The issues in Jaina philosophy developed concurrently with those that emerged in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. The period from the second century bc to about the tenth century ad evinces a tremendous interaction between the schools of thought and even an exchange of ideas, borne out especially in the rich commentary literature on the basic philosophical works of the respective systems. Jaina philosophy shares with Buddhism and Hinduism the aim of striving, within its own metaphysical presuppositions, for absolute liberation (mokṣa or nirvāṇa) from the factors which bind human existence. For the philosophical systems of Indian thought, ignorance (of one’s own nature, of the nature of the world and of one’s role in the world) is one of the chief such factors, and Jainism offers its own insights into what constitutes the knowledge that has the soteriological function of overcoming ignorance. Jainism is not exempt from the problem of distinguishing the religious and/or mystical from the ‘philosophical’; the Indian tradition has no exact equivalents for these categories as they are usually employed in Western thought.
The significance ascribed to knowledge is reflected in the attention given to epistemology and logic by Jaina philosophers. The first systematic account was given by the fourth- or fifth-century philosopher Umāsvāti, who distinguished two types of knowledge: partial knowledge, which is obtained from particular standpoints, and comprehensive knowledge, which is of five kinds – sensory knowledge, scriptural knowledge, clairvoyance, telepathy and omniscience. Of these, the first two are held to be indirect (consisting in, or analogous to, inference) and the remainder are direct; Jainism is unique among Indian philosophies in characterizing sensory knowledge as indirect. The aim of the treatises on knowledge is to present what the Jainas believe would be known in the state of omniscience, as taught by Mahāvīra. Omniscience is an intrinsic condition of all souls; however, due to the influence of karma since beginningless time this essential quality of the soul is inhibited.
The Jaina interest in logic arose, as with the other schools, through a consideration of inference as a mode of knowledge. The methods and terminology of the Nyāya school were heavily drawn upon; this is evident in Siddhasena Divākara’s Nyāyāvatāra (The Descent of Logic) (c. fifth century), one of the first detailed presentations of Jaina logic. The Jainas used logic to criticize other schools and defend their own. The acquaintance with other traditions that this implies is a notable aspect of classical Jainism; their interest in other schools, coupled with their belief in collecting and preserving manuscripts, makes the Jaina corpus very important for the study of classical Indian thought.
According to Jaina ontology, reality is divided into the two basic principles of sentience and non-sentience, neither of which is reducible to the other. The former is manifested in souls, of which there are an infinite number, and the latter in the five basic substances, which are matter, dharma and adharma (factors posited to explain movement and rest), space and time. Matter consists of atoms; as it becomes associated with the soul, it gets attached to it, becomes transformed into karma and thereby restricts the functions of consciousness. This pernicious process can only be reversed through ascetic practices, which ultimately lead to liberation.
Ascetic practices constitute the basis of Jaina ethics, the framework of which are the ‘five great vows’, according to which the ascetics vow to live. These are: nonviolence towards all forms of life, abstinence from lying, not taking what is not given, celibacy and renunciation of property. Nonviolence is strongly emphasized, since violence produces the greatest amount of karma. Hence great care has to be exercised at all times, especially because injury of life forms should be avoided also in plants, water, fire, etc. The minimization of physical activity to avoid injury is therefore an important ideal of Jaina asceticism. Inspiration for constant ethical behaviour is provided by a contemplation of the lives of the twenty-four Jinas, of whom Mahāvīra was the last. Though human, these ‘conquerors of the passions’ are worshipped as divine beings because of their conduct in the world and knowledge of the nature of ultimate reality.
Citing this article:
Soni, Jayandra. 'Jaina philosophy'. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1998: Accessed (July 26, 2016). https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/jaina-philosophy/v-1/. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F005-1
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