Jainism, Bioethics in

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The Jaina religious tradition originated in India. Its adherents currently number approximately seven million, most of them living in India. According to tradition, the founders of the faith were not emissaries or embodiments of a supreme being, but were human beings who through their own efforts reached an elevated spiritual state called Kevala, characterized as blissful, omniscient solitude free from all karmic suffering and hence liberated from rebirth. According to Jaina lore, twenty-four persons known as Tīrthaņkaras crossed over the river of rebirth and conquered the influences of negative karma. They then established and promulgated the Jaina religion. Their stories extend back into the prehistory of India. Historical records exist for the two most recent Tīrthaņkaras: Parśvanatha, who lived around 850 b.c.e., and Vardhamāna Mahāvīra, the Jina or Conqueror, whose approximate dates are 599–527 b.c.e. The term Jaina means "follower or disciple of the Jina."

The belief structure and lifestyle of the Jainas are closely linked. In Jainism, there is no creator God. Rather, the Jaina religion is rooted in a unique respect for all life forms that serves as the basis for a sophisticated system of ethics based on the observance of nonviolence (ahi sā).

According to the Jainas, there are two categories of reality: one possesses life (jīva); the other is lifeless (ajīva). However, unlike Western definitions of life, which require "metabolism, growth, response to stimulation, and reproduction," the Jainas regard even seemingly inanimate objects as possessing life. The universe is said to be suffused with countless life forces grouped in five categories: earth, water, fire, and air bodies; microorganisms (nigoda); plants; animals; and humans. These jīva take the shape of their particular life form, whether it be large as a whale or small as a pebble. Each of these life forces is involved in a process of transmigration, moving after death into a new form.

According to Jaina tradition, sticky particles of nonliving matter called karmas adhere to jīvas when acts of desire, passion, or violence are committed. Though not visible to the naked eye, six subtle color distinguish this karma. Black, blue, and gray are associated with sinful or brutish karma, and yellow with less serious offenses. Pink and white indicate that one's karmic burden is being lessened. Through unethical passionate or violent behavior, one increases the inhibiting influence of darker, heavier karma. Through adherence to the Jaina code of ethics, one can expel the negative karma and cultivate the purer forms. Eventually, the goal of Jainism entails breaking free from all karmic influence. In this state, referred to as Kevala, one gains omniscience and freedom from rebirth, dwelling eternally in energy, consciousness, and bliss.

Jaina ethics consists of taking vows (vrata) designed to eliminate karma. Both lay Jainas and members of monastic orders are expected to observe these vows, though the rules for nuns and monks are much more stringent. Earliest Jaina tradition lists four vows: nonviolence (ahi sā), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), and nonpossession (aparigraha). Vardhamāna Mahavīra is credited with adding a fifth vow, chastity (brahmacarya). Scriptures such as the Acārāņga Sūtra serve as authoritative sources for religious life.

From ancient times to the present, Jaina monks and nuns have served as preceptors and living symbols of this tradition. Though there are many "lineages" within the Jaina tradition, all modern Jainas can be classified as belonging to either the Śvetāmbara (White Clad) or the Digambara (Sky Clad) group. In the former group, all monks and nuns wear white robes. In the latter group, the highest order of monks renounces all possessions, including clothing. Both sects allow women to take advanced religious vows, though only the Śvetāmbara allow women to take final vows.

Jaina monks and nuns wander throughout India, teaching the lay community about the lives of earlier saints, advocating the practice of nonviolence, and discussing such topics as the all-pervasiveness of life forms and the karmic effects of behavior. Depending upon the rules of their particular subsect, they may cover their mouths with cloth to avoid injuring insects and microorganisms, or gently sweep the path in front of them to remove insects. In 1949, Acārya Tulsi, head of the Terāpanthi Śvetāmbara monastic order, began teaching a twelvefold system of vows, including modern adaptations such as "not to resort to unethical practices in elections" and "to avoid contributing to pollution."

Although these vows are most intently observed by members of monastic communities, the Jaina lay community has developed a culture anchored in the practice of nonviolence. Lay Jainas generally enter professions in which they can avoid violent action that would increase the depth and darkness of one's karma. Many Jainas engage in trade and commerce, provided that animal products and weaponry are not involved. All Jainas, both laypersons and members of religious orders, are lacto vegetarians.

