Jaina philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F005-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

1. Ontology and metaphysics

Jaina thought has retained several elements of ancient natural philosophy, such as the theory of atoms, explaining the nature of the universe without recourse to a creator god, and the interpretation of karma as particles of subtle matter (see Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of §6). The Jainas hold an ancient theory in which ultimate reality is divided into two basic categories, one which represents the principle of sentience or consciousness as such, usually translated as ‘soul’ (jīva), and one which represents the non-sentient principle (ajīva). In their intrinsic natures they are exclusive categories in the sense that, despite their coexistence (as in human beings), the one cannot take on the nature of the other. Both are ontological substances (dravya) in that reality or existence as such can ultimately be reduced to these two eternal, uncreated and indestructible categories (see Ontology in Indian philosophy §1). The soul is best described as a monad, of which there are a countless number, each independent but with the same principle of sentience as its chief characteristic, and each able to expand or contract according to the size of the body which it inhabits. Souls intrinsically possess unlimited qualities of bliss and energy, and are omniscient.

The non-sentient principle is a generic term for the following five substances. First, matter (pudgala) represents the basic stuff or raw material out of which the universe is composed. Matter is made up of atoms, each of which occupies one point of space, and which can be with or without form and can be inhabited by souls. Objects come into being through a combination or aggregation of atoms and change is explained not through destruction or creation of atoms but as a rearrangement of the basic stuff. Together with the view that atoms can have the qualities of colour, taste, touch and smell, Jaina philosophy evolved the theory of substance, quality and mode (see §4) to explain the world in terms of identity and difference, depending on the standpoint and purpose. Matter is crucial for the philosophical anthropology of Jainism because it is matter that directly affects the nature of the soul in the sense that, by becoming converted into karma, it restricts the intrinsic functions of the soul, inhibiting right faith, right knowledge and right conduct. Precisely how this operates is explained later in this section with reference to the so-called ‘seven basic truths’ which form the basis of Jaina metaphysics.

The second and third substances, called dharma and adharma, are posited for technical reasons. They stand respectively for the factors that assist movement and rest, without themselves being set into motion or coming to rest. They are formless, coextensive with worldly space and without qualities. The function of these two substances is usually explained on the analogy of water and fish. Just as water is not responsible for the fish’s movement or its being stationary but makes these possible, so too dharma and adharma offer the condition for the possibility of movement or rest to souls and matter.

The fourth substance, ether or space (ākāśa), does not itself occupy space but is space itself, giving the other substances the place they require in which to exist. According to Jaina cosmology, space is the only substance that encompasses both the world (loka) and the nonworld (aloka). The world is divided into the underworld or hells, in which souls reap the fruits of their unmeritorious deeds, the middle world, which corresponds to our world and in which only human beings can perform the necessary austerities for absolute freedom, the world of different kinds of heaven, in which souls reap the fruits of their meritorious acts and, finally, the world above the heavens, to which a liberated soul (one that has completely rid itself of the burden of all its positive and negative karma) rises, to remain there in its pristine nature. The nonworld serves no purpose at all and is described as being empty. However, it demarcates the area along which liberated souls eternally exist (see Cosmology and cosmogony, Indian theories of §3).

Time (kāla) is the fifth non-sentient substance; it has no spatial points, its smallest unit being called a moment (samaya), out of which the other units of time – minutes, hours, and so on – are then derived. Time enables change to take place without itself changing. On the absolute level, time exists as an undifferentiated continuum for the liberated souls. On the cosmological level, it has two broad phases or eras, and is described on the analogy of a wheel with twelve spokes. The world goes through six phases of gradual descent, representing the decline of values, then through six phases of gradual ascent, representing a steady improvement of values. Both phases involve fantastic spans of time. The Śvetāmbara tradition hesitates to accord time the status of an independent substance, though it uses it as a category necessary to explain the course of the world. The Digambaras and the Śvetāmbaras, the two main groups of Jainism, differ in several philosophically minor issues.

What the above ontological structure of reality does not do is explain the original cause of the association of the souls with the other substances, and especially how karma originally attaches itself to the soul to its detriment. This problem applies mutatis mutandis to all schools of Indian thought which speak of the possibility of liberation from the bondage of karma, where the basic issue is simply presupposed and is either left unanswered or euphemistically avoided by saying, as the Jainas also do, that the association between the souls and the world has been so since beginningless time (anādi). The karma theory was accepted a priori without the need to explain a first cause and the issue does not seem to be regarded as a problem. Moreover, Jainism shares with Buddhism and Hinduism the basic assumption that the human situation is characterized by suffering and pain; more important than seeking the first cause is what can be done to free oneself from this predicament. Past deeds cannot be undone, but once the basic presuppositions are accepted – especially that the process of karma, which is responsible for the cycles of existence, can be interfered with – the individual is free to opt for the path that promises the goal of absolute freedom. The Jainas do not have recourse to a creator god who sets the universe and life in the world in motion. Everything operates through its own inner dynamics and the role of the individual is to meditate on the basic truths of reality.

Jaina metaphysics is based on seven truths or fundamental principles (tattva) which are an attempt to explain the human predicament. The first two are the two ontological categories of the soul and the non-soul discussed above, namely the truth that they exist. For the remaining five truths the factor of karma has to be brought into play because all are connected to it. The third truth is that through the interaction, technically called yoga, between the two substances, soul and non-soul, matter flows into (āsrava) the soul, clings to it, becomes converted into karma and – the fourth truth – acts as a factor of bondage (bandha), restricting the manifestation of the consciousness intrinsic to it. The fifth truth states that a stoppage (saṃvara) of new karma is possible through asceticism. An intensification of this burns up the existing karma – this sixth truth is expressed by the word nirjarā. The final truth is that when the soul is freed from the influence of karma, it reaches the goal of Jaina teaching, which is liberation (mokṣa).

It must be noted that the later tradition included two more categories after bondage (bandha), namely puṇya and pāpa, which may be translated as ‘good’ and ’bad’. They refer to two kinds of bondage caused by one’s deeds. The ethical implications of these terms underscore the significance of Jaina ethics for Jaina soteriology.

Citing this article:
Soni, Jayandra. Ontology and metaphysics. Jaina philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F005-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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