(2) The Higher Stages
of the Religious Life
it is quite possible to lead a religious life as a lay person,
complete devotion to religion involves giving up completely the
concerns of ordinary life. In most religions
we find groups of people, usually fairly small in numbers,
who leave home and family and occupation to live dedicated
lives as monks or nuns. We are told that Mahavira organized
the Jain community into four sections, monks or nuns, who can follow
his teachings to the fullest extent, as well as lay men and lay
women. Monks and nuns make up, of course, only a
small part of the Jain community but they are a very
important part. For
a religion which has no priests, the monks and nuns serve as
religious teachers. Most of the great
Jain scholars of the past
were monks and even today, when
there are also considerable scholars amongst the ranks of the
Jain laity, many of the important works on Jain religion are written
by monks. Monks and nuns set an example of the
religious life for lay people: their duty is their own souls'
spiritual welfare, and that of others as well. They are
greeted and treated with great respect and it is an act of
merit for the householder to feed them and otherwise provide
for their needs. They possess no property beyond the bare
essentials, a couple of pieces of cloth for clothing (monks
of the Digambara
division of Jainism do not even have these and go completely naked),
a bowl, walking stick, a soft brush
to remove insects gently, and one or two other objects,
together with books and writing materials. Their daily needs
are supplied by the faithful.
it is permitted that a boy who shows exceptional
promise for the religious life may become a monk as early as the age of eight, most people will be adults, or at least in
their teens, when they do so.
Indeed it is quite common for
middle-aged people to enter the mendicant life. The
prospective mendicant must be free from physical infirmities
and moral short comings and will seek the permission of parents or guardian. The candidate will seek out a guide and
teacher (guru) in the order who will make sure that this
person is suitable in every way and who will remain his
mentor throughout life.
The diksa or initiation ritual will
be the occasion for great ceremony, when the candidate
renounces his worldly possessions and receives the essential
items for his new life. His hair is plucked out in imitation
of the act of Mahavira when he renounced worldly things. Now
the initiate receives a new name to show that he has
completely left his home and family and all his earlier life.
Family life, business, politics, are no concern of the Jain monk or nun. For
the first year or two the novice will
receive training in the rules and practices of monastic life
before being confirmed in his or her vocation.
is bound to keep the five great moral precepts in their fullest
rigor. Non-violence involves for
the mendicant the most
meticulous care to avoid harm to even minute creatures which
have only one sense, the sense of
touch. (It is
recognized that a layman can not always avoid harm to these.) This
can involve softly sweeping the ground if
necessary to clear living creatures, carefully removing insects, and
sometimes using a cloth over the mouth to avoid harm to the most
subtle beings of the air. The vows of truthfulness and non-stealing
are interpreted in the strictest manner: the mendicant may not take
even the most trivial object without its owner's permission.
Sexual restraint is total, non-acquisitiveness means the
virtually complete abandonment of material possessions.
person who has adopted the mendicant life should cultivate ten
qualities. First comes forgiveness of those who have done harm and
avoidance of anger. Then there are modesty (not least the avoidance
of pride in one's spiritual achievements),
avoidance of deceit or concealing one's
faults, contentment and the avoidance of greed, teaching
others the high ideals of the scriptures, watchfulness to
avoid harm to living beings, undertaking austerities without
hope of material reward, avoidance of tasty food and
comfortable lodging, complete renunciation of the desire for
possessions, and lastly careful restriction on association
with members of the opposite sex.
Self-control, and vigilance in every daily action to avoid
harm, are the two chief virtues.
daily life of the sadhu or sadhvi is ordered and regulated. The monk
rises from his simple bed hours before dawn. He says the Panhca
Namaskara, the fivefold formula of obeisance to the superior
beings. He greets his teacher respectfully.
A period of meditation follows, after which he recites the rituals
of penance or confession (Pratikramana ) for any violence or
misdeeds he may have committed.
He checks his clothing carefully and removes any small
creatures which might get harmed (and he will do this at least twice a day).
By this time the sun will have risen and he can spend a
couple of hours in studying the scriptures (for a monk does
not use artificial light). The teachers will give sermons for both
monks and laity. Then he will go to the temple to worship the Tirthankara.
