The Fourteenfold Path of the Jains

By Rudi Jansma
Any one of you who has once felt the touch of the god within never is the same again. Never can be the same again. Your life is changed; and you can have this awakening at any moment, any moment that you will take it. -- G. de Purucker

The Jains are a religious group in India, comprising less than one percent of that country's population, whose history goes back to time immemorial. Their last great teacher, the Tirthankara Mahavira, lived about 2,500 years ago, and was possibly a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. Mahavira was the 24th of the tirthankaras of the present cycle, each cycle covering vast periods.

The Jain scriptures elaborate a detailed cosmography that includes numerous invisible planes and globes in which live, and between which move, a great variety of life forms, all intelligent or guided by intelligences -- deities and forces. Earth's minerals, plants, animals, and human beings form only a minority among this vast cosmos of life. All these beings -- from the most primitive with only one sense faculty, to the highest divinity -- have their specific forms, conditions of life, and evolutionary stages brought on by karmic action. In their systematic approach the Jains have developed a scientific classification of 148 types of karma.

Perhaps even more remarkable is their view on ethics and the fact that the Jains adhere strictly to their ethical code in daily life. The core of their ethics is ahimsa, nonviolence in action, speech, and thought, the total abstention from doing harm. They are strict vegetarians and avoid professions that might involve harming even the smallest creature. As far as other humans are concerned, apart from not doing physical harm, they practice tolerance towards those with differing opinions, because only one who has reached omniscience can claim to have the ultimate right view.

The purpose of these practices is twofold. First, the suffering of all creatures is limited as much as possible so that they are not hindered on the path their souls have chosen. Second, the Jains purify themselves from karmas originating in violent or other inharmonious thoughts and emotions which limit clarity of mind and vision. In this way they develop great compassion for all that lives.

The final goal of the soul's pilgrimage through all forms in space and time is to unite their consciousness fully with the qualities of the soul: infinite knowledge, infinite purity, and infinite freedom within this universe. The possibility of acquiring an unstained, clear mind and infallible intuition and insight is the ultimate dream of the truth seeker. But if we really want to know truth about ourselves and the seen and unseen universe, and to work for the well-being of the world and its inhabitants, we cannot forgo the practice of ethics, which means being in harmony with the laws of the universe.

Concerning the nature of living beings, the Jains teach that at the core of each is (1) a pure and omniscient jiva or soul; (2) great compassion and enlightenment that may at the proper moment, due to the right "call from below," project a ray of spiritual light and energy into the receptive personal consciousness, thus temporarily setting the mind aflame to the extent that it is able to contain that ray; (3) an innate desire towards liberation; (4) a lower, passionate mind, the slave of its illusions, which continuously draws lower karmic elements around the soul, thus blinding clear vision, counteracting the free development of the higher faculties, and keeping the soul in bondage. The whole is dressed in three vestures: (1) the body of karmic matter, the cause of the physical form and of mental and emotional tendencies; (2) the ``fire'' or electric body, formed of fine molecules of electric matter; and (3) the physical body.

The Jains describe the path towards purity, final emancipation, and omniscience within our universe in fourteen stages. The first called "false world view," and signifies the "normal" state of the majority of people, in which the soul is shackled by passions and illusions that have bound it from the beginningless past. We may form ideas and theories but, being unaware of the spiritual truths behind external phenomena, we will never have a real understanding of the cosmos and life, and so suffer the frustrations of that fundamental ignorance.

Due to past thoughts and feelings, we have attracted karmas that delude right views, but the innate capacities of the soul can break through this vesture of karmic limitations when it reaches a point of "readiness" brought on by itself. There comes a moment when the first flashes of true insight dawn, and from then on the individual can take the path towards final attainment into his own hands. Once he enters the path towards liberation, every event in life becomes a teacher if seen in the light of the soul. This may go hand in hand with teachings received through someone who has gained a deeper understanding of the inner life.

Through instruction and training, purity and insight increase and for the first time the pilgrim faces his enemies: gross passions that have accumulated on the soul throughout eternity, and the karmas that delude real vision. By recognizing and removing these enemies, all deceptive factors are temporarily suppressed, and he experiences unobstructed insight. This stage is the most crucial in spiritual development, for the consciousness experiences the dawn of final enlightenment. From now on he may truly be called a jaina because he has entered the path of the jinas, the "conquerors." Perfection is reached, however, through the difficult stages that follow.

This stage of true insight may not last long and we may enter stage in which only a memory of our awakenment remains. We may take up old habits and worldly desires, and entirely forget the awakening experience. But once the soul has been touched by this illumination, it has irreversibly entered the path towards omniscience. No doubt many of us have had some such deep experience in a former life, and perhaps this is why we have a feeling of recognition when we contact spiritual teachings or objects of spiritual beauty.

One who holds on to illumination has undergone a great inner change which is reflected in his attitudes and behavior, and there is inner joy despite the challenges that await. Previously the person identified himself only with his body, possessions, and status, and everything he met in life was judged as either pleasant or unpleasant. He thought his personal willpower was the real actor in life, feeling proud when something was accomplished or frustrated when some personal aim failed. Thus he was unconsciously working against the spiritual laws of nature, and the cycle of bondage continued. Now his attention is redirected and becomes wholly focused on his essential nature. Outer things are no longer of paramount importance. He has become a more peaceful, stable, patient person and shows naturally what the Bhagavad-Gita describes as the characteristics of the wise: equal-mindedness under all circumstances, cold or hot, praise or humiliation, prosperity or loss. He knows that there is an essential nature behind the veil of illusion which before he had regarded as reality.

