the "dealings" (vyavahar) of samsar. Can a nigod leave this condition by means of its own effort? No, says Arunvijay. It is a law of the cosmos that in order for one nigod to leave that condition, one soul in the universe must attain liberation. Given the vast number of nigod's and the relative infrequency of liberations, it follows that this is an extremely rare event, and that we - those of us now in a higher condition - are fantastically fortunate even to have left the condition of nigod.

Having left the status of nigod, he says, the soul enters various existences as badar sadharan vanaspati (coarse vegetable bodies that live together in infinite numbers in a single plant or portion thereof) and finds itself packed within masses of similar souls in the form of moss on a wall, a potato, or the like. It then takes birth as various kinds of earth and water bodies before graduating upward to the status of pratyek vanaspati (that is, the vegetable bodies that live one to a plant or portion thereof). It then goes on to inhabit air bodies and fire bodies. In this way the soul takes "uncountable" (asankhya) births among the one-sensed beings.

Arunvijay says that the soul progresses because of the accumulated effect of merit resulting from virtuous actions performed in various births. Exactly how merit is generated by the activities of such humble beings he does not explain, and his overall characterization of the soul's destiny does not emphasize ethical retribution. Rather, the image he stresses repeatedly is the "wandering" (paribhraman) of the soul. His favorite metaphor is that of the ox tied to an oil press. The wretched beast goes round and round in a circle (the four gati s); he is blindfolded, and has not the faintest idea of where he has been or what his destination will be.

The pilgrimage continues. The soul takes "uncountable" births as it advances from two to four-sensed bodies. But it can also regress and even fall back into the one-sensed category again. In the end the soul may at last enter the category of five-sensed beings. It now spends countless years in this class. It must take birth as every form of water beast, then every kind of land animal, then all the varieties of birds. It takes "violent births" (himsak janam s) in the form of such animals as lions or tigers. As a carnivore it commits the sin of killing five-sensed creatures, and now it descends into hell.[2] The soul spends eons (sagaropanm's of years) in hell, and moves back and forth between hell and the tiryañc class many times. It even falls back into the four-, three-, two-, and one-sensed classes yet again. Eons more pass. And then progress resumes.

At long last, after infinite existences from beginningless time, the soul/pilgrim enters a human body. Alas, it sins and falls into hell, and from there takes birth all over again in the sub-five-sensed classes. As a result of truly fearsome (bhayankar) sins commited as a human, the soul can even fall back into the condition of nigod. How often, our author exclaims, has the soul gone downward and how far it has fallen! Our soul/pilgrim may also become a deity on the basis of merit earned by deeds. From this condition, however, it must return, and Arunvijay says that it may well fall all the way down to the lowest classes of life again. These transformations will occur again and again. The soul/pilgrim goes through the four gati's, the five jati's (classes of beings with from one to five senses), and the entire 8,400,00 kinds of births that exist. This is the nature of the cycle (cakra) of the soul's great pilgrimage through the cosmos. And there is more. Arunvijay reminds us that not only have we all been through this cycle, but we have been through it an infinite number of times.

What is Arunvijay's main point?[3] Almost everything he says converges on one fundamental assertion, namely that one's birth in a human body should not be wasted.[4] This reflects the ascetics' view of things, a view that exists as a perpetual rebuke to the more comfortable lay view that routine piety is enough. It is possible, he says, for human births to be repeated; in theory it is possible to have seven or eight in a row. But this is very difficult and requires an immense amount of merit. Human birth is "rare" (durlabh) and in this vast cosmos very difficult to obtain. Sin is so easy, and the sins of one life can pursue you through many births. Not only will sins send you to hell, but they will result in many births in the classes of two- to four-sensed creatures after you have emerged from below. Arunvijay reflects at length on the sin of abortion, and it is significant that, in his eyes, part of the horror of abortion is that it cuts the newly incarnated soul off from the possibility of a human existence.

His conclusion is that one must set a "goal" (laksya) of release from the cycle of rebirth in the classes of living things. The contrast is between one who has such a goal and those who are "without a goal" (laksyahin).Those who are without a goal wander blindly and aimlessly. You have sinned an infinity of times, but now you have gotten the Jain dharm (Jainism). If you set the goal of release, he says, then it is easy to get rid of sins. What is needed is a full effort in spiritual endeavor. This is the real point of everything he has said. He is not much interested in the whys and wherefores of the wandering soul's entry into one kind of body or another. More important is the sheer scale of things. The soul takes many, many births - infinite births - in its endless wanderings through this vast cosmos. At long last has come the opportunity for deliverance, and this opportunity must not be allowed to slip away.

Arunvijay uses this vision of the soul's pilgrimage to reinforce the plausibility of central Jain values. Large numbers abound: uncountablities and infinities. The universe is inconceivably vast in size. The times-cape is infinite in extent. The taxonomic system is enormous and labyrinthine. The potential for doing harm to other beings is boundless. Liberation is possible only in a human body, and human bodies are hard to get. The zone of human habitation is tiny by comparison with the cosmos as a whole, as is the human taxon by comparison with the teeming multitudes of other forms of life with which the cosmos is filled. Indeed, even a human body is not in itself enough, because liberation is actually available during the merest sliver of time in comparison with all of time. And even in eras and places where Jain doctrine can be heard, not everyone hears it. Here, then, is the pilgrim at last in human form and in contact with Jain teachings. Lucky is such a pilgrim, and so valuable an opportunity must not be wasted.

Arunvijay's main concern is not with proselytizing asceticism. His primary goal is to raise the general level of piety of his lay audience. But the vision he projects is one that places a context around the core values that inform the text of Parsvanath's five-kalyanak puja. Ascetic withdrawal is the central meaning of Parsvanath's last life. The only truly rational and morally defensible response to this cosmos is the most radical withdrawal from it. This is not the way most Jains live, but it is a constant undertow in Jain religious life, and one that creates strains and ambivalences. It cannot be ignored. How could it be, when it is dramatized on a daily basis by living ascetics?

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