(RNS) — We’re now in one of the holiest seasons of the year, in which days and nights are taken up with fasting, prayer and recitations of sacred texts. If you think I’m referring to Judaism, you’re likely not alone, but late summer is also the highlight of the year for one of the world’s most ancient, and most obscure, faiths.
Beginning Sept. 4, Jains, followers of one of India’s oldest but smallest religions, have been observing Paryushan and Das Lakshana, two festivals that are celebrated in turn by the faith’s two major sects: Svetambara and Digambara. Together, these festivals call on Jains to focus on the 10 values of right conduct, apologizing for hurting anyone — intentionally or not — through thoughts, words or actions.
A recent Pew report referred to Jains as a “sliver” of India’s population — about 0.4% of the country of 1.3 billion people identifies as Jain. This makes it the smallest of India’s six major religious groups — after Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. Even Indians, the report notes, know “very little” about Jainism.
Much less are Americans conscious of the faith that was first introduced here 125 years ago. Having grown up Jain in India before studying the religion academically since moving to the United States, I often have to explain my ancient religion to friends and colleagues.
I also have to explain why I consider myself an atheist, despite belonging to a religious group: Jainism does not believe in a creator God. In Jain theology, the existence of evil in the world itself proves that there is no external God. The focus instead is on the paramatman — the divine nature of the soul.
Jains believe that each human being has the capability of ultimately recognizing and achieving that divinity within their own self through the right actions. This creates the moral world of the Jains.
Instead of a godhead, Jains worship the 24 tirthankaras — 24 enlightened beings, born in human form, who attained “moksha” or liberated their souls from its endless cycle of birth and death. The last of the 24 tirthankaras, Vardhaman Mahavira, born in 599 B.C., is said to be a contemporary of Buddha.
In fact, in this belief, a soul goes through many learnings in innumerable lifetimes to attain perfection. To reach moksha, one’s karma — all actions, including intentions, ever committed — must be annihilated.
The pursuit of this state calls for “ahimsa,” or the practice of not hurting another living being, through thoughts, actions or deeds. It’s an ideal that many Jains aspire to move toward during their lifetime.
In our modern age — a time known as Kali Yuga in Hindu and Jain cosmology, spanning thousands of years when the world is going through strife — no one is likely to attain moksha. That’s because there is so much evil and illusion in the Kali Yuga that the state of perfection needed for moksha is not attainable.
But Jain philosophy teaches that one should nonetheless strive for moksha so as to be reborn in a place and cosmological time when that is possible. The only way toward moksha is an ascetic life, as it is the intense heat of penance that Jains believe is necessary to burn all karma.
Jains worship the tirthankaras seeking to be inspired by them, so as to pursue their path and attain their superior qualities.
While the Jains’ concept of karma has commonalities with Hinduism and Buddhism, Jain theology is vastly different.
Karma in Jainism is thought of like material particles, a sort of spiritual dust, that attach to the soul as a person goes through life. Denser karma, accrued through dark deeds, makes the soul heavier, taking it toward the lower layers of hell. Good karma keeps the soul lighter, helping in its upward ascent, through the various layers of heaven.
Each person has an entirely free will, through which we create our own destiny, Jains believe, and the results of any action may manifest in this life or in lives to come.
But there are also many overlaps with Hinduism. In Jain temples, Hindu deities can be seen in the form of minor deities. In some of the most ancient temples, these Hindu deities are often seen toward the entrance to the temple, or as figures carved on temple walls. In the earliest Jain cave temples in Ellora in central India, built around A.D. 700 to 900, I have seen large idols of many Hindu deities.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
American Civic Life