The etymology of the word ‘Religion’ states that the root of the word is ‘religio’ i.e obligation/ bond/ reverence for the bond between humans and the gods. In today’s world, it is defined as the belief and worship of a superhuman controlling power in rudimentary terms. Religion is essentially a cultural system of various elements of behaviours, practices, morals, views, texts, sanctified places etc. which relate humanity to supernatural, transcendental and spiritual elements.
A very crude explanation for religion would be the manifestation of ‘faith’ as a source of belief and hope for the sustenance of life. Based on certain accounts, mankind started with the worship of elements of nature but as the cognitive abilities improved, the capacity to think, imagine and understand also improved. With this, probably the idea of religion or belief emerged with the intent to help us deal with the problems of human life which are especially significant, persistent and intolerable. The intention probably was to provide a set of ideas about how and why the world is put together that allows for the masses to deal with the anxieties and misfortune.
Relevance to Liberal Arts
Though the birth of religion cannot be traced, the sustenance of religion can be attributed to liberal arts. Since thousands of years, religious beliefs have been passed on from generations to generations in various forms of folklore, which in turn form a part of the liberal arts. Religious practices including rituals, commemoration of deities, festivals, feasts, and sacrifices, and other aspects of human culture such as meditation, prayer, music, art, dance and public service all form a part of liberal arts in some or the other way. Since hundreds of years, paintings, idols, scriptures, manuscripts have helped in passing on the knowledge of religion and study of the same under the umbrella of liberal arts not only explains the existence of religion but also the evolution of mankind. These sacred histories and narratives in the form of scriptures, manuscripts, symbols and holy places aim to give meaning to the human life. Though not popular but an important aim of religion is to explain concepts such as origin and existence of life, universe and other things.
By the means of religion, two most important aspects of life were being imparted to the mankind, i.e. education and law. Initially, probably religion formed the base for the law of the land. By the concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, or yin and yang, a system of livelihood was being taught, which would be uniform and easily spread across tribes/kingdoms. The idea was to create a common code of goof conduct, define ‘morality’ and ‘ethical behaviour’ for the well-being of the society. Playing with the basic instinct of humans, ‘fear’, the concept of heaven and hell fed into the minds of young individuals with the intention to teach them the right code of conduct. Even today, with the advent of technology, majority of these beliefs hold true and continue to govern the softer aspects of life.
Religion also formed the basis of education as religion taught the way of life. Starting with likes of gurukul to formal universities of 18th-19th century, religion and thereby liberal arts formed the foundation of education. In fact, arguably concept of college education started with that of liberal arts. Even the most elite colleges and universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton were originally intended to be liberal arts schools. And more importantly, these colleges were founded by a particular religious organisation such as Princeton was founded by New Light Presbyterians. This was so because, religion was concerned with improving the life of humans and human per se too. Thus, the idea was that studying ethics, philosophy, history, and geometry, would help one to improve one’s moral well-being and also grow closer to one’s Conscience/ God. Thus, religion played a crucial part in the liberal arts tradition.
However, nowadays the college education has become extremely specific in terms of multiple vocational courses which does not expose one to the liberal arts thereby suffocating it completely. With the elimination of religion from the curriculum, the liberal arts education exposure is in jeopardy. Exposure of liberal arts to every individual is pertinent to help one develop a holistic perspective towards the life, which shall in turn be useful for honing problem-solving abilities. Moreover, whether a believer, agnostic or atheist, religious studies / study of theology helps in moral improvement and developing virtues and hence, preservation and relevance of liberal arts is fundamentally important.
Jainism (Jain dharma) is a dharmic religion and followers of Jainism are called as Jains. ‘Jain’ word is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘jina’ (victor), which denotes the path of victory in crossing over life’s stream of rebirths through an ethical and spiritual life. The reason why I decided to research on Jainism because many principles of Jainism denote the laws of nature and have been scientifically proven. However, it also has multiple beliefs which, do not resonate well with me. But the primary reason of choosing this topic was to better understand this religion, which would in turn improve my thought-process and self-awareness. Also, Jainism has significantly contributed to various art and culture forms, which is not only aesthetically pleasant to see and scientifically correct.
Jainism sees universe as eternal with life of earth being a part of time-cycle. This also puts up the idea that there is no beginning or end to the universe and hence, there exists no Creator or God. Jainism sees every living being as an individual and eternal soul, which is responsible for one’s actions. Thus, the focus is on one’s own karma which shall govern the cycle of rebirth and form one shall take in each life. This makes sense from the fact that the focus is doing ‘karma’ by following ‘dharma’ for one’s own salvation and not because the Creator of the universe shall punish/reward one.
