A strong resistance to philosophical dogmatism and a respect for all life.
A Video on Ahimsa: Made Available through the Pluralism Project at Harvard
Degrees of Sentience in Jainism
Gandhi and Jainism
What are the core principles of Jainism?
Anekantavada: The Relativity of Views
Ana Bajželj obtained her PhD in Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. Her research focuses on Indian philosophy, particularly Jain ontology. She held research positions at the University of Ljubljana where she completed the research project Philosophical relevance of death and dying. Throughout her PhD studies, she received several fellowships to study Jain philosophy in India. She studied Prakrits and Kundakunda's philosophy with prof. Kamal Chand Sogani at the Apabhramśa Sāhitya Academy in Jaipur.
According to the Pluralism Project at Harvard, there are about 3,000,000 Jains worldwide and 20,000 in North America. The young Jains pictured on the left are among them; and they belong to Young Jains of America, the aims of which are:
I hope the Young Jains of America succeed, not only for their sake but for the world's sake.
Admittedly, their numbers are quite small compared to more populous traditions such as Christianity and Islam. But it seems to me some of the ideals and principles of Jainism are at the healing edge of the evolution of human consciousness. I focus on two: Ahimsa and Avekantavada
Ahimsa in Whiteheadian Perspective
Your best introduction to the spirit of Ahimsa is to watch the video on the left. Jains recognize the intrinsic value of all life; they know that all living beings, not human alone, deserve respect and care; they see value in multiple points of view and reject the idea that any single perspective has all the truth; they believe that non-violence begins with how we think and feel and speak, and not just in what we do; they advocate a gentle way of living in the world. They do not ask or expect other animals to live in this gentle way, but they do think that humans can live in this way and, in so doing, humans can grow toward spiritual fulfillment.
All this makes good sense to Whiteheadians, including those like me who are Christian and who are drawn to Jesus as a prince of peace. Jainism emerged in India some 400 years before Christianity, and I cannot help but wonder if Jainism doesn't partake of -- and in some ways deepen -- a spiritual impulse toward which Jesus and other Jews were drawn. The impulse is toward a life of non-harm, of forgiveness, of compassion. In recognizing that such a life rightly extends to all living beings, not humans alone, Jains are spiritual pioneers: beacons for the future. Their vegetarianism is a practicing of the peace toward which Christians are drawn and from which Jesus, too, can learn.
Of course, it is unlikely that vast numbers of North Americans will convert to Jainism. For Jains this is to be expected, because Jains do not typically reach out for individual converts. Too often such evangelism, even if done in the name of love, is a form of violence. Nevertheless, what the Young Jains hope, and what I hope, is that the principles of Jainism become more and more available as sources of wisdom available to people of many faiths and no faith.
Already this has happened. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian influenced by Jainist ideal of non-violence, as mediated through the influence of Gandhi, who was a Hindu influenced by Jainism. Our task in the 21st century is to keep learning. In the spirit of the Young Jains of America, it is to become aware of, and learn from, Jain ideals. One of the ideals is radical non-violence, including the practice of vegetarianism; and another is Anekantavada, or having respect for multiple viewpoints, including those of other animals.
Anekantavada in Whiteheadian Perspective
Imagine a wave in the ocean rolling toward a distant shore. From a Whiteheadian perspective we ourselves are the crest of the wave, always here-and-now and yet always influenced by a past that grows over time. Our souls are becomings not beings; we are always souls-in-process.
Amid the process we are always feeling and responding to the world from a particular point of view, seeking to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. Whitehead speaks of this desire to live with satisfaction as your subjective aim.
In Whitehead's philosophy as in Jainism, all living beings with seats of awareness are in the same situation. Those that crawl, those that fly, those that swim, those that walk on four legs: they, too, are feeling and responding to the worlds they inhabit with subjective aims. They, too, seek to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. They, too, are souls-in-process.
