Article: Liberation

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Who can be liberated

In this detail of a manuscript painting a white-clad monk preaches to lay Jains. Taking the lotus position of meditation and advanced spirituality, the monk sits on a low seat, indicating higher status, and holds up a mouth-cloth.

Preaching monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Nearly all souls have the capacity – bhavyatva – to achieve liberation. However, some souls are abhavya and can never attain salvation.

Even those souls that are bhavya can reach emancipation only under certain conditions. Since only human beings can be liberated, even souls born as the higher gods, who are very spiritually advanced, must be born into human bodies to be emancipated. Not all human beings can reach liberation, however.

Only human beings who follow the path to salvation set out by the Jinas can be liberated. Of the followers of the Jinas, only mendicants can attain emancipation. This is because only mendicants are believed capable of maintaining the levels of detachment from worldly concerns that is required to keep karma from being produced and binding to the soul.

Lay Jains have responsibilities to their families and communities that mean they cannot practise the sufficient detachment. In Jain literature, it is true that lay people are depicted reaching emancipation but only the perfect lay Jain is able to meet the challenges involved in attaining liberation.

Sectarian differences

Digambara monk with the peacock-feather broom – piñchī – he uses to sweep an area free of minute life-forms before sitting. This helps him keep his vow of non-violence. A Digambara muni lives without clothing as part of his vow of non-possession.

Digambara monk
Image by Arian Zwegers © CC BY 2.0

The two major Jain sects have contrasting views regarding the emancipation of women.

Digambara texts state that souls cannot be liberated in their rebirth as women because they are incapable of reaching the same level of detachment as men. This revolves around the ideal of mendicant nudity. Fully fledged Digambara monksmunis – go naked, rejecting clothing as an attachment to the world and because they believe the Jinas lived naked. The women who become nunsāryikās – in the Digambara tradition are not permitted to go naked so are technically spiritually advanced lay women, not mendicants.

The Śvetāmbara sect, however, regards both men and women as having the capacity for liberation. Śvetāmbaras regard clothing for mendicants as necessary for life and do not consider wearing it a sign of attachment. Both their monks and nuns wear white clothes and are believed to be able to achieve liberation.

Indian religions and the soul

Along with other religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, Jains believe that souls:

  • are trapped in the neverending cycle of rebirth – saṃsāra
  • are reborn in different bodies according to the karma they have collected
  • can only break out of the cycle of rebirth by being born a human being, achieving enlightenment and then, leaving the body behind, reaching liberation
  • with karma attached to them can never be enlightened – the bondage of karma.

The Jain concepts of the soul and karma differ from those of the other Indian faiths, however. In Jainism souls are individual with the same innate qualities. They accrue karmas that are bound to them throughout the cycle of birth until they mature and fall away. Souls remain individual once they are perfected.

Followers of the Buddha do not believe in a soul in the same way as Jains and Hindus. The Buddha preached anatta – the doctrine of no soul – and that the cycle of birth involves a transfer of consciousness from one body to another, influenced by karma. Nirvāṇa is the term usually used for liberation or salvation – in which followers of the Buddha realise that there is neither self nor consciousness. It describes the extinguishing of the 'fires' of attachment, aversion and ignorance that cause suffering. Enlightened souls thus gain release from the cycle of births when they die – mokṣa – instead of another rebirth.

There is a variety of belief among Hindu traditions, although most Hindus believe in the soul or self – ātman – and liberation. Broadly, for Hindus ignorance of the true self or soul creates desire for and enjoyment of the world, which traps the soul in the cycle of birth. Karma comes from thoughts, words and deeds, and influences future lives. Between two births, the soul goes either to hell, to be punished for bad actions, or to heaven, where it enjoys rewards for good actions. Hindu mokṣa is the perfecting of the soul and release from the cycle of rebirths, although various schools differ on whether realisation of the soul can be achieved during or after life.

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