The birth anniversary of 24th Tirthankara Sri Mahavir Ji is an appropriate occasion to ponder how this tiny faith successfully tamed the natural impulses of human hedonism and emerged as a sparkling exemplar of the Indian civilisational spectrum. India’s native traditions lie embedded in a common geographical and spiritual-cultural matrix, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish one from the other. This could be the key to the peaceful coexistence that is the signature tune of the Indic tradition; it is also why the fratricidal-genocidal disputes of the Abrahamic sects are largely incomprehensible to the Indian mind.
A brief overview of the Sanatana Dharma (a generic term for the eternal values cherished by native Indians over the millennia) provides a better insight into the precepts that distinguish the Jaina dharma.
The Sanatana Dharma is a way of life encompassing the cosmic vision of ancient rsis and inspired by the ideal of universal welfare of all beings, both human and other creatures; indeed, the whole Creation. Dharma is natural law, rta, the cosmic principle. Like the Abrahamic religions, dharma has a formal structure, creed and ritual, centred round the pan-India and local gods of the Hindu pantheon, but is not limited to this construct alone.
Dharma is not static (fixed in time or space), and does not cling to values of bygone eras. The Rig Veda upholds change as the immutable law of life; hence Dharma is mobile, adaptable, dynamic. The ultimate goal is emancipation (moksha); Dharma affirms conscious human responsibility.
In the quest for Absolute Reality or Truth, Dharma explores a vast unmapped terrain of pure Consciousness, where knowledge is experienced through intuitive perception. This cannot be adequately described and is best explained in the Upanishadic terms ‘that which is not’ or ‘that which is beyond.’ This twin perception of itself in terms of what it is and what it is not is unique to Sanatana Dharma. It bestowed it with an intellectual and spiritual greatness that led the sages to resist ‘capping’ the Vedic revelations as final and binding for all times, and to encourage subsequent generations to discover and experience Truth for themselves.
This perennial aspect of the human search for the divine is what makes Sanatana dharma a living civilization; it refuses to tie itself to a single human/divine agent/regent, renews itself in response to changing times and social needs, and provides for as many paths to self-knowledge and nirvana as there are individual souls who seek it. Sanatana dharma is always contemporary, it nurtures change and continuity, and does not feel threatened by diversity (unlike Abraham’s offspring who are still mutually uneasy with the three main cults derived from the patriarch, and with the major and minor schisms within each of them).
Jainas have ever been less than half percent of India’s population, yet enjoy immense influence over her cultural and social life. Very early in its development, Jaina dharma compelled Hindus and Bauddhas to accept the supremacy of Ahimsa and vegetarianism, and fashioned these into cornerstones of Indian culture. Among Hindus, the Vaishnavas became vegetarian though devotees of Shakti practice animal sacrifice on ritual occasions, and many coastal and other groups retain meat in their diet. But once the vegetarian ethic was established as the superior moral ethic, it could never be dislodged through the centuries that followed.
Jaina dharma avers that the universe and everything in it, even rocks and stones that were considered inanimate in other traditions, is a living organism, and has a soul (jiva, atman). Long before modern science proved that plants are living organisms and have the sense of touch (feel when touched; move towards sunlight), Jainas were aware that plants were living beings worthy of respect. Hindus too have long known that plants breathe oxygen at night; hence the strong sentiment in the Indic world against plucking flowers or cutting trees after sundown.
Among animals, frogs and fish which are born from eggs, do not have the thinking faculty (manas) and are called a-sanjnin (insensate; though this does not mean that they lack instinct). Mammals have the thinking faculty and are hence sanjnin (sensible, rational). All human beings, lesser gods and inmates of hell rank as sanjnin.
In Jaina cosmology, animals also possess a moral and spiritual dimension. A favourite tale relates to an elephant, leader of a large herd caught in a raging forest fire. Seeking shelter, all animals crowded around a lake, leaving no room for manoeuvre. After a while, the elephant raised one leg to scratch himself, and a small hare swiftly occupied this tiny vacancy. Feeling deep compassion for the small animal, the elephant kept his leg raised for more than three days until the fire died out and the hare departed. By then, his leg had gone numb; he toppled over, unable to set his foot down and walk again. Maintaining purity of mind until he died, the elephant severed all ties with his animal destinies. He was later reborn as prince Megha, son of king Srenika of Magadha, and became an eminent Jaina monk under Sri Mahavir Ji.
