Forgiveness in Jainism by tyndale


									                              Forgiveness in Jainism
                                    Alan Hunter, May 2003

The Jain faith is relatively small in terms of numbers. Yet it has made a
disproportionate contribution to the practice of forgiveness and peace. Of all
major world faiths, it is perhaps the most consistent in rejecting all forms of
violence; and in promoting peaceful inter-personal relationships based on co-
operation and forgiveness. Jainism may seem an abstract, unrealistic
philosophy, but in fact it was a major source of inspiration for one of the great
politicians of the twentieth century, Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi was brought
up as a Vaishnavite Hindu, but in a part of Gujarat where Jainism was strong.
He liked to frequent Jain teachers and temples. In the 1890s he came to
know one of the great Jain saints of modern India, Shrimad Rajchandra.
Rajchandra settled many of Gandhi‟s spiritual doubts and was a significant
personal inspiration for him: local people referred to Rajchandra as “Gandhi‟s
Guru”. So the ancient Jain ideals were transmitted to modern politics in India
and beyond.1

The dating of early South Asian history is always contentious. Conventional
scholarship suggests between 600 and 550 BCE as the birth date of
Vardhamana Mahavira, who is regarded as the founder of the religion. Jains
themselves regard Mahavira as the most recent in a long line of enlightened
sages who lived in earlier times. These sages are known as Tirthankaras or
Jinas. Tirthankara means „ford-maker‟: one who helps us cross the torrents of
life to immortality; Jina means „spiritual victor‟; and the term Jain is one who
follows a Jina.

Mahavira appears to have led the life of an ascetic or rishi, a sage of Vedic
times, in North India: he fasted, went naked, kept silence, meditated, and
taught others. His early disciples included Hindu Brahmins, and his words are
recorded in Buddhist sutras. Jains have by and large remained on good
terms with Buddhists and Hindus: for example, they often participate in Hindu
religious festivals and other observances, without feeling that their own faith is
compromised. There is considerable overlap, friendship, and communication
between the three faiths notwithstanding some important doctrinal differences.
The original scriptures of Jainism are composed in Ardhamagadhi, an ancient
north Indian language related to Sanskrit.

By the fifth century CE, Jainism had spread to many parts of India, as one can
see from the great Jain temples around Mysore in the south. In medieval
times it suffered a numerical decline, although not to the extent of Buddhism,
and by the twentieth century was for the most part confined to three states in
west India, Gujarat, Mahrastra, and Rajasthan. The total number of Jains

    See for further information.
may now be around eight million. Their influence is significant though: they
form a successful community, and one finds Jain businesses in most of
India‟s major cities. Following emigration from Western India, Jain
communities form an important part of the Indian diaspora, for example in the
USA and UK. The Jain communities both in and out of India are active in
presenting their faith in publications and now, particularly, on the Internet. A
simple search will display dozens of Jain websites ranging from local
community groups to specialist philosophy discussions.2 One can also find
photographs of Jain pilgrimage sites; online devotional music and chanting;
and even webcasts of important festivals.3
The doctrine of ahimsa, non-violence, is profoundly connected to the Jain
faith. It is indeed an important concept to Hindus and Buddhists also, but to
Jains it is almost the central or core teaching. In its pure Jain form, ahimsa
means completely abstaining from causing injury to others. “Others” here
includes all life forms, birds, plants, and even micro-organisms. At a deeper
level, even the word “other” should not be used, since Mahavira preached
complete identity with the beings around us: “You are that which you intend to
hit, injure, insult, torment, persecute, torture, enslave or kill.” Lay followers of
the Jain faith pursue this ideal as far as they can, although they are obliged to
make compromises in their daily life. But Jain monks and nuns must rank
among the most “non-violent” people in the world. They generally brush the
ground clear of insects before they tread; wear a small mask to avoid taking in
tiny insects; and eat food only when it has fallen like ripe fruits. Needless to
add, Jainism promotes strict vegetarianism

Key doctrines

Two characteristics of ahimsa as taught in the Jain faith are, first a kind of
steadfastness or lack of equivocation; and second, explicit extension to all
beings and the entire cosmos. The Jain scriptures state, for example:
        All the Arhats (Venerable Ones) of the past, present and future discourse, counsel,
        proclaim, propound and prescribe thus in unison: Do not injure, abuse, oppress,
        enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.

        There is nothing so small and subtle as the atom nor any element so vast as space.
        Similarly, there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of
        spirit greater than reverence for life.

