Relevance of Jainism in India Today

Published: 23.08.2008
Updated: 03.01.2011

Mahadeolal Saraogi Memorial Lecture
11th May 2006
at Kolkata

Namo arihantanam, namo sidhanam, namo ayrianam, namo uvajjhayanam, namo loe savvaasahunam
Aso panch nammokaro savvapavappna sano, manglanam cha savvesim padhamam havai mangalam. 

salutations to the prophets; salutations to the perfect beings; salutations to teachers; salutations to the exponents of scriptures; salutations to all saints.
This fivefold salutation destroys all sins and is pre-eminent as the most auspicious of all auspicious

The mantra, which I chanted just now as manglacharan, is the renowned, sublime and one of the holiest of mantras called namaskara-mantra, which is chanted every day by millions of followers of Jain religion. Jainism is one of the oldest living religions of the world, which is purely Indian in origin and represents that current of ancient Indian culture, the Shramana Sanskriti, which is distinct and independent of the Vedic or Brahminical culture. Scholars believe that it originated as a reaction against the cumbersome ritualism- karmakanda, and as a revolt against animal sacrifices being carried out in the name of religion, prevalent then in Hinduism. We get evidence of this protest against animal sacrifice in yajnas in the mythological stories of Jainism. Other Jainologists, however, consider Jainism as old as Hinduism, if not older. It was prevalent as one of the popular religions. These scholars believe that in India, from time immemorial, there were two parallel streams of culture: the Vedic or Brahminical culture and the Shramana or magadhana culture. The former originated and flourished in the Indus valley or Saraswati valley according to modern scholars, and the latter, the Shramana culture, had its birth and growth in Magadha, the modern province of Bihar. There are certain fundamental differences between these two cultures, which have persisted in some form or the other till today.

The Vedic culture emphasizes the concept of Brahmana or Brahmanahood, whereas the Shramana culture has its basis in the concept of all-renouncing monk, bhikku or a Shramana.

The Vedic culture sets before us the concept of jivanmukta—a person liberated in life. A jivanmukta can be even a householder. He is also called a mantradrasta rishi, a person who has realized the scriptural truths, and there are a large number of references in Hindu scriptures of such householder rishis. King Janaka, sage Yajnavalkya, Vasistha, Atri and many other rishis were all householders. Shramana culture, on the other hand, considers formal sannyasa or total renunciation of all possessions, desires and even activity essential for attaining liberation. Arhat is a person who has gained perfect control over all his activities. Arhat, without any activity, is projected as ideal.

Of the four purusarthas or the goals of life, the Brahmana culture stresses dharma or righteous conduct, whereas Shramana culture emphasizes moksa or freedom more than dharma. Hinduism lays emphasis on jnana and bhakti whereas in Jainism greater stress is laid on yoga and meditation.

Spread of Jainism

Starting from Magadha or western Bihar, Jainism spread in all directions in India; towards the west upto Sourashtra and Gujarat, and even in South India. Jainism adjusted itself to the cultures and customs of these places. From time to time it influenced various princely states of North and South India, and because of its intrinsic qualities, it is still exerting its influence unhindered over the whole country. The very fact that Jainism has spread far and wide in India under varied circumstances, and that it has been active and flourishing for so many centuries, proves its relevance. Thus the subject of this article ‘Relevance of Jainism in India Today’ does not express doubt about its relevance on the contrary, it will stimulate our enquiry into those aspects of Jainism which may prove useful for the national life in the modern times of violence and competition, economic disparities and unrest at every level - mental, social and national. Thus the truths, the religious tenents and rules of conduct laid down by Tirthankar Mahavira, which brought about a revolution in the minds of people of that age, are as relevant now as they were 2500 years ago.

It is not possible to review Jainism in details in this short space. I shall only try to highlight some basic tenents and certain practices, which have relevance today.

Three basic tenets

The basic problems of the present society are mental tension, violence, and conflicts between different ideologies and faiths. Jainism has tried to solve these problems of mankind mainly through the three basic tenets of non-attachment (aparigraha), non-violence (ahimsa) and non-absolutism (anekanta). If mankind observes these three principles, peace and harmony can certainly be established in the world.

