Ethics 2 – Indian Ethics: Hinduism & Mahavira

For this lecture, please read this treatise on Jain beliefs and practices.

Introducing Indian Thought

India map

‘Hindu’ is the Persian name for India (Persia and India are next door to each other and have traded for thousands of years).  Our society borrows the term from the British, who get the term from the Persians.  As we read in the Vedas, Hinduism brought together many traditions from many regions with many gods, but there are three levels that are equally interchangeable and separable.  First, each can have a particular god that is the emphasis of one’s particular branch of the tradition.  Second, the many gods are each one aspect of a single god, often the great father and creator, named by most traditions Brahma.  Third, there is a philosophical monism that goes beyond god or not god, living or dead, conscious or unconscious, that is the One.  Locals practicing devotional worship often operate on the first level, priests who study the Vedas often operate on the second level, while philosophers and unorthodox Indian schools that do not accept the authority of the Vedas such as Jains, Buddhists and the materialist Charvakas operate on the third.

vedasAs Hinduism was brought together as a tradition that brought together many separate people with separate traditions, first the Vedas spoke largely though not entirely on the first level, then particular passages of the Vedas and the later Upanishads spoke on the second level, and then many schools went beyond the Upanishads and understood a simple, neither theistic nor atheistic One to be the real underlying truth of the first and second levels.  Vedanta, literally “Veda’s End”, debated back and forth between the second and third levels in the tradition of the Upanishads.

Mohenjodaro_SindhThis came together over many periods in the history of Indian thought.  About 2000 BCE, India was invaded by a fire worshiping people who likely came from modern day Iran.  While European scholars previously argued that this was the spark of civilization migrating to India, we know today that the area was already well developed at the time, with great buildings and impressive public baths with plumbing.

Nazis stole swastika ganesh wants it backAlthough the area was already developed, the fire worshiping Aryans were a big influence on the Vedas and ancient Indian culture, but scholars are critical of just how influential as it was said only recently that the Aryans civilized India and brought the Vedas with them.  While the Vedas may have been strongly influenced by the Aryans, it is debatable how much is composed of earlier native Indian pre-Aryan traditions.  The Nazis, following earlier German historians, believed that the Aryans were Germanic tribes who civilized not only India but Egypt, Greece, and Persia.  The swastika, and Indian name for a symbol that can be found in much of the world, including tribal German lands, was thought to be the sun symbol of the Aryans, and so it was used by the Nazis.  Unfortunately for this Germanic theory of history, we know that the Aryans were indeed from modern day Iran, what became Persia very soon after the Aryan conquests in India.

Ganesh with SwastikasNext, in the Vedic period, 1500-800 BCE, the four Vedas were composed as oral traditions that eventually were written down in texts, including the foremost Rg Veda of which there are selections in your reader.  The golden age of Indian thought followed from 800-200 BCE, the time when the Upanishads distilled the Vedic hymns to the gods into inner philosophical and psychological teachings, the six orthodox schools that follow the Vedas (Vedanta, Yoga, Mimamsa, Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaisheshika) as well as the unorthodox schools (Charvaka, Jainism and Buddhism) flourished, and the great Hindu epics (the Mahabharata and Ramayana) were written.  After this, from 200 BCE – 500 CE is a period when the schools and traditions of the golden age were systematized into sutras or central texts.  Finally, after 500 CE and up to the present time, is the period of commentaries written on the earlier systems and their sutras.  This persisted through the period of conquest by Muslims of North India in the 1500s and then by the British in the 1800s.

The Three Paths

Shiva Statue DancingThere are three paths of worship in Hinduism.  First, there is devotional worship, known as Bhakti yoga (‘yoga’ means ‘discipline’, or practice).  In Bhakti devotional worship, the devotee prays, sings hymns, lights incense, and performs rituals to gain favor with the gods and heavens.  It is impossible not to notice that most of what we call ‘religion’ the world over is in fact forms of Bhakti practice, devotion to particular gods and ancestral spirits.  The two most populous forms of Bhakti Hinduism are Shaivism, the worship of Shiva (the transformer and destroyer) and his incarnations such as Ganesh (the elephant headed god), and Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu (the savior or preserver) and his incarnations such as Krishna.  Worship is often called ‘darshana’, or seeing/experiencing, and Hindus will say, I am going to the seeing, meaning I am going to see and be seen by the god.  Another common form of Bhakti devotion is worship of a particular goddess such as Kali.  Notice that, like a scientist, Bhakti practitioners also believe in learning by experience and seeing, but their subject matter is quite different.

jain tathankara bahulbaliRaja yoga, the second path, is worship by meditation and asceticism (living in isolation, standing in place for days, fasting chanting the names of gods for hours, sitting on spikes, and other means of hard activity) meant to gain a meditative state of insight.  Raja means ‘force’ or ‘effort’, and India is famous for its forest sages practicing these techniques.  As we will study soon, the Jains and later Buddhists became famous for their practices of discipline, training both the body and the mind.  Jains would sometimes stand in the jungle for such long periods of time that vines would grow up their bodies, as depicted in some of their venerated images.

