Jainism, religion and spirituality

Jainism: Tolerance as Faith

Jainism may be a minority religion in India, but the vast proportions of the Indus Valley render the minor into the massive when scaled to world standards. Four to five million people practice this ancient faith, whose oldest spiritual masters go back to the time of Earth’s physical creation and whose most recent master, Mahavira, lived one hundred years before Buddha. Mahavira, who lived in the 6thcentury BCE, is often represented as a thin cross-legged figure, easily confused with the plumper, often jollier, Buddha. 

Indeed, Jainism is oft compared to Buddhism as a means of explaining the former, as Jainism is no doubt the lesser known. If Buddhism teaches the “Middle Way,” the path between “it is” and “it is not,” the comparison goes, then Jainism teaches both, “it is” and, at once, “it is not.” 

The magnanimity of Jainism is conveyed via the first two of its three principle messages — ahimsa or “non-violence” and anekantavada or “many sidedness.” “Non-violence” is self-explanatory. “Many-sidedness” refers to the Jain belief that spiritual experience is infinite, and no single religious experience is superior to any another. As such, atheism could be considered a form of spiritual belief and should be respected just as much as the beliefs of a Jain priest. 

For a structured religion to profess such tolerance is remarkable. Certainly, Jesus was a symbol of unconditional love, but the dogmatic Church that his teachings spawned strayed from this original lesson, motivated, as many religions no doubt are, by the greedy calculus of gaining converts.

Jainism presents itself as a non-violent, inclusive faith from the get-go. Its world view is one in which all versions of God not only fit but are equally fitting, equally essential.  The only instances, of course, in which an individual’s relation to God becomes problematic is if it is violent. So long as your beliefs don’t generate harm, Jainism says, believe away. 

Ten years ago my husband and I visited Palitana in Gandhi’s home state of Guyarat. Palitana boasts the world’s single largest conglomeration of temples and represents a form of Mecca for practitioners of Jainism. We visited during one of the most important annual pilgrimages and the place was packed. Along with a man who seemed to be a professional photographer, my husband and myself were the only non-Jain visitors. Our Jain hosts, close family friends, had prepared us well: we were wearing requisite new, traditional clothes, had not taken food or drink for 24 hours and were well versed in the process of puja, or worship. Despite our best efforts, though, sometimes we got the detailed steps of Jain puja wrong. 

Without exception, each time my husband and I screwed up, someone would come up and show us how to correctly perform the Jain temple rites. There was no judgement, no offense, no condescension. Instead all who approached, young or old, male or female, seemed genuinely excited, even amused, by our presence, screwy puja or not. We felt deeply welcome, never excluded, not even dismissed. 

Within the Jain world design, one where “many sidedness” prevails, no single side wins. As such, all sides win, may even convene.   

*This post is part of a series of explorations on the teachings I most admire from the world’s major religions. So far, I’ve written on Buddhism,  ChristianityConfucianismDaoism and Hinduism as well.