A modern Jain writer suggests: “The teaching of ahimsa refers not only to
wars and visible physical acts of violence but also to the violence in the hearts

  For example,
  See among many others.
  From The Jain Teachings (no author given), published by the Federation of Jain Associations in
North America, 2003.
and minds of human beings, their lack of concern and compassion for their
fellow humans and for the natural world.”
A Jain scripture puts it succinctly: "Ahimsa parmo dharmah" (non-violence is
the supreme religion). While other religions may and do promote peace or
avoid violence under normal circumstances, non-violence is, one might say,
the religion of the Jains. Nor should we understand the teaching of non-
violence as a negative concept. It is intimately connected to the positive
formulation of compassion:
          Ahimsa is an aspect of daya (compassion, empathy, and charity), described by a
          great Jain teacher as the "beneficent mother of all beings" and "the elixir for those
          who wander in suffering through the ocean of successive rebirths." Jiva-daya means
          caring for and sharing with all living beings, tending, protecting and serving them. It
          entails universal friendliness (maitri), universal forgiveness (kshama) and universal
          fearlessness (abhaya).

“Just War”?

It seems that all, or almost all, religious and philosophical traditions preach an
idealised form of universal peacefulness, often expressed in lyrical terms and
with references to great peace-making saints and founders. And Jainism
perhaps goes further than others in integrating this vision into daily life.
However, the test always comes with the issue of “self-defence”. Can or
should one, as an individual, react with violence against, say, an unprovoked
attack? Can one defend one‟s family? By extension, should one defend
one‟s community, faith, or country? It is here we find the widely divergent
views of different religions, and also of different groups within the same

In a political sense, Jains are somewhat distanced from this question. They
form only a minority group within modern India, and have not been the target
for discrimination, harrassment, or persecution. They tend to avoid
professions like policing, where violence may be a necessary part of the
occupation. India does not have a conscript army, so they are not liable for
military service. They do not have a national state to defend. It is thus
relatively easy for Jains to take a moral position similar to, for example, that of
Quakers, and unconditionally oppose warfare.

However, I have also seen several discussions where Jains promote a form of
argument similar to Hindus, i.e. that while unconditional pacifism is suitable for
monks, it is not so for householders:

          As a layperson, being a citizen of a nation also has responsibilities. The Jain tradition
          has always recognized that one of those responsibilities is supporting law and order
          and the nation‟s defenses. One cannot live to serve and protect others, care for
          family and promote good virtues, or live to purify one‟s soul, if one is either dead or
          living in fear of death due to an outside assailant. For this reason, the Jain acharyas

    Jain Teachings
           [teachers] of centuries ago listed military service as one of the acceptable careers for
           Jains. A nation‟s military actions should always be defensive, and not offensive in the
           sense of seeking to wantonly hurt or steal things from other people.

Parasparopagraho jivanam

Another ancient Jain doctrinal contribution with a contemporary tone to it is
“interdependence”, or parasparopagraho jivanam: all lives are bound together
by mutual support and interdependence. Mahavira himself is cited as saying:
“One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and
vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them.”7 Jain
sages view the universe not only as an environment for human beings to
enjoy or exploit; not even as an arena for the human struggle towards
prosperity or salvation. It is a vast web, home to countless life forms of all
kinds like the elements, plants, micro-organisms, planets, and so on.
Damage to one aspect is damage to the whole. This view explains why
violence is so stupid: violence done apparently to others, is really done to
oneself. A well-known illustration of this point is the image of a person sitting
on a branch and sawing it off close to the tree-trunk.
South Asian philosophy, though, usually attends to consciousness more than
the physical realm. “Interdependence” in Jain thought is no exception. It is
certainly admitted that we should protect the environment because of the web
of physical connections But our environment also has a metaphysical
dimension, the countless forms of thought, ideation, emotion, or other
connections that exist between different beings and different kinds of beings.
Inter-connectedness is interpreted as total and cosmic, not just as an early
anti-pollution slogan. Violence disrupts our spiritual as well as our physical


As with most Indian religious tradition, the ultimate goal of Jainism is to realise
liberation, moksha, following the teachings of the great sages. As we shall see
further in the next section, Jainism above all other religions preaches self-
reliance and austerity, rather than faith in any external agency, even God.
Compared to Hinduism, this is probably the major distinguishing feature. The
path to moksha is determined by Jain cosmology and metaphysics which,
while similar to Hindu teachings in many ways, have their own characteristics.

Specifically, the Jain scriptures, like Vedic ones, teach that the Soul (jiva) is
inherently perfect and ever-illumined. However, in our daily experiences it is
as if clouded, or veiled, or non-manifest: the reason being that it has become
associated with negative actions, karmas, due to our ignorance and
carelessness in the past. The way to liberation is straightforward. We can
purge our existing negative karmas from our souls; and refrain from adding
new ones. The methods for doing this are quite similar to those enjoined on
spiritual seekers in Buddhism and Hinduism, for example one list provided by
a contemporary teacher is: Right belief; Observance of vows; Awareness;
Passionlessness; Peacefulness; Carefulness; Control; Forgiveness; Humility;
Truthfulness; Austerity; Universal Friendship and others. As one can see, this
is not very different from the teachings of, for example, the Patanjali
Yogasutras or indeed the Bhagavad Gita.

