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


Paul Marett

Jainism has made a unique contribution to the study of karma. Karma is described not as an immaterial force but as tiny material particles. This fits in with the Jain view of the universe as having an actual material existence which is not just an illusion (as for example the Buddhists hold) when its deepest nature is fully understood. (Modern scientists will be on familiar ground here.) These particles permeate the entire universe and some of them flow into the soul of the individual, a process known as asrava, or simply 'inflow'. In the ordinary way of things the individual soul or jiva is subject to feelings of desire or hatred, and these make it receptive to the karma particles which, as it were, stick there or are bound to the soul (bandha or 'binding'). It might be helpful to think of the karma particle, in modern medical terms, as something like a virus. In certain conditions of the body the virus can move in and stick there, causing changes in the body which lead to illness. Similarly, in certain condition of the soul (jiva), that is when the individual has passions of desire or hate, the karma particles can move in and cause a deterioration in the condition of the soul. The perfect functioning is impeded and the individual becomes ignorant, confused, changed. Indeed, just as the virus can have such effects on the body that a person's whole life is changed, perhaps from an active and busy life to one bedridden and helpless, so will karma affect the soul that its whole existence in one life, or a series of lives, is affected. Jain thinkers have developed the theory of karma and have described the many types. To go into details is beyond the scope of this present small book.

Briefly, the types of karma fall into two divisions. The first division determines our future lives. One type of karma determines how long our life will be and whether in human, animal or other form; another determines our bodily state and destiny; another our status and circumstances; the fourth type, of this division, determines the joy, sorrow, pleasure, pain of life. It is believed that these types of karma have to work out their effects: there is nothing we can do to avert their consequences. The karma of the second division, however, may be cleared from the soul by austerity and spiritual discipline. Again there are four types, the effect of each is to obstruct or obscure one of the qualities of the soul, its intuition, its knowledge, its energy or its bliss.

To sum up so far, we are what we are now, in this life, because of the effects of karma. It was our own thoughts and actions in the past (in this life and in previous ones), our hates and desires, which created the conditions in our soul which allowed the karma particles to adhere and to impede the functioning of our soul. We are now what we, by our past actions, have made ourselves. This is fundamentally important: we cannot put the blame for our present behavior or our position in life on some remote god or blind fate or luck. In the words of an English poet, I am the master of fate, I am the captain of my soul.

Now the key to all this is passion. It is our feelings, our hatred for people who upset us, for other creatures which annoy us, and our desires for possessions, for prestige, for comfort, for sex, for enjoyment, which create the conditions in our jiva, or soul, which allow the karma particles to stick there. Get rid of these feelings of hate and desire: the karma particles will drop away and the inflow of karma will be stopped. However this is not easy, indeed it is very difficult indeed. As far back as we can go in the eternity of time each jiva has had some imperfections in it and these have allowed the passions to creep in, desire and hate. And these have allowed the karma particles to keep coming in.

And so the jiva has moved on to another rebirth, perhaps better, perhaps worse than the last. And another and another and another... We are tied to this almost endless chain of death and rebirth, death again and rebirth. How can we break this chain? Only by eliminating the accumulated karma in our soul and stopping any more from adhering to it. The process has two stages. First, the inflow of karma particles must be stopped (samvara, 'cessation'). Second, the accumulated karma particles must be shed (nirjara, 'shedding'). In the normal course of events the karma particles will in due course produce their effects and drop off but by moral and spiritual practices this process may be hastened so that the soul becomes free from the accumulated karma.

The key, of course, is to get rid of all passion. Let us look at this a bit more closely. The basic passions are hate and desire, or we can subdivide them into anger and pride, deceit and greed. Nobody is free from these and, unless checked, they build up in the individual, leading him or her to more and more destructive thoughts and behavior. It can be very hard to get rid of these unpleasant passions, it will take a very long time and hard spiritual effort. Even when the individual has controlled them it is possible to slip back. The path is still difficult and the individual must be prepared to avoid the most harmful activities, killing, accumulating wealth, theft and so on. These every Jain man and woman must avoid. But there is another, more rigorous stage, possible only for the monk or nun who has given up worldly possessions and ambitions. Even monks may find that they are unable to control their passions so completely as to avoid all harmful acts. Even if they do, they can still lack the drive and sense of purpose which takes them to the final renunciation of passion.

But let us pause here for a moment. What is the object of all this? Why try to get rid of passions and hence of karma? Why try to break the chain of death and rebirth? Sometimes we are unhappy, true, but sometimes we are happy. Is it really worth the effort? This is a common point of view: many individuals have never got round to thinking of this seriously (indeed, Jains believe, there are some jiva which never will), or even to considering it. Indeed in all the worlds it is only human beings who have the real understanding fully to pursue the goal. But is it worth it?

The jiva has many qualities, of which knowledge and bliss are very important. We, you and I, have knowledge, we know many things, we can look at the world around us, or indeed at religious doctrine, and understand some of it. We also feel, do we not, occasionally an underlying sense of bliss, of happiness, of tranquillity? Sometimes we feel this strongly for a short time, but often, indeed most of the time, it is hidden, just as most of the facts of the world, of the universe, of religion, are hidden from us. Now the jiva really and basically has the ability to comprehend, to know, all knowledge, and equally it has the potential of complete and unlimited bliss and tranquillity. It is important to appreciate the basic underlying nature of the jiva or soul or essential individual self. In its purest state every individual has the capacity of omniscience, of perception and knowledge of everything in the universe. Total knowledge (the Jains call it keval jnana) is a difficult concept to comprehend. We meet people whom we admire for their vast range of knowledge, but even these know only a fraction, a tiny fraction, of the things which can be known. Human knowledge is very limited, very imperfect. Keval jnana, total knowledge, perfect knowledge, is something quite different, limitless in scope, not restricted by space or time, a complete and simultaneous understanding of the whole universe. Deep down within every individual self there is this faculty of universal comprehension.

The other main characteristic of the pure and essential jiva is total bliss or tranquillity. This, again, is a state which is not easy to understand. Happiness, contentment, tranquillity, are fleeting in this world. Even the most placid person is beset often by the worries and cares of human life. The mind never ceases acting, external thoughts disturb the rare moments of calm which we can enjoy. In its deepest being, calm and tranquillity are the natural condition of the jiva, but only in the pure and perfect state can the individual jiva return to this.

What then is it which is clouding over the light of boundless knowledge, which is disturbing and troubling the pure bliss of the perfect individual? The particles of karma prevent the jiva from realizing its full potential and tie it to the cycle of birth and death. We can only dimly imagine the state when karma has been totally eliminated from our soul and we are free, completely free, with boundless knowledge and utter tranquillity. This is the state called moksa and this is the goal of all spiritual endeavor. When the individual has become completely freed from all karma, and has achieved boundless knowledge, but still remains in this world, then that individual is known as an arhat. Finally the arhat passes from this world and as a siddha enters the ultimate state of moksa.

We have looked at the ideas of karma and jiva. We must first understand these and then we can investigate what we must do in life to follow the path which is thus pointed out to us. Jainism has a program of spiritual development for everyone. It is not easy nor is it short, it is very hard and very lengthy. But this is discussed later in the book.

To sum up, the whole aim of Jain philosophy is to purify the soul so that one has permanent bliss and happiness. The whole Jain way of life is directed to this ultimate goal.