Mangos and Elephants: Bailing out Karma with Jainism

Sticky karma and sinking dinghies, straining out gnats and debating elephants; finding victory through three aims of Jainism.

Two days after learning how amorphous Hinduism is (see here), we discovered a more defined offshoot faith that most of us had hardly heard of.  Dr Priyadarshana Jain, a lecturer in the Department of Jainology at the University of Madras, has been teaching Jainism since her teenage years and was delighted to enlighten us.  For her Jainism is not a religion, but a way of life; not just a subject, but “my work, my hobby, my passion”.

Jainism traditionally began with Mahavira (599-527 BC), the last of 24 “ford-makers”.  He renounced the world to become a monk at the age of 30 (similar to Buddha and Jesus), attaining enlightenment at 42, and complete liberation at 72.  Mahavira was a near-contemporary of the Buddha.  Both new faiths reacted against an increasingly complex Hinduism, dominated by upper caste Brahmins who alone could perform the intricate rituals.  Many Hindu idols brandish fearful weapons in striking, sexy poses, and nearly all wear colourful garb, but Jain idols are unadorned white stone, standing or sitting alone in meditation.

“Jaina” literally means Victor or Conqueror – one who has overcome internal enemies like anger, conceit, deceit, greed, delusion, ignorance, and fear.  These cause karma that sticks to the soul like sand on an oiled wrestler’s body and enslaves us in the cycle of birth and death.  To attain liberation, we must first stop the influx of negative karma by renouncing harmful practices, before draining off existing karma by austerity – just as rowers in a sinking dinghy first plug the gaping hole before bailing out the water.  Jainism has no creator God and no source of grace.  As a Jain text teaches, it’s all up to us: “You are your own friend; why seek a friend beyond yourself?”

Dr Priya summarised Jain ethics, the path to such liberation, under the headings of “three As”.

The prime Jain virtue is Ahimsa, which means nonviolence or compassion.  She said that Muslims show compassion to fellow Muslims, Christians to all people, Hindus to all animals, but only Jains care about all forms of life.  Jain monks wear gauze masks to avoid breathing small insects, and carry a mesh to filter bugs from their drinking water, which is best boiled, so fewer microbes are killed than if they’ve multiplied at room temperature.  They sweep the path ahead as they walk, lest they tread on a tiny life.  Agriculture is forbidden, as ploughing kills small creatures and insects.  Suicide is also taboo, but the ideal death is with complete nonviolence by starvation.  I was surprised to later read that abortion of girls is high among Jains – after straining out a gnat, it seems some swallow a camel.

Dr Priya  liked telling stories, like about six men lost in the forest, to show increasing degrees of nonviolence.  Growing hungry, they spy a mango tree laden with delicious fruit.  The first wants to uproot the whole tree, the second to chop it down at the trunk.  The third advocates sawing off a large limb, the third cutting off a thinner branch.  The fifth suggests simply plucking the fruit, while the sixth picks up fallen mangos from the ground, doing no violence at all to the tree.  He understands that everything is one beneath surface differences, so by hurting others, one really hurts oneself.

As you might expect, Jains are committed to environmental protection and vegetarianism.  Unlike most of our speakers, Dr Priya wouldn’t join us for lunch, because meat and eggs are cooked in the kitchen.

The second “A” is anekanta, meaning non-absolutism or relativism.  Realising that everything can be seen from different perspectives, she said, promotes tolerance or nonviolence of the mind, avoiding the conflict of dogmatism.  In other words, post-modernism isn’t so modern!  The classic story of anekanta features six blind men who try to describe their first elephant.

The first touches the leg, declaring an elephant is a pillar.  The second grasps the tail, concluding it’s a rope.  The third feels the trunk, rough and thick like a tree branch.  The fourth fondles an ear, which resembles a hand fan.  The fifth knocks against the belly, obviously a huge wall.  The sixth rubs the smooth tusk, evidently a solid pipe.  The poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) retold the tale and concluded with the moral:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The third “A” is aparigraha, which means non-possession or non-attachment.  What is the difference, asked Dr Priyadarshana, between a beggar and an ascetic?  Both possess nothing, but the beggar is still attached: he still wants things.  At the other end of the scale, one can possess all things and still be free.  It doesn’t matter if the boat is in water, as long as water is not in the boat.  So it is with the mind in the world.  Indeed, the Jain community has many wealthy businessmen.  (Many years ago, I was pleased to read that my Myers-Briggs personality type has the capacity to enjoy without having to possess.)

I found a story from Antony de Mello that I think Jains would appreciate, as it somewhat combines non-absolutism and nonattachment:

A disciple said, “I am ready, in the quest for God, to give up anything: wealth, friends, family, country, life itself. What else can a person give up?”
The Master calmly replied, “One’s beliefs about God.”

As she finished, Dr Priyadarshana asked how a psychiatrist can tell whether patients are cured.  Place a bucket under a running tap, and ask them to empty it.  The healthy will first turn off the tap; the insane would endlessly bail – as do most of us all our lives.  She exhorted us to study Jain philosophy, and challenged us to turn off the karmic tap by taking a vow: for the rest of our time in India, stop eating meat, or don’t kill bugs in our room.  I admired her eager commitment (she was one of the liveliest speakers we had), and the consistency of Jain ethics with its philosophy.  I question the latter, however, so am still slaying any mosquitoes I catch – out of compassion, of course, to save the dear creatures from violently biting me and earning bad karma themselves.

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