Article: Scales of Perfection

Contributed by Jérôme Petit

The ultimate goal in Jainism – emancipation of the soul from the cycle of rebirth – is a very long and difficult road. This is surely why Jain doctrine has created a ‘Scale of Perfection’, which goes from total delusion to total omniscience. It presents the route to liberation in 14 stages. The scale has been named guṇa-sthāna, coined from Sanskrit words for the stages – sthāna – of qualities – guṇa. The scale allows lay men who are not necessarily Jain to become Jains, to reaffirm their faith in Jainism, to take the vows of monkhood and then to progress through the stages by eliminating the different forms of karma. At a certain stage, devotees are invited to leave their lay status and to become monks or nuns.

The theory of guṇa-sthāna is closely associated with the Jain doctrine of karma. This concept of karma is very complicated, with 148 main categories and numerous classes shaping the attributes of an embodied soul and influencing how karma plays out over one or more lifetimes. Aspects of these different categories are linked to the 14 stages of the guṇa-sthāna.

Approaching the sixth stage of the guṇa-sthāna, the individual can further develop spiritually only by becoming a mendicant. The step between lay and mendicant status is so great that the Jain doctrine proposes 11 more steps named pratimā to help lay people to make this important decision.

The history of the guṇa-sthāna concept is hard to trace, with only infrequent mentions in early Jain writings. The tenth-century text called the GommaṭasāraEssence of Mahāvīra’s Teachings – remained influential for centuries, particularly among Digambaras. In the 19th century, however, it seems that the ever-more involved theorising of the guṇa-sthāna may have helped the decline of its popularity among lay Jains. Contemporary Jains may well be unfamiliar with the complexities of the doctrine, even though the notion of spiritual progression remains a keystone of the Jain faith. In addition, scholarly work in this area is largely absent, although the great significance of the guṇa-sthāna in the path to liberation is accepted in Jain studies.

Journey to liberation

The nandyāvarta below three circles symbolising the three jewels of Jainism while the crescent at the top represents the siddha-śilā. The fruits represent souls at various stages while the auspicious symbols are in rice. Such offerings are common.

Sacred symbols in rice
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC A-NC-SA 2.0

The fundamental aim of Jainism is the realisation of the self, the liberation of the individual soul from the cycle of births because it has no karma. To reach this state of bliss, each believer must pay attention to the 'three jewels' of:

Accomplishing the first jewel makes it possible to achieve the second, which allows progression to the third. The concept of the guṇa-sthāna provides a framework in which to fully accept and practise the 'three gems' of Jain teachings.

Jain devotees should also concentrate their thoughts on the innate purity of the self and devote their entire lives to the attainment of this goal. It is so difficult that only monks and nuns are said to be able to achieve the state of realisation – siddhi. Formally described in the guṇa-sthāna, this process leaves aside the lay community, which is the larger part of the Jain community – sangha. However, lay Jains can advance spiritually within certain limits.

Fourteen 'Stages of Qualities'

The 14 stages of the 'scale of perfection' – guṇa-sthāna – map the soul's progress towards final liberation. Lay people can reach the fifth stage of partial self-control – deśa-virata – but to advance further they must become mendicants.

Fourteen guṇa-sthānas
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

The 14 'Stages of Qualities' – guṇa-sthāna – chart the progress of the individual soul from complete delusion to omniscience, which is necessary for mokṣa – the emancipation of the soul. The guṇa-sthāna is closely linked to the Jain theory of karma, which is extremely detailed. Jain writings discuss 148 categories of karma, which demonstrate varying qualities and durations and govern different aspects of the embodied soul. At the various rungs of the ladder of guṇa-sthānas, different karmas rise and mature and then die away. At the top of the scale, the enlightened soul still retains karmas, but these disappear in the instant after it is freed from its body.

It is considered extremely difficult to move through the stages to enlightenment. It takes many, many lives in the cycle of rebirth to move from one step to another, and karmas exist and mature over many lifetimes, with more karmas being formed in each lifetime. These may mature in the next lifetime or come to fruition much later.

Lay people can ascend only to the fifth stage. Going higher up the ladder means becoming a mendicant.

The stages are detailed in this table.

