Why do millions of practitioners of the Jain religion strive to avoid harming even microscopic creatures?
This monthâs conversation in our series exploring religion and death is with Pankaj Jain (@ProfPankajJain), an associate professor in the department of philosophy and religion at the University of North Texas. He is the author of âDharma in America: A Short History of Hindu-Jain Diaspora,â âDharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainabilityâ and other works. He is currently translating âJain Darshan,â a text on the philosophy of Jainism. In 2019, he appeared in the TV series âThe Story of Godâ with the actor Morgan Freeman.
George Yancy: Most Westerners know the central figures of certain religions like the Buddha and Jesus. But less is known about Mahavira, who is a central figure in Jainism. What should we know about him and his role in the religion?
Pankaj Jain: Mahavira was a contemporary of the Buddha but was not the founder of Jainism [which originated in India around the seventh century B.C.E.]. He was the 24th great teacher of the tradition and continues to be the most influential role model for millions of Jains in India and those in other countries throughout the rest of the world. He taught the principles of truth, nonviolence, minimalism and celibacy that influenced global leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, and demonstrated the ultimate penance in his life with long fasts and meditations.
Jain: Mahavira was born into a royal family but renounced all his wealth, family and belongings when he turned 30 and became a monk. During his wandering ascetic life, he used to be so engrossed in his meditation that he could easily ignore all his bodily needs and even injuries. It is mentioned in the Jain texts that he ate only rice, dates or pulses during that time and that he accepted food only on 349 days out of 4,380 days (almost 12 years) of his severe penance.
Because he remained silently engrossed in his contemplation and meditation in that period, sometimes people misunderstood him and tried to harm him in different ways. Still, nothing could disturb the steadfast concentration that finally led him to achieve his enlightenment around the age of 43. He obtained his liberation when he died at the age of 72.
Jain: Jainism, like Buddhism, is nontheistic. In Jainism, there is no God that created the universe and all the souls. The universe and all its souls have existed without any beginning and will always exist without any end. For millions of Jains, their great teachers and gurus remain their role models. Jain temples enshrine their 24 greatest teachers, Tirthankaras, and most of the Jains regularly visit these temples and perform elaborate rituals, especially on their holy days and festivals, such as the annual day of forgiveness, and many others.
Yancy: Is there a sacred text within Jainism? What does it teach about good and evil, and how we ought to live?
Jain: Jainism has two prominent sects, and each has its own set of dozens of sacred texts. The emphasis of these texts is on nonviolence, minimalism and pluralism. We ought to live with minimal violence toward other living beings in our thoughts, words and actions. For Jainism, living beings include air, water, fire, earth, in addition to humans, animals, plants and insects.
Yancy: This is fascinating, but how might we avoid, say, stepping on an ant or killing microbes? Are there certain practices that might prevent such deaths?
Jain: Jainism recognizes that some violence is inevitable, especially toward microbes, as we live in the world, and therefore, lay Jains have relaxed vows. However, for Jain ascetics, the vows and rules are stringent, which prohibits them from riding on any vehicle. They must only walk for any travel, and when they do, carefully clearing their way to avoid stepping on any small insect, for instance. Some Jain ascetics keep their mouths covered with a mask as they speak or breathe to prevent ingesting any microbes. Devout Jains consume water only after carefully filtering and boiling for the same reason. They also perform forgiveness rituals periodically to repent for any unconscious violence committed even after these precautionary practices.
Yancy: It is my understanding that Jainism has a rich set of beliefs about the movement of the soul â transmigration. What kind of insight does this give us into how Jains conceive of death or the afterlife?
Jain: In Jainism, as in some other religions, only the body dies, but the soul continues its journey through transmigration. The soul is distinct from the body in Jainism. The body is a tool used to purify the soul across different lives to reach the ultimate destination of Moksha, or liberation. The soul reincarnates in any of the millions of species on the earth, the heavens or the hells. This infinite process depends on how nonviolent its journey has been through different lives.
Yancy: How might we use our bodies to purify our souls? I ask because often, the body is seen as âimpureâ within various religious traditions.
Jain: The body is an instrument for practicing penance, including meditation and fasting. The body is not to be indulged in pleasures and luxuries, but rather, by courageously tolerating various bodily inconveniences and sufferings, the soul succeeds in purifying itself from past karmas. This purification process helps one progress toward liberation.
Yancy: Why might a soul reincarnate within a particular species â cat, cow, bird and so on? You suggested that being nonviolent makes a difference in the next life.
Jain: In the Jain system of reincarnation, the more nonviolent and purer a soul is, the more favorable the next birth will be. The human species is the most privileged, but other species can also renounce violence. For example, in one of his previous births, Mahavira was born as a lion, and that lion became vegetarian and nonviolent.
