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‘Burning karma’: The Jains’ late summer holy season focuses on purifying the soul

Who are the Jains and what do they believe?

Jains celebrate the Das Lakshana (Paryushan) festival at the Jain Center of America in September 2012 in New York City. Photo bv=y Aayush18/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — We’re now in one of the holiest seasons of the year, in which days and nights are taken up with fasting, prayer and recitations of sacred texts. If you think I’m referring to Judaism, you’re likely not alone, but late summer is also the highlight of the year for one of the world’s most ancient, and most obscure, faiths.

Beginning Sept. 4, Jains, followers of one of India’s oldest but smallest religions, have been observing Paryushan and Das Lakshana, two festivals that are celebrated in turn by the faith’s two major sects: Svetambara and Digambara. Together, these festivals call on Jains to focus on the 10 values of right conduct, apologizing for hurting anyone — intentionally or not — through thoughts, words or actions.

A recent Pew report referred to Jains as a “sliver” of India’s population — about 0.4% of the country of 1.3 billion people identifies as Jain. This makes it the smallest of India’s six major religious groups — after Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. Even Indians, the report notes, know “very little” about Jainism.

Much less are Americans conscious of the faith that was first introduced here 125 years ago. Having grown up Jain in India before studying the religion academically since moving to the United States, I often have to explain my ancient religion to friends and colleagues.

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I also have to explain why I consider myself an atheist, despite belonging to a religious group: Jainism does not believe in a creator God. In Jain theology, the existence of evil in the world itself proves that there is no external God. The focus instead is on the paramatman — the divine nature of the soul.

Jains believe that each human being has the capability of ultimately recognizing and achieving that divinity within their own self through the right actions. This creates the moral world of the Jains.

Carving of Vardhamana Mahavira, the 24th and last Tirthankara, in the Samanar Hills of India. Photo by Francis Harry Roy S/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Carving of Vardhaman Mahavira, the 24th and last tirthankara, in the Samanar Hills of India. Photo by Francis Harry Roy S/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Instead of a godhead, Jains worship the 24 tirthankaras — 24 enlightened beings, born in human form, who attained “moksha” or liberated their souls from its endless cycle of birth and death. The last of the 24 tirthankaras, Vardhaman Mahavira, born in 599 B.C., is said to be a contemporary of Buddha.

In fact, in this belief, a soul goes through many learnings in innumerable lifetimes to attain perfection. To reach moksha, one’s karma — all actions, including intentions, ever committed —  must be annihilated.

The pursuit of this state calls for “ahimsa,” or the practice of not hurting another living being, through thoughts, actions or deeds. It’s an ideal that many Jains aspire to move toward during their lifetime.

In our modern age — a time known as Kali Yuga in Hindu and Jain cosmology, spanning thousands of years when the world is going through strife — no one is likely to attain moksha. That’s because there is so much evil and illusion in the Kali Yuga that the state of perfection needed for moksha is not attainable.

But Jain philosophy teaches that one should nonetheless strive for moksha so as to be reborn in a place and cosmological time when that is possible. The only way toward moksha is an ascetic life, as it is the intense heat of penance that Jains believe is necessary to burn all karma.

 Jains worship the tirthankaras seeking to be inspired by them, so as to pursue their path and attain their superior qualities.

While the Jains’ concept of karma has commonalities with Hinduism and Buddhism, Jain theology is vastly different.

Karma in Jainism is thought of like material particles, a sort of spiritual dust, that attach to the soul as a person goes through life. Denser karma, accrued through dark deeds, makes the soul heavier, taking it toward the lower layers of hell. Good karma keeps the soul lighter, helping in its upward ascent, through the various layers of heaven.

Each person has an entirely free will, through which we create our own destiny, Jains believe, and the results of any action may manifest in this life or in lives to come.

Ranakpur Jain temple in western India. Photo by Ingo Mehling/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Ranakpur Jain temple in western India. Photo by Ingo Mehling/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

But there are also many overlaps with Hinduism. In Jain temples, Hindu deities can be seen in the form of minor deities. In some of the most ancient temples, these Hindu deities are often seen toward the entrance to the temple, or as figures carved on temple walls. In the earliest Jain cave temples in Ellora in central India, built around A.D. 700 to 900, I have seen large idols of many Hindu deities.

These deities were often specifically placed in Jain temples so worshippers could pray to them about worldly matters, as the tirthankaras are believed to be far removed from such issues and hence not available to worshippers to grant any worldly desires.  

On a day-to-day basis, especially here in the United States, where the closest Jain temple is 25 miles from my home in Boston, the place of my practice of the Jain philosophy is my kitchen. This is fitting, as dietary practices are one of the main ways to advance in the practice of nonviolence. Killing of animals would be absolutely unethical but even in the case of plants that are considered sentient beings, Jains would consider what would be considered lesser violence.

My mother, like many Jains, stopped eating root vegetables such as potatoes, so as not to consume food meant to generate other plants. Similarly, Jains give up consuming vegetables where they might partake more seeds, which could give birth to other plants. Jain monks go so far as to wear masks so as to minimize the risk of very small living organisms entering their mouths as they speak or breath.

Monks also tend to stay in one place during “chaturmas,” the monsoon months on the Hindu calendar in India, when new life takes form and small living creatures could be killed simply through a person’s movement.

All it takes to appreciate this facet of Jain practice is to observe how animals and birds moved freely and fearlessly during the lockdowns early in the pandemic, when many people were forced to stay indoors. I wouldn’t wish another virus on the world, but for me that time was a reminder of our coexistence with other living beings on this planet — and also of my own Jain values. 

(Kalpana Jain is a senior editor for religion and ethics at The Conversation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)