Sourcebook in Indian PhilosophyJnana yoga (“zshna-na”), the third path and my personal favorite, is worship by acquiring knowledge, wisdom and understanding the order of things through study and philosophizing.  This class itself could be seen as a form of Jnana yoga, designed to bring you closer to the core by studying the ways of the world.  All three paths, or any mixture of the three, are understood to work towards the same goal: liberation from the bonds of attachment and desire, rising into enlightenment and release from the constraints of identity to join together with the whole.

Mara Wheel of ReincarnationThere are two ultimate goals to this process.  First, there is hope for a better next life.  Many are familiar already with the Hindu idea of reincarnation.  This is not a form of afterlife particular to India, but in fact there is evidence that many tribal cultures and early Egypt believed that one’s present life will be reincarnated in another life on earth based on one’s actions and intentions.  This interconnection is called karma, which simply means ‘action’ in Sanskrit.  Interestingly, physical causation is karma, just as it is also metaphysical causation (next life physics), an understanding of cause and effect applied to a different sphere of existence.  If you punch someone in the head, it is karma that makes their head reel backward, and karma that also weighs down your chance for a favorable life after death in the Hindu tradition such that if you punch too many people, you get reborn a cockroach.

Buddha India StatueSecond, there is hope for release, for freedom from rounds of rebirth on earth.  This can be thought of as dwelling in a heaven with one’s personal or family god, but also as a dwelling with the order of things without residing in any particular place.  Bhakti yoga tends to favor the dwelling with a lord, while raja and jnana tends to favor the dwelling with the universe as a whole, however it is important to remember that some Hindus believe that both amount to the same exact thing (while others will insist that their school’s truth is ‘more true’, the same variation one finds in any religion and in our own culture).  This release is also called Moksha and Samadhi, but in America we know this first and foremost by the same name as the famous grunge band, Nirvana.

Buddhist Dharma WheelWhile moksha is the ultimate goal, via the more immediate goal of positioning oneself favorably for moksha either in this life (dwelling in the forest or a monastery) or in a next life, there are three other goals that Indian philosophy points to as desirable making four in total.  In addition to moksha/nirvana, there is law or morality, ‘dharma’ (the term Jains and Buddhists use to describe their traditions and rules), pleasure, ‘kama’ (as from the Kama Sutra), and material well-being or comfort, ‘artha’.  Clearly, the overall idea is that pleasure and comfort (kama and artha) are not in themselves evil, but one should pursue liberation through discipline (moksha through dharma), first and foremost.  Buddhists symbolize dharma with a wheel, one of the earliest images of Buddhism found.  Just like early Christians identified with the symbol of the fish before depicting Jesus, Buddhists identified with the wheel before depicting the Buddha.

wootz steelAncient India saw a great deal of development in science and technology.  They observed the natural world and put phenomena into families and categories as did the ancient Greeks and as we still do today.  The Romans would trade Germanic and Celtic slaves to India in exchange for Indian wootz, the metal most prized for weapons in the ancient world.

Indian Arabic Numerals ChartIn mathematics the Indians were unsurpassed by ancient civilizations, developing the base ten system and the Indian-Arabic numerals we use today.  They laid down the basics of symbolic equations, the concept and symbolization of zero, and invented the variable (originally a thick dot).  All of this got picked up by the Muslims, who turned it into algebra, which then got picked up by the Europeans, who turned it into Calculus.  Typically, we learn about Euclid and the Greeks doing geometry as the source of the Western mathematical tradition.  Muslims were influenced by the Greeks and Euclid, but Euclid argued about lines drawn in sand and did not use equations.  It was the Indians who invented the sorts of mathematical symbolism that the Muslims turned into step by step symbolic mathematics as we know it today and teach it up through high school.

Aum Hindu SymbolIn spite of all of these developments, Indian thought is typically anti-materialistic and concerned with spirituality or psychology depending on one’s vocabulary.  Knowing the mind/spirit is knowing the essence of the whole as self-knowledge, or ‘atmavidya’.  Hindus believe that one has an eternal self/soul/mind, the ‘atma’, as opposed to Jains and Buddhists who believe in ‘anatma’, or no-self (permanent self, anyway).

buddha statue india gardenIt used to be the opinion not only of most Hindus but also European scholarship until very recently, that Jainism and Buddhism took parts of Hinduism and broke away to form their own traditions.  Recently, new studies have shown that Jainism and Buddhism were forming at the same time as Hinduism was becoming an official tradition.  The Hindus accepted the Vedas and Upanishads while the Jains and Buddhists broke from the Vedas to follow more Upanishad-like understandings, but Hinduism as a centralized tradition was, in part, a reaction to the development of the Jain and Buddhist traditions.  Thus, similar doctrines of reincarnation and psychological skepticism/idealism may have developed at the same time or been borrowed by Hinduism in its fully developed form rather than borrowed from Hinduism as it was previously thought.  Even so, there is some truth to the common Hindu understanding that “Buddhism is Hinduism for export”, as Buddhists took the ideas in the Upanishads and Indian tradition, removed the dietary restrictions, caste system and other traditional purity laws, and became possibly the world’s largest system of thought in history, although it is debatable whether Christianity or Buddhism has that title.

