Basic Ideals of Jainism

Jain Dharma: An Overview

Mahavira serves the religion as an illustration both of spiritual realization and social reconstruction. This religion is also utterly humanistic in its approach, and spiritualistic in its depth. Though humanistic, yet it is wider than humanitarianism, for it embraces all the sentiments of beings from one-sense to all the five senses.

Jaina formulation of ethical theory is grounded in Jaina metaphysics. It argues that conceptions of bondage and liberation, punya and paap, heaven and hell, pleasure and pain and the like, loose all their relevance and significance, when we exclusively recognize either their permanence as constituting the nature of substance.

Its strong ethical discipline constitutes a distinct importance in Jainism. The Jain ethics tend to translate the fundamental principle of ahimsa into practice. So far as the Jain community is concerned it is one of the ancient communities of our country. It is scattered
throughout the length and breadth of India from hoary antiquity to the present day. Jains are also found in small numbers in various continents. Jainism being an independent religion, have its own vast sacred literature, distinct philosophy, particular outlook on life and special ethical rules of conduct based on fundamental principles of Ahimsa. The Jains principles of Ahimsa was accepted and promoted by several Kings and heads of State throughout Centuries. World leaders of modem times including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela promoted Ahimsa and non-violence while fighting for restoring freedom for India and South Africa respectively.

Jain scriptures were written over a long period and the most cited is the Tattvartha Sutra, or Book of Reality written by Umasvati (or Umasvami), the monk-scholar, more than 18 centuries ago. The primary figures in Jainism are Tirthankars. Jainism has two main divisions, which began around the second century BC and was finalized in the first century CE, formed the Digambers (“Sky Clad”), or naked ascetics, and the Svetambaras (“White Clad”), who wear a simple white garment. Both the sects believe in ahimsa (or ahinsa), asceticism, karma, sansar and jiva.

Jainism promotes compassion for all human and non human life. Human life is valued as a unique, rare opportunity to reach enlightenment and to kill any person, no matter what crime he/she may have committed, is unimaginably abhorrent. It is the only religion that requires monks and laity, from all its sects and traditions, to be vegetarian. The values for human life promoted by Jainism is very relevant to the discipline of professional social work.

Jains are remarkably welcoming and friendly towards other faiths. Several non-jain temples in India are administered by Jains. The Jain Heggade family has run the Hindu institutions of Dharmasthala, including the Sri Manjunath Temple, for eight centuries. Jains
willingly donate money to churches and mosques and usually help with interfaith functions. Jain monks, like Acharya Tulsi and Acharya Sushil Kumar, actively promoted harmony among rival faiths to defuse tension.

In fact the great contributions made by Jain Monks down the centuries to promote harmony among different groups of population are lessons for social work profession which is mandated to help people to help themselves in different problem situations.

Influence and Role in Indian Society

Jainism has existed continuously in India for over 2,500 years. Jain beliefs, particularly ahimsa, have had a significant influence on India’s Culture. Asoka (B.C. 238), who became a Buddhist Emporer, stressed the practice of ahimsa in his reforms. In the twentieth century Mohandas (Mahatma Gandhi 1869-1948) was influenced by the concept of ahimsa when he developed his policy of nonviolent resistance in India’s struggle for independence.

The same strategy was followed by  the freedom fighters of South Africa, particularly Nelson Mandela who was also awarded Nobel Peace Prize. Aans Saan Su Kyi of Myanmar is yet another world leader of the 21 st Century who is following the non-violence path to restore democracy in that country.

Ethical Principles

Jainism has its own philosophy, values and principles that are very much in line with social work values, philosophy, principles and code of ethics. Jain monks practice strict asceticism. On the other hand the laity, who pursue less rigorous practices, strive to attain rational faith and to do as much good as possible in this lifetime. Following strict Jain ethics, the laity choose professions that are highly regard and protect life and totally avoid any violent ways of earning a livelihood:

The Jain ethical code is taken very seriously. Five vows are followed by both laity and  monks/nuns, which are

1) Non-violence (ahimsa, or ahinsa)
2) Truth (Satya)
3) Non-stealing (Asteya)
4) Chastity (Brahma-charya) and
5) Non-possession or Non-possessiveness (Aparigrah).

For laypersons, ‘Chastity’ means confining sexual relations within marriage. For monks/nuns, it means complete celibacy. Non-violence involves being vegetarian and some choose to be vegetarian. Jains are expected to be non-violent in thought, word and deed, towards humans and every living creature. While performing holy deeds, Svetambara Jains wear cloths over their mouths and noses to avoid spittle falling on texts or revered Images.

Along with five vows, Jains avoid harboring ill will towards others and practice forgiveness. Their belief is that Atma (Soul) can lead one to become Prmatma (liberated soul) and this must come from one’s inner self. No Jiv can give another the path to salvation, but can only show the way. In social work too, the worker is a guide and philosopher to the client who only shows the way and the final decision/act is left to the choice of the client.

The 18 Sinful Activities

Jains refrain from all types of violence (Ahimsa) and have isolated 18 types of sinful activities that which, if eradicated, can eventually lead to liberations. These sins are violence; untruth; theft; unchastity; possessiveness; anger; arrogance; greed; deceit; attachment; hatred; arguing; accusation; gossip; criticism; predilection and disliking; malice; and wrong belief. Mahatma Gandhi was deeply influenced by this  ain emphasis on peaceful, protective living and made it an integral part of his own philosophy. Gandhiji’s ideology was fully based on non-violence. He urged his followers to speak the truth, and give utmost importance to the dignity and worth of an individual. He believed in the dignity of labour and the right of all people to earn a livelihood. He did not impose his views on other people, but showed understanding and love for them. Jainism, its methods and values are in line with practices, goals, philosophy and methods in the profession of social work.

Of the five ethical principles prescribed by Mahavira to his followers, Ahimsa is considered to be the most important. It is a positive philosophy of love contained in the ethics of non-violence. Jainism emphasizes on complete absence of ill-will. In case of truth, householders are not insisted to observe it strictly. The spirit of the principles is that: Ahimsa is the most important virtue to be followed; all the virtues are to be rigidly followed in such a way that the principles of non-violence are not broken. Some exceptions were made in regard to these and avoidance of falsehood in regard to all other aspects was all that was advocated as constituting of Satya. Asteya signifies the strict adherence to one’s own possession, not even wanting to take hold of another’s.

All the evil practices observed in trade and commerce such as adultering the materials and not giving others their money, not weighing or measuring properly and indulging in black marketing constitute Asteya. Carefully and scrupulously avoiding such malpractices constitutes the observance of the Asteyavrat.

Contribution to Indian Culture

Though the Jains constitute only 0.4 per cent of the Indian population, their contributions to Indian culture and society have been considerable and remarkable. Jains are among the wealthiest of all Indians and also among the most philanthropic. They run numerous schools, colleges and hospitals and are the most  important patrons of the Somapuras, the traditional temple architects in Gujarat. In contrast to some religious groups, Jains encourage their monks to go for higher education and to get involved in research. Jain monks and nuns, particularly in Rajasthan, have published numerous research monographs. This is unique among Indian religious groups, and parallels the Christian priests and nuns. According to the 2001 census, the Jains are India’s most literate community. India’s oldest libraries at Patan and Jaisalmer are preserved by Jain institutions.