By Doug Lancaster

One of the more obscure of the world’s religions is Jainism. This system of thinking is not as common to the ear as Hinduism or Buddhism, yet it is the oldest personally founded religion in India. Presently, there are around 1,300,000 Jains. Their beliefs are exclusively Indian, since they are a non-competitive people who do not care for the spreading of their ideas. One can see the expressed hope for a universal religion in some of the Jain literature, but that plan has been abandoned. It seems the founder supposedly received divine encouragement to propagate a religion of supreme benefit to the whole world, but as we will see throughout, many ideas have been dropped. Jains were first called Nirganthas (those who have been loosed from bondage) and later Jain and Jaina in honor of their “conqueror” or Jina. The role of the conqueror is to preach the religion since he has overcome evil. A Jain would tell you his belief is eternal.

In 599 B.C. near Patna, India a second son was born to a Rajah. The child was named Vardhamana and was to be twenty-fourth in the line of the Jinas. Being the son of a Rajah, the first 30 years were years of luxury in the palace, as the Jain scriptures show. Vardhamana “was attended by five nurses: a wet nurse, a nurse to keep him clean, one to dress him, one to play with him, one to carry him, being transferred from the lap of one nurse to that of another” (SBE 22:192-193). During this time he took up specialized studies such as Astronomy, Philosophy, Science and Architecture. He also took a wife in his late 20’s, and shortly, a daughter was born to them. At some point in this first thirty years he decided to live the life of an ascetic in accord with a Hindu method of salvation. He was, however, considerate of his parents and waited until age 30, when his parents died, before he took the vow: “I shall for 12 years neglect my body” (SBE 22:200). All at once he cast off his worldly possessions, which included a wife and daughter, plucked out his hair in five handfuls and vowed absolute holiness. The twelve years are perhaps best explained in an account from the Jain scriptures. Vardhamana would go into a field and squat with his head between his knees where he allowed passers by to hit him and spit upon him and animals to gore him, yet he sat quietly with no retaliation. “With supreme knowledge, mildness, patience, control, contentment . . . the Venerable one meditated on himself for twelve years” (SBE 22:263). For the first year and a month he wore clothes and thereafter was naked in his asceticism.

After twelve years of suffering he believed he had reached Nirvana. He thought he had gained complete control over the body and the world. He then became “Jina the conqueror,” and began to preach and propagate the religion known as Jainism for 30 years. With his conquering of the body he became known as Mahavira or “Great Hero,” in 557 B.C. This is the date most scholars assign to the founding of Jainism since it was the first year he began preaching. According to Jain literature, 557 B.C. was not the beginning of their religion but simply a restoration. However, there is no evidence to support their claims. In the Jain scriptures, Mahavira is said to have been planned before and preexisting. “He descended from heaven, the Venerable ascetic Mahavira descended from the great Vimana (place of the gods).” He is also viewed by his followers as omniscient. “He knew the thoughts of all sentient beings” (SBE 22:200). “He possessed supreme, unlimited, unimpeded knowledge and intuition” (SBE 22:257). For a reference point remember that the southern kingdom of Judah was taken captive by Babylon in 586 B.C. and the first group of returnees to the land of Canaan left in 536 B.C., so the times overlap. Also, Mahavira was contemporary to Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze and Zoroaster, as well as the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.

Mahavira died in 527 B.C. at Pava, India, and since that time Pava has been the destination of a yearly pilgrimage made by his followers. He is said to have been supernaturally placed in his mother’s womb in fulfillment of 14 prophetic dreams.

Mahavira was protesting the following points of Hinduism: (1) The domineering of the Braham priests, (2) The claimed authority of the Sanskrit Vedas (wise sayings), (3) The cruel system of bloody animal sacrifices, (4) The absolute monism of the Upanishad Philosophies. At first he had in mind the restoration of Hinduism, but his methods led to the formation of a new religion.

Jain monks and nuns soon left the homeless approach Mahavira preached and began living in monasteries. There were no philosophic disputes for several years, but in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., the Jains divided into two groups over rules for monks. One group, the Digambaras or naked “sky-clad” sect felt the saint should own nothing, including clothing, while the Svetambara or “white-clad” sect embraced the traditional views of Jainism. Most of the Jains who belonged to the “sky-clad” sect lived in the southern half of India where it is warmer. The “white-clad” sect lived mostly in the northern half of India where it is cooler. The Digambaras are also different in that they do not allow the possibility of salvation to a woman until by reason of good living she is reborn as a man.

In about A.D. 1474 another split occurred from the Svetambaras, when a would be reformer discovered that no reference was ever made to idols in the Jain scriptures. Hence, began the Sthanakvasi sect. They have divided into I I subsects and the Svetambaras have divided into 84 subsects.

Eventually all the Jains returned to the more traditional views of Eastern religion. Today the only distinguishable point is the prohibition from killing any living creature. Jams are very wealthy compared to Easterners, mostly due to their shrewd business tactics. They also have achieved the highest social status in India.

