Article: Jainism and scientific thought

Contributed by Aidan Rankin and Kanti V. Mardia


This manuscript painting shows the siddha-śilā. Found at the top of the triple world, on the forehead of the Cosmic Man, the siddha-śilā is the home of liberated souls.

Home of liberated souls
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The fundamental Jain aim is true knowledge of reality and the self, which enables final liberation. ‘Karmons’ adhere to the soul as karmic matter and prevent true understanding.

In Jain thought, karmic activity is associated with minute particles of subtle matter. These can be referred to as 'karmons' because their activities often appear similar to those of electrons and photons in physics.

The ‘karmons’ form karmic matter – aggregates – only by interacting with the soul. This karmic matter attracts new ‘karmons’ through the modification of the soul. This modification is caused by action and is generally described as 'vibration of the soul' – bhava-āsrava. The bond between the karmic matter and the soul is known as bandha – karmic bondage. Combined with the distorted ‘energy’ element in the soul, karmic matter creates āsrava – karmic influx – by which more ‘karmons’ are attracted. So the more karmic matter there is attached to a soul, the more it attracts.

Karmic matter

Karmic matter is divided into the two main categories of:

  • ‘light’ or ‘positive’ – puṇya
  • ‘heavy’ or 'negative' – pāpa.

The first type is expressed through constructive or creative activities as well as the practice of compassion. The second kind is expressed through destructive activities and thoughts, especially violence.

Paradoxically, since it is karmic matter, the accumulation of puṇya contributes to nirjarā. This nirjarā – karmic fission or decay – is the process in which the soul sheds ‘karmons’ and begins its journey towards liberation (Mardia 2012; Noble Truth 1).

The process of nirjarā is also prompted by bhavyatva, which is the soul's inherent tendency to resist or free itself from karmic matter, including embodiment.

Cycles of time, saṃsāra and hierarchy of life

Some types of living beings are illustrated in this manuscript painting. Over the course of the cycle of birth, a soul is born into various types of body according to the karma that has become attached to it. This painting shows examples of these beings.

Examples of types of living beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

True knowledge is based on understanding some fundamental Jain notions and respecting the variety of forms the soul or jīva can take and their places in the universe. The most crucial examples are the concept of time, the cycle of birth and the hierarchy of types of bodies.

In Jainism, there is no ‘First Cause’ or creator deity. The universe, like energy itself, can neither be created nor destroyed. Time is viewed as cyclical, with each cycle or kalpa composed of two phases or half-cycles. One is progressive, the other regressive. These in turn are divided into six periods. The progressive or ascending half-cycles are known as utsarpiṇī and the descending cycles are called avasarpiṇī.

These cycles and phases last for aeons and then repeat themselves continuously as the universe renews itself. At the individual level, they are replicated in the cycle of existence known as saṃsāra. This is a repetitive cycle of birth, death and rebirth that lasts until liberation from the inhabited universe. Liberated jīvas inhabit siddha-loka, an upper or parallel universe that is ‘the place of perfect(ed) beings’. The samsaric cycle can encompass all the stages of evolution, involve transmigration between genders and from one species to another and also can involve regression as much as progress in the hierarchy of life (Noble Truth 3).

The soul – jīva – is embodied in different forms of life each time it is reborn. These life-forms can be ranked into hierarchies. One of the common Jain hierarchies is based on the number of senses a being has. An instance of a creature with the two senses of touch and taste is a worm, whereas a dog also has the three senses of smell, sight and hearing.

The characteristics of these life-forms vary according to the karmic density and types of karmic matter interacting with the soul (Noble Truth 2). Types of life-form in the inhabited universe range from micro-organisms to the most spiritually advanced human beings.

However, this concept of hierarchy cannot be reduced to an idea of human superiority or supremacy. On the contrary, humans are reminded that all life-forms have jīva in common. Therefore they have the potential for spiritual development and, ultimately, freedom from karmic entrapment. Furthermore, a higher level of spiritual intelligence confers responsibilities rather than rights, in particular the responsibility to show compassion and respect for all forms of life.

All types of intelligence have their place within dharma. The pursuit of knowledge involves learning to understand the ‘viewpoints’ and insights of humans and non-humans alike.

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