Principles of Jainism and Practical Vedanta

  • By Swami Brahameshananda
  • May 2002

Courtesy and Copyright Prabuddha Bharata

Jainism is one of the major ancient religions of the world. Scholars believe that it originated as a reaction to the cumbersome ritualism (karma kanda) and as revolt against animal sacrifices in the name of religion, which were prevalent in Hinduism. We get evidence of this protest against killing animals in sacrifices (yajnas) in the mythological stories of Jainism. Other Jainologists, however, consider Jainism as old as Hinduism, if not older. It was prevalent then as one of the popular religions. These scholars believe that in India, from times immemorial, there were two parallel streams of culture: the Vedic or brahman culture, and the shramana or Magadhana culture. The former originated and flourished in the Indus valley or Sarasvati Valley according to modern scholars, and the latter had its birth and growth in Magadha, the present state of Bihar, India. There are certain fundamental differences between these two cultures, which have persisted in some form or other till to day.

Some Basic Differences
The Vedic culture emphasizes the concept of a Brahmana or brahmanahood, whereas the Shramana culture has its basis in the concept of an all-renouncing Monk, a bhikkhu or shramana. The Vedic culture sets before us the concept of a Jivanmukta, a person liberated in life. A jivanmukta can even be a householder. He is also called a Rishi (mantra-drasts), a person who has realized the scriptural truths. There are many references to such householder rishis in the Hindu scriptures. King Janaka and the sages Yajnavalkya, Vasistha, Atri and many other rishis were all householders.

Shramana culture, on the other hand, considers formal sannyasa or total renunciation of all possessions desires and even activities essential for attaining liberation. The word Arhat refers to a person who has gained perfect control over all his activities. An arhat, without any activity, is projected as the ideal. Of the four purusarthas, or goals of life, the brahmana culture stresses dharma or righteous conduct, whereas the shramana culture emphasizes moksha or freedom more than dharma. One must keep in mind these few basic facts while trying to undertake a comparative study of Vedanta and Jainism. It must also be borne in mind that Brahmanism or Hinduism is not the same as Vedanta. Likewise Shramanism and Jainism are not identical Besides, both Vedanta and Jainism have various aspects: philosophical, ethical, social and practical. There are some similarities between the two as well as some dissimilarities. One must be careful not to draw simplistic conclusions.

Etymologically, Vedanta means the end or the conclusion of the Vedas. Thus the last portions of the Vedas-the Upanishads and the principles or philosophy propounded in them-are called Vedanta. In fact, Vedanta is a system of philosophy, which forms the basis of Hinduism. There are different interpretations of the Upanishads based on which there are various schools of Vedanta like Dvaita, Visistadvaita and Advaita. Generally, the Advaita philosophy as propounded by Sankaracarya is equated with Vedanta.

Principles of Jainism and Vedanta
Now, if we believe that only the ritualistic aspect of Hinduism and Brahmanism is repugnant to Jainism, there should not be any antagonism between Jainism and the spiritual aspect of the Upanishads. Even the Upanishads have decried Vedic ritualism characterized by excessive activity and sacrificial paraphernalia, and have preached the conscious principle the Atman the realization of which they advocated as the ultimate goal of life. There cannot be any contradiction between Jainism and Vedanta on this score.

Both Jainism and Vedanta accept the Atman as the real nature of all living beings-a reality that is different from the body, the pranas, the mind and the intellect which are inert (jada) Jainism calls them pudgala. Vedanta propounds that the individual soul forgets its real nature and identifies with the unreal (body and mind) due to ignorance (avidya). Jainism also considers mithyatva or wrong knowledge-ignorance-as the chief cause of bond age between the conscious principle, Atman and the insentient pudgala. It however, postulates a few more causes of bondage: the absence of dispassion for sense enjoyment (avirati) carelessness (pramada), attachment (kasaya) and the activities of body mind and speech (yoga).

Both Vedanta and Jainism believe in the theory of karma and transmigration. In Jainism the philosophy of karma is discussed in great detail. To get rid of the bondage caused by past karma Jainism recommends two means: samvara and nirjara. Samvara means prevention of new karmic bondages-prevention of the influx of fresh karma. Nirjara deals with the methods by which the already formed bondages could be severed-the purgation of karma. This is done by Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct. These three together are called tri-ratna (‘triples jewels’) and are very basis of Jainism Besides these tapas (austerity) is so greatly stressed in Jainism that it may be considered the fourth jewel.