VedasIn the sections of the Vedas in your reader, we can see several passages that foreshadow the Upanishads and their more monistic understanding of the metaphoric narratives.  This is also how we can understand the Hindu Epics we will examine this session.  Often, teachings of the ancient world that are legendary can be understood by the common person as a real and miraculous event of history while the elite and wise could understand the legend as containing a deeper truth that can be transmitted to the common people as a story to be taken as history but which is more properly revealed as a metaphor.  Particularly aided by the plurality of stories and traditions accepted into Indian and Hindu thought, there is much room for skepticism and subjectivism concerning conflicting truths and the shared common meaning having more importance than the conflicts in literal meaning.  This is reflected in these Vedic passages, which were then extended in the Upanishads and Vedanta.

Indra image indiaIn a hymn to Indra, the storm father god who was often the chief sky father all god until unseated by Brahman (a more abstract, all-godhead), we find that we should praise Indra, if indeed he does exist.  It asks, if someone wishes to purchase Indra from me for a modest price, you can return him after he has slain the demons.  This is surprising humor found in the central Veda, the Rg Veda.

A hymn to Vishvedevas asks, “Who hath beheld him as he sprang to being, seen how this boneless One supports the bony?  Where is the blood of earth, the life, the spirit?  Who may approach the man who knows, to ask it?”.  The boneless One, a humorous portrayal of the monistic All which has no bones because it is one without any articulation or part, supports all the many things with their many parts.  Whenever we say, “All” or “reality”, we are summing everything together effortlessly without any divisions and without leaving any particular thing out.

frog headA hymn to frogs tells us that, just as Vedic priests gather together with their rituals, so too do the frogs gather around the pond croaking to celebrate the first rain.  This is remarkably similar to a passage of Zhuangzi, the Daoist patriarch, who asks if the supreme wisdom of humans is any different from the chirping of baby birds, which we will read later in the course.  Another hymn asks for blessings for the “liberal worshipers”, who will hopefully turn in faith to the gods rather than doubt their existence with philosophical monism.  Notice that the hymn refers to these skeptical and philosophical individuals as “worshipers”, not as atheists or heathens.

upanishadsIt is just these sort of individuals who would go on to write the Upanishads, the Vedanta and both the orthodox and unorthodox schools of Indian thought, including the Jainism and Buddhism we will study in the next few weeks.  As the Upanishads continued to gain teachers and followers, there was a new flowering of many schools of thought between 700 and 400 BCE that took much from the Vedas and Upanishads but developed the teachings in new directions.  These new schools often rejected the caste system (still in place today in spite of these ancient rebellions) and thus gained massive followings among all classes and castes of India.  Jainism was one of the first, but it was quickly developed and transformed itself into a religion that is possibly the most popular system of thought in history, Buddhism.

(put with Jainism, elephant below)

GOLD AND SILVER SHIELD FROM READING – north and south side of statue

The Blind Men & The Elephant

Japanese Bline Men and the ElephantAs a final metaphor and concept that fits well with our material, the famous story of the blind men and the elephant originated in India and has served to illustrate how reality is always beyond each and every human perspective for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, and much later Europeans.  The story goes that several blind men encountered an elephant, and each took hold of a part, and they got into an argument about the shape of the entire elephant.  The one who holds a leg says an elephant is like a pillar.  The one who holds an ear says an elephant is like a sail.  The one who holds the tail says an elephant is like a rope.  The one who touches a side says an elephant is like a wall.  The one who holds the trunk says an elephant is like a tree branch.  They then all get into a fight about which view is exclusively true.  Of course, all of the views are partial perspectives, and if they could see the whole, they would know that they are each, in part, correct.  Each has experienced one side of the elephant, first hand.

RumiRumi, the Sufi Muslim poet, retold the story as an elephant in the dark, surrounded by Hindus, showing his awareness of the Indian story’s source.  He adds that an elephant’s back is like a throne, and it’s trunk is like a fountain.  Like Zhuangzi, the Daoist from China we will study later, Rumi says that we should try to see the ocean, beyond each bubble of foam, and that if each of the Hindus lit a candle, they would all be able to see the elephant as a whole, together.


jain temple complex

The Striver Movement

jain veneration

As the primary Upanishads were being written down and shared between 1000 and 600 BCE, the golden age of ancient Indian thought dawned as many thinkers founded new schools of thought, including the six orthodox schools of Hinduism.  There are also many references at the time in texts to “strivers” (shramanas) who were leaving Hinduism and setting off to form new unorthodox (non-Hindu) Indian traditions.  Today we call this the Shramana Movement, which gave rise to two of the most famous thinkers in human history: Mahavira (599 – 527 BCE) and the Buddha (563 – 483 BCE).  These two distinct but similar seekers were dissatisfied by traditional life and beliefs and went off to seek, learn and practice on their own, often in the jungle beyond civilization.  In the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, similar sorts of strivers traditionally practice in the desert, symbolic of death.

