Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Naked One: Jainism

The sramana movements of ancient India- Buddhism, Yoga, and Jainism.

What is the best religion? One's own, doubtless. But supposing that you had to choose a different one or had none to start with, which ones do the best job of promoting human flourishing and peace, in some general and long-term sense? Most of the prime candidates (i.e. the least blood-soaked, the most philosophical) come from the East. Which is sort of a bitter pill for a Westerner to swallow. But perhaps our tendency to crazy religion bred its opposite as well- the desire to throw its chains off entirely. Be that as it may, it seems fairly obvious that peacefulness and calm are particular specialties of Eastern practices like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. And the philosophical cores of some of these are even non-theistic, which is remarkable in a culturally durable religion, considering the popularity of gods in all times. Indeed, theistic elements have crept back into most of these religions, sometimes floridly so, as has polytheism in the West.

The Axial age was a time of great religious innovation, when history starts in earnest across multiple cultures, and religious thought and doubt is first extensively recorded. Greece transitioned from Homer to Pericles, Persia adopted Zoroastrianism, China brought forth Confucious and Lao Tzu, and Buddhism was born in India, along with the Upanishads. It was perhaps humanity's first brush with broad cosmopolitanism, which brought new questions and perspectives. A new focus on the individual and the pursuit of spirituality for its own sake rather than as a quid-pro-quo for some harsh and demanding god made room for true philosophy and philosophically driven life styles. Perhaps the most peaceful of all these movements were the Jains of India, also first recorded during this time.

Jainism, Buddhism, Yoga, as well as the Ajivika and atheistic Carvaka movements, were part of a broad reaction to Brahmanic Hinduism, called the Sramana movements (from sram, or making effort, such as the various austerities that typify its practices, maybe at an asram). Its wellsprings may go back to before the Aryan invasion that generated the Brahmanic / Vedic system, but at any rate, it constituted a sort of dramatic reformation / alternative to the dominant system. It renounced caste entirely, refused to recognize the higher status of the Brahmins or their sacrificial rituals, and set up what one might term a merit-based system of spiritual attainment, typically characterized by austerities like celibacy, begging for sustenance, minimal clothing, lack of possessions ... the opportunities are endless. It also generated the idea of life as a problematic cycle of suffering, karma and rebirth, with the goal of release from rebirth.

Jina, 11th century, unspecified, Gujarat.

The origins of Jainism are rather obscure, but the story is that there were twenty-four Jinas, who are the Jains of highest merit, having achieved liberation (from rebirth, from ignorance, etc.) through their meditative and mortifying efforts. They are typically portrayed in utterly peaceful sitting or standing meditation, clothed or naked according either of two Jain branches (Svetambara and Digambara, respectively). The last Jina, Mahavira (540-468 BCE), is most historically attested, and was a contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama. He was not the Jain founder, however, so the religion had a long and hazy history prior, of which he was a reformer and proselytizer. Indeed, Siddhartha Gautama seems to have a student of the Jains in his formative period, prior to breaking with all the strenuous penance and founding his own philosophical school / religion. Which may indeed just have been a variant of Jainism at the time. Yoga is similarly an ascetic strain of non-Brahmanic practices, even more inwardly focussed than Jainism.

The first of the twenty four Jinas, Rishaba, is of particular iconographic interest, as he is the only one with long flowing hair, which Jain monks pluck out when joining, and keep short generally. But Rishaba tends to get the aboriginal / Rastafari treatment, which to me is a striking tie to the deep history of humanity.

Jina Rishaba in standing meditation, ~3rd century, Bihar.

The philosophical focus of Jains is on a sober life and strict morality towards all living beings. The jewels are non-harming, asceticism, and non-absolutism. They theorize that bad actions (even inadvertant ones) harm the person in a physical way, accumulating karma-icules which are tiny bits of physical matter that stick to one's soul, bind one to the cycle of rebirth, and induce spiritual blindness. Their aversion to harming all life forms extends to complete vegetarianism for all practitioners, lay and monk, and even an avoidance of root crops whose harvesting (at least traditionally) involved more disruption of the ground & animals than other crops. One couldn't imagine a stronger repudiation of the classic Vedic rituals of animal sacrifice.

