Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Jainism

Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Jainism

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The answer to the questions raised by Hinduism found two “heretical” answers – Buddhism and Jainism. Of the two, only Jainism was able to survive the repeated assaults on it by the orthodox Hindu religion. One explanation given for the rise and growth of these two religions is their clarity against the multiplicity of Hinduism and their ethical strength.

Jainism was caused by the Brahmins. During the 6th century B.C., the caste system was yet in a state of flux with the priestly caste making even bolder claims. Naturally, the nobility was going to resist this for the Brahmins put forth the claim that no one who was not a Brahmin could enter Nirvana.

Off-setting this was the great creative period of the noble class (the Kshatriyas) which produced the Upanishads. Minds began to turn towards a monastic idea which openly declared that the physical world was not all there was (against the Brahmin idea of holding to it.) All things were seen as having life and given the ability to experience reality.

Mahavira is the name accepted for the founder of Jainism. He came from the noble class and was born in 599 B.C. He was not the oldest son which, perhaps, made his later renunciation of the physical world all the easier for he would not inherit his father’s wealth.


After his parents died, he gave up all his wealth and joined the Order of Parshva. He took an oath which said:

“I shall neglect my body and abandon the care of it.

I shall with equanimity bear, undergo, and suffer all

calamities arising from divine powers, men, and animals.”


He soon left the order to strike out on his own. He wandered around southern India naked, seeking release from the “Wheel.”

He had two convictions: (1) release of the soul by removal of all negation can only be done through the strictest asceticism, and (2) keeping the soul pure means that one must respect all living things. This is called ahimsa, non-injury.

Mahavira practiced this to the degree that he carried a soft broom to sweep his path so that he wouldn’t step on ants or insects. He only ate food prepared for someone else and never raw meat. Once he received the food, he would look through it for anything which might have life such as sprouts, eggs, or worms.

Through all this, he sought to gain absolute control of his body and mind. Cold, heat, hunger, and pain were all accepted as chances to gain more control. He never spoke to anyone in order to avoid building any personal attachments.

For twelve years he followed this path, always seeking moksha (deliverance). It is recorded that as he was sitting “in a squatting position, with knees high and head low, in deep meditation, in the midst of abstract meditation, he reached Nirvana, the complete, the full…called Kevala.”

He thus became the Jina (Conqueror), for he had achieved complete “victory” over his body and had left the world. He thereupon entered a period of teaching and gathering disciples for thirty years. Finally, at the age of seventy-two, he cut all ties with the earth plane and entered into Nirvana where he is now in a state beyond the Wheel of Karma and rebirth.

Jainism developed a doctrine which became distinct from both Buddhism and Hinduism. They accept the Law of Karma and believe the successive layers on the soul can only be worked off by going back to the ascetic Parshva. This will throw off as many as five layers of incrustations which can cover the soul.

The Jainist knows of two states of vibration: gross matter and light. Matter is eternal and is seen as the atoms moving together in infinite patterns. Karma matter is understood as the least dense matter. As the being travels from life-time to life-time, this karma matter sticks to the soul. At transition, when the soul is released, the amount of matter on the soul determines whether it will rise or fall into the next life-time.

All things were classified according to the sense they possessed. Those being with five senses (man, gods, animals, etc.) are the highest and so on.

Without matter, man is seen as perfect. When perfection is reached and one enters Isatpragbhara, there is no loss of consciousness as in Nirvana. Rather, all else is dropped so that the consciousness can be all there is.

Mahavira held that there was no Supreme Deity. There were a number of higher beings, but no help could be expected from them. There was, therefore, no Self. Even the higher beings were in need of redeeming. All salvation, both for the higher beings and those in dense manifestation was self-attained. Praying was of no use.

The fastest and surest way to liberation (moksha) is the practice of asceticism. Fasting and mind control were used to induce a trance-like state where one could in meditation transcend his own being. Severe control is needed of mind and body for lack of purity will block the way and lack of control will lead one off the path.

Mahavira’s monks took “Five Great Vows.” These were: (1) renunciation of all killing, (2) speak only truth, (3) renunciation of all greed, (4) avoid all sexual contact, and (5) complete detachment from all things on this plane of existence.

Later, the Jainists wrote a watered-down set for lay-disciples. These twelve vows were all centered around the first vow which was against killing. As a result, many Jainists became bankers and professional tradesmen because these professions did not deal in any way with harming living creatures.

Even while he was alive, there were many stories growing around Mahavira and many divisions were occurring within the faith. Later, he was obscured by the teachers who walked the path after him.

Temple worship consists of “a memorial service in honor of the teachers of the way of salvation.” The major division occurred between those in southern India and who did not believe clothes were necessary and those in northern India (where it is colder) which said one garment was needed. These two divisions in the Order have spread even further apart, the one even admitting women and stating that they had a chance to enter Nirvana.

The effect of Jainism on India has been much, both in architectural design and in their disdain of knowledge. The one has given India an architectural form which carried over much from the past and gave it new expression. The other curbed tendencies of overstating things.

Although numbering only two million today, their philosophy has helped many people, including Mahatma Gandhi.

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