Probably the most relevant aspect of Jainism for the modern times is its liberal philosophy. The word ‘Jain’ itself is non-sectarian. Anyone who has conquered his passions is a Jina and a follower of such a Jina is a Jain. Seen in this way Jainism can include all religions of the world since they are all founded by saints and prophets who conquered their inner nature. This is comparable to the definition of Vedanta given by Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda too expands the meaning of Vedanta to include all other religions of the world, though in a different sense. The mantra which I chanted in the beginning as mangalacharan too is non-setarian in its meaning and anyone can chant it daily without becoming an avowed Jain.

1. Anekantavada     

Jain philosophical thought is centered round the concepts of anekantavada, syadavada and saptabhanginaya. These three concepts are intimately related to each other and provide the foundation for Jain metaphysics, epistemology and logic respectively. To be able to see truth in its many facets is anekanta and to express this in relative terms in syadavada. Translated in practical terms, anekantavada means that truth has infinite attributes. Do not look at one aspect of it from one angle and then decry the rest. Anekantavada translated into practical terms in social context would mean three principles:

    1. Absence of dogmatism or fanaticism,
    2. honouring the freedom of others and
    3. peaceful coexistence and aooperation.

These are most relevant today.

The Jain theory of anekantavada emphasizes that all the approaches to reality give partial but true picture of reality, and because of their truth-value from a certain angle, we should have regard for others ideologies and faiths. Thus anekantavada forbids us to be dogmatic and one-sided in our approach. It preaches a broader outlook and open mindedness, which is essential to solve the conflicts caused by differences in ideologies and faiths. Prof. T.C.Kalghati rightly observes, ‘The spirit of anekanta is very much necessary in society, especially in the present day, when conflicting ideologies are trying to assert supremacy aggressively’. Anekanta brings the spirit of intellectual and social tolerance.

For the present-day society, what is awfully needed is the virtue of tolerance. This virtue of tolerance, i.e. regard for others’ ideologies and faiths, is maintained in Jainism from the very beginning. Mahavira mentions in the Sutrakrtanga, ‘Those who praise their own faiths and ideologies and blame those of their opponents and thus distort the truth will remain confined to the circle of birth and death.’ Jaina philosophers always maintain that all the viewpoints are true in respect of what they have themselves to say, but they are false in so far as they totally refute others’ viewpoints. Haribhadra (8th century A.D.) says: ‘I bear no bais towards Lord Mahavira and no disregard to Kapila and other saints and thinkers; whatsoever is rational and logical ought to be accepted’. Hemachandra (12th century A.D) says: ‘I bow to all those who have overcome attachment and hatred that are the cause of wordly existence, be they Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Jina.

Jain saints have tried to maintain harmony at all times among different religious faiths and they tried to avoid religious faiths and they tried to avoid religious conflicts. That is why Jainism has survived through the ages. There had been communal riots in India but never with the Jains.

Today religious fanaticism is spreading everywhere and terrorism as its upshot is pressing the world into the fire of destruction. In such a state, the liberal approach of Jainism can prove a great boon to the whole world in the 21st century. The whole history of Jainism is a proof that it never resorted to violence. It always had faith in mutual cooperation and coexistence, which is the greatest need of the time. There is no place for corruption and violence in Jain lifestyle.

2. Ahimsa

Another great contribution of Jainism to the Indian culture had been the concept of ahimsa or non-violence. Ahimsa has always been accepted in Indian culture as the highest personal value—‘ahimsa paramo dharmah’. There were sages who practiced it to the highest degree individually. But it must go to the credit of Jainism that it successfully experimented to make it the highest social virtue and made it practical for the whole society 2500 years ago. It also reflects how advanced and cultured the Indian society was at that period when such lofty noble values could be practiced by an average individual in day-to-day life. It is alleged that it weakened the Indian society physically. But it also a historical fact that as a society advances culturally, it gets weakened physically.

All human beings have an equal right to lead a peaceful life. Though violence is unavoidable, yet it cannot be the guiding principle of our lives, because it is irrational and goes against natural law. If I think that nobody has any right to take my life, then on the ground of the same reasoning I also have no right to take another’s life. The principle of equality propounds that everyone has a right to live. The directive principle of living is ‘Living on others’ or ‘Living by killing’, but ‘Living for others’ or ‘Living with others’. ‘Jivo Jivasya Jivanam’ as told in the Bhagavatam may be true, but the Jain principle of ‘Parasparopgraho Jivanam’ is the law should govern our life. Though in our world complete non-violence is not possible, yet our motto should be ‘lesser killing is better living’.

