The teachings of Jainism are presented in their sutras and commentaries with such mathematical exactness and logic one can't help exclaiming, how true, how clear, how reasonable! And at the same time he feels a stirring of higher faculty. Intuition and imagination are alerted and grasp at meanings too tenuous and metaphysical for brainmind calculation.
For instance, their philosophical reasoning is, one might say, triangular, with positive and negative viewpoints conjoined by an expandable "perhaps" — syadvada. (The Cultural Heritage of India 1:406) For example, from the moment of birth, life is ever increasing; one growing continually in experience and wisdom. Equally true, from the moment of birth, death moves closer and closer. How then can we say for certain that life increases or that it decreases? And since these two opposite ideas cannot be conveyed simultaneously, is it not sensible to admit, perhaps? Perhaps at any moment one is growing, and perhaps he is dying. Both concepts are true, both essential for full understanding. Furthermore, it is this perhaps concept which necessitates consideration of other perspectives and, by the inevitable contrasts and comparisons, prevents intellectual imbalance, rigidity, or dogmatism.
Metaphysically such three-sided viewing is vital whenever one seeks to comprehend the relative, the perhaps, nature of identity and permanence, as they exist temporarily, amid variety and change. And Jain logicians never hesitate to examine the manifold aspects of reality in every situation of life, from their eternal and absolute, essential nature, as well as from their changeable and illusory aspects. Following this method, they view the Self (Atma) as finite when it manifests in bodies of temporary duration, but as permanent and infinite when seen in its true nature, substance-free, incorporeal, and eternally transmigrating from body to body, from life to life.
Carrying this "affirmative-negative-perhaps" concept a step further, the Jains present a fivefold, and then a sevenfold system. The five ways or stages of comprehension are (Ibid., 427-8; Uttaradhyayana, xxiii):
1. by perception through the five senses;
2. indirectly by reading scriptures and listening to teachers;
3. by direct cognition or clairvoyance, that extrasensory perception latent in all, by which one 'sees' events happening at a distant place, or at some past or future time;
4. by thought transference, mental telepathy, as when a mother senses the need of her child, or when a teacher communicates to his pupil in silence, wordlessly; and
5. by limitless knowledge or enlightenment.
To explain the sevenfold system they cite the familiar story of the blind men and the elephant, and give seven different assertions, each true from one viewpoint yet questionable from another. Six blind men describe an elephant according to the part of the animal they touch and the state of their mind at that moment. Thus the leg is a pillar of a temple; the ear, a winnowing fan, etc. Only a seventh, sighted man sees the whole elephant, yet he, in a flash of insight, realizing that his perception too is limited and incomplete, exclaims: "who can positively affirm or deny anything, especially when dealing with subjective matters of philosophy?"
Beyond this the Jains proceed to examine each subject, whether in its threefold, fivefold, or sevenfold nature, from its realistic, its complex, and its subtle aspects. Serious students have always found their contributions in this field comprehensive, and their illustrative parables fascinating — such as that of the five men who search for truth, as told and explained in twenty pages of the Sutrakritanga (II, 1).
Briefly: There were once five clever men who set out to find truth. Each in time came to a quiet forest lotus-pool, in the center of which grew one tall, white lotus of exquisite beauty. Four of the men found its attractiveness irresistible and waded out to possess it. But each after a few steps became hopelessly stuck in the mud. The fifth man, a monk, approached the pond with peaceful step, stopping at its shore to marvel at the lotus. Then, at his command, this most perfect of flowers flew up and into his hand!
The lotus-pool, text explains, is the world. The water is karma, the mud stands for pleasures and amusements, the four ineffectual men represent four heretical doctrines current at the time, and each is duly described. The monk of peaceful step is the Law, and the perfect lotus, nirvana.
Karma and Ahimsa, "noninjury," are fundamental doctrines of Asian thought, yet Jainism gives them a unique interpretation. Karma, usually regarded as action and action's consequences, to the Jains is that flow of subtle atomic matter which clings to the soul like the cocoon of a silkworm — clings momentarily, or for aeons, depending upon the intensity of thought-emotion which originally gives it adherence and which continues to sustain it.
Ahimsa, harmlessness — an intrinsic aspect of karuna or compassion — is the quiet, clear conviction of heart, mind, and soul that all things are of spirit and in essence identic, equal, and sacred. Size, rank, development — appearances — make no difference. In its ultimate expression, it is the oneness of life experienced by mystics who feel themselves united with God.
Ahimsa is the way of life, positive and harmonious, that dissipates the karmic body which clouds the soul's perception. When one's thoughts, beliefs, and actions are attuned to noninjury, to compassion, the forces of love flow through his life enriching all others. He is harmless as a gentle doe, beneficial as the autumn sun. Incurring no new karma, he walks even through the forests of hell unafraid and at peace. In following this path the Jains feel they help those in need directly by being and by example. Never do they interfere in another's development, for that in their view would be cruel, and as crippling to his mind and to his soul as a straitjacket or hypnotist's spell.