jain debate

Both Mahavira and Buddha were of the Kshatriya second caste, beneath the Brahmin first and top caste, warrior’s sons who wanted to be priestly philosophers instead.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whom some scholars thought wrongly was the Buddha, is also said to be a king who abandoned the throne to become a sage, symbolic of the mind’s superiority to the body, the mental conquering the physical.  Both Mahavira and Buddha supposedly left home at age thirty, with Mahavira obtaining enlightenment in twelve years and the Buddha in six.  The Buddha and Buddhist tradition follow just after Mahavira and the Jain tradition in years, developing in dialog with each other, so this may possibly be Buddhists claiming the Buddha did what Mahavira did, but in half the time.  Jainism, founded by Mahavira, is one of the world’s great religions with five million followers today, most living in India but with communities throughout the world.  Buddhism is one of the three largest cultures of human thought in history, along with Christianity and Islam.

jain monk preaching

One of the stranger parallels in world history is that Jainism was a small, local culture which gave rise to Buddhism, a large, international culture, much as Judaism gave rise to the larger, international cultures of Christianity and Islam.  Both Buddha and Jesus taught that diet and ethnicity are not centrally important, creating international traditions out of earlier local teachings.  Jains are a minority in India, and have been stereotyped as merchants, traders and bankers who keep wealth amongst their own kind, much as Jews have been similarly stereotyped in Christian and Islamic lands.  While both groups have historically suffered charges of usury (profiting from the misfortunes of others), discrimination and exclusion leads to the development of an exclusive, localized community and economy that justifiably looks after communal interests.  Because Jains and Jews were excluded from investing in the mainstream community, both invested in cultures of business and trade amongst their own.  Both Jains and Jews, small in numbers compared to many cultures, have small communities spread throughout the world that developed over thousands of years along major trade routes.  This is in spite of the fact, as we will shortly see, that Jainism is not a philosophy that favors long distance travel.

The Tirthankaras

fording a river

‘Jain’ means follower of the Jina, the conqueror, the one who conquers themselves.  In the Chinese Dao De Jing, an early verse reads, Those who conquer others are powerful, but those who conquer themselves are truly strong.  The Jains worship and leave offerings for accomplished human sages who conquer themselves rather than gods, much as Buddhists do, leaving offerings at statues much as Hindus do for gods and sages alike.  Just as Buddhists revere the Buddha and other buddhas, the Jains revere the Tirthankaras, the Ford-Makers (tirthameans ford), not originally from Detroit, but there is a sizable Jain community in Toronto nearby, one of the largest outside India.  In the American educational video game The Oregon Trail, early (not so PC) versions would ask if the player would like to hire an “Indian” (Native American) guide to help ford a river, crossing where the water is shallow enough for travelers, animals and wagons to walk across.  The Tirthankaras are the actually Indian guides who help all sentient beings ford the chaotic river of life to find firmament on the other side, with water symbolic of chaos and death and earth symbolic of permanence and life.

wheel of life

The Jains innovated several ideas which became central to Hinduism as well as Buddhism, including the idea that the cosmos works in cycles.  Just as the Sun rises and sets over the course of a day, the Jains claimed that the consciousness of the Cosmos awakens and then falls asleep in each great era (kalpa), destroyed and then reborn, much as ancient Mayan astrologers predicted would happen in 2012.  Today, modern physicists debate as to what was before the Big Bang, whether or not there will be a Big Crunch, and whether or not there would be another Big Bang again after such a Big Crunch, with no clear consensus.  For the Jains, Buddhists and Hindus, as our own era awakened, humanity began teaching philosophies and religions, and then after the golden age of ancient Indian thought, the apex and high noon of our era, humanity began to “lose religion” and fall into darkness, the time in which we now live.


Jains believe that Mahavira did not create or discover the truth, but rediscovered it, as it is rediscovered at the pinnacle of each era by similar sages of each age.  Buddhists refer to Mahavira as “The Boundless One”, without attachments.  Jains believe that Mahavira is the 24th and final Tirthankara of our era, the pinnacle of enlightenment, liberation and omniscience that can be achieved in this cycle, just as Buddhists say of the Buddha.  Mahavira’s name means Great Hero, and he is revered along with other triumphant heroic Tirthankaras who conquered existence and the mind.  Mahavira is said by Jains to have fashioned four fords, the four ordered communities of Jain monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.

jain text

Today, scholars are critical of the existence of Tirthankaras listed before Mahavira in Jain texts just as they are about the existence of Buddhas listed before the Buddha in Buddhist texts.  According to the Jains, the first Tirthankara of our era was Rishabha, who discovered agriculture and thus founded civilization.  While the ancient Chinese say the same about their ancient sage kings, it is likelier that agriculture and city-states disseminated to both India and China from earlier human cultures, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians.  ‘Rishabha’ means bull, and there is evidence of bulls identified with kings in early Indus civilization, much as cows are venerated as sacred by Hindus.

jain tathankara bahulbali

One of the central Jain pilgrimage sites is a towering statue of Rishabha’s second son, Bahubali, the second Tirthankara of our era.  According to the story, Rishabha’s first son conquered all of India for himself and forced everyone to submit to his power except his younger brother Bahubali, whose name means Strong Arms.  The wise sages of the day declared that the two brothers were virtually invincible, both having obtained unsurpassed spiritual powers, and so the two brothers were asked to settle their dispute with three contests: an eye-fight (also known as a staring contest), a water-fight (splash battle?) and a wrestling match.  Bahubali bested his brother in all three, but renounced his claim to the kingdom after he saw the pain and humiliation his brother faced in losing.  This parallels second caste Kshatriyas challenging first caste Brahmins, as well as the superiority of the mental sage over the physical warrior.  Bahubali stood in the jungle for an entire year without moving, as vines grew up his body, until he became the first in our turn of the great cosmic wheel to obtain complete enlightenment, liberation and omniscience, what Mahavira and Buddha are also said to have obtained through similar sorts of mental and physical disciplinary practices.

