Ancient History & Civilisation


The Great Hero—The Jain creed—Atheistic polytheism—Asceticism—Salvation by suicide—Later history of the Jains

About the middle of the sixth century B.C. a boy was born to a wealthy nobleman of the Lichchavi tribe in a suburb of the city of Vaishali, in what is now the province of Bihar.* His parents, though wealthy, belonged to a sect that looked upon rebirth as a curse, and upon suicide as a blessed privilege. When their son had reached his thirty-first year they ended their lives by voluntary starvation. The young man, moved to the depths of his soul, renounced the world and its ways, divested himself of all clothing, and wandered through western Bengal as an ascetic, seeking self-purification and understanding. After thirteen years of such self-denial, he was hailed by a group of disciples as a Jina (“conqueror”), i.e., one of the great teachers whom fate, they believed, had ordained to appear at regular intervals to enlighten the people of India. They rechristened their leader Mahavira, or the Great Hero, and took to themselves, from their most characteristic belief, the name of Jains. Mahavira organized a celibate clergy and an order of nuns, and when he died, aged seventy-two, left behind him fourteen thousand devotees.

Gradually this sect developed one of the strangest bodies of doctrine in all the history of religion. They began with a realistic logic, in which knowledge was described as confined to the relative and temporal. Nothing is true, they taught, except from one point of view; from other points of view it would probably be false. They were fond of quoting the story of the six blind men who laid hands on different parts of an elephant; he who held the ear thought that the elephant was a great winnowing fan; he who held the leg said the animal was a big, round pillar.17 All judgments, therefore, are limited and conditional; absolute truth comes only to the periodic Redeemers or Jinas. Nor can the Vedas help; they are not inspired by God, if only for the reason that there is no God. It is not necessary, said the Jains, to assume a Creator or First Cause; any child can refute that assumption by showing that an uncreated Creator, or a causeless Cause, is just as hard to understand as an uncaused or uncreated world. It is more logical to believe that the universe has existed from all eternity, and that its infinite changes and revolutions are due to the inherent powers of nature rather than to the intervention of a deity.18

But the climate of India does not lend itself to a persistently naturalistic creed. The Jains, having emptied the sky of God, soon peopled it again with the deified saints of Jain history and legend. These they worshiped with devotion and ceremony, but even them they considered subject to transmigration and decay, and not in any sense as the creators or rulers of the world.19 Nor were the Jains materialists; they accepted a dualistic distinction of mind and matter everywhere; in all things, even in stones and metals, there were souls. Any soul that achieved a blameless life became a Paramatman, or supreme soul, and was spared reincarnation for a while; when its reward had equaled its merit, however, it was born into the flesh again. Only the highest and most perfect spirits could achieve complete “release”; these were the Arhats, or supreme lords, who lived like Epicurus’ deities in some distant and shadowy realm, impotent to affect the affairs of men, but happily removed from all chances of rebirth.20

The road to release, said the Jains, was by ascetic penances and complete ahimsa—abstinence from injury to any living thing. Every Jain ascetic must take five vows: not to kill anything, not to lie, not to take what is not given, to preserve chastity, and to renounce pleasure in all external things. Sense pleasure, they thought, is always a sin; the ideal is indifference to pleasure and pain, and independence of all external objects. Agriculture is forbidden to the Jain, because it tears up the soil and crushes insects or worms. The good Jain rejects honey as the life of the bee, strains water lest he destroy creatures lurking in it when he drinks, veils his mouth for fear of inhaling and killing the organisms of the air, screens his lamp to protect insects from the flame, and sweeps the ground before him as he walks lest his naked foot should trample out some life. The Jain must never slaughter or sacrifice an animal; and if he is thoroughgoing he establishes hospitals or asylums, as at Ahmedabad, for old or injured beasts. The only life that he may kill is his own. His doctrine highly approves of suicide, especially by slow starvation, for this is the greatest victory of the spirit over the blind will to live. Many Jains have died in this way; and the leaders of the sect are said to leave the world, even today, by self-starvation.21

A religion based upon so profound a doubt and denial of life might have found some popular support in a country where life has always been hard; but even in India its extreme asceticism limited its appeal. From the beginning the Jains were a select minority; and though Yuan Chwang found them numerous and powerful in the seventh century,22 it was a passing zenith in a quiet career. About 79 A.D. a great schism divided them on the question of nudity; from that time on the Jains have belonged either to theShwetambara—white-robed—sect, or to the Digambaras—skyclad or nude. Today both sects wear the usual clothing of their place and time; only their saints go about the streets naked. These sects have further sects to divide them: the Digambaras have four, the Shwetambaras eighty-four;23 together they number only 1,300,000 adherents out of a population of 320,000,000 souls.24 Gandhi has been strongly influenced by the Jain sect, has accepted ahimsa as the basis of his policy and his life, contents himself with a loin-cloth, and may starve himself to death. The Jains may yet name him as one of their Jinas, another incarnation of the great spirit that periodically is made flesh to redeem the world.

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