Karma in Jainism

In Jainism, “karma” conveys a totally different meaning from that commonly understood in Hindu philosophy and western civilization. In Jainism, karma is referred to as karmic dirt, as it consists of very subtle and microscopic particles (pudgala) that pervade the entire universe. Karmas are attracted to the karmic field of a soul due to vibrations created by activities of mind, speech, and body as well as various mental dispositions. Hence the karmas are the subtle matter surrounding the consciousness of a soul. When these two components (consciousness and karma) interact, we experience the life we know at present.

Herman Kuhn, quoting from Tattvarthasutra, describes karmas as “a mechanism that makes us thoroughly experience the themes of our life until we gained optimal knowledge from them and until our emotional attachment to these themes falls off.”

According to Padmanabh Jaini,
“This emphasis on reaping the fruits only of one’s own karma was not restricted to the Jainas; both Hindus and Buddhist writers have produced doctrinal materials stressing the same point. Each of the latter traditions, however, developed practices in basic contradiction to such belief. In addition to shrardha (the ritual Hindu offerings by the son of deceased), we find among Hindus widespread adherence to the notion of divine intervention in ones fate, while Buddhists eventually came to propound such theories like boon-granting bodhisattvas, transfer of merit and like. Only Jainas have been absolutely unwilling to allow such ideas to penetrate their community, despite the fact that there must have been tremendous amount of social pressure on them to do so. ”

The key points where the theory of
Karma in Jainism differs from the other religions such as theistic traditions of Hinduism, can be stated as follows:
1. ‬Karma operates as a self-sustaining mechanism as natural universal law, without any need of an external entity to manage them. (absence of the exogenous “Divine Entity” in Jainism)

‪2. ‬Jainism advocates that a soul’s karma changes even with the thoughts, and not just the actions. Thus, to even think evil of someone would endure a karma-bandha or an increment in bad karma. For this reason, the Ratnatraya gives a very strong emphasis to samyak dhyan (rationality in thoughts) and “samyak darshan” (rationality in perception) and not just “samyak charitra” (rationality in conduct).

‪3. ‬In Jain theology, a soul is released of worldly affairs as soon as it is able to emancipate from the “karm-bandh”. A famous illustration is that of Marudevi, the mother of Rishabha, the first Tirthankara of the present time cycle, who reached such emancipation by elevating sequentially her thought processes, while she was visiting her Tirthankara son.
This illustration explains how nirvana and moksha are different than in other religions of India. In the presence of a Tirthankara, another soul achieved Kevala Jnana and subsequently nirvana, without any need of intervention by the Tirthankara.

‪4. ‬The karmic theory in Jainism operates endogenously. Tirthankaras are not attributed “godhood”. Thus, even the Tirthankaras themselves have to go through the stages of emancipation, for attaining that state. While Buddhism does give a similar and to some extent a matching account for Gautama Buddha, Hinduism maintains a totally different theory where “divine grace” is needed for emancipation.

‪5. ‬Jainism treats all souls equally, inasmuch as it advocates that all souls have the same potential of attaining nirvana. Only those who make effort, really attain it, but nonetheless, each soul is capable on its own to do so by gradually reducing its karma.

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