Jain World
Sub-Categories of Passions
Mahavira's Teachings
The Early Centuries of Jainism
Jainism In Indian History
Jainism Enters The Modern Age
Doctrines of Jainism: Part 1
  Doctrines of Jainism: Part 2
  The Jain Path In Life: Part 1
  The Jain Path In Life: Part 2
  Daily Practices and Recitations
  Rituals and Festivals
  Pilgrimage and Sacred Places
  Jainism and Other Religions

Doctrines of Jainism: Part 1


Paul Marett

The Science of Religion (i)

Let us start with karma. (Do not be put off by the fact that some of these terms are not familiar in plain everyday English: every science has its own technical words, and the science of religion is no exception.) Karma just means actions, or deeds. When we talk about the 'law of karma' all we mean is that a person's physical and mental make-up and fortune in life can be traced back to the effects of his or her previous actions, in this, or an earlier, life. It is common sense really. If I eat too much I shall get fat (the effect of my actions). If I control my appetite then I shall not. If I do not control my desire for possessions then I shall get greedy and unpleasant. If I do not control my attitudes to other living creatures then I shall get violent and unpleasant. All these things add up: all my actions and thoughts help to make the sort of person I am. And they obviously have their effects on my position in life. It is true that in the short term violent or greedy or dishonest people often appear to succeed in life, to reach high positions, acquire wealth and live in comfort, even though they are feared or disliked by pleasanter, more honest people. But Jains look at the long term. They see that violence and greed and dishonesty build up conditions within the individual which are certain to have their effect eventually.

Every action, whether it is physical or mental, has its effect. The person who commits continual violence will find himself (or herself) becoming more and more bound up in the ways of violence, with a personality becoming more and more twisted and unpleasant. It may take two or three lifetimes, even more, for the effects really to show. But one cannot escape them. Of course good actions, kindness and non- violence and lack of greed equally have their (very different) effects on the individual's life and personality.

Not only outward actions count but also inward thoughts. A person who is subject to inward passions may perhaps be prevented by force of circumstances from giving outward expression to them. There is obviously no virtue in refraining from violence or acquisitiveness because you are prevented by circumstances you cannot control. Suppose that you want to injure a person and you attack an inanimate dummy, fully believing that it is that person. You may not be guilty by law, but morally you are as guilty as if you had not been mistaken. Of course, if you have violent or greedy thoughts and consciously manage to control them, you are less blameworthy. That is why, a few lines back, we said that every action, whether it is physical or mental, has its effect. Our condition in life is the result of the things we do and the things we think, of our actions and our attitudes.

Jainism is particularly concerned with ethics, with matters of right and wrong, with morality in its widest sense. This will be apparent to the reader of this small book. At this point let us remember that to the Jain the great ethical principles are five in number. Most important is non- violence, towards all living creatures. The other four are truthfulness, sexual restraint, not taking the property of others, and not seeking to accumulate excessive possessions.

Now the effects of karma appear over many lifetimes of any individual. We know that some people argue that when the death of a physical body occurs, that is the end of the individual. Frankly this does not seem very probable: is it likely that all the thoughts and feelings, the ideas and ideals, the love (and hate), that make up me, or you, suddenly stop when the body dies? Jains believe, as indeed do most Indian (and Western) religious thinkers, that the physical body is only a container for something much more important, for the real individual inside it. This real individual (Jains call is jiva, sometimes translated as 'soul' or 'self') leaves the body at death and finds another body, another container, in which it lives out another life. Naturally the jiva, which is the real personality of the individual, is still bound by the effects of its previous behavior, its karma. The condition of the jiva, as affected by its previous karma, will determine what sort of new life it will enter into. The effects of a violent and greedy life may be many lifetimes of misery before the individual has worked all the bad effects out of the system. Equally the individual whose personality has been shaped by good and loving behavior in past lives may now be leading a good and pleasant life.

It is very important to remember that every living thing, not only human beings, is basically a jiva. In the universe are countless myriads of jiva, whether contained in the simplest single-celled living creature or in complex beings with many senses and high intelligence like humans. From creatures so tiny that we cannot see them, to plants, birds and animals, all are jiva. And there are beings also, beyond our normal understanding, living their lives, according to their karma, in the heavens and hells. In our previous lives we, you and I, have passed through many different forms, and in the countless lives to come we shall pass through many more. (This is, of course, the reason why Jains place such strong emphasis on ahimsa or non-violence: all living things are jiva, they are all important, even the smallest and apparently most insignificant, and the true Jain will try his hardest to avoid harm to any.)

Jain scholars from earliest times right up to the present have devoted much thought to elucidating and expanding the explanations of the karma processes as they are given in the ancient Jain scriptures. This is not easy to put into simple terms. As we said earlier, the word karma basically means actions. But Indian thinkers use the word karma for the process, or link, by which the actions of an individual have their effect on the soul. In most Indian schools of thought karma is seen as some sort of immaterial force or power, generated by the individual's actions and feelings, which then produces the effects of those actions on the soul.