I still remember the day the subject of Jainism came up in my high school World History class. By then I was already completely opposed to the concept of organized religion. Believing it to be one of the major reasons why the world was such a messy and unjust place, up to that day I had shunned theology entirely, despite my mother’s desperate efforts to coerce me into attending Catholic mass every Sunday.
Yet, when my jovial old white-haired History teacher began to explain a religion that centered not on a God who would smite you down with fire and brimstone for an endless variety of sins, but rather a theology that claimed that “every soul is the architect of its own life, here or hereafter,” I was enthralled.
Jainism is, in many ways, a religion of intellect and enlightenment. In India, where Jainism originated, Jainists have the highest literacy rate in the country as well as the oldest libraries. This is because followers of the religion see Right Knowledge as one of the “triple gems” of Jainism, along with Right View, and Right Conduct. These three jewels, as they are also called, are the major spring-board of the religion. Though they are independent to themselves, they are also interlocked.
Right Knowledge relates to the fact that knowledge you have gained through your own soul and experience is unerring. Second hand knowledge, that which is acquired through a third party, is often flawed. Through the use of the soul’s Right Knowledge, one will be compelled to practice Right Conduct and will garner a Right View, the ability to innately perceive true right from wrong. These theories are all independent and yet interlocking; one cannot possess one without the others for they collectively guide a soul in the direction of “right.”
But what is the motivation for an individual to develop the three jewels? Karma, of course.
Much like Buddhists (another religion I have always been fascinated by,) Jainists are firm believers in the soul’s karma. The BBC’s article on Jainist karma describes it as such: “The mechanism that determines the quality of life. The happiness of a being’s present life is the result of the moral quality of the actions of the being in its previous life.” I love this theory because there is no hell and brimstone involved. Essentially, what karma means is that your actions in this life are your own responsibility and you are the one who will suffer the repercussions of them, ultimately.
The way in which Jainist karma differs from Buddhist karma is the complexity of the karmic progression. In Jainism there are eight forms of karma, which is a physical substance omnipresent throughout the universe. Some of these karmas, such as “mohaniya” or delusory karma are destructive forces; they impede the soul’s progression towards the triple jewels. Others, such as “ayu” or life-span karma simply determine different facets of ones existence. When all is said and done, though, you garner karma through your interactions with the world at large and it is the determining factor towards your souls progression. This is what has always appealed to me, once again. I have always felt that reincarnation is the only reasonable afterlife. The idea that my own actions in this life influence my future lives to come is just the sort of motivation I have always needed to shun temptation.
Jainism has been carefully preserved and to this day there are still approximately 4.2 million Jainists upholding the religions beliefs. Though Jainists primarily reside in India, there are small immigrant and convert communities around the globe in countries like North America, Western Europe, the Far East, and Australia.
I, however, won’t be ascribing to Jainism anytime soon. I won’t lie and say I am a true Jainist. I am still opposed to organized religion, no matter how noble that religion may be. Jainism is a bit too demanding for my personal moral and ethical tastes, to be completely honest. Thanks to my introduction to Jainism in 11th grade, however, I have changed my mentality regarding theology in general. I am now avidly interested in learning about (and from) different religions and ascribing that knowledge into my own personal spiritual code. Jainism was, in its way, the foundation of my spiritual belief system as it was the religion that opened my eyes to the fact that spirituality need not mean succumbing to the demands of one omnipotent deity I can’t find it in my soul to believe in.
Jayram, V., The Three Jewels of Jainism – Vows and Rules for the Monks and Laity http://www.hinduwebsite.com/jainism/threejewels.asp
Karma: The Cosmic Scorecard, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/jainism/beliefs/karma.shtml
Fisher, Mary Pat and Bailey, Lee W. An Anthology of Living Religions. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2008