Three Viewpoints of Skepticism

Kalpasutra_(heroic_deeds_of_the_conquerors) jain

The Jains are credited with articulating three doctrines of skepticism and relativity, what are possibly the clearest expressions of philosophical skepticism in all of human history.  These are often called ‘principles’, but they are more skeptical perspectives and points of view, tools for understanding truth and meaning, than they are laws or commandments given in words.  All three are intended to encourage acceptance and neutrality towards others and their perspectives, particularly when their understandings and interests conflict with our own.

blind men elephant turbans

First is anekantavada, the “non-one-sided-view”  (vada = view) that things are complexly some and some-not rather than simply all or none.  Things that are good are somewhat good in some ways, just as things that are said are somewhat true in some ways.  Jains argue against doctrines they consider ekantavada, one-sided and dogmatic.  Around 700 CE, fourteen hundred years after Mahavira, the Jain Shvetambara monk Haribhadrasuri wrote an influential work entitled Anekantajayapataka, often translated as The Victory Flag of Relativity.

Second is nayavada, the “perspective-view” that things are known from a particular perspective in a particular situation rather than known universally for all times and places.

descartes perception diagram

Third syadvada, the “maybe-view” that things are known and understood hypothetically, as if our evidence, perspective and reasoning are reliable, rather than known certainly without the possibility of being wrong.  The Jains, in dialog with the Nyaya orthodox Hindu school, consider the four sources of evidence (perception, inference, comparison and testimony) to be somewhat reliable but also somewhat unreliable.

Japanese Bline Men and the Elephant

The famous parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant is a Jain story which is known throughout the world and used to teach this idea.  Just as each blind man directly experiences part of the elephant through direct contact, but mistakenly argues against the others who each experience their own part of the whole, Jains argue that there is truth in all religions, philosophies, ideologies, perspectives and points of view, and there are many paths up the same mountain and rivers that feed into the same ocean.  Jains argued as logicians of the ancient world in debates with the other competing schools such as Vedanta, Nyaya, Buddhists, and Charvakas, arguing that each school has some of the truth, but not all of it together.

golden crown of the andes

Another Jain parable used to illustrate these principles is The Golden Crown, a simple story about a king with a crown, a prince who desires it and a queen who wants it melted down and made into a necklace.  Much as time transforms the old into the new by way of desire, the king agrees with the queen and melts down the crown, making the prince sad.  Whether or not the king decides to melt down the necklace and reform the crown, making the queen sad and the prince happy, the king remains happy no matter what happens, as the king cares about the gold, and it remains constant.  Whether or not the prince or queen get a reality that coincides with their perspectives and interests, the king retains a perspective that always coincides with his interests, no matter what happens or who wins.

Jains, like Buddhists, believe that things may or may not be as they seem and may or may not be expressible as they are, and that there are seven points of view as to how describable and conceivable anything is.  Each thing, including the cosmos and the self:

jain scholar

IS in a way that is describable,

IS NOT in a way that is describable,

IS and IS NOT in a way that is describable,

IS indescribable,

IS in a way that is indescribable,

IS NOT in a way that is indescribable, and

IS and IS NOT in a way that is indescribable.

Nagarjuna print

Nagarjuna, the greatest of Buddhist logicians, was likely thinking of these and other formulas as he formulated his Catuskoti (The Four Things), that each thing:



Both IS and IS NOT, and

Neither IS nor IS NOT.

Shamanic Fire Mongolia

Nagarjuna seems to have realized, in one of the greatest conceptions of Buddhist logic and debate, that if being describable or being indescribable is a way that things are or are-not, then we can boil the seven things down to four, and say that each of the four ways things are are also describable and indescribable in the four ways as well.  For example, if we consider the example “Fire is hot”, an objective and absolute truth according to Nyaya logicians, then it is also true that, in some way, fire is not hot (relative to the plasma in a star), fire is both hot and not (hotter than some things, but not others), fire is neither hot nor not hot (is neither the hottest nor the coldest thing), and that fire being hot, fire being not hot, fire being both hot and not hot, and fire being neither hot nor not are each describable, indescribable, both and neither.  For the Jains, the completely indescribable is qualified as neither IS nor NOT.