When we try to study these basic principles in the light of Swami Vivekananda’s Practical Vedanta we find certain similarities. Swamiji too greatly emphasized faith as one of the most important virtues. While in Jainism Right Faith means having faith in the true and pure guru (suddha guru), pure deity or prophet (suddha deva) and true and pure religion (suddha dharma) Swamiji stressed faith in oneself. He went to the extent of proclaiming: The old religions said that he was an atheist who did not believe in God. The new religion says that he is the atheist who does not believe in himself.

It is not that Jainism does not preach faith in oneself. In fact Jainism does not believe in a God who creates sustains and destroys the universe. Likewise it does not advocate the concept of grace of a superhuman divine being. Although Jainism adores tirthankaras or prophets it also believes that anyone can attain to that exalted state by one’s own self-effort. Adoration of the tirthankaras is more a reminder of the state of perfection than worship. This does not contradict Swamiji’s Practical Vedanat which preaches the potential divinity in every human being. Swamiji repeatedly exhorted his disciples to become Rishis-even greater than himself.

Jainism lays the greatest stress on the necessity of character and purity of conduct (samyak caritra). So does Swamiji:

‘Money does not pay nor name; fame does not pay nor learning. It is love that pays; it is character that cleaves through the adamantine walls of difficulties’. (4.367)

In fact character building was the very basis of all his practical plans of action. He defined education as the man-making, character-making assimilation of ideas. (3.302)

Observance of the five Yamas – truth, non-violence, non-stealing, chastity and non-possessiveness-wholly or partially as vows is the basis of Right Conduct. According to the great sage Patanjali the author of the Yoga Sutras these five values must be practiced by everyone everywhere and at all times without exception. Sri Ramakrishna was fully established in these virtues. Swami Vivekananda too advocated them. Hence there can be no dispute in this matter. The only difference is that whereas in Jainism the greatest stress is laid on Ahimsa or non-in-jury, Swamiji has emphasized truth and chastity.

Right Knowledge is greatly emphasized in Vedanta because ignorance can be destroyed only by knowledge. The chief means of acquiring this knowledge is called jnana yoga, which aims at attaining the highest spiritual knowledge. However there is an important difference between Vedanta and Jainism. According to Advaita Vedanta the individual soul and the Cosmic Soul or Brahman are essentially one and non-different. But Jainism believes that individual souls are innumerable and separate, and that this differentiation remains even after emancipation. But one thing is certain: both Jainism and Vedanta believe that the soul in its real nature is pure free blissful and of the nature of consciousness.

Jainism is basically a religion that strongly emphasizes renunciation and meditation and the giving up of all activity. It is a renunciation-dominant religion (nivrtti-pradhana dharma). In Jain temples we often find images of Jain prophets and saints sitting-or even standing-in meditation. Swami Vivekananda too assigned the prime place for concentration of mind and meditation in his scheme of Practical Vedanta. He was himself an adept in meditation and considered concentration of mind to be the secret of success in all spheres of life. In Jainism several meditation techniques are described, starting from such simple and preliminary techniques of collecting the dispersed mind as ananupurvi to the most advanced sukla-dhyana.

Anekantavada and syadvada are two inter-related theories, which demonstrate the catholicity of Jainism. An object or phenomenon can be viewed from various viewpoints and these various views can all be true though only partially. To explain this Jains give the famous example of several blind men feeling various parts of an elephant and deriving their own conclusions about it, which are all only partially true. This principle resembles Sri Ramakrishna’s saying:’ As many faiths so many paths.’ God can have various forms according to the conceptions of different devotees, and at the same time can be formless too. And there could be various paths to reach Him all of which can be equally valid.
Practical Vedanta in Light of Jainism  
We have thus far seen some basic tenets of Jainism in the light of Practical Vedanta. Let us now try to evaluate some of the principles of Practical Vedanta as preached by Swami Vivekananda in the light of Jainism. Let us to begin with take up Swami Vivekananda’s definition of religion:

Each soul is potentially divine.
The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal.
Do this either by work, or worship or psychic control or philosophy-by one, or more or all of these-and be free.
This is whole of religion. Doctrines or dogmas or rituals or books or temples or forms are but secondary details. (1.124).

