Jainism: The Eternal and Universal Path for Enlightenment ► 10 Jainism and Biology

Posted: 08.10.2011

Living organisms are a miracle of nature

Processes of Birth and death

Jain scriptures have given considerable thought to physics, mathematics, cosmology, geography and chemistry, as we have briefly seen in the previous chapters but it is botany, biology and anatomy which is central to their philosophy, mainly because the prime focus of Jainism is the living beings and their salvation. The approaches of Jainism and modern biology are quite different and except for some basic concepts, not much overlap is found between the two. The approach of Jain concepts is to develop procedures for development of consciousness. Therefore they treat physical and psychic aspects together. For this purpose their approach is based on ten physical forces and five psychic forces. However, it may be emphasised that the Jains have excelled in several concepts related to the living, much ahead of the modern biology. For example since at least 2600 years ago and possibly even before (going back to the times of Rishabh), the Jains believe that plants have life and can communicate, a fact discovered by modern science only a few decades ago.

Rigorous definition of life has been elusive. Modern science as well as various philosophies have not found a complete and correct definition of life. Jainism defines life as having six physical attributes: reproduction, growth, metabolism, movement, response to external stimulation and adaptation to environment (which may imply evolution) and some psychic attributes: consciousness, learning, self-awareness, discrimination between good and bad etc. However a few (but not all) of the physical attributes can also be found in non-living (organic or inorganic) compounds under suitable conditions. Detailed discussion of the various Jain concepts related to biology and botany is beyond the scope of this book and we confine here only to those aspects which can be integrated with the theory of Karma. The theory of Karma was developed to deal with the living and logically explains the inconsistency between individual's present actions (karma) and their expected consequences (deeds and destiny) in this life which sometimes seem unrelated or even contradictory.

Jains, as discussed previously believe in various layers of bodies (karmic, luminous, physical etc.; chapter 6) which a living being possesses. Chakras related to anatomy have been discussed briefly in chapter 6 and the main emphasis is to activate these energy centres, which is useful in activating Kundalini required for emancipation. Therefore much importance is given to prana shakti (respiratory energy) which is vital in this process.

The relevant aspects of Jain biology are summarized below:

  1. Jain scriptures mention three different types of life: Audārik, Vaikrayik and Āhārak which exist in different, well defined parts of the universe (called regions of heaven, human (and other earthly) habitation and hell). Thus life of different kinds may exist in many parts of the universe. As discussed in chapter on cosmology, if universe is created in triplets with positive, flat and negative curvatures, the regions of heaven, human habitation and hell will populate these three regions respectively.
  2. Jains have classified living beings on earth according to their sensory faculties, single sensed (e.g. plants), two sensed (worms), three sensed (ants), four sensed (butterflies), and five sensed (mammals, humans) indriyas (sensory organs: touch, taste, smell, vision, and hearing) which in a way is related to their increasing levels of consciousness. As far as the theory of Karma is concerned, plants and all types of animals are treated at par, subject to the same rules and can take rebirth in any forms, depending on their karmas.
  3. Unlike the Darwin's evolutionary theory, according to which the life on earth, which gradually evolved in steps from mono cellular organisms to humans in the 3.5 billion years of geologic history (Chapter 1), according to Jainism, all species occur somewhere in the Universe at all times. The two concepts together are consistent with the idea that life is not confined only to the earth but is spread throughout the whole universe.
  4. Jains believe in a soul in all living beings and therefore in reincarnation (rebirth). Rebirth explains the fate of different beings which apparently may not be a direct consequence of their actions in the current life but may be cumulative consequence of karmas in the previous and current lives. Transmigration from one body to another is one of the corollaries of this postulate.

Rebirth allows one to expand one's life beyond one life span and continuity in his pursuit of enlightenment, so even after death there is hope of attaining any goal one chooses. Case histories of rebirth abound, but most of them are subjective, and rigorous, acceptable scientific proofs are not readily available. Logically there is no difficulty in accepting rebirth since if one can be born once, he can be born again and again, when the conditions are appropriate. Laws of physics allow the same process to re-occur under similar conditions.