Such a life of austerity, kindness, and truthfulness, according to these
teachings will lead unerringly to profound meditation and thence to liberation.
On this transition from the worldly to the spiritual dimension, a person will
spontaneously become involved with good works of all kinds; and indeed the
Jain community in India is renowned for its philanthropy.


Jain teaching on God is rather unique. According at least to orthodox Jain
teachings, there is indeed a supreme being, who might be called God.
However, God did not create the material universe; nor does God “rule” or
“govern” it as such; nor do they pray to Him or Her. As one modern teacher
puts it:

           The bondage and deliverance of each individual belong to himself or herself. The
           experience of happiness or sorrow belongs to each individual and it is his own.
           Therefore, the Jain Dharma says: God surely reveals to us the real nature and form
           of the universe. Seeing with his divine eyes, he reveals the essential and real form of
           the universe. The Tirthankar has said:
           The world is without a beginning. It has no beginning. It has no end. This creation is
           boundless being devoid of a beginning and an end. But it is present in the flow and
           flux of time. The universe sometimes grows small. Creation and destruction;
           production and disposal are always going on. Behind this eternal process there does
           not exist anyone‟s planning or organization. The whole universe is a self-regulated
           one. But in this organization, Karma plays an important role. In this process the effect
           of Karma is emphatically evident.
To downplay the role of God in one‟s own religious or personal development
is of course to place tremendous emphasis on individual responsibility. It is
not possible for a practising Jain to shrug shoulders at the fate of the poor and
say “God wanted them poor”; nor to shirk spiritual practice and say “Let God
save me”. Devout Jains will feel obliged to make tremendous effort at self-
improvement for their own well-being: nobody else will do it for them.
On the other hand, and especially in India, nobody and no system can over-
ride the human longing for worship, for a deity. Just as the Buddha in
Mahayana Buddhism, Mahavira and some other figures became “virtual
Gods” at least for some Jains. Thus one finds many – and splendid –
temples, places of pilgrimage and worship that are an integral part of most
Jains‟ religious life.


One of the glories of Jain philosophy is the theory of relativity. Not Einstein‟s
of course, and predating Einstein by at least two thousand years: but a
discovery that could lead to great inter-religious harmony if widely accepted.
The concept of universal interdependence mentioned above leads to a theory
of knowledge, known as anekantavada or the doctrine of manifold aspects.
“Anekantavada describes the world as a multifaceted, ever-changing reality
with an infinity of viewpoints depending on the time, place, nature and state of
one who is the viewer and that which is viewed.”9 This is an idea with a
surprisingly modern or even post-modern tone. Also, it seems to me, very
difficult to challenge in any reasoned way. Unless one has a totally monistic
view of consciousness, it is completely logical that any observation of any
object is taken from a particular “time, place, nature, and state”; and neither
the observer nor the object are stable. No observation is entirely repeatable.
This perception leads to the doctrine of syadvada or relativity, which states
that truth is relative to different viewpoints. What is true from one point of view
is open to question from another. Absolute truth cannot be grasped from any
particular viewpoint alone, because absolute truth is the sum total of all
different viewpoints that make up the universe. Because it is rooted in these
doctrines, Jainism cannot exclusively uphold the views of any individual,
community, nation, or species. It recognises inherently that other views are
valid for other peoples, and for other life-forms. Any universalising truth claim
is a priori misleading.

Teaching on forgiveness
Why forgive?

Jainism does stress the importance of forgiveness for community well-being.
However, following the trend of Indian thought, most teachers would probably
stress the importance of forgiveness from the perspective of the “forgiver”.
The following is an edited extract from a discourse by a contemporary Jain

    Jain Teachings
           The first line in our Kshamapna Sutra [see final section of this article] states: “I grant
           forgiveness to all living beings”. This powerful philosophy, somehow, got diluted in
           our practice. In my opinion, it is more important to forgive than to ask for forgiveness.
           We need to forgive others, not because they need our forgiveness. It is because we
           need to release ourselves from the rage, hostility and resentment we carry within us
           when we don‟t forgive. I have often heard people say, “I have no problem forgiving. If
           he/she asks, I will forgive him/her.” This is not true forgiveness. It just feeds our own
           ego and does more harm than good. Forgiveness is not a sense of false humility that
           makes us better than somebody else. It is an attitude that sets us free, so that we are
           not continually re-victimized by our wounds. The other excuse people use for not
           being willing to forgive someone is “If I forgive so easily, he/she will continue doing
           the same thing and will never learn a lesson”. Well, there is a penalty for not granting
           forgiveness. The penalty we experience is the hurt that remains trapped within us,
           which rots a portion of our body, mind and soul daily. In order to heal ourselves of the
           wounds inflicted upon us we must be willing to forgive those who hurt us, totally and
           unconditionally. It does not mean that we must go and tell them that they are forgiven.
           It doesn‟t mean, if we are the offending party, we must go to the other and beg for
           their forgiveness. Realization of our mistake and true repentance (Prayaschitta) can
           in itself set new direction for our life.

