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Jainism › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Cristian Violatti
published on 03 February 2013
Jain art (user:Flicka)
Jainism, along with Buddhism and Charvaka, is considered part of the heterodox systems (also referred to as heresies) of Indian philosophy. Its philosophy is grounded in the doctrine of the Yajur- Veda but it was systematized by Vardhamana(also known as Mahavira ) who substituted the authority of the Vedas with logic and experience and also reinterpreted most of the key ideas available in Indian philosophy at that time.
Vardhamana was born into the Kshatriyas caste (the warrior rulers caste) in northeastern India in about the 6th century BCE, a time of profound political and social change. Tradition says Vardhamana was born as a prince, the second son of the king, and lived a life of luxury and wealth but from an early age he was interested in spiritual matters and soon became dissatisfied with the life that surrounded him: increasing inequalities, warfare and social conflict. Around the age of 30, when his parents died, he gave up his kingdom and royal privileges and for the next 12 years he wandered around as an ascetic, someone who denies him or herself physical pleasures in a quest for spiritual progress mainly through fasting and meditation. At the age of 42, Vardhamana gained full enlightenment and became a Jaina, “conqueror”, and he was known as Mahavira, a title meaning “the great hero”, and became the leader of Jainism.


According to Jain tradition, Vardhamana was the 24th and the last Tirthankara, “ford-finder”. Jains see the world as a river of suffering and misery and ford-finders find a way to cross it: they do not build the bridge, they simply get across it and the rest have to follow the path. The word Jain means “a follower of the Jainas”. During the rest of his life, Vardhamana taught others about what he had learned. He accepted the doctrine of samsara (reincarnation), but with a small change, which, nevertheless, made a big difference to his approach to life. It was widely accepted by Indian society that animals, humans and gods had a soul, but Vardhamana went even further, claiming that nearly everything is alive. Everything is made up of Jiva “living intelligence”, trapped in matter. Living beings (almost everything, according to Vardhamana's view) were divided into different categories.
  • Beings with five senses, including humans and major animals.
  • Beings with four senses, they cannot hear (wasps, flies, butterflies)
  • Beings with three senses, they can neither hear nor see (ants, moths, fleas)
  • Beings with two senses, they can only taste and touch (worms, leeches, shellfish)
  • Beings with only one sense, they only have the sense of touch (plants, microscopic organisms, wind, fire, water)
This last category is the largest and what all these beings have in common is that they can all feel pain: their entire existence is to be able to feel pain. This view on living beings could be summarized with the words of an Indian scholar:
Thus the whole world is alive. In every stone on the highway a soul is locked, so tightly enchained by matter that it cannot escape the careless foot that kicks it or cry out in pain, but capable of suffering nevertheless. When a match is struck a fire being, with a soul which may one day be reborn in a human body, is born, only to die a few moments afterwards. In every drop of rain, in every breath of wind, in every lump of clay, is a living soul.
(Pruthi, p.50)
An ancient Jain document invites us to imagine the infinite number of times that we were hunted as deer, gutted as fish, beaten again and again when we were iron and chopped into pieces when we were trees. Jainism believes in an infinite number of eternal souls, caught in this eternal cycle of agony and misery. There was a way out of this cycle according to Vardhamana, and this was explained through his vision of karma (cosmic justice) and moksha (liberation). Karma was almost a material quality: cruel actions and thoughts attracted heavy karma, while kind acts made the soul lighter, so it could move up the ladder of existence. By not causing suffering, one's soul could eventually be free from samsara. It is interesting to note that Vardhamana came from the warrior caste, where there was always the element of military and political conquest. Instead, Vardhamana proposes spiritual conquest through arduous discipline and commitment.


Jainism attempts to be rational and consistent: the metaphysics leads to the ethics. In other words, if it is believed that the whole world is alive and nearly everything is capable of feeling pain, then the Jain way of living makes sense. Vardhamana would allow mosquitoes to feed on his blood and while other ascetics would carry sticks with them to scare off the dogs, Vardhamana would allow the dogs to bite him. This principle of extreme non-violence is known in Jainism as Ahimsa “non-violence”, a key term in this tradition. Vardhamana takes this principle so far that in time he decides to wear no clothes since during its manufacturing process a number of beings had to suffer. Large, bad karma comes when large animals are eaten, small karma comes when small animals are eaten and no karma comes when nothing at all is eaten. At the age of 72, consistent with his ideas, Vardhamana took the Ahimsa doctrine to the extreme, finally starved himself to death and achieved nirvana (liberation).
Jainism has a set of five vows: nonviolence, truth-speaking, non-stealing, no sexual immorality and non-attachment to worldly things. Self-denial, self-mortification and austerity are the ways by which the karma of all past actions is exhausted and one can get into nirvana after death. This is explained in a Jain text:
As a large pond, when its influx of water has been blocked, dries up gradually through consumption of water and evaporation, so the karmic matter of a monk, which has been acquired through millions of births, is annihilated by austerity—provided there is no further influx.
(Campbell, p.234)
Jainism may be considered extreme, but this extremism is directed to one's self and not to others. We sometimes come across traditions where devotion is shown by killing other people or persecuting them in the name of god. The devotion in Jainism is directed only to one's self.
Mandala of the Diamond World