Philosophy of the Religion

The chief virtues of Jainism are asceticism to the point of death and non-injury. Jain monks and nuns represent ideal Jainism. They try to avoid worldly contact as much as possible. The only items they may have in their possession are a broom to sweep the bugs from their path, a bowl to beg food, a robe and a walking stick. The broom and bowl are the symbols of Jainism. The highest goal is to cease all bodily functions and die of starvation. The perfect Jain is inoffensive, humble, unvindictive and certainly an ascetic. They are forbidden to make any type of attachments so love as well as hate must be abandoned. “By conquering love, hate and wrong belief he will cut off his fetters of Karma” (SBE 45:172). No other religion goes as far as Jainism where life is concerned. They are forbidden to till the soil for fear they might injure or kill earthworms, and may only drink water through a cloth strainer to avoid killing any invisible organisms in the water.

Mahavira enjoined upon his followers the five great vows (Mahavrata). They consist of: (1) Non-injury, (2) Abstention from lying, (3) Non-stealing, (4) Chastity and (5) Lack of possessions. While Mahavira called for all his followers to make and keep these five vows, only the monks and nuns are faithful to them. The Jains have also written into their scriptures the Anuvrata (5 small vows). These are provided for the ones who are not willing to abide by the Mahavrata. They consist of: (1) Abstinence from gross violence, (2) gross falsehood, (3) gross stealing, (4) contentment with one’s own wife and (5) limitation of one’s possession. Though these were given for convenience sake, still the good Jain will anticipate the day when he makes the Mahavrata.

Jains believe the world is infinite and was never created. “Those who on arguments of their own maintain that the world has been created do not know the truth” (SBE 45:245). They say the universe is divided into two independent categories: living substance (Jiva) and non-living substance (Ajiva). The Ajiva would include all of time, space and matter. Through the center of the universe runs the region of mobile souls in which all living beings live. Above this central region exists the upper world containing 16 heavens and 14 celestial regions, and below it exists the lower world consisting of hell.

The sacred scriptures of Jainism are read and chanted in the temple regularly by the monks and nuns, but only the pious laymen read them. Most Jains are ignornant of their scriptures. The authority of their scriptures is another point of difference between the two sects of Jains. The Sthanakvasis recognize 33 as canonical while the Svetambaras recognize 45. Jains use their scriptures very little. Jains believe in universal tolerance, that is, non-criticism of other religions.

Jainism was founded on the premise that there is no supreme being. Mahavira rejected the whole Hindu polytheistic philosophy of supernatural powers. He condemned praying or talking to any deity. Mahavira made light of the idea of some, that a person needs any help from on high. “Man, thou art thy own friend. Why wishest thou for a friend beyond thyself?” (SBE 22:33) According to Mahavira, “There exists no object to be worshipped,” nor did he believe in the Vedas (Wise sayings) of Hinduism. He lived his life faithful to these thoughts. Surprisingly, within 150 years after his death he was regarded by his followers as a god. The teachings he left behind evidently were not enough for them. Even their scriptures revere him as having divine characteristics, and he is said to be sinless. “Having wisdom, Mahavira committed no sin himself . . . he meditated free from sin and desire” (SBE 22:86-87). “The great sage does not commit any wrong” (SBE 45:291). Though Mahavira did not believe in a supreme being, he did say there was a “god-class” of people know as Devas, who were responsible for assigning places of abode for the Jiva. Later, his followers incorporated a system of mythology consisting of several gods and goddesses. One can see in this system influence of the old Hindu philosophy.

Another Hindu thought that gave way to Jainism was the doctrine of Nirvana. It states that to reach freedom of Jiva one must rid the ego. The desire to end desire eventually developed into asceticism.

Jains are concerned mostly with physical evil (Ajiva). They contend that matter is permanently evil, and explain the cause of all misery as the linking of the vile, material body with the pure eternal soul. This doctrine is known as Dualism. Salvation, then, is possible only by suppressing the flesh and freeing the individual’s spirit. This explains their insistence on asceticism.

The Jiva is imprisoned in the body as a result of worldly contact so to be freed one must abstain from worldly contact as much as possible. This “Karma” flow that causes imprisonment can be stopped only by many lives of disciplined conduct. The final liberation is known as Nirvana or Moksha and when this is attained, there is perfect knowledge and bliss.

The complete method of salvation is called the “Three Jewels.” “Knowledge, Faith and Right conduct are the true causes of final liberation” (SBE 45:123). These are further explained in some of the Jain documents. Right faith is understanding that Mahavira overcame the world, found salvation and is now the refuge to believers. Right knowledge is the psychology of the religion. In other words, Mahavira’s thoughts are the right knowledge essential to salvation. Right living tells the Jain how to rid his soul of Karma by living according to asceticism.

Jains have been taught that immortality is inherently unavoidable with ultimate residence in either heaven or hell (upper or lower worlds). Incidentally, it is interesting to note the Digambara sect is the only group that refuses the possibility of women to have salvation, though in the Jain scriptures womankind is utterly condemned. For years the majority of Jains have had a separate monastic order for women to be nuns.

