Sep 271991

In studying and analyzing various religious sects and traditions, scholars try to draw parallels between faiths in an effort to categorize and relate religions. Using such restrictive methods as a guide, some theological scholars have described the northeastern religion of Jainism as being somewhere between Hinduism and early Buddhism. Geographically, the Jainist faith is between the largest areas of southern Buddhist and mainstream Hindu population; does it, then, deserve to be spiritually wedged between these two?

Clearly, Jainism shares many beliefs and practices with Hinduism and Buddhism. The basic goal of the Jains is to achieve moksa similar to that of the Hindu way of jnana, or knowledge. They seek to be freed from the wearisome burden of karmic residue, to be liberated from the endless cycles of life—which they view to be as equally as full of suffering as the Buddhists believe them to be. Furthermore, Jains even worship some Hindu gods when needing earthly favor and assistance in everyday life. Even many of Jainism’s moral codes mimic those of Buddhists. Their monks maintain strict vows of no killing, no stealing, no telling of lies, no owning property and poverty, just like Buddhist monks. Even the prophets of the Jainist tradition have similar histories as the Buddha. In fact, all the way down to the monastery’s relationship to the laity, Jainism mirrors Buddhism. The monks beg for their food, and the laity willingly and happily gives it. The monks conduct the significant ceremonies of the year and the laity dutifully attends. The monks take stringent vows and the laity does also, but not quite as strictly. Therefore, many facets of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions have found a home in the 2500 year old Jainist religion.

These similarities do not, however, warrant dooming Jainism to a second-grade slot between the two “big boy” religions of India and Asia. There are many qualities about the Jainist cosmology that earn it equal billing and representation as an independent faith. First, the Jains are fundamentally transtheistic; they accept the possibility that gods exist, but they strive to go beyond mere deity worship in their quest for ultimate salvation and liberation from painful life. Second, the Jains revere their own set of powers: the Jain spirits or Tirthankaras. These spirits are the once-living “finders of the ford” across the river confining man to life and suffering; they are teachers whose efforts have bridged this gulf, and each Jainist does his best to cross as well. Finally, their view of world order is, quite unlike Buddhism, very straight-forward and commonsense oriented. It consists of a simple three-tiered realm of reality containing a heaven for gods and the good, hell for the evil, and Earth for the undecided. This universe, further, is eternal and uncreated, lacking a supreme being overseeing it all. Therefore, Jainism has many distinctions from Hinduism and Buddhism, but they are well-blended with the borrowed views of the two.

In conclusion, then, Jainism does not deserve to be squeezed in between two older religions of India simply due to some parallels in belief. These parallels may, after all, exist because some fundamental truth spawned them. It is then irrelevant to relate the three faiths just as it is pointless to deductively assess the rating of three different intuitive interpretations of the same fact. Since no religion is neither more justifiable nor more truthful than another, to accuse Jainism of merely being a Hindu-Buddhist puree is demeaning to its uniqueness and separateness as an ideology.

April, 1991

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