So, Why Not Jainism?

The Jain philosophy is not very popular, according to my stats this month. Maybe folks just aren’t interested, or I’m doing a poor job in presenting this path. Perhaps it’s both. I’ve asked myself “why” all month, why this Jain way is such a hard pill to swallow and in some ways, I just don’t get it.

Here are some of the more attractive features of the Jain philosophy:

  • Strict non-violence

As far as I can tell, no wars or conflicts have ever began in the name of Jainism. Because of the Jain belief that only a soul in human form can achieve liberation, killing a human is considered vile and abhorrent under any circumstance. Even ill feelings or harsh words/thoughts toward another person is considered wrong. Jains are also strict vegetarians and staunch animal rights supporters for this very reason.

  • Jainism is shramana or self-reliant

While Jains do believe in the existence of gods, these are simply higher spiritual beings and not the creators or supporters of the universe. Therefore, one’s liberation rests squarely on the shoulders of the individual. If someone follows the Jain philosophy and path, they will achieve liberation. Some may find this spiritual independence and lack of focus on a god liberating, however some require that feeling of a “divine watcher/controller.”

  • Philosophy of acceptance and tolerance

While beholden to their path, Jains do not view other faiths and philosophies in the negative or as opposition. The philosophical practice of Anekanta allows the Jain to see a single point or concept from many points of view, thus reducing the need for conflict and admitting truth from multiple angles by embracing pluralism.

So what’s not to love? Perhaps it’s the focus on the monastic life. More than many other faith, while Jainism provides guidelines for the laity and the laity lead quite normal lives, the ultimate goal is always to become a monastic. Jainism is unrepentant in this regard. I selected this month for this very reason: to see just how far monasticism can go. Obviously, I couldn’t hang with it too long without slipping here and there. In all fairness, laity who later become monks and nuns go through great training before shedding the householder’s life, but I wanted a taste nonetheless.

Is this what makes the Jain path so unsavory? Is its strict non-violence and monastic rules too much for a society (in many ways) bent on consumption? I think it would be like telling a common citizen that a gym membership isn’t enough for fitness. In order to achieve ultimate health, one needs Marine Corps. basic training. If this were the case, I fear we’d have a greater obesity issue in this country than already exists.

This may also contribute the Jainism’s lack of “export” to other parts of the world outside of the Jain diaspora. Jainism and Buddhism are contemporaries according to many scholars, however Buddhism (while for the most part, was pushed out of much of India) has done a better job of winning hearts and minds outside of its homeland. But why?

I think a lot of it comes back to the intensity of practice. Not everyone wants to train like a Marine. Similarly, not everyone wants liberation like a Jain monk or even the laity. Another contributor of Buddhism’s success was powerful patrons like Emperor Ashoka, who sent Buddhist missionaries in all directions after his conversion. While Jainism did enjoy the patronage of many social elite, none possessed quite the fervor of this Indian ruler.

On the other hand, many of you objected to my practice as a monastic within the household. You witnessed the tensions it caused despite the very important lessons. When it comes down to it, you have your own personal reasons for not jiving on this faith as you have with others. There’s a reason we don’t know as much about Jainism as we do other faiths. There’s a reason you don’t hear much about folks converting to Jainism and why it remains predominately in India. All this said, who would we be without such extreme standard bearers of non-violence or animal rights? In many ways, these people are the high plateau we reach for and even if we miss the mark, we’re still doing pretty well.

This month has been difficult, but well worth the effort. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many people read this blog. I’m not in this for popularity. What matters is what those who have read it learned, changed, challenged themselves with these teachings and all the others to be better human beings.

So, for those of you reading about Jainism, what have you learned and is there anything you’ve changed or challenged yourself with regarding these teachings?

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Beth Irwin

    For me, some of the major difficulties with this one are the “stop the ship I want to get off” mentality of rejecting all the good things of this world while focusing on leaving it, combined with lack of acknowledgment or gratitude to the Creator. Monasticism is a dead end path and this pushes matters to an extreme of taking, based on what I’ve read this month.

    If everybody achieved transcendence and jumped ship, then what? What if everyone ran around waiting for a handful of food and nobody produced any, what then?

    • abowen


      While you bring up some good points here, your critique ignores the fact that a vast majority of Jains are in fact laity and lead “normal” lives, albeit more peaceful ones.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Elizabeth T.

    Stats as in how many people have been reading your blog this month? Maybe it’s the holidays. I’ve been finding your Jain posts as interesting as the others, but I’m also several posts behind in reading—and just as far behind in the other blogs I read, mostly because of holiday preparations, holiday travel, etc.

    I appreciate that you’re trying out the monastic path and am finding it fascinating, since the only other monastic path I’ve heard much about is the Catholic one. But I’m having a bit of trouble getting a sense of what lay Jainism is like based on the monastic version (unless, of course, that was covered in those posts I need to catch up on!).

