The Philosophy and Practice of Jainism

Hindu marriage

by V R Gandhi

1. Any philosophy or religion must be studied from all standpoints, and in order thoroughly, know what it says with regard to the origin of the universe, what its idea is with regard to God, with regard to the soul and its destiny, and what it regards as the laws of the soul's life. The answers to all these questions would collectively give us a true idea of the religion or philosophy.

In our country religion is not different from philosophy, and religion and philosophy do not differ from science. We do not say that there is scientific religion or religious science; we say that the two are identical. We do not use the word religion because it implies a binding back and conveys and idea of dependence, the dependence of finite being upon an infinite, and [the idea that] in that dependence consists the happiness or bliss of the individual.1

With the Jainas the idea is a little different. With them bliss consists not in dependence but in independence; the dependence is in the life of the world and if that life of the world is a part of religion then we may express the idea by the English word, but the life which is the highest life, is that in which we are personally independent, so far as binding or disturbing influences are concerned. In the Highest State the soul, which is the highest entity, is independent.

The nature of universe

2. This is the idea of our religion. The first important idea connected with it is the idea of universe. Is it eternal or non-eternal? Is it permanent or transitory? Or course, there are so many different opinions on the subject, but with these opinions I am not concerned in this lecture; I am only going to give the idea of the Jaina philosophy.

We say that we cannot study any idea unless we look upon it from all standpoints. We may express this idea by symbols or forms; we have expressed it by the story of the elephant and the seven blind men who wanted to know what kind of animal the elephant was, and each, touching a different part of the animal, understood its form in so many different ways and thereupon became dogmatic. If you wish to understand what kind of animal an elephant is, you must look upon it from all sides, and so it is with truth. Therefore we say that the universe from one standpoint is eternal and from another one-eternal. The totality of the universe taken as whole is eternal. It is a collection of many things.

That collection contains the same particles every moment, therefore as collection it is eternal; but there are so many parts of that collection and so many entities in it, all of which have their different states which occur at different times and each part does not retain the same state at all times. There is change, there is destruction of any particular form, and a new form comes into existence; and therefore if we look upon the universe from this standpoint it is non-eternal. With this philosophy there is no idea, and no place for the idea, of creation out of nothing. That idea, really speaking, is not entertained by any right-thinking people. Even those who believe in creation believe from a different standpoint than this. It cannot come into existence out of nothing, but is an emanation coming out of something. The state only is created. This book in a sense is created because all its particles are put together, having been in a different state. The form of the book is created. There was a beginning of this book and there will be an end. In the same manner, with any form of matter, whether this form lasts for moments or for centuries, if there was beginning of this book and there will be an end. In the same manner, with any form of matter, whether this form lasts for moments or for centuries, if there was a beginning there must be an end.

We say there are both preservation and destruction in the many forces working around us all these forces are working ever moment in the midst of us and around us, and the collection of these entities is called by the Jainas `God'.2 The Brahman. Represent it by the syllable OM; the first sound in this word represents the idea of creation, the second of preservation and the third of destruction. All these are energies of the universe and taken as a whole they are subject to certain fixed laws. If the law are fixed why do people bow down to these energies? Why do they consider the collective energy as a god or as God? There is always an idea of the power to do evil in the beginning of this conception. When railroads were first introduced into India ignorant people who did not know what they were, who had never seen in their lives that a car or carriage could be moved without the horse or the ox, thought that there was some divinity in the engine, some God or Goddess. and some of them even bow down before the car; and even to this day you will find in some parts of India, among the pariahs or low class, that there are people who entertain this idea. So to these energies in our primitive state we are liable to attribute personality; and after a long course of development we symbolize our thought in the form of pictures and explain them in that way to make them more intelligible to others. In the ancient times there was not rain but a rainer, not thunder but a thunderer, and in that way, personality is attributed, or living consciousness and character, to those forces. There may be conscious entities in these forces, as there may be living entities on the planets, but these forces themselves are not living entities. This, however, expresses the idea in the beginning; these energies were classed as creative, preservative and destructive, and these three entities were considered to be component parts of one entity called Brahma by the Hindus. Really, creation in this is in the sense of emanation, preservation is used in the sense of preserving the form, and destruction in the sense of destroying the form.

