The Religious Life of the Lay Man or Woman
Mahavira started a fourfold
organisation of monks and nuns, who can follow his teachings to the
utmost limit of human capability, and lay men and women who follow
them within the limits of their everyday duties. All can achieve mokshabut monks and nuns, because they have no attachments, can
follow the path of purification more quickly. Persons born in the
Jain community have a better chance of learning the right path, but
any person following the teachings of Mahavira can be regarded as a
true Jain. The aim of the Jain path in life is to liberate the soul
and achieve moksha. There are definite rules laid down for lay
people and for monks and nuns.
thing will strike the thinking man or woman who has been brought up
in the Jain community, or who looks at Jainism from outside.
This is that Right Faith and Right Knowledge must be
complemented by Right Conduct. The conduct of the Jain lay person can
be seen from different angles. There is, firstly, the outward
practice of rituals, festivals fasts, pilgrimages. Secondly, there
is private behavior, the moral way of life laid down in the five
principles of non-violence, of truthfulness, of non-stealing and of
restraint in sex and material acquisition. But Jainism is not just
outward rituals coupled with a moral way of life. The private
behavior of a Jain includes study, reflection and meditation, which
bring the outward practices and the moral life into harmony with the
truly religious life.
or harmlessness is advocated by many religions: in Jainism it is
elevated to the highest principle of behavior. How does this work
out in practice? A Jain will obviously avoid occupations or sports
which involve violence towards living beings, hunting or fishing for
violence is seen as unavoidable: any Jain should try to avoid
harming even the tiniest creature but it isrealized that the lay
person will unavoidably harm minute one-sensed beings at times. It
is impossible to live without harming tiny creatures. SimpIe acts
like lighting a fire or digging a garden may unavoidably harm or
destroy small forms of life. Disinfectants and antibiotics act by
destroying the life of minute living creatures: Jains believe that
these have living souls just as we have. However Jains are often
found in the practice of medicine and even as soldiers. There have
been noted Jain generals in Indian history who must have
rationalised the destruction of the enemy as an act of unavoidable
harm in the defense of their country.
Obviously there can be serious tensions and difficulties for
the individual Jain in the practice of ahimsa
but it must be remembered that violence is a mental act as well as a
physical one. Some, at least, of the effect of violence on the
person who performs it is removed if the act is done, not savagely,
not thoughtlessly, but with a real feeling of sorrow
and regret. Some
violence in the necessary performance of one's everyday duties has
to be allowable for lay men and women (but is totally forbidden for
monks and nuns) because it is unavoidable. It must be remembered
that violence may not always take a physical form: hurting the
feelings of another may be just as much an act of violence as
hurting his body.
To the outsider the most obvious mark of the Jain's concern
with non-violence is seen in Jain food. Jains believe that living
beings may be possessed of one, two, three, four or five senses
(human beings have five senses and the special faculty of the human
mind). Our human body is necessary to enable us to clear out the
karma from the soul, or jiva, by right conduct. To support that body
we must take nourishment but we can reduce to a minimum the violence
and anguish thus caused to other beings by restricting our diet to
the one-sensed forms of life. Thus Jains will avoid all food except
that derived from plants (which have only one sense, that of touch).
Even then care is taken because plants can be hosts to teeming
microscopic life, some more than others. Jains avoid root vegetables
which have always been believed to contain many minute beings. Certain Indian fruits of the fig family have also been
forbidden from ancient times. The fermentation process engenders, it
is believed, tiny forms of life, so alcohol is avoided (as well as
for its stupefying properties). Likewise eggs, even if unfertilised,
are forbidden. Food is not taken at night when insects and the like
may inadvertently be consumed. The basic rules are simple: harm
cannot be totally avoided but to minimise it meat, fish, eggs, root
vegetables and alcohol are avoided.
In spite of these limitations Jain food is wholesome and
delicious. Various kinds of beans provide protein, vitamins come
from fruit and vegetables, Spices add flavour, and dairy
products, milk and yogurt, are very acceptable. In proper balance
these constitute a healthy diet. The influence of Jainism can be
seen in the diet of the Indian people.
is the second of the five 'great vows'.
Here we have the avoidance of doing harm to others in a less
violent way. Truthfulness does not just mean accuracy, but the
avoidance of hurtful or slanderous words of untruth about other
people. It means sincerity and honesty in business and public life
and in personal relations.
is the third virtue. Theft
harms the victim: it also harms the thief, for it is bound up with acquisitiveness. Theft is an expression of the desire for material
possessions. Theft can take subtle forms, little instances of
cheating, tax evasion, unscrupulous business deals and the like.
With the emphasis on the virtues of truth and honesty it is not
surprising that Jains have often made very successful businessmen.
last two of the five great vows go quite well together. The Jain
seeks to control the desire for the things of this world, for sex or
for material possessions. For the layman that does not mean total
abstinence from these, but confining them within proper limits. The
proper limits exclude extra-marital sex and exclude the flaunting of
material possessions beyond the limit necessary for a reasonable
standard of living. (It is traditionally advised for a Jain to live
on half his income, to save a quarter for old age, sickness etc.,
and to devote the remaining quarter to charity.)
The Jain path in life involves the cultivation of self-control, the
avoidance of passions of desire and hate, an even-minded attitude to
hardship and deprivation. The lay manor woman, caught up in the
business of family and work, cannot lightly abandon the things of
this world but in the early stages of spiritual training he or she
will try hard to reduce
dependence on them. Following the path of Jainism, he or she will
have high ethical standards. This will include living within one's
limits, hospitality and consideration towards others, control of the
temper and avoiding harsh or slanderous words, appreciating the good
points of others. Violence
and misdeeds will be the occasion for regret and sorrow.
Such a person will cultivate equanimity which will make it
possible to cope with the joys and troubles of life.
help in the observance of the five great vows there are some
supplementary rules which a lay person can undertake to observe.
They are a form of self-discipline, like not moving outside a
determined area for a certain time, either a wide area (like one's
own country, or beyond the mountains or river) or a small area
(one's village or garden perhaps).
In the first case the vow will apply for a lifetime, in the
second for a day or so up to a year. Those are the first two
supplementary vows. The third involves refraining from acts,
thoughts and words which are harmful and purposeless: these can
range from idle chatter to obscene speech and will include
accumulating unnecessary possessions. Fourthly, the individual can
make a vow that he or she will reduce attachment to material things
by giving up certain foods or other objects of use for a fixed
period. Next comes samayika or meditation. This really means
achieving equanimity and it ought to be practised two or three times
a day. Sixthly, certain days of the month should be observed as days
of fasting, coupled with other restrictions to bring the layperson's
life for those days as near as possible to that of a monk or nun.
Lastly comes the vow not to take food oneself on any day until after
providing for the needs of a monk or nun or others.
The five vows and the seven supplementary ones form the layperson's
basic code of conduct. One final stage remains for the lay person
(or indeed for the monk or nun): that is known as sallekhana
When old age and infirmity are advanced and the body can no longer
be used for good purposes, the Jain may complete the abandonment of
the things of the world by quietly and gradually giving up all food
and drink, whilst keeping the mind occupied in meditation and
religious activities, until death supervenes. Jains do not like the
word 'suicide' for this, for no violence, in action or mind, is
involved. It is the highest form of non-violence where violence in
action and mind are avoided to the maximum and thus it helps the
spiritual advancement of the soul. (A similar practice was followed
by the religious sect of Cathars in medieval Europe.)
Sallekhana is the ultimate spiritual discipline, followed, of
course, by only a few people but regarded as bringing the present
life to a meritorious close.