Article: Scales of Perfection

Contributed by Jérôme Petit

The 'Gommaṭasāra'

Inspired by the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama, Nemicandra wrote in the tenth century a voluminous compendium named GommaṭasāraEssence of Mahāvīra’s Teachings. The work is divided into two books, with one each devoted to:

  • the soul, called 'Jīva-khaṇḍa', which lists the 14 guṇa-sthānas under the name of ‘compositions of the soul’ – jīva-samāsa
  • karma, called 'Karma-khaṇḍa', which goes into details of the karmic categories involved at each stage.

1) Wrong belief, 2) taste of right belief, 3) mixed, 4) right belief without self-control, 5) partial self-control, 6) complete self-control with carelessness, 7) the opposite (i.e. complete self-control without carelessness), 8) new process, 9) no return process, 10) war against the subtle passions, 11) pacification, 12) destroyed delusion, 13) Jina with still an activity, and 14) Jina without any activity must be understood as the fourteen compositions of the soul leading gradually to the realization.

'Jīva-khaṇḍa', verses 9 to 10

Gommaṭasāra

The Gommaṭasāra enjoyed great popularity among Digambara circles until the 18th century. The poet and merchant Banārasīdās provides a personal account of its influence in his autobiography, written in 1641. Inspired by the philosophy of Kundakunda, he believed that he could not devote his entire life to the realisation of the self or soul, because he was still attached to secular activities. Reading the Gommaṭasāra, Banārasīdās realised that one should act in harmony with one's place in the scale of perfection. He was then appeased and could continue to feed both his family and his inner life.

In the mid-18th century, the Digambara scholar Paṇḍit Ṭoḍaramal wrote a Gommaṭasāra-pūjā. This poem praises the qualities of the Gommaṭasāra, attesting to the long popularity of the text.

Increasingly complex theory

The theory of guṇa-sthānas then reached a complexity that lay society could not grasp easily.

In the 19th century the poet Daulatrām wrote a short treatise for lay Jains, called the ChahaḍhālaSix Chapters or Six Shields. This text never refers directly to the guṇa-sthānas but the chapters of the book are organised to form a progression from delusion to realisation that is similar to the 'Scale of Perfection' of the guṇa-sthānas.

Contemporary attitudes

Members of an extended Jain family outside a temple at Dīvālī. Festivals are popular times to take vows, which may be temporary or longer-lasting. Common vows include undertaking fasts or other dietary restrictions, remaining chaste or studying scripture.

Family at the temple
Image by pyjama – Ross Thomson © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nowadays the notion of the 14 guṇa-sthānas seems to be more an object of study than a genuine practice among Jain lay society. The idea of a spiritual progression is certainly present but the technical aspects of the guṇa-sthānas do not seem to be very popular. At every stage of the guṇa-sthānas a certain kind of karma should ripen or fall, which is described by the treatises with great precision. A strong mathematical background is required to follow the theory, which perhaps means that most people cannot easily understand it.

Three main scholars have studied the guṇa-sthāna theory in particular. The German academic Helmuth von Glasenapp devotes to it a chapter of his thesis on the Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy, which was first published in German in 1915 and translated into English in 1942. In 1996, Sagarmal Jain wrote an entire book on the guṇa-sthānas, followed in 2007 by Sādhvī Darśanakalāśrī.

P. S. Jaini and Nathmal Tatia also evoke the guṇa-sthāna theory in their studies as being a major element of the Jain path to liberation.

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