At present we are living in an age of nuclear weapons and, due to this, existence of the human race is in danger. Only firm faith in, and observance of non-violence can save the human race. It is mutual trust and firm faith in the equality of human beings which can restore peace and harmony in human society.

Jainism has worked out in the minutest detail how ahimsa could be practiced in day-to-day life. It has, for example, classified all living creatures into five categories depending upon their sense-organs. The least evolved have only one sense-organ of touch, while the most evolved have all five senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell. A monk is supposed not to injure even the creatures with one sense. Jainism considers that plants too have life and minimum injury must be caused to them if one has to practice ahimsa has relevance today for the preservation of plant and animal kingdom and for the protection of ecology.

Another offshoot of ahimsa is abstinence from taking food after sunset, since insects become active at night and there is a greater possibility of injuring or killing them at night. It is immaterial whether this is a valid reason or not, the practice of not taking food after sunset is a very healthy habit for the people suffering from or susceptible to lifestyle diseases lake diabetes, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, etc. If one religiously abstains from eating after sunset, he or she will be free from hypertension and heart disease.

Vegetarianism is another outcome of the concept of ahimsa and credit must go to Jainism for making it popular throughout the world. Although non-vegetarian food may be required for those who have to struggle for existence, it is an established fact that vegetarian food conduces more to physical and mental health.

A very healthy food habit of orthodox Jains is that they don’t waste and leave even a practicle of food on their plates after their meals. Some of them even wash the plate with drinking water and then drink that water after food. What can be a better example of the practical application of Upanishadic dictum: Annam na nindyat: ‘don’t insult food’. This is an excellent practice which can be emulated by all. Orthodox Jains also don’t waste even a drop of water and wastage causes injury to creatures with one sense in water and is thus against ahimsa. Why not accept this practice today and conserve water!

Like Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism too believes in the theory of karma, and makes use of it in supporting ahimsa. Karmas are classified into four types and it has been shown that if one harms another even in subtle ways, he is bound to suffer in a corresponding manner. For example, if one prevents a student from studying, he will sooner or later get into a situation in which his attempts to acquire knowledge will be hindered. This Jain theory has great relevance today when subtle forms of exploitation and violence have become pervasive in society.

Jainism, in many respects, resembles Sankhya and Yoga systems. It is dualistic in nature and, like Sankhya, believes that there are innumerable individual souls called jives. Jainism has also accepted the five yamas of the Yoga system as its five basic vratas or vows. The monks are supposed to practice them in toto when they are called mahavratas. The householders must also practice them in their diluted form, when they are called anuvratas. In no other religious system these five fundamental moral values are given so great so great an importance. This aspect of Jainism has great relevance in India today. As a matter of fact, Anuvrata Movement initiated by Jain Acharya Tulsi has become very popular even among the non-Jains. Anuvrata training camps are held and there is an elaborate code of conduct for those who have accepted anuvratas.

3. Aparigraha

Among the five yamas, aparigraha is another value which is greatly stressed in Jainism. It is emphasized that ahimsa cannot be rightly and truly practiced without simultaneous practice of aparigraha or non-possessiveness. Swami Vivekananda has said that in the West the ideal is how much one can possess. In India the ideal is on how little can one live. Nowhere is this best demonstrated than in the Digambara Jain monks who possess nothing except a kamandalu and a broom made of peacock feathers for carefully removing insects without hurting them. Even the lay Jain householder devotees are expected to set a limit to their possession and not to exceed the limit under any circumstances. This concept of Jainism has great relevance for India today where, due to the influence of Western consumerist ideas, there is great increase in greed and possessive tendencies.

4. Brahmacharya

While Swami Vivekananda stresses truth and brahmacharya, Jainism stresses ahmisa and aparigraha. Of course, brhmacharya too is given great importance in Jainism and Jain mythology is replete with stories of Jain monks and lay devotees who had completely conquered their passions. This value also has great relevance in today’s India where Western hedonistic ideas are playing havoc with moral values.

5. Austerity

The Jain path of perfection called moksamarga consists of three aspects—samyak-darsana, samyak-jnana and samyak-caritra, i.e. right faith or attitude, right knowledge and right conduct. These are collectively called tri-ratna. Austerity is given so great an importance in Jainism that it can be considered the fourth jewel. This emphasis on austerity has great relevance. Although austerity is stressed in all religions, Jainism might be rightly called a religion centered around austerity.

