Ranakpur Jain Temple
Pictured above is the Chaumukha Temple in Ranakpur, the largest Jain temple on earth. I stopped in rural Ranakpur for one night on my way from Jodhpur to Udaipur to see this impressive white marble place of worship. Here, I learned about Jainism for the first time. All in all- it seems to me that Jainism boils down some of the most essential aspects of the human condition while shedding many of the the dogmatisms of other belief systems.
I entered the cool marble structure out of the 105 degree heat of the day, leaving my shoes behind, as well as all food, water, and leather. The temple was quiet and cool. Intricate white marble carvings of Hindustani idols peered down at me from every square inch of the walls and ceilings in the 48,000 square foot temple. I wandered about, listening to the audio tour, bare feet padding softly on the cool stone floor. I quickly became lost among the 1444 marble pillars, 29 halls, and 80 domes. It felt good walking about in that temple observing the carvings and artwork; I felt my body instinctively move more slowly and attentively. The temple had a very logical architectural layout. In the center was a building Gambhara within the temple housing a stone carving of the Supreme Preacher Tirthankara of Jainism, Rishabhanatha. He was white marble but for wide, white painted eyes that glinted in the low light of the temple. Extending from the Gambhara were four long hallways in a cross. Each hall was lined with domes, each supported by nine unique carved pillars. One pillar in each dome was always built slightly crooked for some reason that I can’t remember or find on the internet! It was a fun exercise to try and find the crooked pillar. At the end of each “hall” was a terrace looking out on the jungle with a huge carving of an elephant in the center.
Jainism & Hinduism
Jainism arose out of Hinduism at around the same time as Buddhism (roughly 500 B.C.) Like Buddhism, it was a reformist movement against the ritualized Brahmanic schools of Hinduism at the time. Jainists sought to distill some of the most essential aspects of Hinduism- like mindful enlightenment, Samsara, non-violence, and non-absolutism, while rejecting the entrenched power structures such as the caste system. Hinduism and Jainism influenced each other massively in the millennia since Jainism’s inception.
It seems that Jainists held fast to a few doctrines of Hinduism and even distilled these truths by shedding the encumbrances of mythology and the justification of political hierarchy. These doctrines are the pursuit of Enlightenment through non-attachment Aparigraha, non-violence Ahimsa, and non-absolutism Anekantavada.
Non-attachment & the pursuit of enlightenment Aparigraha refer to complete non-possession or earthly materials and relations as a means to transcend base human desires to achieve a higher state of consciousness. Most Jainists are permitted to own some essential personal possessions, however Jainist monks vow to possess nothing. Through eschewing the material world and using meditation to become truly aware of one’s own consciousness, an individual can escape the endless cycle of birth and death. If enlightenment Moksha is attained, the soul joins the supreme soul Atman. In Hinduism, the many deities probably arise from the supreme soul; however, Jainists make no claim to such mythology. They simply state mindful meditation and understanding of the human condition to be the highest state of enlightenment and the primary goal of existence within the Wheel of Samsara.
Non-violence Ahimsa follows from the concept of Samsara. All living organisms labor within the Cycle and can transcend species between reincarnations through sufficient attainment of Karma; thus- all beings possess a soul. This seems to be the root of the Hindu philosophy of non-violence against all living things. Many Hindus debate this principle and follow it to varying degrees, while the Jainists codified it as an essential edict. It is probably true that the codification of Ahimsa within Jainism bent Hinduism in this direction in successive centuries after the founding of Jainism. Clearly Jainism and Hinduism influenced each other as time passed.
I see Ahimsa all over the place in India. Of course, the food is the best vegetarian food in the world and leaves no desire for meat in one’s soul. All animals are respected and many revered; you see them hanging out in all sorts of places they probably shouldn’t be simply because the locals respect them too much to move them. Trying to navigate your scooter through a herd of cows in the city square Ahimsa. Politely edging past a wild horse on the path Ahimsa. Smiling back at a stray dog who wandered into the restaurant Ahimsa.
Even the low creatures are tolerated in human establishments to an astonishing degree. Bugs, salamanders, spiders, birds, aren’t really a cause for alarm in hotels or restaurants (though I usually run in $5/night hostels Aparigraha so that could be skewing the data). Snakes remain an enemy but still not one to be killed! Four out of five establishments on my street in Pokhara have at least one active birds’ nest inside.
Of course, Hindus apply a healthy dose of nuance and skepticism to the concept of Ahimsa. Otherwise the people probably would not exist today. Jainists, on the other hand, benefit from insulation within the non-violent and non-dogamtic Hindustan, and thus can practice strict non-violence. The amount of questioning and debate that is permitted within Hinduism extends far beyond that permitted in Christianity and Islam which have somewhat centralized power structures. This is another principle that the Jainists distilled in their own religion, influencing Hinduism in the process.
Jainists believe in non-absolutism Anekantavada. Reality is many-sided, and there are infinite ways to approach truth. In this way no truth should be treated as absolute. The most common error that humans is make is to think that their version of truth is absolute, and anyone who acts against that truth is evil. In fact, everyone has a unique perspective and way of looking at life. According to Jainism, all religions and philosophies should be tolerated.
In Hinduism, the principle of non-absolutism seems to be reflected by the very structure of the many deities sprawling out beneath the creator of the universe, Brahma. Hindu households might have shrines to Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Devi, Krishna, etc. and it is all different modes of approaching truth, but all valid nonetheless. Some Hindus even believe Jesus Christ to be a reincarnation of the god Vishnu, with Christians seeking the same metaphysical truth of Brahman simply through different means (although this could be a product of British colonial propaganda). Thus, many interpretations and paths are tolerated in Hinduism.
As is the case with all lasting institutions, dogmatism has ebbed and flowed in the peoples of Hindustan. The most egregious of the rigid dogmatisms in Hinduism has been the caste system. The Vedas state that humans came the body of Brahma. Brahmins came from the head, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the legs, and Shudras from the feet. Untouchables were below all. Thus all humans are separated into a hierarchy which denotes value in society. Jainists rebelled against this crap and promoted questioning of the entire order of things. As time passed, Jainists themselves began to adopt a caste system, probably as a result of influence from the surrounding dominant Hindu culture over centuries.
The concepts of religious tolerance and non-absolutism Anekantavada are aspects present in Hinduism that were concentrated in Jainist philosophy. This Anekantavada idea is one of my favorite concepts from the eastern religions. In my view, any attempt to reduce hatred and promote love and understanding between different peoples is as valuable a goal as anything else, including spiritual enlightenment.
I felt very impacted after touring that Jainist temple in Ranakpur. Not only for the surreal imagery & architecture- but the doctrines of Jainism seem to lack those aspects of institutionalized religion which have always frustrated me. Mainly, I’m referring to the absurdity of an eternity in heaven or hell based on some specific, approved actions/beliefs taken on Earth. In addition, the concept of Prayer approaches mindfulness in a roundabout way, yet the materially detached enlightenment of the Jainists strikes at the heart of the issue- how to train your mind to accept suffering with understanding.
I think I would have trouble eschewing the totality of my possessions and henceforth not desiring to influence the material world. This is the job of monks and we should be thankful that those people are doing that. Flowing from the near purity of the monks, we regular people can use the principles of mindfulness, non-violence, and tolerance like tools to live a more understanding and peaceful life.
***Obligatory “I don’t know what I’m talking about” disclaimer. The following is just some observations/reflections from touring the Ranakpur Jainist temple, and discussing this stuff with Hindus over months of travel in India & Nepal. I’m probably off-base on some stuff so feel free to raise your plant-based beef