    • abowen


      I think you’re right. The holidays probably have a lot to do with traffic. As for the laity issue, I’ve covered some ground there as well, so hopefully you’ll get a better picture. At any rate, I’ve tried to make a 50/50 distribution of info regarding both aspects, even if the monastic order here is viewed (by Jains) as the ideal state. Jain laity focus on non-violence/injury in their daily interactions and try to be a positive force in their society. Much devotion is given to the standard the Tirthankaras (those who revived and taught the Jain way) and householders strive to emulate those standards as much as they can.

  • Editor B

    I think the asceticism is very much at odds with the American identity and character. I assume you have a mostly American readership. Having said that, I think I’ve found this month just as engaging and provocative and interesting as all the others. Big props.

    • abowen


      In many ways, it feels like an East/West dichotomy at times, doesn’t it?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Art Sherwood

    I know I can’t speak for others but this is how it has been for me this month.

    Although it has been interesting to learn about the beliefs and practices of Jainism this month, I have had a hard time really relating to any of it because almost all of it ends up conflicting with my core beliefs and values.

    Strict non-violence: Although it is certainly a virtue to be peaceful and to avoid violence where possible, I believe there is a point where it is not only justified but required to stand up in defense of our lives, our families, our liberties and even our religion. The Spirit will let us know when it is time to turn the other cheek and when it is time to take up our swords but we should not be afraid of either action when the Spirit dictates.

    Self-reliance: This is also a great virtue. We should do all that we can to provide for ourselves and to not be a burden upon others. However, we should also recognize our complete and utter reliance upon God for everything that we have. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, even our very lives all ultimately come from God and we are eternally indebted to Him for that. Also, as far as our “liberation” or “salvation” goes, there is no way we could ever achieve that on our own. Although we can and should do all that we can towards this goal, without the help of our Savior we could never even come close.

    Acceptance and tolerance: OK, here I can agree to some extent. I would agree that there is no religion or philosophy that has a monopoly on truth and we should be willing to take a look at different points of view to help us get a better understanding of what is truth. However, I do believe that there is also falsehood out there. There are teachings and doctrines that are harmful if followed and we should be aware of these and counter them with truth.

    Now, I certainly would never deny a person their right to follow the Jain philosophy, I just feel that they miss out on much of what this life is all about. I believe this life is about experiencing good and evil and learning to choose the good. I believe that this life is about gaining a physical body and learning to master it. I believe this life is about family and relationships and creating eternal bonds with those we love. Jainism, to me, seems to shun all of this and simply tries to escape it all into a state of pure consciousness. To me, this existence would be absolutely devoid of joy.

    I absolutely love what you are doing with this project, Andrew, and I believe you are opening a lot of eyes to new points of view. Some of these points of view I find very enlightening and I feel enlarges my understanding of what is true. Others simply don’t make sense to me, and that’s OK.

    Keep up the good work, Andrew!

    • abowen


      You are right in that it’s hard to be objective observers of another faith or philosophy when we are deeply rooted in another. Your position on the first two points certainly is at odds with the Jain path. Jain philosophic positions regarding other points of view simply accepts them at face value, however this philosophical talent does not render them without footing on certain issues. They simply acknowledge that there is more than one way to understand things.

      For a Jain, they make these “good and evil” choices every day. The struggle against harming others, against using negative language, the carefulness with which we move our bodies, speak, eat…it’s a constant life of improvement, conditioning, and taming of our animal nature. Of course an ascetic’s life may not be fun and games (trust me, it’s rough), however you and a lay Jain may have more fun together than you might imagine ; )

      Thanks always for your insight, Art. I look forward to it upon every post.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Helen/Hawk

    You nailed it. ”
    On the other hand, many of you objected to my practice as a monastic within the household.”

    I never felt you took responsibility for this, really. So my interest in your experiment faded.

    • abowen


      You make it sound like I made some controversy or blunder that I should apologize to you for. Responsibility? Have I ever denied ownership of my actions?

  • Mahavir Sanglikar

    Most of the Jains like to hide the key features of Jainism and talk only about Non-violence, Vegetarian diet and other food habits. They do it because most of the lay Jains do not know about basic philosophy of Jainism.
    I have written a brief story on this subject at:

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raj Jhaveri

    In regards to Self-Defense, you are completely wrong. Jainism is quite clear that non-violence is a way of life. And that without following perfect non-violence in mind, speech and body, there can be no liberation.

    Hence, we are told to avoid samarambha (ardent desire for undertaking an act of violence), samaarambha (putting together the instruments of violence / embarking upon such an act of violence) and aarambha (commencement of such an act). We are told to avoid the three modes of
    krta (doing it), kaarita (asking someone else to do it) and anumodita (supporting, aiding and abetting or merely approving of such acts) of himsa (violence), asatya (lies), steya (stealing), abrahma (indulging in sensuous acts) and parigraha (attachment to non-self objects). We are taught to stay away from the four passions of krodha (anger), maana (conceit), maya (deceit) and lobha (avarice).

    • abowen

      Raj Jhaveri,

      Jai Jinendra! I’m sorry, but where exactly in my post do I contradict your objection?