If you were asked which religion in the world was the most ethical, what would you say? I would say Jainism. In this post, the next in the series looking what Naturalistic Pantheists can learn from world philosophies and religions, I’m going to look at Jainism, its ideas, ethics and practices. Other philosophies and religions already covered include Druidry, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Buddhism, Philosophical Taoism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Jainism is an ancient Indian religion. It doesn’t have a founder but slowly developed to its present form around the 8th century BCE by Vardhamana Mahavira. It’s sacred texts are called the “Agamas” and the aim of the followers of Jainism is to achieve liberation from the Samsara, the cycle of life, death and rebirth (similar to Buddhism). Liberation is possible for every person and is achieved by eliminating all Karma from the soul, both from past lives and the present one. Jainism believes in both an immortal soul and reincarnation, as well as Karma. Karma in Jainism is different to other religions like Buddhism. Karma is seen as a physical substance – Karma particles, which exist throughout the universe. These Karma particles are attracted to souls when they do or say negative things and make their souls “sticky.” However, by behaving well and having the correct mental state, Karma particles can’t stick.
There are no gods in Jainism and no one can help you achieve liberation except yourself. There are some beings that are seen as divine or perfect and they are worthy of devotion because they have found liberation from the cycle of birth and death. However they are not prayed to or worshipped in the way our Western Christian-influenced culture would understand worship. Instead, these beings are seen as examples to aspire to and devotions e.g. prayers, are instead ways to recall the great qualities of these beings and to remind the individual of the teachings of Jainism.
The best known concept in Jainism is Ahimsa which is one of the 5 Mahavratas or vows of ethical conduct and it means “non-violence” (the others being non-attachment, sexual restriant, not lying & not stealing). In my opinion, this emphasis on non-violence as the supreme moral principle and guide in life makes Jainism a unique religion with arguably the most ethical standard of conduct of all religions. Non-violence in Jainism doesn’t just mean they won’t hit someone or fight in a war, it extends to all life forms. Jains are concerned for the welfare of every being in the universe and believe that all humans, animals and plants contains souls of equal value and worthy of equal respect. Jains must be vegetarians and are not allowed to work in any job where life might be injured e.g. meat production, trading in pesticides or weapons, cutting trees, working at a zoo or in circuses which involve animals e.t.c Jain monks in India can regularly be seen brushing the paths before them to avoid stepping on an insect or wearing a face masks so they don’t accidently breathe in any living thing. Non-violence is not just passive however, it is about reverence and compassion for life – it means working for peace, freedom and justice. It means refraining not only from physical violence but also mental and verbal violence, from having violent intentions or being angry, greedy and jealous. Jains can often been heard praying prayers of forgivenness – first forgiving those who hurt them and then asking forgiveness from any living being they have hurt e.g. “I grant forgiveness to all living beings, May all the living beings please forgive me. I have friendship with all the living beings. I have no hostility to anyone.” I wonder whether praying something similar as Naturalistic Pantheists might be a helpful practice?
Another of the 5 vows is non-attachment. Jainism promotes living a simple life with few attachments or possessions. There are no priests, but there are monks and nuns who are expected to live without any possessions. The path to liberation for a Jain includes asceticism and renunciation, whether you are a monk or a lay person. By living in a way that minimises the use of the worlds resources and having few possessions to get in the way of spiritual growth, Jainism is very environmentally friendly. Non-attachment in Jainism is promoted in various ways – regular fasting and making offerings in order to teach the value of renunciation are two primary ways. They also engage in a daily 48-minute sitting meditation to help keep their mind clear.
An interesting concept in Jainism is Anekantavada. This means a plurality or multiplicity of viewpoints. You have probably heard the story of the blind men and the elephant – each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and they come to wildly different perspectives on what an elephant looks like. Stories like this help promote humility among Jains as they recognise that truth and reality are percieved differently depending on the person. A person’s life experiences, culture and more will help them to form their perspective on truth and it will often differ from others. By understanding this, Jains are able to be tolerant, peaceful, humble and acknowledge that no single view, even that of Jainism, will ever hold the absolute truth.
So what can Naturalistic Pantheists take from Jainism. While we must obviously ignore its doctrines of Karma, Reincarnation and an immortal soul, I think there are many things we can learn from this ancient religion. First would be its emphasis on Ahimsa and reverence for life. As a Naturalistic Pantheist, I believe that we should all revere life and hold it sacred and, like Jainism, we can take it as our primary moral principle. In practice this means going vegetarian or vegan, not working in jobs that cause harm, working to promote peace and compassion towards all living beings, and trying to live without engaging in physical, mental or verbal violence ourselves. I also think the idea of praying the above prayer of forgiveness every morning can send a message to our subconscious to make us more forgiving, compassionate people who are aware of the effects of our actions on others.
I believe strongly in the ideals of frugality, non-attachment, minimalism and voluntary simplicity. If we are serious about Naturalistic Pantheism and about living a life based on its principles, then we must live in an environmentally friendly way. Yes this means recycling, switching off applicances not in use, using public transport instead of the car and so on, but it also means reducing what we do use, not buying things unless we really have to, treading lightly upon the earth. And often that means we need to live with less too. In Jainism they do this in order to not be distracted from their spiritual and moral cultivation, but as Naturalistic Pantheists, we need to do it for other reasons. Jain practices like fasting, meditation, giving to charity and making offerings should be part of our practice too, for the same reasons – it teaches us to focus on whats really important in our lives, and that sometimes renunciation and frugality are good for us. It gives us freedom to work less as we need less money and so we can spend more time with our families, serving society or out in nature. It helps us keep things simpler and tidier. Living simply and with little attachment can help us to avoid a lot of stress, anxiety and negative lifestyle habits as well as help us to pass the earth onto the next generation in a better position than we inherited it.
The Jain belief in Anekantavada is also important for Naturalistic Pantheists. Too often we can have the view that as our spirituality is based on science, we have nothing more to learn from other religions, or we may more prideful that we follow a religion based on evidence rather than “superstitions” e.t.c. But we must be very careful because even science can be blind, can be biased and can get it wrong. Science is always looking for ways to undermine its previous theories and often experiences big revolutions which change its entire worldview. As Naturalistic Pantheists, we must be willing to change our minds as science does. But we must also be open to learn from other religions, philosophies and worldviews. These represent traditions that have built up through thousands of years of testing, trial and error to what they are today. If the practices of these religions didn’t offer something helpful, something that met genuine human needs, then they would have died out, but they didn’t and that should tell us something about their value for our lives. They may be wrong in their metaphysics but maybe they still have a lot to teach us and we should be humble enough to accept that and learn.