Jainism: Philosophy and Practice in India

Posted: 24.08.2011
Updated on: 21.07.2015



Jainism: Philosophy and Practice in India

A presentation given in the Panel Discussion arranged jointly by the Dept. of Philosophy, Mumbai and IPC - for the AAPA Conference on 22nd October 2010



Knowingly or unknowingly, a specific thought-model was created by Indologists, to look at Jainism, up to the middle of 20th century. A certain pattern was reflected in innumerable references where the term "Buddhists and Jainas" is used. The assumption was that by understanding something of the Buddhists, one knows all about Jainas. Though both are atheists, ascetic traditions and carry similarities in many perceptions, still we should know that their patterns of responses are different in many issues.

I will give a few concrete examples:

  1. Many scholars of Kautiliyan studies mention that "Buddhist and Jainas censure or condemn Chaanakya for his crookedness." [1] But when we go through the countless references of Chaanakya, found in Prakrit and Sanskrit literature of Jainas, we realize that Chaanakya is honored and appreciated by Jainas even more than Hindus.[2]
  2. When we undertake a scrutiny of Jaina references about "sacrifice" (yadnya), we come to know that the thrust and way of opposition to sacrifices is different from time to time in Jain History.[3]

The scholars have developed a model of "Pure-Jainism" and "Popular-Jainism" in their minds. They deal "Pure-Jainism" as conservative and unchanging and all the new additions are looked upon as degenerations. Scholars of Hinduism portray that Hinduism is a dynamic and changing tradition, while Popular-Jainism is the expression of half-understood and ill-digested Hindu influences.

When we think about "Jaina Philosophy and Practice in India" it is a solemn duty of researcher that he should remain aloof from the biased views and start thinking with fresh minds. Recent historical surveys of Jaina religion such as that of Paul Dundas (1992), treat the Jaina community not just as it was in the beginning, but as a growing, changing, innovating, internally diverse religious group.

When Jainism itself provides the "doctrine of multi-faceted reality and truth", the format of "dravya-kshetra-kaala-bhaava" and concept of "dravya-guna-paryaaya", and thus gives space for change and innovations, then there is no need to create new models for understanding Jaina practices. Uttaraadhyayana mentions "pannaa samikkhae dhammam".[4] It means, let us ascertain or examine the religion by wisdom or rational thinking.

So, in this presentation, I wish to underline the flexibility and all-inclusiveness of Jaina practices in the broader perspective of the historical background of Indian religions.


Scope of the Paper

"Practical-Jainism" is a very complex issue. It is impossible to cover all the Jaina practices in this paper. So I have chosen some of the important practices for consideration, particularly concerned to the conduct of laity i.e. shraavakaachaara and exclude monastic conduct in this presentation.


A. Shraavakaachaaras : the practical guidebooks for householders

A brief survey of ancient Jaina literature reflects the fact that Jainism, like Theravaada of Buddhism, is a shramanic religion and its primary teachings concern the path of liberation that is to be followed by those who are able to renounce the world. In due course of time, "space" was given to them, who choose to remain in household life but wish to lead a religious (i.e. merit-making) life. We find Prakrit and Sanskrit literature dedicated to shraavakaachaara from 3rd century A.D. onwards. These texts are the guidebooks to teach the laity "How to be a Jaina in practice?" It is actually a very tough job, with one foot on the worldly path of making money and merit, and the other, rather hesitantly, on the path of liberation.

Shvetaambara teachers noted down the conduct of laity in the terminology of anuvaratas, gunavratas and shikshaavratas (total 12) and Digambaras in the terminology of eleven pratimas. As mentioned by Amrutachandra it is expected from a householder that he should follow the path to the best of one's abilities.[5] The wording suggests that it is impossible to prescribe hard and fast rules for laity because the abilities of householders are naturally different.

Over the centuries Jainas developed "Popular-Jainism" that is, the daily and other regular practices and rituals which are actually performed or followed by large numbers of typical Jaina laypeople. These regular practices are known as kriyaas or charyaas, which are intended to lead people on a journey from the "outer" to the "inner" world of self. Moortipoojakas (or Mandiramaargins), Digambaras, Sthaanakavasis, Teraapanthis, follows of Shreemad Raajachandra, of Kaanji Svaami and of Daadaa Bhagavaana and so on, perform different rituals. We can classify these rituals as devotional, purificatory, expiatory, oblationary and ceremonial. Digambara non-image-worshipers generally follow the rituals of other Digambaras with exception of rituals associated with temples and images, instead they worship the scriptures. For the details of various poojaas, vidhaanaas and other rituals, one may refer the 5th chapter of the book - "Jainism: the world of conquerors" by Natubhai Shah.