The idea of matter is something that can be handled or perceived by the senses and the energies must be material energies, as cohesion, magnetism, electricity, but to consider these God would be the most materialistic idea, and therefore the Jainas discard this idea so far as the Godhead or Godlike character is concerned. They of course admit the existence of these energies, that they are indeed to be found everywhere, but they are subject to fixed laws which cannot be interfered with by any person, not that these energies consciously influence our destinies with regard to good and evil. To say that they do so influence us is only to show our ignorance with regard to their laws. These energies collectively we call substantiality. There are innumerable qualities and attributes in matter itself, and they manifest themselves at different times and ways. We are not able selves at different times and ways. We are not able without further development to know what energies are inherent in matter, and when any new thing comes to view we are surprised, and whatever is surprising is considered to be something coming from divinity; but where we understand scientific principles the surprise is removed and it is all as simple as the daily rising and setting of the sun. Thousands of years ago the different phenomena of nature were considered in different parts of the world to be the working of different Gods and Goddesses, but when we understand science these phenomena become simple and the idea of theses beings as characters of the highest spiritual power goes away.

The nature of the Self

3. `What is the God of the Jainas?' you will ask. I have only told you what he is not. I will now tell you what it is. We know that there is something besides matter; we know that the body exhibits many qualities and powers not to be found in ordinary material substances, and that the some thing which causes this, departs from the body at death. We do not know where it goes; we know that when it lives in the body the powers of the body are different from what they are when it is not there. The powers of nature can be assimilated to the body at death. We do not know where it goes; we know that when it lives in the body the powers of the body are different from what they are when it is not there. The powers of nature can be assimilated to the body when that some thing is there. That entity is considered by us the highest and it is the same inherently in all living beings. This principle common to us all is called divinity. It is not fully developed in any of us, as it was in the saviors of the world, and therefore we can them divine beings. So the collective idea derived from observations of the divine character inherent in all beings is by us called God. While there are so many energies in the material world and in the spiritual and putting those two energies together we give them the name of nature we separate the material energies and put them together; but the spiritual energies we put together and call them collectively God. We make a distinction and worship only the spiritual energies. Why should we do so? A Jaina verse says, " I bow down to that spiritual power or energy which is the cause of leading us to the path of salvation, which is supreme, which is omniscient; I bow down to the power because I with to become like that power." So where the form of the Jaina prayer is given the object is not a receive anything from that entity or from that spiritual nature, but to become like that power." So where the form of the Jaina prayer is given the object is not to receive any thing from that entity or from that spiritual nature, but to become one like that; not that spiritual entity will make us, by a magic power, become like itself, but by following out the ideal which is before our eyes, we shall be able to change our own personality; it will be regretted, as it were, and will be changed into a being which will have the same character s the divinity which is our idea of God. So we worship God, not as being who is going to give up something, not because it is going to do something or please us, not because it is profitable in way; there is not any idea of selfishness; it is like practicing virtue for the sake of virtue and without any other motive.

4. (a) Now we come to the idea of soul. The ordinary idea of soul substance is that in order for thing to exist it must have formed, it must be perceived by the senses. This is our ordinary experience. Really speaking it is the experience only of the sensuous part of the being, the lowest part of the human entity, and from and experience we derive conclusions and think that these conclusions apply to all substance. There are substances, which cannot be perceived by the senses; there are subtler substances and entities and these can be known only by the consciousness, by the soul. Such a substance which cannot be seen, heard, tasted, smelt or touched, is a substance which need not occupy space and need not have any tangibility, but, it may exist although it may not have nay form.3 Sight is an impression made on the nerves of the eye by vibrations sent forth form the object perceived and this impression which we call sight, if there are no vibrations coming out of the object, is of course not produced; but if this substance influences us in certain ways the implication is that there is something moving or producing vibrations, and these cannot exist unless there is some material substance which is vibrating. The very fact that something is moving in some way and influences us in some peculiar way implies that there is something material about this. If there are no vibrations the substance is not material. It need not exist in a form, which will give us the impression of any color, smell, etc. There is nothing, which can partake both the attributes of soul and of matter; the attributes of matter are directly contrary to those of the soul. While one has its life in the other, it does not become the other.

