An Outsider Perspective on Jainism

Jain Thirthankara

by Jayaram V

Several years ago I had a Jain friend who was prone to regular drinking. When nights came, he would spend hours with friends in a local club, drinking past midnight. When it came to ordering food, he would make sure that he avoided certain items in the menu, especially those that were prepared with things that grew below the surface of the soil.

It never made sense to me from any religious perspective how drinking alcohol and reveling in indecent and sexist jokes were better than avoiding eating innocent potatoes and groundnuts, but it was my friend's way of life and I respected it. It was my first close encounter with Jainism in practice.

Certainly, my friend was not the best example of a committed Jain. Although he was prone to drinking, he was a religious person at heart and never doubted his faith or commitment to the percepts of Jainism.

I have seen more committed followers of Jainism in my life, but I remember him most because of the ways in which he tried to adjust himself and reconcile his personal lifestyle with the austere life which Jainism demanded.

It is my observation that that whatever lifestyle one may follow, Jainism leaves a profound mark upon its followers. It mellows them down and brings out their sattvic (gentle) nature. A Jain may lose control of his life and emotions, but he would not lose the sense of right and wrong and the consequences of bad karma.

In the presence of Jains, I never felt that I belonged to a different religion or they practiced a different religion. That is another hallmark of Jainism. It does not encourage you to revel in the superficial aspects of life but in the essential nature of a being which is spiritual and eternal and which transcends name and form. Religion is for the mind and body, not for the Self. The Self is not the subject of religion but its object.

As an outsider or as a Hindu, what I like most about Jainism is its emphasis upon virtuous living and the idea of a pure life centered on truth, discipline, righteous conduct and nonviolence.

Life is tough. One cannot live here without wearing masks, indulging in falsehood or deception, and without killing and destroying any life. Even if you take pride in being a vegetarian, you know that to survive, you have to kill plants and microorganisms or destroy seeds and shoots, which are nothing but dormant embryos.

When you eat food or breathe, millions of bacteria enter your body, and billions are crushed between your teeth and under the weight of your body. There is a whole invisible world, about which we generally do not think or care and we have no idea how much destruction and commotion we cause in that invisible world through our actions and movements.

Jainism does not ignore this aspect of life. It reminds us constantly that even inadvertent actions have also their consequences and one must take responsibility for one's actions both at the microscopic and macroscopic levels.

In Jainism there are no middle paths and shortcuts. You may follow them at the peril of delaying your liberation; but if liberation is your ultimate aim, you must sacrifice every possible comfort and follow that austere and difficult path followed by Mahavira no matter the pain and suffering. For an ascetic Jain, his body is the ultimate obstacle to his freedom and he must remove it after purifying it, even it meant discomfort, pain and physical death.

Strictly speaking, Jainism is an ascetic tradition meant for those who have developed an aversion to worldly life, not for people like my friend who cannot spend a day without luxuries and modern amenities. Life as a lay follower is supposed to be a starting point and limited in its scope and application. One cannot be a lay follower forever or merely indulge in rituals such as offering prayers in a Jina temple or not eating potatoes.

There are no spiritual rewards for being an honorary member of the Jain community, living on its fringes without committing to its fundamentals. The life as a lay follower is only a steppingstone or a starting phase in which one must test the ground to decide whether to take the plunge or not.

Gone are the days when those who renounced the world and left it behind, left it forever. These are the days when you see monks and sanyasis returning to worldly life and taking up the profession of teaching yoga and preaching wisdom and philosophy to bored housewives, politicians, students, stressed employees and other worldly people.

However, comparatively in Jainism the old practices still hold good and command wider respect. A lay follower of Jainism accepts with humiliation that he or she is not perfect in practice or in principles and someday need to be totally committed to the path of the wise Thirthankaras.

Since it is so difficult to practice, Jainism was bound to lose its appeal at some point in history among the masses who were into worldly ways and preferred not to be reminded constantly of their sinful ways and violent temperament. As a result in ancient India most of them turned to Hinduism and Buddhism, which were more lenient and tolerant to human transgressions.

A number of people are not prepared for any spiritual life at all, leave alone an austere and difficult life advocated by Jainism. The aspiration to become a Jina or a liberated soul arises only in a few and they will undertake the journey until the end.

In some ways, Jainism is the mother of all ascetic traditions of India. There are many similarities between the ascetic traditions of Hinduism and Jainism. We cannot rule out mutual influence as the possible cause. Purification of the soul through guided and controlled self-destruction of the body was practiced in Hinduism also for a very longtime. In Hinduism it forms part of Sanyasasrama or the phase of renunciation and it is prescribed not only for ascetics who give up worldly life but also for the householders who leave behind their household duties.

In both traditions the idea of renunciation and purification of the mind and body through austerities is heavily emphasized. With regard to self-mortification and endurance of pain, Hindu hathayoga is no less severe than Jainism.

Finally, we may conclude that overtime Hinduism succeeded and became more popular than Jainism because it is a lot more tolerant with regard to its principles and practices and offers wider choices than Jainism to its followers to suit their diverse lifestyles, goals and aspirations.

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