This is the essence of Ahimsa in Jaina philosophy – it is compassion, empathy, a profound wisdom that a common Atman pulsates in all beings, making each equally worthy of life, and denying the man-made hierarchy that sets a human or powerful mammal above a creature that it had the power to kill. Ahimsa is not a passive or mechanical act of merely refraining from an act of violence; it is a proactive affirmation of divinity in all creation.
The Jaina understanding of life led to the eclipse of root vegetables like potato and several types of fermented and sweet substances in their diet, as this could cause the untimely death of nigodas (single-sensed creatures) that populate the earth and air, and thrive in fermented articles like liquor and honey. The tissues of plants of a ‘sweet, fleshy, seed filled nature’ are excellent hosts for nigodas, and literally “share their bodies;” hence their consumption is avoided. During monsoons, green and leafy vegetables are avoided because tiny insects living in the leaves would be destroyed on cooking.
This compassion towards nigoda life-forms led to an absolute injunction against animal sacrifice and the consumption of meat. Gautam Buddha permitted eating flesh of animals that died of natural causes, or meat given as alms and not slaughtered explicitly for monks; but Jainas observed that the meat of dead animals was a perfect breeding ground for nigodas, hence consumption would lead to a fall in spiritual evolution.
Jaina tradition stresses the individual’s personal responsibility for other species (“parasparopagraho jīvanam”) and the environment. This deep understanding of the dimensions of Ahimsa is probably what ensured the moral superiority of the vegetarian ethic in Indian culture. It led Jainas [and traditional Hindus] to take their evening meals before sunset to avoid injuring small flying insects that might fall into the food in the dark. This is also why water is strained before drinking. Sants of the Sthānakavāsi group cover their mouths to avoid killing tiny insects through inhalation while speaking.
The Monotheistic world view is a sharp contrast to the Jaina-Hindu understanding of divinity and moral conduct. The treatment of lesser creatures has often been so cruel as to cause outrage in society itself. Yet the barbarity is rising in proportion to the quest for higher and linear profits.
In September 2009, the UK Telegraph carried a graphic account of an undercover video shot by a Chicago-based animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, at an Iowa egg hatchery, where workers can be seen discarding unwanted chicks by sending them alive into a grinder; other chicks fall through a sorting machine and are left to die on the factory floor.
The company admitted that “instantaneous euthanasia” or the killing of male chicks by the grinder is a standard practice supported by the animal veterinary and scientific community. The meat industry considers male chicks as useless as they cannot lay eggs and do not grow large fast enough to be raised profitably for meat. Hence 200 million male chicks are killed annually!
In July 2011, the Telegraph carried a story on an undercover video of the abuse of pigs at an abattoir in Essex. It shows the animals being beaten with a bat, punched in the head and burnt by cigarettes. One injured pig is forced to crawl into the stun pen, finally being kicked and dragged in by its ears. Animal Aid, which shot the footage, alleged that such abuse is widespread; it has identified legal breaches in seven other slaughterhouses which it secretly filmed for 30 months.
It bears stating that all talk of guidelines for ‘humane slaughter’ of animals is an oxymoron – the en masse breeding and slaughter of animals for consumption is deliberate and conscious violence, himsa.
- The discussion on Hindu dharma is based on Jain, Sandhya, “Adi Deo Arya Devata. A Panoramic View of Tribal Hindu Cultural Continuum,” Rupa & Co., 2004 and Jain, Sandhya, “The Right to Family Planning, Contraception, and Abortion: The Hindu View,” in Daniel C. Maguire, ed., Sacred Rights, The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions, Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Jaini, Padmanabh S., The Jaina Path of Purification, Ch. 9, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 1979.
» The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com
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