Yancy: The Jainist universe contains higher and lower realms, which we might understand as heaven or hell. Is hell conceived of as a bad place and heaven a good place?
Jain: Hell is a bad place where a soul is punished for its past negative karma. Heaven is a good place where a soul is rewarded for its positive karma. But the earth is better than both extremes because only here a human being can strive to attain liberation, transcending all the three realms of earth, heavens and hells.
Jain: All humans are privileged as they have enough positive karma from their past lives, allowing them in this life to strive toward their liberation.
Yancy: So, because I am a philosopher, does this mean that I was reincarnated from something âhigherâ or less violent?
Jain: Yes, being a philosopher would be like being a practitioner of spirituality, which is a privilege to be able to progress toward liberation. The opportunity to be a practitioner of philosophy is an excellent reward for your past karma. In your previous lives, you may have been progressively more and more nonviolent, compassionate and minimalist.
Yancy: So, if one is born a dog or a fish, what sort of prior life would they have lived?
Jain: For any species, the key is how nonviolently they have lived. Even a dog or a lion can avoid hurting others unnecessarily as Jain and Buddhist tales demonstrate.
Yancy: Does Jainism have a story about why there is reincarnation at all, or is reincarnation taken as the given structure of reality?
Jain: Until a soul is completely purified, it must keep reincarnating itself through various species as there is no way out of this infinite cycle. The body dies at the end of life, but the soul can never die. Even after liberation, the soul lives forever in its omniscience and omnipotence at the highest abode in the universe.
Yancy: What should we do now so that we can best determine the next reincarnation of our souls? Can you provide some key precepts that we might follow or embody?
Jain: We must adhere to truth, nonviolence, nonstealing, nonpossession (minimalism) and celibacy, to the best of our competence and capability. Renouncing meat and animal products would be the first step toward that. Eating meat is avoided by Jain ascetics and householders. Ascetics go to the ultimate by avoiding several kinds of vegetarian food also to minimize all kinds of violence even toward seeds, roots and stems of a plant.
Yancy: What impact does the performance of such specific rituals have on the soul and its future reincarnations?
Jain: Jain rituals help practitioners celebrate the lives and teachings of their great teachers. Many rituals involve verses and songs based on them. Many Jains daily perform a ritual to ask for forgiveness from millions of species that they might have unintentionally hurt on that day. In the same spirit, they also ask for forgiveness from their family and friends on the annual forgiveness day. These rituals help reduce egoistic tendencies and foster a sense of interdependence and friendliness among each other.
Yancy: What, according to Jainism, is living the âgood lifeâ or the observant life? And how does doing so or not doing so impact the soul after death?
Jain: Jain teachers teach and demonstrate that one should live with minimal violence. To that end, most of the Jains avoid meat and other animal products to keep their souls free of negative karmas. The Jains have demonstrated their compassion by supporting thousands of animal sanctuaries across India and now in America.
Yancy: What would you say Jainism offers in the way of wisdom regarding death, given that death is inevitable?
Jain: Death of the body is merely a milestone in the journey of the soul. This journey completes when the soul achieves liberation and arrives at the abode of the liberated beings, located at the final frontier of the universe. Before death catches one off-guard, it is oneâs duty to keep purifying the soul. The purer the soul is at the time of death, the better the chances are to get a more favorable next birth to continue the journey of purification. Only with 100 percent purity based on 100 percent nonviolence a soul can achieve liberation.
Yancy: It seems to me that most people fear death. How does Jainism account for this fear?
Jain: Like in other communities, death is not a preferred topic of everyday discussion for Jains. This fear, however, is due to the sudden disruption of oneâs life and uncertainty arising from it.
Yancy: But if we live our lives attempting to eliminate violence and being successful at it, I assume that this might decrease our fear of death. I say this because it seems we would have a better chance of being reincarnated in a higher form.
Jain: Yes, you are correct. One who is steadfast in oneâs practice of nonviolence would have less and less fear of death. The death-welcoming Jain ritual of Sallekhana also underscores this fearlessness.
Jain: Many Jain monks and nuns in their late lives welcome death with Sallekhana, the ritual for death. This practice includes the ultimate renunciation of food and water, as their final demonstration of zeroing down consumption, and related subtle violence, of all kinds.
Yancy: What would you say is the most philosophically rich takeaway from Jainism in terms of its conceptualization of death?
Jain: One should not fear death but celebrate it as the ultimate demonstration of minimizing consumption and violence. Fear of death should encourage a life that is compassionate toward other living beings.
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is âAcross Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews From an American Philosopher.â
Now in print: âModern Ethics in 77 Argumentsâ and âThe Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,â with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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