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Introduction To Jainism: Body Determining Karma

Published: 06.10.2008
Updated: 30.07.2015

In western biology plants and animals are classified on the basis of their outer and genetic characteristics. But in Jainism, where the soul is seen as more important than the body, the classification of living beings (as long as they still belong to the non-liberated entities, which of course stand above all karmically determined classifications) is primarily based on the state of the soul within its specific embodiment. The taxonomy of the Jains is based in the first place on the number of sense organs (1 to 5 + mind), which an entity possesses (see chapter 6), because these reflect the karmic condition of the soul. Minerals and plants for example have but one sense, i.e. feeling or touch. The origin of species (including those of the mineral kingdom and invisible beings) is determined exclusively by karma. All entities in the visible and invisible realms and their physical, psychological, mental and environmental conditions have their cause in an action of the soul. What for westerners are mutations and genetic codes would from a Jain point of view, in so far as they have any influence on the condition of the soul, be a result and not an original cause - intermediaries in the process of karma. Real causes are more subtle than physical chemistry, and are made in the consciousness of entities. The relationship between ethical action and thought and their effects has already been discussed in the previous chapter.

Because western biology classifies nature on the basis of physical or sometimes physiological features, it is interesting to discuss here the various kinds of body-determining karma (nāma-karma) and, as a result of this, species-determining karma. There are 93 types of body-determining karma. The first four types of karmic results determine the conditions of existence and the realm of nature (gati) into which the soul is born. These four gatis are the hellish, subhuman, human and celestial realms. All further circumstances, which appertain to the physical or fluidic body, apply to all these realms, if relevant (for example “gracious flight through the air” is irrelevant for earthworms, but not for birds, pterodactyls, insects, bats and many celestials). Of course the physical and the fluidic bodies have their own unique features. The fluidic body consists of molecules of the corresponding degree of matter and belongs only to hellish and celestial beings. We don’t have it during our existence on earth - it is not what Anthroposophists, Theosophists and Hindus call the etheric or the astral body or linga śarīra etc., because that is the invisible model for the physical body, and each living being on earth has that. In the Jain system the model is included in the karmic and the electric bodies. The soul only takes these two with it when we “die,” i.e. leave - as a soul - either our physical or fluidic body.

The second group determines in which kingdom of nature the soul will embody itself, and also on which biological level of classification. The visible kingdoms include what we call the atomic, the mineral, the unicellular, the vegetable, the various groups of the animal, and the human kingdom. The highest level of classification appertains to the number of senses, which came to expression, and the power of consciousness to gain experience by means of touch, taste, smell, vision and hearing. From the standpoint of the evolution of the soul, these senses are developed in this sequence only. So an organism with three senses always has the first three, but no vision and hearing. Organisms with only one sense, such as nigodas and plants, always possess touch or feeling, but none of the other senses. Those on earth with only one sense are the minerals, water, fire, air, microorganisms (nigodas) and plants, and those with 2-5 are the lowest up to the highest animals. Humans also have five senses, and mental power, and this we have in common with the highest animals - and also with the celestial and hellish beings which were humans in their last incarnation.

The world of one-sensed organisms transcends our scientific imagination. One droplet of water contains numberless microbes, and such droplets rain all over the earth including its rivers and oceans. Earth, forests, fields, and also the inside of the bodies of all creatures (except those of the enlightened ones) are packed with nigodas. They may include bacteria, viruses, Rikettsae, phages, etc. But they occur everywhere in loka (see Chapter 6), including all the invisible realms. Apart from the visible world, all space in physically imperceptible worlds and in heavens and hells is full of them. Apart from the nitya-nigodas, all of them as souls will at some point go through all human stages of development and consciousness, through all celestial stages of consciousness, and will finally become enlightened, omniscient, liberated divine souls.

In the Jain classification system it is interesting that minerals and plants are placed in the same category, without any line of division between them. Like the other kingdoms of nature the mineral kingdom has been subdivided into classes, which by means of their “bodies” express a wide scale of karmic effects due to conscious activity.

The level of classification of the beings with one sense is defined by the physical element with which they are connected during their embodiment on earth: they either belong to the earth-bodied beings, or to the water, air, fire, or plant-bodied beings. Though the plant and the mineral kingdom are classified together, the highest category of this class comprises the plants only, because they are placed after the four elements, which are always mentioned in the sequence from low to high.