The path to salvation / perfection is through the practice of ascetic life, which is extremely tough and challenging. This path is governed by the fivefold path of the following:
- Nonviolence (Ahimsa)
- Truth (Satya)
- Non-stealing (Asteya)
- Chastity (Brahmacharya)
- Non-possession (Aparigraha)
These five vows, called as small vows for the lay person, guide their way to life. The understanding of Nonviolence is the most comprehensive in Jainism, which governs the all habits of Jains including their food-habits. Jains follow a strictly vegetarian diet and arduously strive to avoid harming any living being in the process. Thus, the Jain diet excludes most root vegetables and certain other foods believed to be unnecessarily injurious. This develops a sense of regard and humility for every living being and some of these foods have also scientifically been proven to be ‘Tamasic’ i.e. darkness inducing, which makes a person selfish, greedy and materialistic. Moreover, Jains do not eat or drink after sunset because there is a possibility of accidently swallowing some small insect. Not eating after sunset is also proven to be scientifically beneficial because the body-systems (including digestive system) slows down after sunset and hence, one should ideally consume meals before sunset for good health.
Also, Jains are expected to follow the principle of non-violence in all of his or her thoughts (Mann), words (Vachan) and deeds (Kaaya). Thus, Jains also avoid profession involving violence to the self or other living beings, such as agriculture and consequently many of them are involved in commerce.
Chastity, for lay people, means confining sexual experience to the marriage relationship. This inculcates a sense of faithfulness and loyalty, which is essential for the harmony of the society. Non-possessiveness, for lay people, means merely being content with what one has, which develops a sense of self-satisfaction, contentment and serenity. One should earn enough to feed oneself and help the needy if one has extra. This also develops Altruism as a virtue and one refrains from being greedy, selfish and materialistic.
Jainism believes is relativity of knowledge and philosophically critiques the ordinary epistemology. It says that an ordinary person cannot know all the qualities of a particular thing and hence, there exists an idea of “many sidedness”, which acknowledges that the world is complex, and there are multiple viewpoints possible, each of them partially valid, within a particular context. Thus, nature of reality is indeterminate and infinitely complex and it is humanly not possible to know everything at any given moment. Truths are relative to a certain standpoint. All judgments are tentative. Reality cannot be comprehended from a single perspective. Because nothing is true in the strict sense of the word, except from one point of view, it is incorrect to say anything that is absolutely true or absolutely untrue. Lord Mahavir is credited with a famous story that explains this idea: Six blind men were asked to lay their hands, on different parts of an elephant and explain the shape of the elephant. The one who held the ear thought that the elephant was a great winnowing fan whereas the one who held the leg said the animal was a big, round pillar and so on.
This theory has significant managerial implications that there is nothing certain in nature but everything is dependent on ‘perception’ and ‘perspective’. Unfortunately, our perceptions govern our perspective and the general perception among people is that they know everything, which is actually a one-dimensional view. Without giving it any other thought, they develop their perspective and eventually, often end up faltering. Keeping the Jainism learning of ‘relativity of knowledge’ in mind it is pertinent for us to attack the cause i.e. change the ill-conceived, preconceived perception, rather than the symptoms i.e. perspective.
Jainism and Hinduism have influenced each other. There are many Jain texts which mention some of the Hindu gods as blood relatives of legendary tirthankara. E.g. Krishna is considered as the cousin of Neminatha, the 22nd tirthankara in Jain Puranas and other texts. However, there are certain minor things that I don’t agree with about Jainism. E.g. Jain scholars such as Haribhadra wrote satires about Hindu gods, which contained novel offensive stories about the misbehaviour and ethical misconduct of the Hindu gods. Also, some writers have presented Hindu gods as persecuting, tempting, afraid of, or serving a legendary Jina (Tirthankar) before he gains omniscience. These stories far and few but however are disturbing to the very core and do not go down well with the very belief of Jainism. The good part is that these beliefs are not rampant and majorly disregarded by the Jain community.
Contribution to Culture of India
There is significant contribution by Jainism to the art, architecture and culture of India. Multiple temples and idols are found to be centuries old thereby contributing in terms of numerous and exquisite specimens of architecture. The temples are known for the beauty and delicacy of the carving and for the richness of the design. As Cousens remarks: ‘The amount of beautiful ornamental detail spread over these temples in the minutely carved decoration of ceilings, pillars, doorways, panels and niches is simply marvellous; the crisp, thin, translucent, shell-like treatment of the marble surpasses anything seen elsewhere and some of the designs are veritable dreams of beauty. The work is so delicate that an ordinary chiselling would have been disastrous. It is said that much of it was produced by scrapping the marble away, and that the masons were paid by the amount of marble dust so removed.’