B. Worried Thinkers

Every religion has some rituals but now a days Jaina thinkers are very much worried about this excessive ritualism and that too with great pomp and show. Some are worried about the growing impact of deities, gods and goddesses like yakshas, shaasanadevatas, vidyaadevatas as so on. Some others are restless about the enthusiastic participation of Jainas in Hindu festivals like dashahara, deepaavalee, durgaapoojaa, ganesha-festival and so on. Will Jainas loose their identity with such type of behavioral patterns? Are they congruent with the philosophical and ethical tenet of Jainism? A minute scrutiny is needed in this matter.

As a distant observer of Jaina community for the last 25 years, I feel that there exists a deep-rooted "Jainatva" in laypeople. An attempt is made here to note down some of the main points of "Jainatva" with critical remarks.


1. Strict Vegetarianism

We should know that this distinctive feature of Jainatva is the last phase in the process of the development in Jaina thought about dietary habits. It is the outcome of the reflections of Jaina teachers over centuries. We find references like "bahuatthiyam mamsam, bahukantiyam maccham" in Aayaara. [6] The incidence of Revatee in Bhagavatee Sutra is well-known. [7] In the course of time, the Jaina thinkers were successful in percolating Ahimsaa in the dietary habits. Further on, they extended the restrictions to various types of vegetable life as well. The missionary zeal on reforming the dietary habits of Indians and the people abroad is certainly admirable for such a small minority. But we should remember that strict vegetarianism is the best example of the innovative spirit of Jainism.


2. Observance of austerities (fasts) especially during Chaaturmaasa

When Hindus are busy in various attractive festivals, vows and celebrations during Chaaturmaasa, Jainas keep one-day's, two-day's, eight-day's or even monthly fasts. In small towns and villages some Hindus also keep fast in Jaina manner. This tendency of observing fasts is growing day by day. Some people object the pompous udyaapanas but they are voluntary. The aphorism mentioned in Tattvaartha, viz. "tapasaa nirjaraa cha"[8] provides the necessary philosophical background for such type of penances. It means, "Austerities wear off karma as well as inhibiting it". The commentary Sarvaarthasiddhi says very aptly that "when austerities are part of enlightened conduct then only they cause samvara and nirjara. It excludes practices and rituals such as religious pilgrimage, sacred ablution, worship of gods and demi-gods and so on."

It is noteworthy that even ritualistic laity never looses the focus on the observance of various fasts.


3. Deep-rooted theory of karma seen in the verbal expressions of Jainas

There is no need to say that the Jaina theory of karma is the most systematic, rational and full of technical terms and concepts. It is vast, thought-provoking and the literature explaining karma theory dates from more than two thousand years ago up to the present. For explaining any good or bad happening in our daily life, a Hindu uses the words like "destiny", "god's grace", "god's sport" (leelaa), "letters written on forehead" etc. But almost every Jaina employs the terminology which is specifically connected with karma-theory. The words like "bondage", "maturity", "covering capacity of karma", are very easy for him. He tries to analyze "pleasure" or "pain" on the background of vedaneeya. He is aware of the concept that lifespan-karma determines both longevity and realm of birth (i.e. gati). When he is deprived of certain things he knows that "it is the rise of antaraaya".[9] In short a layperson knows that he himself is responsible for his present condition and not the God etc. Karma-theory gives solace to him and inspires him for better purushaartha. The teachers also insist in their religious preaching that the worship of adorables in any form, the acts like charity etc. create "bondage of merit" but for the dissociation of previous karma, penance is necessary.


4. Daana (charity, donation) and Niyama (vow) as the expressions of Aparigraha (non-possession)

Jainas are many times blamed for having the excessive possessions which is the natural outcome of their strong financial position and their ideas of "social status". From the chapter related to Aanand shraavaka in Upaasakadashaa, we come to know that Lord Mahaveer expected limiting the bhoga and upabhoga and not total renunciation of wealth from a householder. The aphorism of Tattvaartha "parasparopagraho jeevaanaam" inspires Jaina householder for charity.

The topic "daana-punya" is discussed at length in various Jaina texts. Each and every householder is keen about charity or donation according to his capacity. Likewise, a religious-minded Jaina person seem to be very eager to take an oath to abandon particular things especially food articles. We can say that inclination towards daana and niyama reflect the tenet of aparigraha.


5. Prohibited professions (Fifteen karmaadaanas)

Jainas discuss in detail the three ways in which violence could be expressed.[10] Intentional violence is totally prohibited. The Jaina lawgivers have drawn up a long list of professions that were unsuitable for a Jainas layperson.[11] There is no doubt that the list needs revision accordingly but generally it is seen that Jainas choose a business which is reasonably free from causing harm to others. Jaina businessmen are reluctant to own animal husbandries, fisheries, leather-works, trade in ivory, alcohol or weapons etc. This is noteworthy at this point that pet-animals, fish-tanks, love-birds, tortoises etc. are not seen in houses of Jainas. It is cruelty to animals to keep them in bondage according to the shraavakacaara. Thus manifestation of Ahimsaa is seen in various ways in Jaina life-style.