Detailed rules regulate the way in
which monks and nuns may seek their food: they should go each
day to different houses and will accept only food which is
willingly given and not specially prepared for them and, of
course, which is acceptable in terms of the Jain monastic vows. On returning from the trip to seek food the monk will
present the food before his teacher and will share it with
other monks who, from sickness or other cause, cannot themselves
seek food, before he takes any food himself . The afternoon and evening are devoted to further study and
meditation as well as the small tasks like writing letters
which even a mendicant will have to do. There will be a
second trip to seek food in the late afternoon so that the meal may be eaten before nightfall. The day ends with a
further visit to the temple, a further ritual of contrition, and the
monk goes to bed after vowing forgiveness to those who have harmed
him and seeking forgiveness from all. The
life of a sadhu or sadhvi (nuns follow the same routine) is
hard but they learn to overcome hardships and face them resolutely and with detachment.
spiritual life of the Jain has been likened to a ladder.
There are fourteen 'rungs' or stages (gunasthana)
on the ladder. These
have been described in great detail in the scriptures. To start with
the individual has not even begun
the ascent and has totally wrong attitudes. If the individual
can get rid of delusions then the soul succeeds in going
straight to the fourth rung of the ladder but the position is
still precarious and it is possible to slip back onto two
different levels of wavering states and even right back to
But if the individual can control passions, desires, hatred to a
reasonable extent (not retaining them beyond the annual
self-examination in the Paryusana
season of the Jain year) the ascent is begun. He or she will now
feel a tranquility of spirit, will have the ability to discriminate
between right and wrong, will want to avoid purely material
pleasures, will be kindhearted to others and will have a
clear vision of truth. Such attitudes will naturally lead onto undertaking to obey
the five great moral precepts, and
this will be the next rung on the ladder. We saw in the
previous chapter how the lay person reduces his or her attachment to
the things of the world and develops
attachment to religion. That process happens at this stage or
rung on the spiritual.
sixth rung on the ladder marks a great decision for now the
individual has progressed so far that he or she is intent on
renouncing the world and adopting the life of a monk or nun.
Henceforth life is totally directed towards spiritual progress. The great vows are followed in their entirety and
the individual reaches the stage of eliminating all the
stronger passions. Daily self-examination and sorrow for offences
committed knowingly or unknowingly is now obligatory and the
individual who succeeds in the discipline of the sixth stage rises further to the next rung. Passions are
virtually subdued but alertness is still needed to prevent
slipping back. The aspirant climbs three more rungs, at each
stage gaining more complete control over himself. The
eleventh rung is unsafe: even now, nearing the top of the
ladder the individual soul can drop back, desires and hatred
can arise again and the slow climb must be restarted. Some
individuals, very few at any time, reach the twelfth stage.
Delusions and desires have been eliminated and the way is
clear to the thirteenth rung when the soul achieves complete
enlightenment, total knowledge. The fourteenth rung detains
only momentarily the enlightened soul which passes quickly over it to achieve moksha or total liberation.
is a long process. Every individual soul passes through
countless lives. Sometimes progress is made, sometimes not.
The mendicant who sets himself or herself resolutely towards
spiritual development still has a long way to go. Even when
self-control is almost achieved and delusive views of the nature of
life and the universe have disappeared for the few who reach the
stage described as the tenth rung on the ladder, the completion of
what can be described as the constructive stages of the mystical
life, even then the old suppressed passions can re-emerge and the
final goal recedes as
the soul drops back into old habits, old feelings, old
the development of the spiritual life the individual will have
before his or her eyes the example of the Tirthankara.
According to Jain tradition, in each of the great cycles of
time, lasting countless thousands of years, some people gain total
enlightenment. Of these, twenty-four
in each half-cycle are known as Tirthankara. They are the
ones who, having achieved total knowledge themselves, pass on
knowledge in teaching the people, before they leave the world
and attain the ultimate state of moksa. Mahavira was, of
course, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara in the current
half-cycle of time. At
all stages of the religious life the Tirthankara are seen as a help
to the aspiring soul, they are the nearest thing Jainism has to a
god, in fact they are sometimes even called 'god'.
In a Jain temple the image of
the Tirthankara is worshipped and treated with great devotion
and respect. But the individual must understand that the
Tirthankara is to be taken as a supreme example of spiritual
struggle and success, not as the donor of favors or the
author of fortune or misfortune. The individual must work out
salvation for himself
but it is a great help and very meritorious to meditate on
the example of the Tirthankara (whether in the
presence of an image or without that material figure before
the eyes), to take the Tirthankara as an ideal and to resolve
to follow the path the Tirthakara has