This does not mean that all souls are qualitatively identical. There are different kinds of souls relative to different degrees and capacities for sentience. But it does mean that all souls are "equal" in the sense that, moment to moment, they have value for themselves, inasmuch as they seek to survive with satisfaction, and that this value is objective: that is, part of the very nature of reality. We humans may rank various forms of sentience as higher than others for practical reasons; we may decide with the Jains that it is more morally problematic to take the life of a cow than a cabbage. But we rightly know that the whole of the universe is alive with feeling, with sensation of one sort or another, and that all living beings matter ultimately to themselves infinitely. In this sense all souls are equal. Accordingly it matters cosmically how we humans feel and respond to one another and to other sentient beings.
Karma and Freedom
In our case, our feelings include acts of perceiving, remembering, anticipating, reflecting, and knowing, including the emotions which clothe or permeate those acts. Whitehead speaks of these feelings as acts of prehending the world, and he speaks of the emotions as subjective forms. In his philosophy, even our most intellectual activities -- our mathematical thinking, for example -- is a form of feeling.
Our responses are acts of decision: that is, of cutting off certain possibilities for responding to the world and actualizing others. In these responses we have a certain degree of freedom, but always we are also shaped by decisions made in the past and by myriad influences in the past actual world.
In a Whiteheadian context, karma would be the power of the past as it influences the present and also the act of responding to the past by creating a new future. Some of the influences we receive from the past are the result of decisions we have made in the past, while some are the result of social, biological, and environmental conditions for which we are not responsible, but from which we may nevertheless suffer. At least this is how a Whiteheadian would think of karma from the past. Some of it is self-created and some is world-created.
Karma inherited from the past is part of what constitutes our experience in the present, but we are also creating new karma in how we respond to what we receive. Our responses take the form of thinking, feeling, and acting; and the Jain ideal is that we respond as non-violently as we can in all that we do.
Ordinarily we respond on the basis of what we know or think we know, based on many kinds of knowing: verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, visual-spatial, rhythmic-musical, bodily, emotional, and introspective. Typically these modes of knowing are blended in particular acts of knowing. Each has cognitive value but none is infallible.
Our fallibility comes from the fact that we always experience and know the world from a particular region in the space-time continuum and from the fact that our experience is always shaped by our past actual worlds and our own aims and intentions. By virtue of these factors we know things in partial ways.
Moreover, our perspective is different from moment to moment, because we are always changing. Our perspective at age two differs from our perspective at age twenty-two, which differs from our perspective age forty-two. In the life of a human being, there are as many perspectives as there are moments of experience, and each moment brings with it a unique perspective.
Other living beings have perspectives, too. This includes creatures who crawl, swim, walk, and fly. They, too, have their ways of knowing and they, too, live from moment to moment. This means that on our planet there are multiple perspectives from which aspects of the universe are known, all of which are valuable and none of which are absolute. Hence the truth of the Jain ideal of no-one-perspective-ism or Anekantavada. There are as many perspectives as there are moments in the life of each and every soul.
As a result of this fact, it is important to listen to the voices of other people and other living beings, seeking to learn from them when possible, and respect what they may know; and it is important never to absolutize one's own perspective as containing the whole truth (Satya).
While there may be living beings who have become so enlightened that they see the whole of things, we best be careful not to pretend we have their knowledge. For the Jains these are the enlightened ones: the Tīrthaṅkaras. But we are not among them. Always we approach the world through limited perspectives which ought never be absolutized, and which ought never to function as means by which we close out the possibility that others can teach us.
There is no one perspective that has all the truth, and there are many perspectives that have some truth. Our best approach in life is to be humble with the truths we know or think we know, to trust that Truth is always more than anyone's perspective of it, and to take the appreciation of multiple viewpoints as a spiritual virtue in its own right. It is to practice Anekantavada.
-- Jay McDaniel
Want to learn more? Let the Pluralism Project at Harvard be your guide.
For a timeline of historical Jainism, click here.
For a timeline of Jainism in America, click here.
For a bibliography on Jainism, click here.
Jainism and God