The high literacy rate, maintaining peaceful relationship with society, proficiency over many languages, enthusiastic participation in non-Jaina festivals - these are some inherent qualities inculcated in Jainas due to their being a merchant class, for generations. This life-style is very much favorable to loose one's identity, but it is observed that in spite of socialization, Jainas have kept their identity intact with the help of religious practices imparted through family network and religious teachers.


6. Basics of Jaina ritual culture (specially poojas)

The rituals like "snaatra pooja" does not glorify the roles of gods and goddesses. It is the teerthamkara, and not even mighty Indra, who is the actual object of worship. The mode represented by the deities is not the highest mode, which is asceticism. The teerthamkara stands for ascetic values and not for the felicity that the deities embody. Though vaishnava patterns are seen in Jaina poojas, still at a deeper level, they are congruent with the Jain philosophy. According to Jainism, transactions between worshiper and worshiped are not seen. The offering of food in Jaina worship is interpreted as ritualized renunciation of food. Food offered to Krishna etc. is called "bhoga" (enjoyment) in vaishnavism . The recovered offering becomes his "prasaada" by which devotees are nourished. In Jaina tradition, the food offering is not "given to" but "given up". Such offerings are not consumed by Jainas, instead given to non-Jaina poojaaris.


7. Absence of shraaddha, pitrupooja, pinda etc. in Jaina practices

Almost in all sects and sub sects of Jainas, the above-mentioned posthumous rituals are not seen except very rare cases in rural areas. Shraaddha presupposes the existence of a world of manes (pitruloka). Since the Jainas maintain that the soul must be reborn instantaneously in any of the four realms of births (i.e. gatis). Hence adoption of the posthumous practices would undermine their very cosmology. Feeding the Brahmins at shraaddha etc. would make mockery of the doctrine of karma.[12] Jaina laity is so far successful to prevent these customs which are totally against their doctrine. The word shraaddha used in the Jaina texts is a synonym of shraavaka i.e. "having right faith". The word pinda is used purposefully for the alms (bhikshaa, gocharee) given to monks.[13]

In the same manner Jainas do not follow the customs of worshiping cow, trees, mountains etc. Somadeva (10th century A.D.) had strictly prohibited these customs for Jaina householders in his Upaasakaadhyayana.[14] The effect of his prohibition is seen up till now.


8. Observance of sootaka, paataka, ashaucha etc. and samskaaras

The reference of sootaka etc. are profusely found in the commentaries on the Digambara texts and typically religious Digambara laity follow these customs still now.[15] I guess that Mandirmaargins also follow these customs.

Sanskrit Mahaapuraana of Jinasena and Gunabhadra introduced many samskaaras, kriyaas and vidhis for laity and composed Sanskrit mantras accordingly.[16] Though the Hindu influence is explicit in these rituals, it is noteworthy that shraaddha etc. are not prescribed. Jinasena, Gunabhadra and their followers brought the peculiar ritualistic culture in Jaina tradition. It is a duty of a researcher to grasp the religio-social background in those centuries. If we observe the terminology used by Jinasena, Gunabhadra we realize the sincere efforts of the teachers to inculcate "Jainatva" through these samskaaras by strictly using Jaina concepts and not those of Hindus. Instead of having "Jainatva" by birth, they intended to create vidhis for the aaropana of Jainatva in concrete form.


9. A format created for influential personalities

Jainas categorized the influential and illustrious personalities into teerthamkaras, chakravartins, baladvevas, vaasudevas etc.[17] Yativrushabha (6th century A.D.) includes 11 rudras, 24 kaamadevas and 9 naaradas. Thus Raama, Lakshamana, Hanuman, Naarada, Krushna etc. got "space" in Jaina environment. Thus keeping intact the highest position of teerthamkaras, they assimilated many Hindu personalities and created a harmony with the Hindu brethren. There never developed Krushna-cult, Raama-cult etc. in Jaina religion because they have already given certain status to them to arrest the encroachment on their basic principles.


10. Growing impact of gods and goddesses in Jaina Pantheon

Principally, Jaina philosophy is atheist. Yet the medieval literature of Jainas and the "Popular-Jainism" is floods with the references and idols of yakshas, yakshees, rakshaka-devataas, shasanadevataas, vidyaadevataas, indra-indraanees, kshetrapaalas and so on. It is this not a paradox? Can we name it as "degeneration from true Jainism?

There is a long history of yaksha cult in the Jaina environment. Eminent Indologist and Sanskritist Dr. R.N. Dandekar had written a voluminous thesis on Hindu pantheon, in which he had noted down the history of the culmination of vedic deities into puraanic deities. Parallel history of Jaina pantheon can be written.