The pilgrim realizes, too, that all beings have a soul with the innate possibility of reaching the highest spiritual potential. This awareness of brotherhood brings forth strong feelings of compassion. Brotherhood and compassion, as well as disinterest concerning worldly desires and attachments, are therefore the qualities of a man or woman who has experienced this first spark of enlightenment. The mind opens so one can effectively reflect on universal questions which cannot be solved by the brain-mind or a materialistic approach alone, such as What is the purpose of life? What are the laws which govern life and the universe? What is the inner construction of the universe and of man? One who has caught this glimpse of the soul will never again stumble into the pitfalls of materialistic nihilism or dogmatism -- the two spooks which haunt Western sciences and many religions.

Jainism not only teaches the path towards self-realization and detachment, but also allows the possibility, urged by great compassion, to postpone one's own liberation and turn one's face towards all sentient beings struggling on their way upward. The highest unselfishness would compel a soul on the threshold of liberation to turn back for the sake of all beings, rather than to spend eons in lofty bliss and omniscience for itself. Such souls become the tirthankaras. This brings Jain teaching close to the Buddhist and theosophical distinction between pratyeka buddhas -- buddhas for themselves alone -- and buddhas of compassion who accomplish all that can be achieved by a human being and then abandon their earned period of bliss and peace in order to help the world.

The higher stages on the Jain path describe what is involved in overcoming and eliminating all limitations. When one really chooses to approach truth and remove every obstruction, he needs actively to cultivate the purest ethics. This is the fifth stage. A great help towards keeping determination alive during difficult times is to take vows, before a teacher and before one's inner self. Depending on his situation and determination, the Jain may choose the path of the layman, or undertake the more strenuous sixth stage, the path of the mendicant. The main difference between the lay and mendicant paths is the strictness with which nonviolence is practiced. Every Jain will avoid killing, or being indirectly responsible for killing, the forms in which souls are incarnated -- human, animal, and as much as possible plant and mineral lives. For this reason they reject animal sacrifices or the misuse of animals in scientific laboratories. The most important lay vows are: (1) nonviolence; (2) truth, not lying under any condition, which involves great care in speaking, and perhaps not speaking when this could result in harm to any creature; (3) not stealing or taking anything that is not given; (4) no sexual misconduct, i.e., sex outside the marriage relation and excessive indulgence in sexual pleasures with one's partner; (5) nonpossession and nonattachment to material objects and to internal possessions such as passions and sentiments.

The mendicant enters the sixth stage, where the principle of nonviolence is carried towards its absolute and includes the tiniest and most primitive life forms, even the elements. Ideally, the mendicant must not dig the earth, walk on grass, extinguish a fire, etc. Thus he develops an attitude of absolute harmlessness towards living beings and the natural environment, and takes only what is given. He has become a perfect friend to all beings and a perfect environmentalist.

To continue his quest the mendicant will do everything to better the qualities of his character, and reflect on the various aspects of universal philosophy. Jain ethics and philosophy formulate these practices as ten dharmas or observances and twelve meditations. The ten dharmas are summarized in the Tattvarthadhigama Sutra (ix, 6) as perfect forgiveness, humility, honesty, purity, truthfulness, self-restraint, austerity, renunciation, nonattachment, and chastity. Some of the subjects suggested for reflection, as given in this sutra (ix, 7), are: everything is subject to change and therefore is transitory; it is useless to try to avoid what is inevitable, because the seed sown in the past must have its fruition according to its natural character; the inflow of karmas is the cause of mundane existence, and the inflow can be stopped; the universe has no absolute beginning or end, was never created, and operates according to its own laws without divine intervention. Such observances and reflections lead to complete renunciation of all forms of egotistic thinking.

In the seventh stage the aspirant cultivates higher meditation and awakens loftier states of awareness. In the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh stages the conduct-deluding karmas such as anger, pride, deceit, greed, grief, fear, and sexual desire are either suppressed or destroyed. One can imagine that, as the pilgrim progresses further on the path, he has to face and conquer every single delusion and weakness which he has experienced in past lives. It must indeed be a dreadful experience to come face to face with all the harm we have done to the world throughout time. Everything must be conquered, and we have the power to do so as long as we do not forget that the ultimate purity, wisdom, and force for good is innate in the soul. Up to the eleventh stage the truth seeker climbs on one of two ladders: that of suppression or that of elimination. As long as the karmas are only suppressed, he will reach the eleventh stage, but the passions will resurface and may draw him back to a lower stage. But eventually he will have enough strength to eliminate the karmas and pass over the eleventh stage to enter the twelfth, that of arhat.

The last conduct-deluding, knowledge- and perception-obscuring, and energy-restricting karmas are now eliminated, and the obstructions to endless bliss and energy are no more. The aspirant reaches the thirteenth state spontaneously: he possesses omniscience during incarnation.

Samavasarana-patta: An assembly of beings come to hear a Tirthankara preach the Doctrine (c. 1800 ad, Rajasthan, in The Jain Cosmology)

The fourteenth and last state is reached by an arhat just before leaving his physical vehicle. All vibrations of the soul that attract karmas and cause bondage have ceased. Having left the physical body for the last time, he enters the disembodied state of eternal bliss and omniscience. Very rarely -- in harmony with the law of cycles and their own karma -- some arhats remain on earth as omniscient and liberated teachers, for the good of mankind and all living beings. Their karma is that of universal compassion and charity towards all who strive upward. Such beings are the tirthankaras, the great teachers of mankind.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

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