While other schools, including Nyaya logicians, claimed that Jains and Buddhists are at fault for contradicting themselves and seeing contradicting views in things, the Jains and Buddhists argue that we only fall into problematic contradiction if we make one-sided (ekanta) claims about things, ignoring the legitimate contradictory opposite side.  Jain texts use the example of hot and cold.  If a more absolute-minded logician argues that a thing cannot be both hot and cold at the same time, a relativist would argue that a thing is always somewhat relatively hot and somewhat relatively cold, and to say a thing is simply hot ignores how cold it is, and to say it is simply cold is to ignore how hot it is.  We could supply the example of a refrigerator, which cools on the inside by heating up in back and drawing the heat out of the inside.  A refrigerator is simultaneously hot and cold, and it could not be cold in one part unless it is hot in another.

pots india

Jains also use the example of a pot as both being and non-being, solid and empty, there and not there in a particular arrangement, much as Lao Zi says in chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing that a wheel or a room is an arrangement of being and nonbeing together.  Jains also use the example of a multicolored cloth, which is and is not many colors all over.  Notice that each thing one can say about anything is true in some ways, but false in others, a very critical way that things are and are not as they are described yet are never fully describable.

tree with hindu temple

Jains argue that one sees and argues for the side of things that one wants to see, that one wants to be true.  Jains argue that because human views and descriptions are always one-sided, it is perfectly alright to understand the whole yet lead people in one direction as opposed to another if one sees what one is doing.  It is only a low and ignorant mind that thinks such leading is impossible because it is contradictory.  Jains use the image of a tree, with the absolute view as the trunk and the particular view as the branches and twigs.  Notice that the trunk is and is not the twigs, just as the absolute and all-encompassing view is each particular view as a sum of them all but is not each particular view in that it is everything opposed to each particular view as well.

singapore shiva temple

Similarly, Jains argue (like Hegel, who considers seeing being, non-being and becoming simultaneously in things as the first leap of philosophy and associates it with the ancient Greek skeptic Heraclitus) that things simultaneously are and are not because they are being birthed/generated, stable/still, and decaying/transforming at the same time at all times that they are.  Each of these views are false if they are considered independently true as opposed to their opposite, but in conjunction with their opposites they are the whole truth of each particular thing and of the truth as a whole.  The union of stability with transformation as a single whole view is entirely similar to the orthodox Hindu union of Vishnu, the preserver/savior, and Shiva, the destroyer/transformer, in Brahma, the personification of all.

Mind Over Matter

bahubali sun under arm

Asceticism is severe mental and physical self-discipline, practicing mental meditation and physical exercise while avoiding indulgence and luxury, what is also called raja yoga in the Indian tradition, the second of the three paths of Hinduism.  While many of the world’s religions and traditions have ascetic fanatics, such as Christian monks who wear hair-shirts and whip themselves, the Jains are famous for going without food, clothes or any other comforts while meditating and holding yogic postures in the jungle.

Heraclitus sad painting

Much like Descartes, the first major modern European philosopher who dualistically argued for the separate existence of the mental and the physical, Jains teach that there are two distinct substances that become intermixed in our world, jiva and ajiva, mind and not-mind, spirit and matter, conscious and un/not-conscious.  When consciousness is not mixed with and thus obscured by the unconscious, when the mental is not clouded by attachment and involvement with material things, consciousness is naturally perceiving, understanding, powerful and blissful.  Jains argue that all of existence shares a single mind which becomes increasingly evident to those who rid themselves of material attachments and involvements.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, very similar in ways to the Buddha, said that waking we share one world in common, while sleepers each turn into a darkness of their own.

buddhist wheel of life

The unconscious (ajiva) does not have any inherent properties of its own, but when it mixes together with consciousness the two combine to create particular types of karma (action), active situations of conscious experience via cause and effect.  This is the Jain explanation for the same sort of karma that Hindus, Buddhists and others believe in, governing our present conscious experiences as well as past and future lives.  Thus, much as we would say in the frame of modern psychology, our blissful and painful experiences in this life have a cause and effect relationship with our past and future selves and actions.  This is how our minds become attached and addicted to particular material things, including the human body, your own as well as the bodies of others.  The Jains treat cause and effect between the conscious and unconscious as a material causal process, though like many ancient cultures they incorporate much into the material and natural that we banish to the immaterial and supernatural with modern considerations today.

puddle reflection

The Jains and Buddhists use the example of a muddy puddle, which when trampled is opaque but when settled becomes clear.  Once the dirt (material) mixes with the water (mental), passions are produced of two different kinds: attraction (positive) and repulsion (negative).  Experiences lead to passions, which lead to further experiences.  Forms of desire for things and fear of things are the entanglements our minds get into, though we can also perceive and interact with particular things neutrally, without either desire or fear.  Through neutrality, we can gain freedom from cycles of cause and effect.  The Jains are thus strange determinists who believe we can also earn an increasing freedom of will through neutrality and detachment.

blue lake reflection

By becoming tranquil, we gain space to shape our relationship with the situations of cause and effect around us, whether or not we strive to become totally detached or remain intermeshed and interactive with them.  There is much in both Buddhism as well as Chinese Daoism, incorporated into Buddhism in China, which speaks of this kind of freedom.  As we become free through proper practices, abstaining from wrong actions and engaging in good actions, we react less and less to joy and pleasure by becoming attached and less and less to sadness and pain by becoming afraid.  For example, when we become more neutral towards possessions, we cease to hoard things we do not need and engage in charity to give others things they need.  This in turn makes us unafraid of loss and regarded with appreciation by others.

flowering plant

While the Jains share many of ideas, including several of their own creations, with other Indian traditions, particularly Buddhism, Jains are quite unique in one particular way.  While Hindus, Buddhists and many others argue that karma can be either good or bad, Jains argue that involvement with karma, cycles of cause, act and effect, are always bad, always a source of delusion, ignorance and suffering.  Jains call karmic particles of matter seeds (bija), which imbed themselves and then sprout in consciousness as experiences, called fruits (phala).  Different seeds become fruit at different times and in different ways, consciousness having different experiences arise in different situations.  Jains believe we must seek, cook and thus destroy the karmic seeds we have in us in the fires of disciplined, effortful experience, such as the ascetic practice of fasting naked in the jungle for long periods of time.

