Doctrine of Karma in Jain Philosophy by R. Zimmerman

First Steps To Jainism (Part-2)


Appendix B: Foreword By Prof. R. Zimmerman, to the Book
Doctrine of Karma in Jain Philosophy by R. Zimmerman

The subject-matter of “Karman in Jain Philosophy” is of supreme importance both to the adherent of Jain tenets and to the student of religion. The orthodox Jain will find set forth here what forms a central part of his belief, and what more or less actuates his life according to the dogma he professes. And whatever faith one may adhere to, it is necessary to give oneself an account of it as far as possible. For, that cannot be called a religion fit for rational Beings that does not stand the test of reason, or which even runs counter to the laws of human understanding. True, every religion worth the name has to face, and grapple with, problems that have been solved in a variety of ways by the thinkers and teachers of mankind. In every religion which rises above the primitive forms of worship questions may be found to which no answer may have been given so far by the system, in part because the questions have not been gone into, in part because the premises of the system are not such as would lead to, or even allow, a consistent reply to every query. But there are-and just in the highest forms of religion-How’s and Why’s to which no human intellect will ever be able to giva a satisfactory, exhaustive reply. In such cases it must suffice to show that these doctrines, though they are shrouded in mystery, yet are not wantonly put forth, that they are not without cohesion with the rest of the system, and that they lie still within the domain of sound thinking. Such doctrines must even not be without direct or indirect support either from logical deduction or from experience or from both. It is not permissible that they should be mere statements for the sake of the system, and without some proof or other. Such statements would be untenable, whether they proceed from a delight in theoretical systematising, without an eye to facts, or whether they are result of a fertile fancy’s play.

The follower of Mahavira, then, has got here a golden opportunity of seeing how far the doctrine of the founder and the recognised exponents of Jainism satisfies the requirements laid down in the above prinicples. In other words, the present exposition of the doctrine of Karman in the Jain Philosophy will afford to the Jain of these days a welcome chance of gauging his religion by the standard of principles recognised by the modern student of philosophy and theology. And it must be a distinct delight to the thinkers among the ranks of this belief to see how their creed, old and venerable to them, fits in with or contradicts, as the case may be, twentieth century views. It is in particular to this class of thinkers that the present book appeals, a class for which the Jain community has been more remarkable than many another rival creed in India. It is probably owing to their enthusiasm, conservatism and, at the same time, adaptability, that Mahavira’s doctrine has found followers so early and unflinching, that it has lasted for more than 2000 years, and has outlived such a formidable competitor as Buddhism at one time threatened to become.

But the book before us is of importance for every student of religion, be he within or without the circle of Mahavira’s adherents because it treats of the Karman, a central, if not the fundamental, doctrine in most of the world’s religions. Apart from the emphasis with which Karman is taught in Jainism, the Jain doctrine on this point is of uncommon interest, as it postulates such a nature of Karman which would seem to represent an extreme, for, in no other system, perhaps, has Karman been taught to be of such concrete, realistic, physical nature as here. This should not be taken to imply that other systems of philosophy and religion had not beliefs regarding Karman that seems at least to approach the Jain version. The technical terms as well as the illustrations, used in teaching and explaining Karman in Vedanta, for instance, appear to suggest that the moral element in each action which is followed by reward or punishment would produce a physical entity, to be consumed in enduring the pain or enjoying the reward. But nowhere, if our sources and their knowledge are comprehensive enough, has the physical nature of the Karman been asserted with such stress as in Jainism. A moral fact, then good or bad, produce a psycho-physical quality, a real not merely symbolical mark, a characteristic in the most literal sense, affecting the soul in its physical nature. This point of view once taken, it was not unnatural, that the analysis of the production, nature and effect of the Karman should assume such an almost mathematical form as it has done in the Karmagranthas and other authoritative writings, and bring rather heterogeneous elements together under the common category Karman. Anyone, however, who should find the Jain doctrine of Karman and its psycho-physical analysis of the classical writers too minute and complicated, is referred to Buddhist psychology. There he may readily convince himself that either these writers have merely systematised for the system’s sake, or have seen a good deal more than we, for some reason or other, are able to see.

The second point that before others attracts attention is the question about the age of the Karman theory. Though the doctrine has been developed with a minuteness in detail, a care in classification, a definiteness in statement, which would do credit to the most methodical modern system, yet here again the question about its age remains, for the time being, an open one. At least one thousand years before the Christian era the Karman tenet is said to have been in vogue. This is of course supposed to be the lower limit, the higher one possibly lying much further back in antiquity. But the fact is significant that it cannot be shown where precisely and when a doctrine of such central position as that of the Karman originated. That the fundamental idea of Karman is part and parcel of the Jain canon may be as readily accepted as the assumption that later writers have developed the theory in detail and expressed in technical terms what the elders implicitly had taught and believed. But if neither Jainism, nor Buddhism, nor Hinduism has got to show a definite date of origin for a doctrine that with all of them is a pivot of their beliefs, might it not be assumed that this doctrine of the Karman in its various shades is an inheritance of old, a technical expression of the universally acknowledged law of moral retribution ?

The third point that strikes the modern student of religion is the great insight attached to authority. In this Jainism indeed does not stand alone. The Vedic Rsi of yore, the Tathagata with the Buddhist, claimed and enjoyed as undisputed an authority in deciding the most momentous problems as the Jain Kevalin. But that they all were credited with such insight into things beyond the senses and primitive thinking as would command unswerving faith, and would cut short questions like Why ? and How ? : this is a document of the fact that even atheistic religious systems, to say nothing of strict Theism, profess to be a higher message, and claims to convey a preternatural, if not a supernatural truth.

So much about the book before us and its contents. One more word about the author. In the Preface to the English Edition (p.21) he makes mention of “the difficulty which besets a European in penetrating into an intricate Indian Philosophical system”. It is true, in undertaking and accomplishing such a task everything is against him, except the will to know and to get over every obstacle. The Indian can hardly realise how a day’s, perhaps a week’s, work may be lying behind the grasp of a term the understanding of which is a matter of tradition to him. Considering what Dr. Von Glasenapp has achieved, it may not be easy to say who is to be congratulated more, whether he who has mastered so successfully the task before him, or the readers, the members of the Jain community before all, who thus easily enter into the fruits of the author’s labour. The Encyclopaedia for Indo-Aryan Research (I. Band, I. Heft B, Geschichte der Sanskrit-Philologie and Indischen Altertumskunde, von Ernst Windisch, p. 354), acknowledges the worth of the present book which it calls “an important new publication on Jainism” that “should make the understanding of the Karman doctrine easier”. Indeed it requires more than an ordinary acumen to find out from an even string of Gathas the leading lines of a whole system, to co-ordinate and subordinate them according to their importance and consequence, and to marshal the details into their respective quarters. It needs a will to conquer in order to enter upon tasks of this kind, not unlike the entering of a forest in a dark continent, possibly untrodden by human foot, bristling with technical terms, unexplained, yet full of settled meaning, often enough not to be derived from etymology. The enthusiasm and love of a research scholar is required for trying one’s strength at such problems with the likely, but by no means certain, prospect of pushing the limits of our knowledge at least a little further back into the vast realm hitherto unknown and unexplored. May the English edition of “The Doctrine of the Karman in Jain Philosophy” meet with the same success in India, its spiritual home, the German one has met with in a foreign land.

R. Zimmermann, S.J.

St. Xavier’s College


May 15, 1921