Major stages in this development can be located likewise:

  1. Worship of devas, naagas, yakshas and gandharvas by the people in the Gangetic valley as guardian deities.
  2. Canonical references of chaityas and devaayatanas etc. and mainly of two yakshas, viz. Poornabhadra and Manibhadra.
  3. The hooded idols of Paarshvanaatha and stories about Paarshva, Kamatha, Dharanendra and Padmaavatee.
  4. Inclusion of Hindu goddesses with certain changes and thus 24 guardian deities of 24 teerthamkaras.
  5. Legitimization of the worship of yakshas etc. and devising new rites, litanies and tantric practices.
  6. Emergence of a new class of clerics called as yatis and bhattaarakas having a special status similar to that of the mahantas.
  7. Increasing importance of yakshas in Jaina rituals. Building new independent temples adjacent to the main shrine.
  8. Efforts of revolt against yaksha-cult by Somadeva (10th century) and Aashaadhara (13th century). Declaring idol-worship as a form of heresy under the leadership of Lonkaa Shah (15th century). Iconoclastic school of sthaanka-vaasis. At present majority of idol-worshippers is busy in their rituals and many laypeople of iconoclastic schools are going through the confused state of mind.

To conclude, if vaishnavas, shaivas, maaheshvaras and so on can have their common identity as Hindus, there is no problem for Jainas, with such internally diverse religious groups and yet maintaining their common identity as Jainas. We can say this firmly because all of them carry almost same metaphysics, epistemology, ontology and ethics.


Future of Practical-Jainism

  • In the present age of globalization and liberalization, Jaina youths will create a common platform in spite of their sects and sub sects.
  • Educational Institutes will come forward to impart Jaina philosophy, Ethics, Literature and distinctive features of Jaina art to the new generations on academic level.
  • As the process of conversion from one religion to the other is rarely seen in this era of Science, Jainas will remain in minority but enlightened youths come forward to profess the Jaina way of life.
  • Excessive rituals will be curtailed but temple-worship, poojas, jaap, praarthanas, penances, oaths and vows will continue because outer expressions are necessary for keeping the tradition alive.
  • Monks and laypeople will come forward to settle a minimum programme of the code of conduct and will try to follow it, is as far as possible.
  • There is tremendous scope for change and innovations in the structure of Jainism, so new behavioral patterns will be created without damaging the essence of Jainism.
  • Since Jainism carries a unique elaborate perspective towards the world of Tiryanchas (i.e.one-sensed beings like earth, water etc.; insects, birds, animal and vegetation), a new class of naturalists will emerge among Jainas to preserve and protect the bio-species on the earth, carrying forward the wisdom of ancient Jaina thinkers.
  • I conclude with a very happy note that, there is no fear for Jainas to loose their identity, on the contrary, there is tremendous potentiality in Jaina philosophy and ethics to influence the world without going for any fanatic measures.


List of Reference-Books

A. Original Sources

  • आचारांगसूत्र: सं. अमोलकऋषिजी, अमोल जैन ज्ञानालय, धुळे (महाराष्ट्र) २००६.
  • महापुराण: जिनसेन-गुणभद्र, सं. पन्नालाल जैन, भारतीय ज्ञानपीठ, काशी १९५४.
  • पुरुषार्थसिद्ध्युपाय: अमृतचंद्र, क्षुल्लक धर्मानन्द, सुरेश जैन, नई देहली १९८९.
  • तत्त्वार्थसूत्र: उमास्वाति, सं. सुखलाल संघवी, पार्श्वनाथ विद्याश्रम शोध संस्थान, वाराणसी १९७६.
  • Tattvarth Sutra - That Which Is: Nathmal Tatia, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi 2007.
  • उत्तराध्ययन (उत्तरज्झयण): सं. मुनिपुण्यविजय, महावीर जैन विद्यालय, मुंबई १९७७.

B. Secondary Sources

  • Collected Papers on Jaina Studies: P.S. Jaini, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi 2000.
  • Collected Research Papers in Prakrit and Jainology: Ed. Nalini Joshi, H.N. Jain Chair, University Pune, Sanmati-Teerth Prakashan, Pune 2008.
  • दर्शन और चिन्तन: पं. सुखलालजी संघवी, गुजरात विद्यासभा, अहमदाबाद १९५७.
  • Jainism - the World of Conquerors (Vol. I & II): Natubhai Shah, Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi 2004.
  • जैनेन्द्र सिद्धान्त कोश (भाग १-४): क्षु. जिनेन्द्र वर्णी, भारतीय ज्ञानपीठ, नई दिल्ली २००९.
  • Open Boundaries: Ed. J.E. Cort, Sri Satguru Publications, IBC, Delhi 1998.
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