Jain Monk with text

Those who do the hardest of monastic practices can strengthen themselves against karma in advance, such that future involvements will no longer plant seeds in their minds.  Thus, if Jain monks or nuns unfortunately suffer or witness violence, this does not plant seeds of desire for revenge or seeds of fear for death in them.  If ethics is the theoretical consideration of why we shouldn’t punch others, Jain monastic practice is the sustained elimination of the desire to punch anyone, regardless of future experience.  Buddhists argue against Jains that we should cook the bad behaviorist-seeds out of ourselves, but we can also plant good seeds that result in enlightenment for others and ourselves.  For Jains, enlightenment is neutrality and the elimination of involvements, the clarification of what already is.

Jain Sadhvis

Jain monastics take five vows to become nuns and monks, vowing to abstain in thought, word and deed (mind, mouth and body) from 1) violence, 2) sex, 3) lies, 4) stealing and 5) possession.  These are the most karmic producing activities, the ways that mind becomes most entangled with matter.  These vows are considered to be Mahavira’s realization and teaching which created the Jain communities in our era.  Jain commoners are not expected to abstain from violence and sex completely, but are educated and encouraged by monks and nuns to avoid doing evil, engage in doing good and attempt to obtain neutrality as much as possible.  Monks and nuns are more aware than commoners of the harm we each do to other living things, so commoners are highly encouraged to keep in mind that the harm we do to others is harm we do to ourselves and the good we do for others is the good we do for ourselves.


In the classic Introduction to Ethics dilemma as to whether to lie to Nazis about anyone hiding in the attic, a Jain commoner could lie and sacrifice morality for utility, but nuns and monks are supposed to remain silent rather than lie, even if threatened with death.  Similarly, as for the ethical dilemma of Les Miserables, a Jain commoner could steal food when they are starving, but a nun or monk should starve rather than steal.  It is for these reasons that Jains, like Buddhists, believe that full practitioners should completely abstain from sex and procreation, as they unfortunately involve us with attachment and fear, as do Nazis and starving.

The Leaky Boat

boat india river

For Jains, karma is always bondage, always weight that keeps you down, always division or blockage between you and the ALL.  Thus, one tries best to avoid accumulating karma and to destroy the karma one has already accumulated.  The Jains use another metaphor to teach the dual practice of avoiding karma and shedding karma, what I call the Jain Leaky Boat.  Suppose you ride in a boat across water to a distant shore, much as the Tirthankaras forded across before the community could be used as a boat.  Water represents chaos and desire, and the land represents firmament and enlightenment.  The boat is leaky, with water pouring in, and so you must do two things to get across without sinking.

ship stormy sea

First, you must plug the leaks so that water stops coming in.  For example, Jains take on the discipline (dharma) of a vegetarian diet as a vital part of their ascetic practice, such that they avoid causing harm to animals.  When we take steps to reduce stress in our life or better our routine, it is by eliminating negative things.

Second, you must bail out the water that is already in the boat.  The Jains call this “shedding” karma, much as we throw off chains or heavy clothes.  For example, Jains fast, meditate and stand in yogic postures to cook the seeds of past involvements out of themselves.  When we train to strengthen our bodies and minds, it is by engaging in positive things.

Jains believe that it is only by this two-pronged strategy of plugging and bailing, eliminating the negative and engaging in the positive, that the individual can be liberated from desire, suffering and round after round of rebirth into future lives of desire and suffering.  From the Tattvartha Adhigama Sutra, a central Jain text, it says:

bailing water india

There is a stoppage of inflow of karmic matter into the soul.  It is produced by preservation, carefulness, observances, meditation, conquest of sufferings, and good conduct.  By austerities is caused the shedding of karmic matter…  Liberation is freedom from all karmic matter, owing to the non-existence of the cause of bondage and to the shedding of the karmas.  After the soul is released, there remain perfect right-belief, perfect right-knowledge, perfect perception, and the state of having accomplished all.

ball of twine

Gosala, a sage who was an opponent of Mahavira and Buddha in early texts, taught that we can stop bad karma from coming in but can’t do anything about bad karma already acquired, using a ball of twine to teach that we have to let our past sins unravel on their own accord.  Both Mahavira and Buddha taught that rather than simply wait, we can live a disciplined life that not only stops bad attachments and conditioned desires coming in but gets rid of those we have already accumulated.  Some today argue that Gosala was somewhat misunderstood by Jains and Buddhists, and that he was not arguing we should do nothing to undo the bad we already have in us but rather that we have no control as to when that bad is resolved, no matter how hard we may want it.