Superiority of Chrstianity

“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psa. 14:1, 53:1). First, of the many discrepancies and illogical positions held by the founder and proponents of Jainism, atheism perhaps may be the most dangerous. After a study of world religions, one can see more clearly what Paul describes as “worshiping and serving the creature more than the Creator.” After listing several sins of which these folks are guilty he declares: “who knowing the judgment of God that they who commit such things are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:25-32). It is indeed sad when one denies the existence of God, and we are saddened even more when we read in the Book the punishment for those who do not obey him. The Bible is plain concerning God and his nature. Genesis I shows his eternal power, in that he spoke the world into existence. Paul also corroborates the testimony in speaking of Christ (who is God), by telling that all things were created by and for him (Col. 1:15-17). Realizing his position as supreme and almighty, one would think people would not fail to worship and reverence God, yet men still lean on their own understanding. Thus, we should read Jeremiah 10:23 and understand man is not capable of directing his own steps. Man needs help from on high and God is willing to give it if we submit to his righteousness. When our Lord was tempted, he responded by quoting from Deuteronomy, “Ye shall worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10). There will come a day that all men will finally realize there is a God in heaven and he is the one to be feared.

Second, Christians have for years been represented by antagonists of Christ as “working our way to salvation.” A true example of this false idea is evident in Jainism. Mahavira declared that man is his own friend and that he needs no help whatsoever. The Jews seemed to have a similar attitude; hence Paul wrote much concerning salvation by virtue of grace. In Romans 10:1-13 Paul tells of the Jews establishing their own righteousness and overlooking the manifestation of God’s righteousness in sending Christ to die on Calvary’s cross. John said love prompted God to send his only begotten son to be the perfect sacrifice for man (Jn. 3:16). So many passages discuss the impossibility of “working your way to salvation” that space prohibits an examination of each. Notice however, Romans 3:27-28; 11:5-6; Ephesians 2:4-9. If man is granted salvation it will be based on God’s marvelous grace in supplying the blood of Christ for our pardon. God has given him (Christ) the name through which salvation comes. It will come by no other way. We may join Paul in his amazement that folks could be troubled by those who pervert the pure gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:6-9).

Third, Jainism is concerned primarily with the physical, external things and is concerned little with the heart. The Pharisees, Israel and many others were also interested mostly with the outside. Jesus told them to take care of the internal first and the external would follow (Matt. 23:25-28). God told Israel he was “full of sacrifices” (Isa. 1:11-16). In other words they were more concerned with ritualistic formalism than rending their heart in complete subjection to his will. Certainly the external things are important but they will benefit nothing unless the internal is right with God (1 Cor. 12:1-3,13).

Fourth, Jainism teaches the physical body and physical surroundings are evil and are punishment for wrong doing. It will do us well to examine Genesis 1. God used six days in which to create and make all he did. After he had finished, verse 31 tells us that he looked on his creation and said, “Behold it was very good.” As part of the creation, man was made on the sixth day and was given a living, physical body for his living, immortal soul (Gen. 2:7). We understand in the nature of God that he is totally good and so we also conclude that all he made was totally good. Israel was told the fruit of their bodies would be blessed if they were obedient (Deut. 28:4). Hence, the body is good, worthwhile and valuable to effect a purpose. Further, Paul instructed the Roman Christians to present their bodies a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1). Our bodies are vessels given by God for use in his glorification. The body is not the source of all evil as it may be used righteously in service to the Almighty. Along these lines, Jains have a blatant disregard for the value of human life. God was concerned with human life in the beginning. When Cain killed his brother Abel, God was angry and punished Cain (Gen. 4). A few chapters later, God told Noah, if a murder was committed, the murderer was to be put to death because man is made in the image of God (Gen. 9:4-6). God valued and values human life. We would do well to value it also.

Finally, Jainism is a system of differing laws with different moral obligations for different people. Monks and nuns must live by a more stringent set of regulations than do the less pious Jains. Under the present reign of Christ, God does not have separate laws and standards of morality for different individuals and groups of people, even as some of our brethren would have us believe. The same standard is given for all. God is not a respecter of persons. He that sins before God and fails to repent will be punished (Col. 3:25; Rom. 2:11). Likewise, he who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:12-13). “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

While we have examined some of the many fallacies of Jainism and the superiority of Christianity, let us always remember to follow the words of Christ in the sermon on the mount. A disciple of Christ is to cast out the beam from his own eye, then he will be able to see clearly to help his brother remove the speck that troubles him (Matt. 7:3-5). While studying Jainism one particular point really hit home. In reference to their scriptures, “. . . only the pious laymen read them. Most Jains are ignorant of their scriptures.” Those of us who are Christians claim the all-sufficiency of the Bible to equip us for eternity. Many of us (maybe even most) cannot even tell someone what he must do to have salvation, let alone show him in God’s word. This is spoken to our shame. Of all men, we are most blessed to be in Christ, but all too often we fail in discharging the obligations God places on those who follow him. Let us continue to examine the religious world around us according to God’s infallible word. Let us see the mistakes our friends and neighbors make and learn from those mistakes how we may better serve the sovereign Creator.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 306-309
May 17, 1990