How can that soul live in matter when its attributes are of a different nature? By our own experience we know that, we are obliged to live in surrounding which are not congenial to us, Which are not of our own nature. People feel that they are not related to their surroundings, there must be some reason for their being obliged to live in those surroundings, but there must be a reason in the intelligence itself; it cannot be in the material substance. We know that this is fact, because intelligence cannot proceed from any thing, which is purely material. No material substance has given any evidence of having possessed intelligence; it might have done so when there was life in it, but without this it has no intelligence.4 That intelligence is, we are quite sure, influenced by material things, but it does not arise from the material things. Persons of sound intelligence take a large dose of some intoxicating drink and the intelligence will not work at all. Why should this material thing influence the immaterial, the soul? The soul thinks that the body is itself and therefore anything, which is done to the material self, is supposed by the real self to be done to it. That is where the Christian scientists and the Jaina philosophy will agree; that if the soul thinks that the body is real self anything done to the body will be considered by the soul to be done to the soul, and therefore what happens to the body will be felt by the soul; but if the soul for a moment thinks that the body is not the self but altogether different and a stranger to the soul, for that reason no feeling of pain will exist; our attention is taken away in some other direction shows that the self is something higher than the body. Still under ordinary circumstances the soul is influenced by the body, and therefore we are to study the laws of the body and soul so as to rise above these little things and proceed on our path to salvation or liberation, which is the real aspiration of the soul. There is power of matter itself, but that power is lower than the power of the soul. If there was no power at all in the body or in matter, the soul would never be influenced by it, for mere non-existence will never influence anything; but because there is such a thing as matter when the soul thinks that that the soul would never be influenced by it, for mere non-existence will never influence anything; but because there is such a thing as matter, when the soul thinks that there is a power of the body and a power of the matter, these powers will influence it. Bodily power as we see it is on account of the presence of the soul. There is a power in matter, as cohesion etc, and this will work although the soul does not think anything about it. If the moon revolves around the earth there are some forces inherent in the earth and moon. What I mean to say is that the influence of these material powers on soul powers depends on the soul's readiness or willingness to submit to these powers. If the soul takes the view that it will not be influenced by any thing, it cannot be so influences.

The Self and its states

(b) This being the soul's nature, what is its origin? Everything can be looked upon from two standpoints, the substance and the manifestation. If the state of the soul itself is to be taken into consideration that state has its beginning and its end. The state of the soul as living in the human body had a beginning at birth and will have an end at death, but it is a beginning and an end of the state, not of the thing itself. The soul taken as a substance is eternal; taken as a state every state has its beginning and end. So this beginning of a state implies that before this beginning there was another state of the soul. Nothing can exist unless it exists in some state. The state may not be permanent, but the thing must have a state at all times. if therefore the present state of the soul had beginning, it had another state before the beginning of this state, and after the end of this state it will have another state. So the future state is something that comes out of or is the result of the present state. As the future is to the present, so the present is to the past. The present is only the future of the past. What is true with regard to the future state is true with regard to the past and present state. The acts of the past have determined our present state, and if this is true the acts of the present state must determine the future state.