In Jainism, much thought has been given to the process of birth. Apart from the usual processes of sexual and asexual births through conception (from eggs and from womb), pollination etc., Jainism postulates that some divine beings are born by some uncommon, non-natural, asexual process, as has been the case with Christ, the son of God, who was born to Mary the Virgin, Rama (and his brothers) who were born by Yagna, Karna and some Pandavas who were conceived by Kunti from Sun God and Mahāvira, whose foetus was transferred from the womb of Devananda, wife of a brahmin Rishabdatta to the Queen Trishala. Buddhism also claims the "appearance" of Padma Sambhav from a lotus in a lake in Copper Mountains.

Modern biology has made tremendous progress in the past few decades, with techniques of molecular biology, genetic engineering and determination of genome sequence in different species. It has been established that physical and mental conditions or health of a living being depends on genome sequence with which one is born, a concept close to karma concept of Jainism. There is much scope for research in biology keeping in view the various Jain concepts and equally importantly for confirmation of Jain concepts using modern experimental and analytical techniques. If Jain concepts can be rigorously formulated, and if found true, the techniques of modern molecular biology can hopefully clarify many of them, and provide rigorous scientific basis. For example a question arises whether the Karman sharira decides the genome or the DNA sequence. Furthermore do the various procedures of sādhana (Tapas, mantras and meditation or adherence to the five Mahāvrats, discussed in Chapter 6) can modify the genome sequence in long run? The relation between parmanu and karmānu, the influence of karmānu on genome and whether karmānus operate on molecular level or still finer levels are some questions which can now be looked into as the modern techniques develop further. Cloning will resolve or confirm many Jain concepts about the existence of soul, and how it is embodied and the importance of various karma, which always remains attached to the soul, till it is liberated (chapter 4, 5). Cloning can thus provide a litmus test to the Jain theory of Karma. If a large number of clones are made, they are found to be exactly identical with hardly a few exceptions. How can then, soul selects a body when it is born according to its āyushkarma, nām karma and gotra karma (Chapter 4). This can be explained in many ways in the light of modern understanding, which would also be consistent with Jain theories of karma, but is a subject requiring research and reinterpretation of Jain concepts. Thus existence of soul with its adhering karmas can be verified, albeit indirectly or by inference, if proper questions and experiments can be formulated.

In the past few decades enormous amount of research has been carried out on the process of birth. Sexual and asexual reproduction, test-tube babies, surrogate mothers, cloning, genome and synthetic DNA are some examples which show that complexity of birth has been understood to a great extent. But the biology has not worried much about death except for considering, though wrongly, that the death is the end of life. The oriental religions like Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism have given much thought to understanding the process of death. Death actually is a prolonged and gradual process and not an instantaneous event as it is made out to be. Death begins with the birth and continues till the rebirth in the next life. The interval between two deaths, what we call life is only an opportunity for attaining enlightenment.

The body of all living species, to the smallest unit, are an aggregate or combination (skandha) of many elements and all these aggregates have to dissociate to their "virgin", unaggregate state and are dissolved at the time of death. It is easy to understand the process if we consider the principal constituents of the human body according to Jainism and Buddhism anatomy. The scriptures mention that the body consists of a dynamic network of subtle channels (nādi), winds (prāna) and essences (bindu).There are 72000 subtle channels in the body, of which three are the principal channels (the spine starting from Mulādhār Chakra to Sahasrār Chakra and one channel on each side of it, i.e. to its right and its left). There are seven chakras (Mulādhār, Swādhisthān, Manipur, Anāhat, Vishuddhi, Āgnā and Sahasrār) as described in chapter 6 and knots formed by coiling the two principal side channels, containing impure winds with the central (wisdom) channel, the spine. There are 5 root winds for each element, allowing the body to operate and 5 branch winds for the five senses to function. The essences, white and red in colour, are contained within the channels or chakras; the white essence in Sahasrār and the red in Anāhat Chakra. Our physical body is made of 5 skandhas, the aggregates that compose the whole mental and physical existence. The experience of form, feeling, perception, intellect, consciousness and ego are due to these aggregates.