Although the Jaina system was originally conceived as outlining a path of personal liberation and spiritual enlightenment, many of the practices inspired by a desire to avoid the accumulation of karma have found new relevance in the modern ethical context, especially vegetarianism, animal protection, attitudes toward death, and the Jaina ideal of tolerance.

Jainas regard vegetarianism as a way to ensure that one does not accumulate the negative karmas associated with animal slaughter. In modern medical terms, it also purifies one's body, minimizing the violence done to the body that is often associated with the consumption of meat. Jaina eating habits, rooted in the ancient doctrine of nonviolence, are compatible with modern, scientific concerns about enhancing personal health through a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.

Respect for animals has long been a mainstay of Jaina tradition. Throughout Indian history Jainas have lobbied for animal protection, building shelters and providing food for lost or wounded animals, and successfully campaigning to ban animal sacrifice in most parts of India. The Mogul emperor Akbar (1556–1605), influenced by Jaina monks, proclaimed days of restraint from hunting and renounced the consumption of several types of meat. Jaina laypersons periodically visit slaughterhouses and purchase animals for release and protection. In India, pharmaceutical companies owned by Jainas, though required to test medicines on animals, rehabilitate their test animals and then release them.

Jaina tradition regards the death of an older person to be both natural and an opportunity for spiritual advancement. For many centuries, Jainas of advanced age or infirmity have engaged in a practice known as sallekhanā, referred to by modern Therāpanthi Śvetāmbara Jainas as santhārā. Rather than prolonging death when the process of decline becomes irreversible, some Jainas obtain permission from their religious preceptor to engage in a fast unto death. This final ritual is deemed in Samantabhadra's Ratnakarandaśrāvakācāra, a Jaina text of the second century, as acceptable only in "calamity, severe famine, old age, or illness from which there is no escape." One first renounces food, then milk, then water, and is encouraged to "depart from the body repeating the nammokkāra mantra [prayer] until the last." The Jainas assert that such a fast is neither suicide, which is done out of despair or hopelessness, nor euthanasia, which requires the assistance of a second party and a violent act. This practice, associated with a quest for spiritual freedom, embodies the Jaina ideal of encountering and embracing death without fear.

In a more philosophical vein, the Jainas have developed an ethic of debate, according to which each position or opinion is given provisional status. Any statement or perspective is said to be perhaps true or partially true, including the religious views held by non-Jainas. This ethic both reflects and fosters an attitude of tolerance for which the Jainas have become well known. Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, and Leo Tolstoy were all influenced by Jaina principles.

Technology and modernity present new challenges to the Jaina tradition in that they have spawned new forms of violence not discussed in the original Jaina texts. At Jaina Viśva Bhārati, a university dedicated to the teaching of

Jainism located in western India, a curriculum has been developed to help apply Jaina principles to contemporary life, to minimize conflict among groups of people, and to encourage sensitivity to ecological issues.

The Jaina worldview sees the world as a biocosmology, a reality suffused with life. From the perspective of bioethics, this religion is unique in its advocacy of vegetarianism, animal protection, tolerance of multiple perspectives, and philosophical approach to the inevitability of death.

christopher key chapple (1995)

SEE ALSO: Animal Welfare and Rights: Ethical Perspectives on the Treatment and Status of Animals; Animal Welfare and Rights: Vegetarianism; Death: Eastern Thought; Harm; Hinduism, Bioethics in; Medical Ethics, History of: South and East Asia: India


Chapple, Christopher Key. 1993. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jacobi, Hermann, tr. 1884–1895. Jaina Sutras. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jaini, Jagomanderlal. 1916. Outlines of Jainism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jaini, Padmanabh S. 1979. The Jaina Path of Purification. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jaini, Padmanabh S. 1991. Gender and Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tatia, Nathmal. 1951. Studies in Jaina Philosophy. Banaras: Jain Cultural Research Society.

Tobias, Michael. 1991. Life Force: The World of Jainism. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.