'Fourteen Stages of Qualities' – guṇa-sthāna

Stage

Sanskrit term

English meaning

Detail

1

mithyātva

wrong belief

The soul is bound by the karma of delusion – mohanīya-karman. The soul has not yet been awakened to Jain belief and so it ignores the Path of Liberation. It is heavily bound by passions and attachments.

2

sāsvādana

the taste of right belief

The individual is ‘rehabilitated’ after a fall from a higher stage. The Jain has only the ‘taste’ of the 'right belief'samyag-darśana – but his faith has to be reaffirmed.

3

miśra

mixed

This is a transition between the wrong belief of stage 1 and the right belief in stage 4.

4

avirata-samyag-dṛṣṭi

right belief without self-control

This is important because the believer is now truly a Jain and cannot go back to the wrong belief of the first stage. He has right belief – samyag-darśana – but still lacks self-control.

5

deśa-virata

partial self-control

The individual has partial self-control and is now ready to take the vows of the Jain lay man – aṇu-vratas. The 'believer' thus becomes an 'active member' of the Jain community.

6

pramatta-virata or sarva-virata

complete self-control with carelessness

This marks the passage from secular life to becoming a mendicant. The devotee has complete self-control, though still demonstrating some carelessness, yet is ready to take the vows of Jain mendicants – mahā-vratas. This step is very high indeed, which is why there are some degrees between the fifth and the sixth guṇa-sthāna, as detailed in the pratimā.

7

apramatta-virata

complete self-control without carelessness

The mendicant now has complete self-control without carelessness, and so can observe all the vows without any faults.

8

apūrva-karaṇa

new process

Having become practised in self-control, the mendicant is engaged in the new process of struggling to stop the secondary passions or emotions – no-kaṣāyas – through meditation.

9

anivṛtti-karaṇa

no return process

The mendicant reaches the point where he or she cannot return to a lower stage and tries to destroy the secondary passions through meditation.

10

sūkṣma-saṃparāya

war against the subtle passions

The mendicant wars against the subtle passions – kaṣāyas – through meditation.

11

upaśānta-moha

one whose delusion is pacified

From this stage, the monk becomes a 'perfect ascetic', free from attachment, but has not yet attained omniscience. Stages 9 to 11 make a separate scale named the ‘Ladder of Pacification’ – upaśama-śreṇi – from which a fall is still possible.

12

kṣīṇa-moha

one whose delusion is destroyed

The ascetic free from attachment has now destroyed delusion. He or she has not reached omniscience but the passions are completely eliminated. From here, there is no return possible to a lower level of spirituality.

13

sayoga-kevalin

omniscient one who still has activity in the body

The sayoga-kevalin is an omniscient being who still has physical activity. The soul is still within the body, in order to achieve the lifespan – āyus – of the particular ascetic.
This is the stage attained by eminent Jain persons, the Jinas, the Arhats and so on.

14

ayoga-kevalin

omniscient one without any activity

The ayoga-kevalin is an omniscient without any activity, remaining completely still.
This is the instant before death when all the categories of karma are destroyed, including those that:

  • determine lifespan – āyus
  • sets individual characteristics – nāma
  • fixes social environment – gotra
  • relates to sensations – vedanīya.

The top of the ladder leads to mokṣa, in which the soul is perfected – siddha – having become free of all karmic particles. On the death of the physical body, the soul rises up to the siddha-śilā, where it dwells for eternity experiencing its own realisation.

However, Digambaras do not believe that women can reach liberation as they hold that nudity is part of complete detachment and self-control – expressed in one of the five 'fundamental vows' of mendicants – and that women cannot go nude. This is because Digambara followers believe that women's bodies contain microscopic beings that men's do not, and which hinder the level of spiritual purity they can achieve. In addition, traditional social attitudes towards women make it impossible for them to shed their clothes as part of advanced spirituality while the scriptures stress the dangers for monks who mix with women.

Wiley states that 'A Digambara nun (āriyikā) takes the vow of non-possession in a modified form, and she wears a white sari. Therefore, she is classified as an advanced celibate layperson in the 11th pratimā.' (159)

Theory of karma

The elaboration of the guṇa-sthāna is closely linked with the theory of karma.

At every stage, some of the 148 categories of karma – the prakṛtis – must be unbound from the soul so it can progress to the next step. At the top of the scale, none of the karmic categories bind the pure soul and thus it can be liberated.

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