There are two types of austerities: external and internal. External austerity includes such practices as fasting, begging, mortifications of body, etc. The internal ones include humility, confession and repentance, spiritual studies, meditation, etc. Interestingly, service is considered an internal austerity even though it involves physical acts of service. This points to the importance of the mental attitude behind the act of service and is relevant to all those who are engaged in such activities, which have multiplied in modern times. This is comparable to Sri Ramakrishna’s concept of ‘Shiva-jnana-jiva-seva’.

There is a tendency among the modernists to underestimate or decry physical austerities like fasting, etc. on the ground that they are unnatural. They quote Bhagavad Gita and decry such austerities as tamasik tapas. The fact is that we have become comfort-lovers and don’t want to accept this fact. We may not go to the extremes as some of the Jain practitioners do, but the fact remains that physical austerities in moderation are extremely important and useful for physical and mental health.

The Jain concept of dying in a state of Samadhi or Samadhi maran or Santhara has relevance today when we are becoming so much attached to life and afraid of death. Every devout Jain aspires not only to live an ideal life of renunciation, but also to die in a state of mental peace and concentration. Jainism enjoins that any monk or householder, during prolonged terminal illness or disabling old age, which causes such incapability that he or she is not able to perform his/her regular religious duties and devotional exercises, and becomes a liability on society, rather than a blessing in such a state, one can lawfully do religious fasting unto death. This is not considered suicide. In fact, this is a much healthier approach to death, rather than dying in ICU with tubes attached to every part of the body!

Meditation Techniques

Jainism is one of the most systematized and methodical religions. Its acharyas and leaders have during two and a half millennia of its history, systematized its theory and principles as well as the codes of conduct of its practice. One such aspect is meditation and its techniques. The meditation techniques, as described in Jain literature and as practiced by the Jain spiritual aspirants, have great relevance today. Apart from vipasana technique which has become quite popular, there are many other meditation techniques, which are most scientific and are thoroughly systematized.

Jains have classified all concentrated thinking into four categories, describing each one as Dhyana. The first two, the artadhyana and raudra-dhyana, consist of concentrated thinking associated with anxiety, depression and hostility and must be eschewed. All one-pointed righteous thinking is classified as dharma-dhyana and this again is of various types. It is not possible to describe all these in details here. But one technique in mhich the practitioner starts with the grossest imagination and gradually narrows it down to subtlest thought needs deeper study and practice by all serious practitioners of meditation. Finally, there is the sukla-dhyana---extremely subtle meditation.

Although faith is important, Jainism lays great stress on right conduct. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons why Jainism has survived in India and Buddhism waned is that Jainism lays very great stress on character. Almost all the major religious systems have described a ladder of spiritual ascent. In some, the stages are described on the basis of the proximity of the soul with the Supersoul or Pramatman or Ishta Devata, or on the gradual increase in the light of spiritual knowledge. Jainism, however, describes it on the basis of gradually increasing moral excellence. This ladder has fourteen stages or steps which are called gunasthanas. Since there is no mention of any deity or a god, spiritual aspirant belonging to any religion or following any spiritual practice can study it and derive benefit from it. Swami Vivekananda too has laid greater stress on character than bhava, ecstasy, etc. Without character they are of no value.

Apart from the navkar mantra, many Jains also daily chant a sublime verse in Hindi called ‘Meri Bhavana’ or ‘my feelings’. It is different from a number of prevalent hymns or praises in Hindi, Bengali or Sanskrit. This hymn actually represents the aspirations and feelings of a devotee about what he/she wants to be, how he/she wishes to conduct the life. In other words, it is a charter of the ideal code of conduct for a Jain. It also includes his best wishes for the society and the nation and for the world at large. Being absolutely non-sectarian, it can be adopted by followers of all religions.

This hymn begins with describing and honouring the liberated, omniscient, compassionate sages by whatever name they might be called—Buddha, Vira, Jina, Hari or hara, etc. Then the poet expresses his desire to remain always in the company of such sages, and to emulate their example. This is followed by a number of stanzas describing moral values and a resolve by the poet them into practice. In the last few stanzas the poet expresses his wish for a peaceful, prosperous and non-violent harmonious society. There are hymns describing moral values, like daivi sampat in the Gita, in the literature of all religious, but this hymn is unique in that it expresses these values as one’s aspirations and is in Hindi rather than in Sanskrit.

