Jainism and Buddhism

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Jainism and Buddhism have a common origin in the culture of world-renunciation that developed in India from around the seventh century b.c.e. This common origin can be confirmed by the many similarities between their respective ancient codes of practice, and the two traditions have always shared an acceptance of the transformative powers of human effort in effecting freedom from rebirth.

Although evidence beyond that afforded by partisan texts is not available, Jainism can be judged to be the older religion because from a relatively early period it claimed as authoritative a teacher called Pārśva, who can reasonably be dated to around two centuries before the Buddha. Mahāvīra, who is generally credited with being the "founder" of Jainism, appears to have built upon Pārśva's teachings. Jainism eventually located Pārśva and Mahāvīra as the twenty-third and twenty-fourth of a succession of teachers called ford-maker (tīrthaṅkara) or conqueror (jina). The word jina is the source of the Sanskrit name Jaina, used to refer to a follower of these teachers, although the earliest term to designate them was nigaṇṭha (bondless). While early Buddhism developed a succession of twenty-five buddhas, most likely under the influence of Jainism, both traditions assert that their teachings are uncreated, without beginning or end, and outside the parameters of historical time.

The date of Mahāvīra relies on synchronicity with that of the Buddha, who is now regarded by scholars as having lived in the fifth century b.c.e. Although the two teachers were contemporaries who lived in the same area of the Ganges basin, there is no record of them having met. The Saṅgīti-sutta of the Dīghanikāya describes the strife that broke out in the Jain community after Mahāvīra's death and the Buddha's contrast of this with the stability of his own teaching and followers. Mahāvīra, under the name of Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta, is conventionally located by early Buddhist scripture within a group of six rival ascetics (śramaṇa) who taught a variety of false doctrines. Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta is associated with a "fourfold restraint" with regard to evil, which, in the light of the fact that Mahāvīra taught five "great vows," suggests that the early Buddhists were familiar with members of the community of the earlier Jain teacher, Pārśva.

The Pāli canon views the Jains in inimical terms and frequently describes ascetic and lay followers of Mahāvīra joining the Buddhist community. Jain doctrine advocated the existence of a permanent soul or life monad (jīva) that changed only in respect to its modifications, a standpoint also applied to reality as a whole. Such a view was very much at variance with Buddhist teaching, which denied the possibility of the existence of entities that were not impermanent or conditioned. Buddhism also rejected as fruitless Jainism's strong ascetic ethos, which held that only fasting and intense forms of religious exercise would lead to liberation. A further area of Jain teaching that the Buddhists found inadequate was that of intentionality. Although the Jains were aware of the role of mental attitude in determining the moral tone of an action, the Buddhists accused them of advocating a crude mechanistic approach to agency and retribution.

The Jains, for their part, regarded the Buddhists as incorrigibly lax in their behavior and as promoting a view of the momentary nature of the world that verged on nihilism in that moral retribution could not operate without some kind of permanent self. According to one medieval writer of the Digambara sect, the Buddha himself had originally been a Jain monk who abandoned the true path because of his inability cope with its rigorous demands. Buddhism's claims to be non-violent were rejected on the grounds that Buddhism lacked Jainism's radical analysis of reality as composed of embodied, eternally existing souls, and the Buddhists, whether renouncers or laity, were portrayed by their vegetarian opponents as habitual meat eaters. MahĀyĀna Buddhism's teaching of śŪnyatĀ (empti-ness) was stigmatized by the Jains as promoting a brand of illusionism where no ethical values could hold sway, while the bodhisattva's supposed postponement of enlightenment to aid others' attainment of the goal was deemed to be illogical because it entailed a possible situation in which all beings could be in a state of liberation at one and the same time, thus voiding the realms of rebirth and liberation of any distinct meaning.

In the light of these differences, it might appear difficult to locate areas of interaction or mutual influence between the two traditions. However, a consistent Jain interest in Buddhist learning can be seen in the use of the term basket (piḍaga) to refer to their scriptures (like the Buddhist expression tripiṭaka) and the fact that the titles of several Jain works are modeled on Buddhist originals. Particularly noteworthy is the eighth-century teacher Haribhadra, who wrote several works in which he pointed to soteriological similarities between Jainism and Buddhism. From the doctrinal perspective, it is likely that the Jains borrowed the term pudgala (atom) from Buddhism, where, at least among the Sarvāstivādins and the Vātsīputrīyas, the term carried the sense of the individual perceived as an aggregate. As for ritual, a Buddhist text on mantras, the Vasudhārādhāraṇī (The Magic Formula of the Goddess Vasudhārā), has been used by the Jains of Gujarat for the last three centuries.

Certain aspects of early Buddhist meditation practice that relate to the suppression of bodily and mental activity and the senses suggest some sort of external influence, most likely Jain, since such techniques are otherwise said to have been rejected by the Buddha. The Buddhists also appear to have been obliged to consider the nature of the Buddha's omniscience in light of the Jain claim that Mahāvīra and other enlightened people were, as a result of the purification of their souls from karmic accretion, literally "all-knowing" with regard to all constituent elements of the universe in every temporal and spatial location simultaneously. Omniscience was ascribed to the Buddha in the early texts only in respect to aspects of the religious path. Later Buddhism attributed to him the capacity to know all objects, but only individually, each at one time.

See also:Hinduism and Buddhism; Karma (Action)


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Bronkhorst, Johannes. "The Buddha and the Jainas Reconsidered." Asiatische Studien/Etudes Asiatiques 49 (1995): 333–50.

Dundas, Paul. The Jains, 2nd revised edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

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Paul Dundas