This brings us to the doctrine of rebirth, transmigration of souls, metempsychosis, reincarnation, etc. as they are variously known. First take incarnation, which means literally becoming flesh; and, really that which is spirit is always spirit or soul. The spirit does not become flesh. If reincarnation means to become flesh there can be no reincarnation, but if it means simply the life in flesh for a short time, then there is reincarnation. Reincarnation means also to be born in some state again and again. Metempsychosis means in Greek only change; that the animal itself, body and soul, everything together, is changed into some other thing and so on. That is the idea of metempsychosis. Transmigration of souls is, especially in the idea of the Christians, the idea of the human soul going into the animal body, as if this were a necessity. But that is not the real idea; the real idea is simply going from one place to another or from one body to another, but not necessarily going from the human body to the animal body, but simply travelling. It implies the idea of form. Nothing can travel unless it has form and occupies space and is material; so in our philosophy we reject all these terms if that is the idea connected with these terms, and use the idea of rebirth; that is, the soul is born in some other body, and the birth does not imply the same conditions [as those] applying to the human birth6. There are certain conditions in which human beings are born; the seed itself takes several months to ripen and then there is the birth. This may be due to certain acts or forces, which are generated by human beings?7 These are in a condition to be observed by beings whose forces will take them to some other planet, and we say that there is another condition of birth there. There is no necessity for gestation and fecundation. The karmic body has in itself many powers and has a force to take to itself another body, which is in the case of the human beings a gross body, but in the case of other beings a subtle body is generated and this body is changeable so far as its form and dimensions are concerned. Therefore, if the forces generated, while we live any kind of life are of different kinds then in the case of some being it may be necessary that he should be born in the human condition and pass through the actual conditions which must be obeyed if the human being is to be born, while if the forces generated are different in their character he may be born on some other planet, where birth is manifested in different way, without any necessity of the combination of the male and the female principle. There are so many different planes of life that the mere study of the human life ought not to be made to apply to all the affairs of life. We have studied only a few forms of the life of animals, human beings, etc., but that is only the part which under the present development of our science of our eyesight even, we are able to study. We are not able to study other forms of life, innumerable in the universe, and therefore we ought not to apply the laws thus discovered to all forms of life.


Our study is introspective because our idea is that soul is able to know everything under the right circumstances. The knowledge acquired under these conditions is of the sounder nature and a more correct kind because the obstacles, which come in the way science, are not there. Science has to commit mistakes and think that they do not;8 still knowledge is derived from inferences which we draw from certain premises which may not be right or if the premises are right the inference may be wrong. We do not mean to say that there are always mistakes in the knowledge, which is acquired through sensation or through matter, but sometimes it is possible, and while it may be correct knowledge in many cases we cannot rely on that. The highest knowledge is immediate knowledge, derived by the soul without the assistance of any external thing, and the knowledge of liberated souls, and also the knowledge of human beings who are just on the point of being liberated, or have passed through the course of discipline, mental, moral and spiritual, and have nearly exhausted past forces, at the same time generating spiritual forces, and on account of discipline and sees everything when this state is arrived at; it knows means that it is something, some reality, and there can be no reality unless it can distinguish itself from other realities. Only the one universal thing could not know itself, because knowledge implies comparing one with another, and if that itself, because knowledge implies comparing one with another, and if that is not done there is no individuality. We say therefore that the soul in its highest existence knows, that it is perfectly separate form other things, so far as experience and knowledge are concerned, but in so far as its nature is concerned, so long as there is a sense of separateness, there is no occasion or opportunity for the soul to rise higher because when the soul thinks that it is living a different existence for its own sake it is considering its own self to be different from another person and thinks that this is its own and a part of its nature, its own being, and therefore anything done in regard to these surroundings will benefit or injure its own.9 It even thinks that its very life consists in doing goods and in loving other souls and taking active measures for carrying into effect the very plan of the sole (Those souls?). Then it comes higher, and ultimately reaches the highest condition. The condition of the soul, as I have said, is the highest in which there is perfect consciousness, there is infinite knowledge and infinite bliss; we express these three ideas in Sanskrit as existence infinite, bliss infinite and knowledge infinite. That condition of the soul cannot be described by us because description is something which proceeds from a finite mind and when the soul becomes infinite no finite mind and when the soul becomes infinite no finite mind can fully express the conditions of that infinite state. The attributes we give therefore to that condition of the soul are always full of comprehension.10We shall always leave out many things; we have not the power to express all our thoughts. How can we express, then, this state of a soul, which so far as its power and knowledge are concerned is infinite?

