Jain Philosophy: Postmodernist Ideas in Ancient India

Ahimsa Paramo Dharma is the fundamental tenet of Jainism and Ahimsa is the path through which Indian attained her independence. This shows that although they constitute only 0.37% population of Indian population, Jain way of thinking had a major impact in shaping the Indian thought. In this article I will give you a brief overview of the Jain philosophy. Keep in mind that there is a lot more to Jain philosophy than what I am going to write here.



Pratyakṣa (perception, what you see is what you believe in)

Anumāṇa (inference, as an example if you see smoke then you can infer there is fire)

Śabda (scriptural testimony/ verbal testimony of past or present reliable experts, as an example considering the Vedas to be a reliable source of knowledge).

There are three very important doctrines of Jain philosophy regarding how we attain knowledge of this world

Anekantvada: All of you must have heard the story of blind men and an elephant. This story is now popular worldwide. The story originates from Jain tradition and beautifully portrays the Jain philosophical outlook on comprehending reality. Jain believe that reality has a infinitely many attributes and can exist in infinite modes, no one person with limited perception can grasp all these aspects of reality. Due to this, Jain philosophy strongly stresses on respecting different points of view and be tolerant to the opinion of other. The real beauty of anekantvada is that it warns its adherents not to cling to a belief too strongly; as by doing this you will be limiting yourself to just one point of view. In the modern times people criticize religion by calling it too dogmatic, well here is a religion, which actively preaches against dogmatism.

Syadvada: This doctrine directly follows from the previous doctrine of anekantvada. Syavada states that any judgment that we make is restrained to a certain condition and therefore if we change the condition the judgment changes. Jains therefore emphasize that on any judgment that you make you should add a term “somehow” before it. Syad means somehow and therefore the term syadvada. As an example, lets say red light is incident on a white screen. You will judge the screen to be red, however if the screen is now illumined with green light than your judgment will change. Therefore your previous judgment that the “screen is red” is not true in all cases while the judgment “somehow the screen is red” will be true.

Nayavada: This doctrine states that when describing reality we only describe it from a certain perspective while ignoring the other aspects of it, which are irrelevant. This does not mean that those irrelevant attributes are not present, it just means that different attributes are relevant or irrelevant for different points of view. As an example, while buying a gold ring, one person might say that he is buying gold, while the other might say she is buying a ring. The gold ring is still gold ring, but different points of views make the same object appear different.

Three doctrines of Jain epistemology is serious stuff. It is only over the last few centuries that psychologists in the west have discovered these things, while in India Jain philosophers were playing these concepts two and a half millennia back.



Souls (Jīva): This is the entity which produces sentience in all of us

Matter (Pudgala): This includes all the material that fabricates the world we live in.

Motion (Dharma): The improvement in the situation of the Soul due to good action.

Rest (Adharma): The continuation of the suffering of the Soul due to inappropriate action.

Space (Akasa): The all pervading infinite substance in which the souls, matter, motion and rest exist.

Time (Kala): In which all the events progress Jains consider time to be eternal.

Jains do not believe in the existence of God as a supreme being who is the creator, preserver or destroyer of this universe, therefore Jain philosophy is Nastik. Jains only believe in their Tirthankaras whom they consider liberated souls who have brought their faith into existence from very long time ago. The first Tirthanakar of Jains is Rsabhadeva while their last thirthankara was Vardhamana, also known as Mahavira. The term Mahavira means the great hero and he lived around the same time as Gautama Budha that is in 6 BCE. All the tirthankars in between have lived in prehistoric times.

Jains do believe in the existence of soul and call it jiva. Jains consider all living beings to have a soul and consider it to be divine, that is why nonviolence against all living things is a central theme of Jainism. The Jains believe that a soul takes up a body and is born again and again. This bondage of the soul to a body is due to passions and cravings of the soul. With passions and cravings, the soul starts to attract matter and gets bonded to a body. By following the path laid out by the Tirthanakaras (more on that in the ethics), every soul can attain freedom from bondage. Once the soul becomes free from bondage then it becomes Perfect and Blissful.


Ahimsa: A vow to not hurt any living being.

Satya: A vow to always speak the truth

Asteya: Do not take anything from others against their knowledge or will

Brahamcharya: Vow of chastity

Aparigraha: A vow not to posses material property

It is interesting to note that Jain ethics are not based on altruism or to do good, neither are they based on the will to please God as there is no concept of God in Jainism, instead they are based on egoistic aim to attain liberation of the soul. Based on this Jains put a huge emphasis on non-violence. According to me Jains have taken this definition too far. Where many Jains put a cover over their mouth so that they do not hurt the microbes. In Jain Ramayana it is Laxmana who kills Ravana and then ends up in hell. Such a strict vow to ahimsa makes you susceptible to aggression. Imagine a society where everyone including law enforcers do not perform any forceful action, such a society will descend in chaos as soon as a few violent people from outside come in. Jain faith would have been wiped out long time back from this planet if the Hindus and Sikhs would not have resisted to the external aggressors. In fact Jinadatta Suri a 12th century Jain thinker, wrote during a time of widespread destruction of Jain temples and blocking of Jain pilgrimage by Muslim armies, that “anybody engaged in a religious activity who was forced to fight and kill somebody” in self-defense would not lose merit. So as you can see there are some serious flaws with Jain ethics.

Originally published at https://stoicsadhu.com on March 21, 2020.

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