Article: Jainism in scientific terms

Contributed by Kanti V. Mardia

Although Jain dharma or belief developed over many centuries, it can be thought of in terms of modern science. This rich inheritance of universal philosophy on a scientific basis means that many Jain concepts have more relevance now than ever before. However, factors such as the technical terminology and language of the original works present obstacles for contemporary readers and mean that key concepts need to be recast. It is extremely important to reinterpret the foundations of Jainism in the light of recent scientific findings, since some of the answers that individuals seek now were given by Jains many centuries ago.

A summary of the essence of Jain belief may be termed the 'Four Noble Truths'. Drawn from the ancient scriptures, these use the vocabulary of modern science to describe the basic Jain principles of the soul and karma. These truths set out the path to spiritual liberation. The concepts of karmic matter and the working of karma through the cycle of rebirth are likened to photons and computers. Contemporary research into emotional intelligence underlines the vital importance of listening and empathy to being a good lay Jain. The four noble truths are related to other summaries of Jain doctrine, such as the 'three jewels' and the svastika. The two distinctive elements of Jain philosophy are the doctrines of:

  • 'qualified assertion' – syād-vāda
  • 'truth from many viewpoints' – anekānta-vāda.

These philosophical approaches embrace uncertainty in human experience, stressing that the individual cannot grasp the complete truth.

What is important is the quality of being Jain. That is, instead of Jain-ism, this article focuses on Jain-ness.

Reinterpretation

The ancient Jain texts are written in an obscure technical language that makes them almost impenetrable to a modern readership. Some of the concepts are very deep and to contemporary readers it is surprising that these could have been propounded in a non-scientific era. The texts were also originally written down in Sanskrit and Prakrit, which are unknown to most contemporary Jain followers, especially perhaps those Jains who live outside India. In addition, rituals and obscure interpretations have arisen over the centuries that can be confusing.

There is a clear need to reinterpret these concepts so they can be understood by the present generation and generations to come.

'Four noble truths'

To help contemporary readers understand more clearly, here are four axioms that have been formulated from various old scriptures and translated into English. While using the terminology of modern science, these echo the notion of the 'Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhism.

'Four Noble Truths' of Jainism

Number

Noble Truth

1

interaction between soul and karmic matter

2

hierarchy of life

3

cycles of birth and death

4

a. karmic fusion in practice
b. activities and absorption of 'karmons'
c. the path to self-conquest

The first three truths set out the science of the soul, and the three parts of the fourth truth give their Jain applications.

The foundation of Jainism starts with the first noble truth, which asserts the existence of karmic particles or 'karmons', as they are called here. These are unusual elementary particles in the sense that they interact with the soul as if they were spiritual photons. That is, Jainism explains life through the interaction of such small invisible atomic particles and the soul.

The four noble truths present the way to reach the ultimate end of Jain belief, which is becoming a siddha or liberated soul – that is, achieving mokṣa.

The 'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma, which lead to liberation

Noble Truth

Summary

1

interaction between soul and karmic matter

The soul is contaminated with karmic matter and longs to be purified – bhavyatva

2

hierarchy of life

Living beings differ due to the varying density and types of karmic matter

3

cycles of birth and death

Karmic bondage – bandha – leads the soul through the states of existences in the cycle of birthsaṃsāra

4

a. karmic fusion in practice

Karmic fusion is due to:

  • perverted views
  • lack of self-restraint
  • carelessness
  • passions – kaṣāyas – and activities

b. activities and absorption of karmons

  • Violence to oneself and others results in the formation of the heaviest new karmic matter – pāpa
  • Helping others towards liberation with positive non-violence results in the lightest new karmic matter – puṇya

c. the path to self-conquest

Austerity or tapas:

  • forms a karmic shield against new karmons – saṃvara
  • sets off the decaying process of old karmic matter – nirjarā

A full discussion of these concepts of Jain dharma is given in Four Noble Truths (Chatvarwe Arya Satya) (Mardia 1990), written with the help of many prominent gurus and scholars.

The 'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma are presented in the concentric circles. These show gradual progress towards the ultimate aim of Jain belief, which is becoming a siddha or liberated soul – that is, achieving mokṣa.

'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma
Image by K. V. Mardia © K. V. Mardia

'Karmons'

The extremely minute particles that form karmic matter are here called 'karmons'. These karmons are embedded in the soul, obscuring the inherent key properties of the soul such as infinite bliss.

Invisible particles such as photons, which give light, became known only at the beginning of the last century. So it is surprising that the Jinas could put forward such a concept of ‘spiritual photons’ so many centuries ago. If they are physical particles then it is still a challenge for science to hunt for their existence.

The second noble truth implies that this karmic matter is responsible for different species. So in some sense karmic particles are far more subtle than DNA. It has only recently become clear through genomics that there is hardly any difference between the genes in human beings and chimpanzees and many others. There are also questions that prompt a further look into Jain belief and cloning. The Jain belief is that all souls are separate entities – that is, individuals – whereas cloning might imply that a new life can begin in this way. But this is a misunderstanding because cloning only implies changing the genetic code of an existing egg. Therefore the same soul continues, so the fundamental Jain principle is still valid.

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