We find another remarkable classification at the transition between animals and humans. Like the highest animals, we humans have five senses and mental power. We stand on one line with dogs, cows, horses, camels, goats, elephants, birds etc. Humans do not occupy a special place in the classification system but we are regarded as the highest within the five-sensed class for our power of reasoning and physical ability to handle work and to organize it. I have had long discussions about this. I remarked that a dog does not seem to occupy himself, as humans do, with philosophy or cultural expression, or with questions about his (divine) origin, in fact, it does not show much interest beyond its primary physical impulses. But I was told that even a dog can go to a temple and listen attentively, and though he can not express himself verbally, he can still hear the teachings and be touched by them. Would such a thing be possible without a human brain? I would imagine that a dog lack the typical human brain mind thinking! One dog used to lie down near the feet of a guru, and while other dogs outside would make their dogs’ noises, this one preferred the feet of the master. It is very important how we behave towards and communicate with our pets or cattle. They are not only interested in the food we put before them, but they are also influenced by our manners of expression and real moral qualities. Above I wrote that the beings who are now in a celestial or hellish state of consciousness have been humans in their most recent incarnation. But in the stories which were told me it appeared that higher animals such as dogs, tigers, elephants and even frogs and snakes, provided they behave in the right way, can after their passing be born as celestial beings. After all, they have all that is needed: five senses and a mind. There are even many animals that choose for their process of dying the same path as the Digambara monks: when their natural end approaches they abandon all eating and even drinking with the intention of dying completely purified. An animal, which acts in such a way, cannot possibly take birth in a karmically lower realm of existence than where it is now, so after death it will take form in one of the many heavenly abodes. This may not be an official Jain teaching, but many believe it that way. Somebody told me about an actual case when a dog had done so. Many birds also take that path: they stop eating and then die. In the West we would say that this is an unconscious instinctive action, but Jains can believe that this is their conscious noble choice with the purpose of reaching a higher form of birth. Who knows how the inner urge from the soul influences the individual consciousness of an animal, a human, or other organism? I suggest you look deep into the eyes of your favorite pet, and ask him or her. Even animals can tread the spiritual path, according to Jainism.

Let us return to what we are saying about plants and minerals: the division goes even further than the above-mentioned categories of earth-bodied up to plant-bodied entities. Earth-bodied beings or earth-lives may be expressing the specific karma to manifest in bodies which we know as pure earth, silica pebbles, sand, salt, iron, copper, gold or other metals, and also as precious minerals such as diamond, emerald, sapphire, and so on. The body forms, which the water-lives can take, are pure water, dew, moisture, white frost, ice, fog, etc. Anyone who has ever silently looked at a dewdrop can understand why Jains say that is has a soul, and one can also see why a raindrop hanging from a leaf has a soul, but of a different character. Fire-lives manifest as, for example, glow, pure fire, flames, rays of light, lightning, or sparks: the spark emitted by the tusks of two fighting elephants show that fire-souls reside in those tusks to suddenly manifest themselves as sparks. The air-bodied entities have the karma to present themselves to us as various types of wind, such as a steady breeze, a whirlwind, a cyclone, a hurricane and many other meteorological phenomena which take place in the air. But some of them we do not usually recognize, such as winds which only occur in the heavens or in the hells, or the final hurricane, which will destroy the earth in distant future. So among them there are souls, which come to us as rest or silence, beauty, desire, or silent forces, whereas others manifest as violent forces of nature beyond the power of man to control them - unless a person has developed such a strong will that he has become master over the elements, such as the emotional storms within him. The soil, volcanism, earthquakes, the atmosphere, wind, lightning and the behavior of water are ecological factors of major importance. They offer to others the opportunity to experience their environment, and sometimes to work as karmic adjusters. Natural disasters are not haphazard, but have been evoked by the conscious beings involved, and the forces of nature only perform their tasks in agreement with their natural character. All such beings have the inherent possibility to evolve that which is already within them, and to become a human, a god, or a liberated soul in the distant future.

As already mentioned, five types of bodies exist: the physical, the fluidic, the assimilative (only with ascetics under particular conditions), the electric and the karmic body. The last four are at least as important as the physical body, and are as much determined by karma. It is in reality the karmic body, which is composed of karmic molecules or aggregates of the most subtle type of matter, which determines the forms of the uncountable numbers of living beings that exist on earth and elsewhere. Every desire, every thought, every vibration has left its mark in the karmic body. Every living being is the result of a particular group of desires - which in their turn are the results of earlier desires, and of course the inherent will and intelligence of the soul.

As regards body-determining karma, one category of karmas determines the organs and limbs and their correct growth in relation to their bodily location. So whether for example the brain functions properly as an organ or whether our immune system is in its proper condition is the result of the workings of karma. Physical impediments therefore develop during the fetal stages. Next we go to the molecular level. The Jains distinguish five types of molecules in relation to the five types of bodies. And five types of karma are involved with the mixing of the molecules of the five types of bodies, and how they are intertwined with the soul, and these must cooperate in the right way to form an organic whole. This Jain teaching is a very important idea for modern physiology, because science is still far too little aware of the refined relations between organs, chemistry, the information contained in magnetic and electric fields produced in the organs in the body, the influence of thoughts and feelings on these fields, and the influence these fields have on and undergo from others that make up the environment. Western science is now becoming aware of such things [Read for example the chapters on the heart in The Secret Teachings of Plants by S.H. Buhner].[59] But what western science has not yet done, is to trace the transfer of the subtler energies from incarnation to incarnation, when a physical body with all its specific characteristics is temporarily nonexistent. Here again, ancient knowledge is a step ahead of modern science.