According to the Jain scriptures the dissolution progresses, starting from the grossest (universe) to the subtlest (soul) and in the process the five bodies: audārika (physical), vaikriya (multi-shape), āhāraka (conscious), tejas (energy) and karman (causal) bodies, discussed in Chapter 6, dissolve one by one. The process of dying thus is very complex and interdependent process. It consists of two main phases: outer dissolution when senses and the elements of the body dissolve and inner dissolution of the gross and subtle thought states and emotions. Beyond the physical body is the aura, which extends far in space. The first one to dissolve is the aura and with it begins the dissolution of the perception of the Universe. The Universe does not dissolve in reality but its perception dissolves and, as far as the person is concerned, its dissolution is complete with the dissolution of senses. For example if a dying person hears sound but cannot make out words then the hearing consciousness ceases to function. When one sees the outline of an object but not the details then the vision consciousness starts to dissolve. Similarly the senses of smell, taste and touch go away, one by one, but not necessarily in that order. When all these senses are completely gone, then the perception of the universe disappears. According to the Tibetan book of the dead (by Robert Thurman) and the Tibetan book of living and dying (by Sogyal Rinpoche), thereafter starts the dissolution of the five elements making the physical body: earth (bones and muscles, organs of smell and odours), water (blood, liquids of the body, organ of taste), fire (energy, organs of vision, warmth), air (prāna, organs of physical sensation, touch etc.) and space (cavities of the body, organs of hearing and sound). Summarising from these books, each of these elements of the physical body (earth, water, fire, air and space), sequentially withdraws into the next one by one. First, the earth element (bones, muscles, etc.) starts withdrawing in the water element. The dying person loses all strength, cannot support himself, and gets a feeling as if he is being crushed under a mountain or sinking underground. Symptoms like cheeks sinking in and black stains appearing on the teeth or ear lobes curving in appear. Mind becomes drowsy and delirious and illusions like shimmering mirage appears. Then the water element starts withdrawing in the fire element. The dying person loses control over body fluids and there is discharge from eyes, nostrils etc. Tongue, mouth and lips feel dry and sticky.

This mental body, not supported by a physical body, is constantly moving till it finds a suitable womb and enters it according to its karma and in this process sequentially unites with the fire, water and earth elements. It should be remembered that this mental body has the memory and affinity of the previous life, is clairvoyant and keeps hovering over its dead body and earthly possessions, friends, relatives, trying to re-enter the body and repossess the material assets to which it is attached. It is said that this state (of bardo) continues for 21 days with strong impressions of previous life and the rebirth has to wait for suitable parents where the future life will match the past karmas. When suitable parents are found, the soul enters the womb of the new mother and new life begins, as it ended with ground luminosity i.e. according to the eternal natural laws.

It is said that at the time of death, the review of the past life occurs and the whole life runs like a film. One can "witness" every event which occurred, good or bad, in all its vivid details.

Thus we see that the process of death or dissolution of bodily traits (senses, constituents etc.) and mental faculties (anger, desire, ignorance, delusions etc.) is a long sequential process and is only complete with rebirth. These processes occur not only in humans but in all species. There is more to death than what the medical science believes. The medical or clinical death, when the heartbeat, respiration and brain function ceases, is only one stage in the whole process and there is much scope for research in this multi stage process of death. With the sophisticated tools of biology now available, it should be possible to verify and reinterpret the scriptures in modern terms and understand their significance.

Thus we see that, although the Jain biology appears to be much wider in scope compared to the modern biology, many of its aspects may appear irrelevant and even inconsistent with the modern concepts. It is desirable to unite the two and have an integrated approach to understand these processes which are of vital importance to an individual.

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