Mandala of the Diamond World

In the Jain tradition there is a philosophical critique on ordinary epistemology. There are a number of Jain philosophers that have done a lot of analysis concerning this issue and they developed the 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. Truths are relative to a certain standpoint. All judgments are tentative. Reality cannot be comprehended from a single perspective.Human understanding is merely probable and partial, and all predictions are relative because reality is multiple. Nothing is true in the strict sense of the word, except from one point of view. Vardhamana is credited with a famous story that illustrates this idea: Six blind men laid hands on different parts of an elephant; he who held the ear thought that the elephant was a great winnowing fan; he who held the leg said the animal was a big, round pillar and so on.
According to Jainism, there are no gods. It is not necessary to assume a Creator or First Cause - for then who created the creator or what caused the first cause? This view states that it is more logical to believe the universe has always existed, and that it has undergone an infinite number of changes. These changes are driven not by the influence of a deity but rather by nature itself. As a result of a sky empty of gods, Jainism did not have any type of creation stories.
There are essentially two paths in Jainism in order to achieve nirvana. The ordinary path, which seeks to reduce as much as possible the bad karma by living a good life and move up gradually. There is also the extraordinary path (the one a monk or a nun would take), which seeks to end the samsara in this life by taking the Ahimsa principle and the Jain vows to the extreme: no family, celibacy, no attachment to a place, they beg for food, they usually wear no clothes, they suffer insults without response and they may choose to starve to death. Because Vardhamana did not believe in the concept of Brahman (World Soul or Infinite Being) the Jain interpretation of the state of nirvana (liberation) is different from the traditional view in the orthodox Indian traditions. In Jainism, nirvana is a state in which the soul, released from samsara, has four attributes: infinite knowledge, infinite perception, infinite energy and infinite bliss.

Agni › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 18 May 2015
Agni (Wikipedia User: redtigerxyz)
Agni is the Hindu god of fire. He is regarded as the friend and protector of humanity, in particular, he safeguards the home.Various forms of fire are associated with Agni and include the sun, lightning, comets, sacrificial fire, domestic fires, the fire of the funeral-pyre, and the digestive fire which is within all humans. Agni was especially important in the Vedic period (1500 - 500 BCE) and the Vedas contains more hymns to him than to any other deity. He is still considered today omnipresent though not directly worshipped. Agni knows the thoughts of all people and is a witness to all important actions, hence the use of fire in many important Hindu ceremonies such as marriages. He is also referred to in sacred texts such as the Mahabharata as the 'Oblation-devourer' and the 'Purifier'. With flaming hair and riding a goat he is easily identified in Hindu art.
Agni's wife is the daughter of King Nila who impressed the fire-god by being the only woman in the kingdom who managed to kindle a flame in the royal palace. In some myths Karttikeya (Skanda), the Hindu god of war, is Agni's son and the result of Agni's conquest of the Pleiades, the wives of the Seven Sages.


Agni is the son of the Celestial Waters and that element is closely connected with fire which is thought to be carried down to earth within rain. From there fire is drawn up by vegetation and so when two sticks are rubbed together fire appears. Agni is also responsible for lightning which is born from the god's union with the cloud goddess. Another fire Agni is associated with is the funeral-pyre; in this role he leads the dead to their final judgement by Yama, ruler of the Underworld.


Agni is perhaps most closely associated with sacrificial fires where he is thought to carry the offerings of humans to the gods.According to various myths, Agni was at first afraid to take on this duty as his three brothers had been killed already whilst performing the task. Consequently, Agni hid in the subterranean waters but, unfortunately, fish revealed his hiding place to the gods. As a result Agni cursed them so that fish would become the easy prey of men. In another version it is frogs, then elephants, and then parrots which reveal Agni's attempts at hiding and the god punished them all by distorting their speech ever after. The final hiding place of Agni in this version was inside a sami tree and so it is considered the sacred abode of fire in Hindu rituals and its sticks are used to make fires. Reluctantly taking up his duty again Agni did negotiate by way of compensation to always receive a share of the sacrifice he carried to the gods and he was given the boon of ever-lasting life.
Agni appears in all forms of fire and even those things which burn well or have a certain lustre. In the Brhaddevata we are told that at one point Agni is dismembered and distributed among earthly things. The god's flesh and fat becomes guggulu resin, his bones the pine tree, his semen becomes gold and silver, his blood and bile are transformed into minerals, his nails are tortoises, entrails the avaka plant, his bone marrow sand and gravel, his sinews become tejana grass, his hair kusa grass, and his body hair becomes kasa grass which was used in sacrificial rituals.
Over time Agni's importance as a god diminishes, a fact explained in the Mahabharata as due to his over-indulgence in consuming one too many offerings. In the Visnu Purana he is described as the eldest son of Brahma and Svaha is his wife.Together they had three sons, Pavaka, Pavamana, and Suchi who in turn had 45 sons which, including their fathers and grandmother, totals 49, the number of sacred fires in the Vayu Purana.
Agni, according to one Rigveda hymn attributed to the sage Vasistha, also has a darker side. Similar in nature to the 'flesh-eater' demons, the raksasa, he has two wickedly sharp iron tusks and he devours his victims without mercy. However, when called upon by the gods, Agni destroys the raksasa with his flaming spears. This episode, when Agni becomes a servant of the gods, is illustrative of his fall from the pinnacle of the pantheon.



In art, Agni is often depicted with black skin, two heads, four arms, and riding either a goat (the most commonly sacrificed animal) or a chariot drawn by red horses which has seven wheels, representing the seven winds. His two heads, which spout flames, are symbolic of his association with two types of fire: the domestic hearth and the sacrificial fire. He can have seven tongues which are used to lick up the ghee butter given as offerings.
Typically he carries a fan (which he uses to build up fires), a sacrificial ladle, an axe, and a flaming torch or javelin. Agni may also be represented as the Garuda bird which carries the seed of life, the fire-bird which carries ambrosia to the gods, and the goat-headed merchant who represents the sacrifice made to the gods. In later Hindu art, Agni is also represented as one of the Dikpalas who were the eight guardians of the directions of space. Agni protects the south-east quarter, Purajyotisa.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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