Reverence for life is a value common to most of the world's religions. At the heart of Aboriginal spirituality, for example, there is a deep sense of respect for the physical environment – all elements of nature including animals are to be revered. In a similar vein, Buddhist tradition emphasizes compassion for all living things.
We in the Christian tradition believe that the Christ-event has redeemed not just human beings but also the entire material universe. Some observers argue, however, that Christianity has ignored or underemphasized the integrity and salvation of non-human entities such as animals, fish and trees. One exception to this pattern was, of course, Francis of Assisi whose compassion for all living things is well known. Flocks of birds and other creatures surrounded him when he was in a state of prayer. Clearly St. Francis considered non-human creatures to be spiritual beings – brothers and sisters he called them. And for Francis this sense of fraternity also extended to natural elements such as sun, moon, air and water.
For several millenia, Jainism, an ancient religion of India, has consistently perpetuated a uniquely radical commitment to the sanctity of all living beings, no matter how tiny or insignificant. The essence of Jain spirituality and morality is capsulated in the Sanskrit word, ahimsa, which is usually translated to mean nonviolence or the greatest possible kindness to all living things. Indeed, this cardinal principle of nonviolence is the shining star that guides the faithful Jain's path to spiritual perfection.
In the Jain scheme of things, each living thing – be it tree, elephant, human, or insect – is a soul. All creatures, including humans, are sacred and must be treated as equals, as benevolent friends.
The Jain legacy of nonviolence translates into some very admirable social values: • the refusal to condone or participate in war (Jains have never been involved in a war) • equality between the sexes • renunciation of the ancient Indian caste system • vegetarianism • kindness to animals; animal slaughter and sacrifice are forbidden; involvement in professions, trades and business ventures which threaten living things is forbidden (e.g. beef, pork and chicken farming, and fishing). • charity – accumulation of possessions is to be minimized; education, health and social service institutions are to be sponsored.
While the Jain commitment to nonviolence begins with the individual and the individual's transformation, this ethic of non-injury also addresses the realities of community life. Jain nonviolence involves a willingness on the part of the individual to separate him/herself from all acts of injury or killing, but also from the entire societal mechanism of aggression, comsumption and materialism. This commitment generates a value system that directly challenges ecological destruction, discrimination, injustice and waste and calls for the nonviolent co-existence of all living things.
While Mahatma Gandhi was born a Hindu and remained one his entire life, the influence of Jainism upon him was unmistakeable.
While Mahatma Gandhi was born a Hindu and remained one his entire life, the influence of Jainism upon him was unmistakeable. The Mahatma grew up in a part of India that was permeated with Jain thought. Throughout his life he maintained friendships and working relationships with Jain monks and scholars.
As Gandhi grew older, he adopted more and more lifestyle practices that reflect those of a Jain monk. These disciplines included celibacy, voluntary poverty, asceticism, dietary restrictions and simplicity of dress.
Jains believe that many of humanity's problems are rooted in the power of passions, particularly those of desire, violence and materialism; and these passions can only be overcome by a rigorous conquest of self. In fact, the Sanskrit root of the word "Jain" (Jina) translates as "one who has conquered one's inner enemies". Asceticism is the only path to self-conquest. Jain spiritual practice involves the cultivation of self-control, self-discipline and self-denial.
Jains believe that divinity is present everywhere in the universe and that the individual soul can achieve Godhood through a self-realization. This path toward total liberation (nirvana) involves the conquest and purification of self and can only be achieved by strict discipline.
Within Jainism, there are two levels of commitment "monastic and lay" Worldwide, there are an estimated 6,000 monks and nuns.
The radical lifestyle of these vowed monastics is a clear reminder of the austere and demanding nature of Jain nonviolence. These homeless and possessionless women and men beg their livelihood and travel only by foot. Laypersons adhere to the Jain vows and principles in a less demanding fashion. Laypersons are expected to choose professions which minimize harm or injury to any living creature.
The Jain population has always been a minority in India, yet the Jain religion has managed to maintain its independence and distinctiveness while living in peaceful co-existence with the Hindu majority.
Current estimates of the Jain population of that country range from four to ten million. There are now approximately 150,000 Jains residing outside India and most of these are concentrated in Europe and North America. An estimated 15,000 Jains live in Canada.
Jains do not attempt to convert others to their religion. But Jains are interested in sharing their values with others particularly their concerns about nonviolence, vegetarianism and truthfulness.
To find out more about Jainism, write to the Jain Meditation Centre, 261 Jedburgh Road, Toronto, On, M5M 3K3.
- Founder: No founder but a series of 24 enlightened prophets (Tirthankaras) who renew the Jain religion for subsequent generations.
- Scriptures: The Agamas (two sections): 1) angas (12 books); 2) angabahya (34 books).
- Major festival: Mahavir Jayanti – birthday celebration of Mahavira (599-527 B.C.), the most recent Jain prophet.