The Life Force of Jainism: When Kindness Takes on Revolutionary Dimensions

By Michael Tobias, Ph.D.

Jain temple in Rajanasthan.
Jain temple in Rajanasthan.

I first discovered the Jain world while approaching a gleaming white marble temple in Central India over 40 years ago. This gorgeous architectural wonder sat quietly in a remote town, a great variety of birds, Gray Hanuman Langurs, bovines, and camels roaming about. I removed my tennis shoes and socks at the entrance and then proceeded into the temple courtyard. A lovely elder asked me if I wouldn’t mind also removing my watch.

“Of course,” I replied. I assumed it was because I was entering a sacred space where linear notions of time no longer held any relevance. I was incorrect in my assessment. It was because the watch had a leather band. The old man gently requested I leave the watch outside the temple adjoining a spot where others had left their leather shoes. Leather, after all, comes from a dead, probably murdered, animal.

Years later, I learned a fascinating tale, possibly with more than a grain of truth, that added to my own experience of the historic context for Jain non-violence. The story is about the attempted conquest of the Indian sub-continent by Alexander the Great. As mentioned in the details of the event, traveling with the young militant was Onesicritus of the island Aegina, who wrote one of the first biographies of Alexander ever conceived. Onescritus described how Alexander encountered naked yogis sitting in the dust in the village his armies had come to conquer.

Intrigued by these ascetics, Alexander wanted to speak with them but was told that unless he took off his armor (and possibly all of his clothes) and sat down in the dust with the alleged wise men, no true conversation could occur. Alexander did as he as was asked, and, according to Onesicritus, they all had a lovely chat, at the conclusion of which Alexander the Great decided he’d had enough of the life of conquest and took his armies back home to Greece.

These yogis, some historians interpret, were likely ancient Jain sages. This would make good sense since northwestern India, particularly parts of northern Gujarat, remains a major Jain center. Despite a population of 10 to 15 million Jains around the world, Jain community influence — driven by such great sages as Mahavira, who was an elder contemporary and teacher of Buddha — remains little known.
At the core of this introspective and philanthropic way of life are such values as anukampa (compassion), ahimsa (non-violence), irya-samiti (care in walking, so as not to harm an ant or any living creature), and aparigraha (non-possession). I learned these and many other Jain principles from the Jain scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Padmanabh Jaini, and from the from the remarkable Jain guru Sri Chitrabhanuji, who lives in New York City and Mumbai with his wife and life-partner, the vegan Jain activist Pramoda.

This aforementioned value of aparigraha was employed by Mahatma Gandhi, who was greatly influenced as a youth by the famed diamond merchant Srimad Rajchandra. Rajchandra was himself a Jain and a wealthy businessman in Mumbai. At the age of 23, Rajchandra embarked on a personal journey of renunciation, turning over his wealth to others in the manner of the great Jain monk Mahavira (599-527 BCE).

Mahavira (literally one who has conquered himself) is the 24th so-called Jina or sage. In Jain tradition, he also renounced his wealth to live a simpler life. It is well documented that Mahavira — in the manner of his younger student Buddha and subsequent spiritual sages like St. Francis — spent his entire adult life wandering from village to village discussing the nature of existence. He emphasized the human capacity for, and the necessity of, non-violence or ahimsa.

All the values and conceptual ways of life in Jainism are both idealistic and practical. In his own version of these values, the nineteenth-century Scottish-American conservationist John Muir describes his philosophy of environmentalism and reverence for all living beings as leading towards “a good practical sort of immortality.” In Jain tradition, a person who has never killed a living being will never perish themselves.

These values find their way into everyday life — whether in our thoughts and intentions, our professions, or the way we relate to all other sentient (and non-sentient) beings. The values emerge as an opportunity at every meal (the majority of Jains are vegetarian, and many are vegan), in every conscious and unconscious action of the appetites, of consumption, reflection, infliction, and non-infliction. Indeed, there is ample reason to be deeply humbled by the Jain perspective on modernity.

Absolute non-violence may be biologically impossible, but, as Gandhi himself said even up to the time of his own assassination, “Ahimsa limps, but it is the only way.” Each of us must make often difficult ethical decisions, choosing our priorities from a welter of imperatives. In Jain traditional ethics, applied compassion, tolerance, and restraint are key to such decisions.

Jainism has provided me a personal approach to the work I do in my own orientation to an Earth that is so astonishing, beautiful, humbling, and rich with life — with perhaps more than 100 million species and millions of trillions of individuals. According to the most recent scientific estimate, the number of creatures (Jain nigodas) on this planet, if one counts bacterial and viral life, is a 10 with more than 30 zeros exponentially attached.

Hence, in the words of the Jain daily salutations, or namaskara-mantra, “I forgive all beings, may all beings forgive me. I have friendship toward all, malice toward none” (translated by Dr. Jaini in his paper “Ahimsa: A Jain Way of Personal Discipline”).

The life force in Jainism translates into kindness to all life. There could be no more timely or revolutionary message.

Dr. Michael Tobias is the author of the book Life Force: The World of Jainism, among many others. To glean an example of Dr. Tobias’s perspective on Jainism, see the 20-minute film he and his life-partner Jane Gray Morrison produced for the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development last year: “Yasuni, A Meditation on Life.” This short documentary was filmed in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, the most biologically-diverse quadrant on the Earth.

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