Radical Nonviolence

carrots in bundles

Much in line with their negative view of all karma, Jain monastics are famous for their radical practices of nonviolence (ahimsa).  The average Jain is a commoner, neither a nun nor monk, who does not engage in extremes, but nuns and monks often wear face masks over their mouths outside to prevent insects and microorganisms from flying in and sweep the ground on paths and in areas of ceremony to avoid killing them, as even though the killing would be unintentional, it would still be an accumulation of karmic involvements.  While Hindus and many Buddhists are vegetarian, Jains don’t eat root vegetables such as potatoes or carrots as the whole plant must be uprooted and killed.  Some only eat what has fallen from plants on its own.

gandhi and followers

Jains are sponsors of many charities which fight animal cruelty, and Jainism has influenced the world through Gandhi, who was not a Jain but had a Jain teacher Raychandbhai Maheta who taught him about radical nonviolence, and Gandhi had a direct influence on Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and many others.

The Samans and Samanis, are an intermediary group between the ascetics and lay people, men and women who are not full monks and nuns who travel to common people to give the teachings of the purest monks and nuns who choose not to travel and harm the world and organisms in it by doing so.  In spite of this, Jains traveled even in ancient times great distances for business and trade.  As mentioned, while Jains are sometimes stereotyped as affluent merchants and businessmen in India, Jain monks and nuns own nothing and do not travel.

jain temple

The Whiteclad & The Skyclad

Jain monk broom

The two most ancient sects of Jains are the Shvetambaras (the Whiteclad) and the Digambaras (the Skyclad).  The two sects diverged and hardened against each other over the years, with the Digambara saying the Shvetambara aren’t dedicated enough and the Shvetambara saying the Digambara are too puritanical.  Shvetambara monks and nuns wear simple white robes and carry a begging bowl, much as many Buddhist monks and nuns own only a robe and bowl for receiving food from the community.  Shvetambaras also sometimes carry a small broom for clearing paths and open areas of insects.  These Whiteclad (clothed in white) make up the majority of Jain monks and nuns.

jain guru teaching

The Skyclad are even more hardcore, and own nothing.  They often carry a broom like the Whiteclad for sweeping insects away from potential trampling, but these brooms, like other things used by Whiteclad Jain and Buddhist monks and nuns, are communal property.  Friends who went to a Jesuit Catholic high school tell me that their teachers, who are educated Jesuit priests, drive decent cars that are owned by the Jesuit order, not by the priests as individuals.  Unlike Jesuit priests or Buddhist monks, Skyclad Jain monks do not own or wear clothes, much like the original ascetics who left traditional life to train in the jungle.  Digambara monks also do not own or use a bowl, and only eat what they can hold in their hands.  The famed Greek cynic Diogenes, who lived a somewhat Jain-like existence outside the marketplace of Athens in a large jar around 400 BCE, is supposed to have smashed his bowl, one of his only possessions, when he saw a poor boy using his hands to drink from a fountain.  The Yapaniyas were a third group that survived until the 1400s, who wore white in public but practiced naked.

jain nuns

Sadly, Digambara nuns are not allowed to be naked and are thus considered inferior.  The Digambara argue that only those who go without clothes can obtain full enlightenment, and because women cannot be naked without problems arising, Digambara nuns wear clothes and must await being reborn as a man to have a shot at being a Digambara monk and then being enlightened.  Some Digambara texts argue that women are more physically complex than men, are host to more microorganisms and experience the violence of menstruation.  The Digambara also believe that all Shvetambara, monks and nuns, are incapable of total moksha wearing clothes, which means that Digambara monks, according to themselves, are the only Jains who are capable of being full Jains and having a shot at the final goal.

There is a Mahayana Buddhist story of the dragon princess who heard a Buddhist chant, became enlightened, and went to monks to confirm her awakening.  On hearing that she couldn’t be completely enlightened as a dragon or a woman, she levitated into the sky, transformed into a man (dragon?) and shot up into the higher heavens in front of the monks’ eyes.  This story shows the Mahayana extending enlightenment popularly to women beyond the earlier Theravadins, much as the Shvetambara do beyond the stricter Digambaras.

jain nun

The Shvetambara believe that both women and men are capable of obtaining enlightenment and liberation in this very life without needing to be reborn into a more favorable existence, such as a lower-class Hindu being reborn a Brahmin, a woman being reborn a man, or a Shvetambara being reborn as a Digambara.  The Shvetambaras believe that the 19th of the 24 Tirthankaras, Mallinatha, was a woman, unlike the Digambaras who think s/he/they was/were a man.  Sadly, the Shvetambaras believe that Mallinatha was born a woman because she had been a man in his previous life who lied to his fellow Jains and snuck off into the (deeper?) jungle to be even more hardcore in secret.  The Shvetambaras believe that Mahavira’s mother Trishala also achieved enlightenment as a woman.

Jain Monks 1800s

Mahavira did practice meditation and asceticism naked, but only because he was so detached from his body that his white loin cloth slipped off one day.  This can be interpreted by the Digambara as the universe itself leading Mahavira to truly proper conduct and by the Shvetambara as accidental and inessential.  The Shvetambara texts record Mahavira speaking and acting after obtaining enlightenment, while the Digambara do not believe that Mahavira did anything other than sit in tranquility after his liberation.  According to the Digambara, when Mahavira obtained total enlightenment he did not speak or act, but his body emitted a sound that his closest followers were able to understand as the final Jain teaching.

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