Further there are karmas, which determine the general physiognomy of the body: general perfection, or aberrations in symmetry or proportions. The next category is especially concerned with the six types of joints, which occur in animals. In addition there is a category which describes all external features which do not belong to the basic form, structure and physiology of the body. These are the secondary characteristics, which can be perceived by the senses (excluding hearing); in other words, how the body feels when touched, or tastes, smells or sees. This is how the colors of the bodies are determined: white, black, blue, red and yellow with their various shades; and also the surface structure of the body: to the touch it may be hot (for example the sun) or cold, soft, rough, hard, or be light or heavy. Tastes can be bitter, sharp, sour, and sweet. There are only two smells: pleasant and foul.

Then there is a category of karmas which is of special importance for invisible beings, and which the Tattvārthadhigama Sūtra describes as “the ability to maintain (after death) the form of the body in its most recent incarnation during the passage of the soul from one condition of existence towards the next” (i.e. the hellish, subhuman, human or celestial condition). There are karmas, which determine whether the body is too heavy to move, or too light to be stable, or whether an organ grows in such a way that it becomes the cause of the body’s death. There are also karmas, which result in the growth of fatal weapons in the animal kingdom, such as the sting of a scorpion or the poison of a snake.

In addition there is a type of karmas, which again shows that many objects, which westerners usually regard as inorganic, are for the Jains expressions of life. An example is the “radiating heat” an object can possess which is bearable for the owner, but unbearable for others (glowing iron, for example). A separate karma applies to phosphorescence, as seen in fireflies. Then there are karmas in relation to respiration, or connected with gracious or clumsy flight in the air.

According to Jainism a body can be inhabited by more than one soul - a potato for example. Cut a potato into pieces, put them in the ground, and as many potato plants may come up. A mango however has only one. And of course there is a type of karma, which determines whether the soul will live life in an immobile (fixed) body, such as that of plants and minerals, or in a mobile body.

The following eight karmas determine whether a body looks attractive or repulsive to others, and whether it brings forth pleasant sounds or unpleasant, harsh sounds (compare a nightingale and a donkey), or whether the body will look beautiful or ugly and is of refined or coarse physiognomy.

Then two types of karma are mentioned which determine whether an individual and its organs will grow into adulthood or whether it will die before it has reached adulthood. These karmas determine whether the soul will appear to be able to bring the features and powers of the body in which it is born to full expression. The actual process of growing towards and into adulthood is the process of transformation of subtle and chemical elements in agreement with the pattern laid out by the karmic molecules, which are drawn to the location where the respective organs are to be formed. For example the molecules, which determine the power of inhalation and exhalation, transform themselves into the respiratory system. So breathing is not a function of the respiratory system, but it is the other way round: the karmic desire and the energy to breath are the cause of the development of the organs involved in respiration.

The next group determines the stability or instability of the body and its substances, such as bodily fluids, muscular tissue, fat, bone, marrow, veins, digestive juices, blood, etc.

Finally the Sūtra mentions four karmas, which determine whether a body will look dull and sluggish, and whether someone will have a good or a bad name as a result. Too often people or even animals are despised because of their physical appearance, whereas he, she or it may have done nothing but good during the present life.

Whether or not we agree with all the details from the viewpoint of modern science is not the most important thing. The modern world with its ever refining measuring techniques will find its own way to describe the interplay between all these energies, fields and states of matter in relation to consciousness and its free choice. In any case it is remarkable - to say the least - that in the days of Aristotle and Archimedes, when occidental science had only just started the Jains, already had a detailed view of the principles of ecology, biology, evolution, physiology, atoms and molecules, and above all, the logic behind them. If the detailed knowledge gained in recent centuries by means of refined instruments is combined with the Jain background, science will become more philosophical, more universal, more ethical, and more holistic. The biological teachings of the Jains include not only the physical, but also the invisible worlds of beings and forces - a field of science, which in the west is still associated with superstition, and the barely recognized science of parapsychology. Without a vision, which includes the whole universe with all its phenomena, modern man can never reach satisfactory and final solutions.


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Prakrit Bharti Academy
Society for Scientific & Ethical Living
13-A, Main Malviya Nagar, Jaipur-302017
Phone: 0141 -2524827, 2520230

First Edition, 2006
ISBN No. 81-89698-09-5

Translated and revised edition of:
" Jainisme - Een introductie"

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aristotle
  2. Body
  3. Brain
  4. Consciousness
  5. Digambara
  6. Ecology
  7. Environment
  8. Four Gatis
  9. Gati
  10. Guru
  11. Jainism
  12. Karma
  13. Karmas
  14. Karmic Body
  15. Loka
  16. Microorganisms
  17. Omniscient
  18. Science
  19. Soul
  20. Space
  21. Sūtra
  22. Tattvārthadhigama Sūtra
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