The doctrine of standpoints

The Jainas have studied the nature of the soul and the universe from these standpoints and have derived a beautiful principle, and so far as this is concerned there is this difference between this country and other countries and other religions, they can understand all these from these standpoints11. The Bible says, 'Thou shalt not kill', and Jainas practice universal love so that this also means that we should not kill any beings. If we say that the Bible does not mean that we take away a part of the bible. Why should we interpret the laws of any religion from the narrowest standpoint? We should take into consideration the nature, attributes and working of all things. We cannot derive laws, which are to be applied to the whole universe simply by our observation of a part of the conscious nature of the universe. If you wish to state correctly the nature of the universe you will study the nature of all the different parts of the universe and then the laws will be applicable to all parts of it. We think that we are superior to other things because our tenants who live on the ground floor are inferior to us, but we have no right therefore to crush those tenants, who later on will acquire the right to inhabit the second and third floors and finally the highest floor. One living on the highest plane has no right to crush those who live on the lowest plane. If one thinks that he has a right to do this, which he has, not sufficient strength to live without destroying life, our philosophy says that it is still sin to destroy life, and it remains only to choose the lowest form, the less evil, We will in business take such a kind of business as will yield the most profit and will cause us to lose the least, in which we have the less liabilities; and the highest condition will be that in which we have no liabilities and no creditors, the state in which we may live without any creditors or in a perfectly free condition. That is the liberated condition.


5. The idea of Karma is very complicated. I have told you something so it in my former lectures. The one chief point is that that theory is not the theory of fatalism, not a theory in which the human being is tied down to some, one, bound down by the force of something outside itself. In one sense only will there be fatalism; if we are free to do many things we are also not free to do other things, and we cannot be freed from and results of our acts. Some results may be manifested in great strength, others very weakly; some may take a very long time and others a very short time; some are of such a nature that they take a long time to work out, while the influence of others may be removed by simply washing with water and that will be the case in the matter of acts done incidentally without any settled purpose or any fixed desire. In such a case with reference to many acts we may counteract their effects by willing to do so. So the theory of karma is not in any sense a theory of fatalism, but we say that all of us are not going to one goal without any desire on our part, not that we are to reach that state without any effort on our part, but that our present condition is the effect of our acts, thoughts and words in the past state.12 To say that all will reach the prefect state merely because some one has died that they might be saved, merely from a belief in this person, would be a theory of fatalism, because those who have lived a pure and virtuous state and have not accepted a certain theory will not reach the perfected state simply for that reason and no other the faith in saviors is simply this, that by following out the divine principle which is in our selves when this is fully developed we also shall become Christ's, by the crucifixion of the lower nature on the altar of the higher. We also use the cross as a symbol. All living beings have to pass through or evolve from the lowest, the monadic, condition to the highest state of existence and cannot reach this unless they obtain possession of the three things necessary; right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. The right, belief, really speaking, is not that there is no passing through forms after death, but the soul keeps progressing always in its own nature without any backward direction at all13. We have expressed this in clear language without any parables or metaphors, but when we preach these truths to the ignorant masses some story or picture might be necessary for them and after that the explanation of the real meaning; as well have all allegory in the Pilgrim's Progress. It is just like reaching the Celestial City in that book, but we must all understand that these things are parables. Others may need music to assist their religion, but when we understand the esoteric meaning which underlies all religion there will be no quarrelling and no need of names or of forms; and this is really the object of all religions.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: This lecture is part of the lecture series dealing with the systems of Indian Philosophy delivered by V. R. Gandhi before American audience of the common people, while he was on his journey to attend the World Congress of Religions held for the first time in the United States of America in 1893 A.D. The text is reproduced with the understanding that it is in the public domain. Please verify the copyright laws of your country of residence before downloading the text.

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