Confession of one’s sins, asking pardon, and pardoning others, i.e. forgiveness is one of the unique features of Jainism and has relevance to all. The admission of sins and pleas for forgiveness (kshama) are directed not only towards monks, teachers, devotees, relatives and friends, but towards all creatures. The spirit is well expressed in the following stanza:

‘Khammamin savvajivanam
Save jiva khamantu me,
Mitti may savvabhudesu
Veri mazzam na kena vi’

‘I pardon all living creatures, may all of them pardon me. May I have friendly relations with all beings, and unfriendly to none.’ Such a confession for forgiveness and forgiving others can be done as part of one’s daily prayers bringing great emotional and psychological benefit.

Jain Community

There had been rapid changes all over the world and in the country within the last few decades. The Jain community too had to face the problems of poverty and unemployment. However, since the Jains have always laid stress on self-effort, they never begged help from other communities. They have made excellent use of their resources and potential in the industrial sphere. They have contributed to the growth and prosperity of the country in every field. In the 20th century, the educated Jain youth migrated and settled in USA, England, Singapore, Japan, etc. and have shown their excellence in these countries. Since there is great emphasis on ahmisa, the Jains rarely join the Defence Services. They are mostly in commerce and business. As a matter of fact, Jainism is the one religion most suited for the present commercial age or Vaishya Yuga.

The Jain community had always been liberally making donations during natural calamities. It has also established schools, colleges, hospitals, rest houses and inns and centres for the care of even animals. In the 21st century too, this trend is expected to continue.


Before I conclude, let me again raise the question whether Jainism, with its orthodox lifestyle and very hard and rigorous spiritual discipline, is relevant for the modern times. How much relevant it is today and what will be its form and structure in the 21st century? The fact seems to be that there had not been much in-depth study of Jainism in its social context. Global relevance of ahimsa and other values of Jainism have not been assessed. Hence such questions disturb our minds. As in-depth study of Jainism will in itself answer these questions. Jainism can, in fact, play a pivotal role for the protection of the environment, for nurturing morality, ethics and universal brotherhood.

I would conclude with a beautiful verse by Acharya Amitgati:

Sattvesu maitrrn gunisu pramodam
Klistesu jivesu krpaparatvam;
Madhyasthabhavam viparita vratau
Sada mamatma vidadhatu Deva.

‘Oh Lord! I should be friendly to all the creatures of the world and feel delight in meeting the virtuous people.
I should always be helpful to those who are in miserable conditions and indifferent to my opponents.’

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Acharya
  2. Acharya Tulsi
  3. Acharyas
  4. Ahimsa
  5. Anekanta
  6. Anekantavada
  7. Anuvrata
  8. Anuvratas
  9. Aparigraha
  10. Arhat
  11. Bhagavad Gita
  12. Bhakti
  13. Bhava
  14. Bhavana
  15. Bihar
  16. Body
  17. Brahma
  18. Brahmacharya
  19. Buddhism
  20. Concentration
  21. Cooperation
  22. Deva
  23. Dharma
  24. Dhyana
  25. Digambara
  26. Discipline
  27. Ecology
  28. Environment
  29. Fasting
  30. Gita
  31. Greed
  32. Gujarat
  33. Gunasthanas
  34. Haribhadra
  35. Hemachandra
  36. Hinduism
  37. JAINA
  38. Jaina
  39. Jainism
  40. Jina
  41. Jiva
  42. Jnana
  43. Karma
  44. Karmas
  45. Kolkata
  46. Kshama
  47. Magadha
  48. Mahavira
  49. Mahavratas
  50. Mantra
  51. Meditation
  52. Moksa
  53. Navkar Mantra
  54. Non-absolutism
  55. Non-violence
  56. Omniscient
  57. Rishi
  58. Rishis
  59. Samadhi
  60. Samadhi maran
  61. Sankhya
  62. Sanskrit
  63. Santhara
  64. Saraswati
  65. Shramana
  66. Singapore
  67. Soul
  68. Space
  69. Swami
  70. Swami Vivekananda
  71. Tapas
  72. Tirthankar
  73. Tolerance
  74. Tulsi
  75. Vedanta
  76. Vedic
  77. Vegetarianism
  78. Violence
  79. Vivekananda
  80. Yoga
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