           Forgiveness not only makes us whole once again, it energizes us and makes our
           world more beautiful that ever. In my case, I have always been hurt a lot easier than I
           used to admit to and in the past, instead of healing my hurt, I would deny it. I believed
           I should not be hurt so easily. The problem with this denial is that it created secret
           resentments and I experienced depression so deep within me that it almost
           incapacitated me. Learning to forgive has made all the difference. As someone once
           said, “Forgiveness isn‟t about letting him or her off the hook… it‟s about taking the
           knife out of your soul”. When it comes to forgiveness, it is far better to have a small
           amount of the real thing than massive quantities of the fake stuff."

The forgiveness festival

Jainism is perhaps unique among world faiths in having a festival, the
Paryushana, in which “forgiveness” is the central component. It is in fact the
most important event in the Jain calendar, and falls in August or September
every year. The festival itself last for a week or ten days. August and
September are the main monsoon months in western India. Monsoon was an
important period for all Indian religious traditions, because monks and
wandering teachers would tend to settle in one place for two or three months.
For example, it is thought that the great discourses of the Buddha were mainly
given at this period, following which the monks would disperse to their
itinerant life. Naturally it is convenient to be out of the rains; typically,
however, for Jains there is a deeper reason. Insects and other life-forms
abound during the rainy season, and one is more likely to cause them
accidental damage while walking around at this time of year. Monks therefore
prefer to be as sedentary as possible. As well as monks, householders
celebrate the festival as a time for spiritual reflection and regeneration.

In some ways, the festival resembles those of other Indian traditions. Jain
families visit temples to listen to discourses and readings; and they engage in
fasting and penance. The evening is often devoted to meditation, specifically
the practice of pratikraman, a reflection on their spiritual life which includes
introspection, prayers, detachment from the body, and resolutions for the
coming year.

Paryushana is marked by strict observance of the ten cardinal virtues, of
which forgiveness is conventionally listed first: forgiveness, charity, simplicity,
contentment, truthfulness, self-restraint, fasting, detachment, humility, and
continence. Specifically to Jainism there is a unique custom, in which every
Jain asks forgiveness from all individuals and from the community, for any
offence they may have committed. All dissent and disagreement is supposed
to be set aside, and individual and social relationships healed. They ask
forgiveness by approaching the other person, joining hands and asking for
"Micchamidukadam" or forgiveness. Literally, dukadam means bad deeds;
and micchami means fruitless. The sense is, may any past problems
between us cease here and now, with no repercussions.

           Jains, whether monks, nuns, or householders, therefore, affirm prayerfully and
           sincerely, that their heart is filled with forgiveness for all living beings and that they
           have sought and received the forgiveness of all beings, that they crave the friendship
           of all beings, that all beings give them their friendship and that there is not the
           slightest feeling of alienation or enmity in their heart for anyone or anything. They also
           pray that forgiveness and friendliness may reign throughout the world and that all
           living beings may cherish each other.

The mantras

Apart from the forgiveness festival or other specific calendar events, Jains are
likely to practise forgiveness as an integral part of their religious life. Again,
the focus on forgiveness is explicit. For example, perhaps the most widely
used Jain prayer mantras are those for forgiveness and universal friendship:

Universal Forgiveness Prayer
           Khamemi Savve Jiva, Savve Jiva Khamantu Me,
           Metti Me Savve Bhuyesu, Veram Majham Na Kenai.

I grant forgiveness to all living beings. May all living beings grant me
My friendship is with all living beings. My enmity is totally nonexistent.

Universal Peace and Friendship Prayer
           Shivmastu Sarva Jagatah, Par-hit-nirata bhavantu bhutaganah,
           Doshah Prayantu Nasham, Sarvatra Sukhi bhavantu lokah.

May the whole Cosmos be blessed. May all beings engage in each other's
well being.

     Jain Teachings
May all weakness, sickness and faults diminish and vanish. May everyone
and everywhere be healthy, prosper, blissful, and peaceful.12

     These and other prayers can be found at

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