Does Jainism accept this definition? Let us see. We have already seen that Jainism believes the soul to be a conscious entity and considers its freedom from karmic bondage the goal of life. We have also seen that in Jainism greater stress is laid on raja. However devotion worship or bhakti is not neglected. Worship of images in temples and chanting of hymns and praises form an integral part of Jain religious practice. Jain devotees derive immense spiritual benefit from such observances. Nor are philosophical studies neglected. There is enough scope for scholarship and the exercise of reason in Jainism and there is a vast mass of Jain philosophical texts. However the path of action or karma yoga has not been extolled in Jainism as it has been done in the Bhagavad gita. Service to man is service to God is the very basis of Swami Vivekananda’s Practical Vedanta. In Jainism service is considered one of the six kinds of internal tapas or austerity. But here too service only means service of saints and monastics. Although charity is considered meritorious for householders according to Jainism all activities ultimately lead to greater bondage. Hence karma is not considered a means of purification. Instead tapas is advocated as a means of cleansing oneself of karmic impurity.

Swami Vivekananda considers external details like rituals forms and temples of secondary importance. Jainism also emphasizes mental attitude more than the external act. This subject is discussed in Jainism under the subject of naya meaning outlook. If a meritorious act is performed with an evil intention it cannot be considered meritorious. This is akin to the karma yoga of Vedanta according to which the fruits of an action performed without attachment cannot affect the doer. There are two types of violence according to Jainism: actual violence and metal or intentional violence-dravya himsa and bhava himsa. Of the two, intentional violence is considered worse than actual violence.

Self-enquiry is greatly emphasized in Vedanta where it is called tvam-pada-sodhana. When one asks the questions, Who am I? What is my real nature? And seeks answers to such questions one ultimately realizes one’s real pure conscious nature-the Atman free from adjuncts like body mind ego and intellect. There is no difference between Vedanta and Jainism as far as the process of inquiry is concerned.

Swami Vivekananda based his scheme of Practical Vedanta on the foundation of Advaita Vedanta. We must serve others because in serving them we really serve ourselves; because there are no two beings there is only one Cosmic Soul. Your soul and others soul are the same. To harm others is only to harm one self. The Jain prophet Mahavira speaks in almost the same vein: Whom you want to kill is none but you; whom you want to bind is none other than you. To kill anyone is to kill oneself; compassion towards creatures is compassion towards oneself. In this teaching of Lord Mahavira we find an echo of Advaita Vedanta.

Vedanta is as old as the Vedas and is the basis of the various Indian philosophical systems. Although Vedanta had always been a practical scheme of life as well for modern times Swami Vivekananda has given it a new interpretation called Practical Vedanta. From the above analysis it will also be evident that although Jainism may differ philosophically and empirically from traditional Hinduism there are more similarities than differences between Jainism and Vedanta especially Swamiji’s Practical Vedanta. Besides, Swamiji’s definition of Vedanta is very wide all comprehensive and all-inclusive. According to it Religion is Vedanta, which includes all the different religions like Jainism Buddhism and Hinduism Even if one may not accept this definition of Vedanta one would find a lot of similarities between Jainism and Vedanta. Not only this, the two systems can help and enrich each other-as it should be. Vedanta can gain something from Jainism and Jainism too can benefit from Vedanta without in any way compromising their special features or originality.

For example the practice of serving man as God (siva jnane jiva seva) can easily become a part of the Jain way of life, since it accepts every soul as a pure free conscious entity. It is gratifying to note that a number of Jain organizations have nowadays undertaken philanthropic activities. On the other hand the followers of Practical Vedanta can gain much by learning to lay greater stress on tapas as done in Jainism Vedantins can also make use of the universal navakara mantra of Jainism and its practice of forgiveness. Navakara mantra is an extremely liberal and effective mantra where in salutations are offered to the acaryas teachers perfected souls saints and prophets of all religions. None can begrudge the acceptance of such a liberal non-sectarian mantras as a part of their religions practice.

Jains seek forgiveness from all creatures of the world chanting the following verse: I forgive all creatures may all creatures forgive me. I have friendship with everyone and enmity towards none.

No true religion preaches hatred separation or conflict. It bring people together and spreads goodwill. This has been the aim of both Jainism and Vedanta, which is why both Jainism and Vedanta have flourished in India. There has always been a cordial relationship between the Jains and the Vedantins and it continues to grow stronger every day.

1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), vol.2, p.301.

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