One wonders what Jains make of modern microbiology, not to mention their entrapment in a modern world where any participation in normal life implicates one in vast slaughter and mass extinction. They rate self-starvation to death a highly meritorious act, which goes somewhat against the human flourishing part of my criteria above, even while general abstemiousness and consciousness of ecological harm is in the long run a very positive ethic. One can tell that these philosophies had a revolutionary effects on Indian history & philosophy, for example on Mahatma Gandhi.

Jains originated in the Kshatriya caste, of warriors and administrators, one step below the Brahmins. Being a warrior is obviously not consistent with their philosophy, and Jains have gravitated toward commerce, where they have been very successful. Through history, they also have benefitted from strong alliances with some rulers, who often had political and cultural conflicts with the Brahmanic system. They have built extensive temple complexes at sites reputed to be where various Jinas attained enlightenment, and which serve as pilgrimage sites for all Jains.

Example of a pilgrimage site painting, which is displayed once a year for lay Jains who may not have a chance to go on an actual pilgrimage, and can attain some merit by viewing this portrayal of the site, full of pilgrims. No date or origin given. The location is Shatrunjaya, in Gujarat.

Their doctrine of non-absolutism deserves special comment, as it is a very mature philosophical approach completely unlike the bombastic Ja-way-or-the-highway approach one finds in typical, and especially Western, religions. It proclaims un-certainty. That any truth is provisional and different from different perspectives. Some truths may be partial rather than universal. For example, the Buddhist proposition that change-is-the-only-eternal, and the contrasting permanence of the Brahman in Hinduism each have some merits, depending on what one is talking about, from the Indian / Jain perspective. And that is surely an appropriate way to deal constructively with complex ideas with a great deal of imaginative content. It also leads to a distinct lack of a missionary impulse, one reason why Jainism remains small in number (maybe ~5 million adherents).

Over time, as is natural, Jains have made up stories about their Jina's pre-existing divinity and virgin births from which they arrived to the acclamation of various Hindu gods, etc. and so forth. It is par for the course, and has led to some remarkable art. But the basic philosophy is far less complicated, and well-versed practitioners do not expect anyone to listen to their devotions and prayers- they are understood to be meditational acts of self-improvement, not transactions with beings occupying the void. The Jinas have disappeared completely.

Many religions, indeed all social systems, harness guilt to promote good behavior, conformity, and a stable hierarchy. Jainism does take this aspect to extremes, though in light of our current planetary woes, it does so in a relatively constructive way, in a program of reducing its adherent's footprint of social violence and ecological harm. It easily ranks as the outstanding religion, if one must have one, for the present and future.

Jina, ~900, unspecified, from Karnataka or Tamilnadu.

  • Same as it ever was... Chesterton was "disappointed" with the atheists of his day! "They are doubtful in their very doubts. Their criticism has taken on a curious tone; as of a random and illiterate heckling. ... Their suggestions are more vapid and vacant than the most insipid curate in a three-act farce... Their whole atmosphere is the atmosphere of a reaction: sulks, perversity, petty criticism. They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith."
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  • DeLong on Piketty and the PikettyWorld.
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"A March Gallup poll finding that most Americans worry about climate change "a little" or "not at all" is consistent with other surveys showing that the issue is not even close to being a top priority for U.S. voters." ... But when 67% want wealth in the US more equally distributed, then the majority is perhaps not always right after all.

1 comment:

  1. 'One wonders what Jains would think of microbiology..'

    I could never be a Jain.

    They refuse to eat onions or garlic! *

    * had a boss who WAS one..

    ReplyDelete