This apparent indifference has led those too-quick-to-judge to claim that Jainism is wholly selfish, and that its disciples follow the path of the pratyeka rather than that of the compassionate buddhas. This the Jains deny, declaring that the pratyekas, though holy men who have reached a lofty state of knowledge by their own efforts and do no harm to anyone, have been so concerned with their own salvation they have not associated themselves with any Order nor followed any teacher. Therefore, their doctrines are limited, one-sided, and not the true Law of the tirthankaras, nor have they reached the high state of nirvana attained by the buddhas of compassion.
Further insights into Jain mystical doctrines can be gained from a study of their intricate teachings. For instance, they believe universal life is composed of an infinite number of interacting particles, each particle being in essence a jiva or "life" — an eternal and intrinsically individual consciousness-life, which embodies in karmic vehicles of its own making.
Thus, while the jivas, whether of atom, man, or god, are fundamentally pure, omniscient and harmonious, they are limited in degree both by their own karmic impediments and by the karmic impediments of the groups of particles which make up the bodies in and through which they at any particular period manifest.
The Jains often compare the Self to gold, which may be shaped, melted and reshaped in a hundred forms without diminution of its brilliance and malleability. Just so the Self loses none of its essential characteristics as it takes manifestation, in a continuous flow, in and through myriad and ever-progressive form-bodies.
The largest group of these interacting soul-particles is made up of jivas manifesting at such a low level of consciousness that we think of them either as immovable and unconscious, or as unseen. But it is these invisible jivas principally, and those microorganisms — the particles of earth, of running water (boiling kills jivas), of wind or air, and of fire — which enable us to see the color of sunrise, hear music captured by genius, and enjoy the fragrance of flowers.
The Uttaradayayana Sutra divides these groups of particles first into visible and invisible, subtle and gross, developed and undeveloped; then further subdivides them by particular characteristics, giving length of life, place of existence, etc., etc. One can't help marveling at the scientific curiosity of the early Jains and the wealth of information they accumulated.
The next group of particles, consisting of the vegetables, trees and plants, has developed the sense of touch. This is an interesting classification considering current investigation into plant sensitivities and responses to thought, word and touch. Worms, oysters, wasps and butterflies belong to a higher grouping, having evolved both touch and taste. Then come the ants, centipedes and all insects which have in addition the sense of sight. The life expectancy of this class ranges from a moment to an aged forty-nine days! Flies, bees, moths, scorpions, crickets, etc., can hear, so belong to a superior class. Finally, "beings with five organs of sense are of four kinds: denizens of hell, animals, men and gods" (Ibid., xxxvi, 156) — each of which is described in detail.
All jivas grow ultimately toward humanhood where, having mind, they learn the Law and, discriminating between the favorable and unfavorable, the beneficent and injurious, begin to strip off the accumulation of karmic adhesions and regain divinity. No outside god, living and operating in some lofty world, can help here. "Salvation" comes only from the Self within, and from the teachings and examples of the twenty-four tirthankaras or buddhas and bodhisattvas. Until that time all beings, whether monstrously large or infinitely small, are carried along in the current of their actions, born again and again "to reap the fruit of their own acts." (Adaranga Sutra, 1, 6, 1, 3).
It has been said of old: all sorts of living beings, of manifold birth, origin, and growth, born in bodies, originated in bodies, grown in bodies, feeding on bodies, experience their Karman, are actuated by it, have their form and duration of life determined by Karman, and undergo changes through the influence of Karman. This you should know, and knowing it you will be careful and circumspect. . . . — Sutrakritanga, II, 3, 37
How exactly is the karma-body built? When the mind is active, thinking, when the will is stirred, or the body moves in action, they each set up conditions which attract to the soul by karma an inflow of molecules. If the state of mind, will, or body, is strongly motivated by self-indulgent and possessive desires, by feelings of fear and anger, or of personal love, the particles of this karmic flow adhere and form a deposit or sheath about the Self. And there it remains until dissipated by a corresponding retributive reaction, the time and quality of which is determined largely by the quality of the original motivation.
Eight kinds of karma, with 144 divisions of each, are discussed in Jain literature. How, among other aspects, each is attracted; how it affects the whole as well as every part of one's nature, one's mind, one's psyche, one's environment, behavior, past, present and future conditions; and how each may be changed, added to, or dissolved. In the Uttaradhyayana, xxxiii, 1-3, the scope of this teaching is revealed.
The process of dissolving the karma-body is the way to perfection: the Path of spiritual evolution, progress on which is accomplished by unwavering concentration on the noblest aspects of life. Right, best, or spiritual thought: accepting into the mind only that which is high and uplifting, and shutting out all that is base, ugly, ignoble. Right, best, or spiritual action: acting carefully at all times, righteously, compassionately; renouncing all activities, mental, emotional and physical that are motivated by lower egoity; renouncing attachments to this world.
This is the way the knots of karma are untied, so that the Self, no longer fettered, moves from human to divine awareness. This is accomplished by following five simple yet powerfully ennobling vows, which were called "the place of peace" by the twenty-four Great Ones who illumine the darkness.
Jainism has much to offer this nuclear age with its tensions and confused morality, much, which can be expressed perhaps in one word: kindliness. Whether sweeping insects from their path, or studying the tirthankaras' vast wisdom, the Jains' concern is first and always for the welfare of all others.
(From Sunrise magazine, February, 1976. Copyright © 1976 Theosophical University Press)