Soteriology: Jainism and Theravada Buddhism
According to Theravada Buddhist and most Buddhists, the universe and its occupants are constantly suffering or in a state of Dukkha. This state defines humanity’s way of life. As such, it determines who remains in the arduous cycle of life that comprises of birth, suffering through illnesses, poverty, and death, death, and rebirth into the same cycle. Theravadas believe that the cause of all this suffering is the human craving for sensuality.
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As a result, people are blind to reality. They spend their lives in pursuit of illusive ideas of what comprises true happiness, such as wealth, promiscuity, and power (Cunningham and Kelsey 34). Consequently, they are born and reborn into alternate states of happiness and suffering, more approximately, they exist in these alternating states, where at one instant, one is happy, for instance, one acquires wealth, and then in the next instant, they are suffering, for instance, when thieves steal this wealth.
On the other hand, Jain believers feel that the universe is too violent. They aspire to exist in a state of peace and tranquility where nobody hurts any other living thing, including plants. The basis of this belief is the belief that each living organism has a soul, jiva, and that all the other organisms, including human beings, should revere these souls. It comes as no surprise that they are vegetarian because their teachings forbid the killing of any organism that has more than one sense.
The cause of this violence, according to Jainism, is greed and so for a person to attain the ultimate goal, which is bliss or liberation from karma. It is fascinating to note that Jainism and Theravada Buddhism are almost similar to the extent that both religions incorporate the notion of karma, different though the definition may be. For Jain believers, they associate karma with the soul.
The ultimate goal for both Jainism and Theravada Buddhism is exaltation, and their respective paths to this goal are almost similar, at least in principle. For Buddhists, the Buddha outlined an eightfold path to exaltation after one has succeeded in relinquishing his / her craving. The eightfold path teaches values such as concentration, virtue, and self-control. More specifically, the eight qualities include right sight, speech, resolve, concentration, view, action, livelihood, effort, and mindfulness (Cunningham, and Kelsey 98).
Once a person manages to attain the correct amounts of each of these, they can attain awakening. In Jainism, the teachings are a bit simpler. The main goal is to attain a universe where no violence occurs. Consequently, Jain teachings speak of the ‘three jewels,’ which are the right belief, knowledge, and conduct. Following from these three, a true believer makes five sacred vows to non-violence, chastity, non-acquisition, not stealing, and honesty.
Strict Jain observers are remarkably honest. They live with the utmost care to use only what they need. In fact, ideally, a Jain believer ought to live on only half their income, giving a quarter to monks and nuns and the other quarters to other charities. It is pertinent to note here that regarding Jainism and Karma, they believe that one can remove bogus karma by making certain offerings to the images of their awakened role models or simply attract meritorious karma by behaving correctly and by thinking positive thoughts. This way, even though one’s conduct attracts negative karma, their thoughts will remain pure, and so the karma will not attach. Both religions are atheists. They look up to human beings who have attained enlightenment, not as gods but as a source of inspiration or as teachers, not gods.
Jain ascetic ideal and lay people
Jain monks and nuns are by far some of the strictest of all religions. “Jainism is split into two sects: the Digambara and the Svetambara sects” (Cunningham, and Kelsey 98). The Digambara are more pious than the latter. They have a more negative attitude about women too. The sects differ in the belief that women cannot attain exaltation outright, with the Digambara asserting that the woman needs to be reborn as a man first.
They give several reasons for this belief including the fact that ‘nakedness’ is an essential sign of being prepared for exaltation. This is because the present day Jain followers irrespective of contradictory scientific proof still believe that menstruation kills microorganisms in a woman’s body and so she is ‘committing a violent act’. All these are that naked women are not the sight that monks aspire to see on the street while striving for their own salvation and finally that it is impractical to expect women to walk around naked and unashamed, yet pious. Consequently, nuns wear a light white cloth. Other than these, men and women are equal.
They have the same piety required of them. Both nuns and monks live a life of utter poverty they have no possession except for a light broom to sweep off insects on the streets so that they do not tread on and kill them. In addition to this, monks shield their mouths with a muslin cloth to avoid accidentally swallowing and, therefore, killing any insects. Svetambara nuns and monks also have a begging bowl and some writing and reading materials.
This purely selfless life, stripped of any distractions such as wealth, power or status is ideal for a Jainism believer striving for exaltation. Monks and nuns also strive to live chastely, meaning that they do not engage in sexual misconduct or thoughts. For those who had previous sexual encounters, they are encouraged not to think about them. In addition to these, they are not to watch pornographic material, or to consume drugs and other stimulating substances likely to impair their judgment.
Lay people participate in the ascetics’ way of life by giving food and other parts of their possessions. However, a monk or nun would never accept food that was specially prepared for them. They also cannot eat before sunrise or after sundown. On the other hand, the monks and nuns offer spiritual support to lay people. They offer prayers and blessings, for instance, to the sick. Lay people can become monks or nuns at any point of their lives.
During holy days, lay people can go for retreats to the monastery and for the duration they are there, they will abide by the same rules as the resident nuns and monks. Finally, Jainism forbids sexual indulgence even between married people. The ideal position is that, once a couple gets a son, they abstain from any more sexual encounters. These values as applied by ascetics are too strict and impractical for lay people to imitate; however, following the teachings to a lesser degree assuages the layperson’s conscience and most lay people believe that the effort alone will bring them blameless karma, which is critical for exaltation.
Cunningham, Lawrence, and John Kelsey. The Sacred Quest: An Invitation to the Study of Religion. Kansas: Springler, 2009.