Religion is as old as humanity and it has played a dominant role along the course of the history of human life and thought. It has, in its primitive days, tried to explain to man some of the mysteries of the Universe,1 to reconcile him with the insecurity of his future, to unfold and interpret the relationship between his body and soul, and to guide him constantly in the redress of misery and suffering, and in the search for real happiness. It has also tried to answer outstanding questions regarding the relation of man and the Universe; man and his many sided duties, his goal of life, and a compatible path leading to the same, etc. Great seers and sages, in different periods and in different parts of the world, have answered, in their own ways, these and such other questions; and their words, in due course of time, have saturated as the doctrines and creeds of their respective religions. Ethical precepts, conceived and laid down for the attainment of man’s goal of life, though varying in number, nature and vigor, they happen to be more or less the common constituent factors of almost all the religions of the world. However, some religions differ as regards the existence of God, his attributes and his reign or control over the Universe, and its contents at large.

Jainism, the real contribution of which to human thought is being recognized, since the time of its being brought, within the purview of western critical scholarship and research (i.e, from about the latter part of the 19th century), is a significant religion, among those born and cradled in India (and outside too), for its antiquity, as well as, its lofty philosophical and ethical doctrines, though it has today just 3.9 million followers, numerically, forming a very small segment of the total Indian population, i.e., mere 0.48 per cent of it and, thus, ranking the 6th and the last religious group after the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians, the Sikhs and the Buddhists.2

According to Jain tradition, twenty-four Tirthankaras (Ford-makers i. e., Layers of Path leading to Perfection) or Jinas (Winners of Victory over the senses) preached the Sacred Law in the present Cycle of Time. Rsabha was the first to reveal the Ahimsa – dharma and higher values of life, to bring a good order in the society, and to lay an ideal path to perfection. Mahavira was the last to elucidate and promulgate the Law in historical times; and it is known as Jina-dharma, Jinism in its correct form, but called, and used as Jainism in practice. In the early days of Jainological Studies, different views, some based on inadequate material, were held on some part of the history and antiquity of Jainism. But on the strength of modern researches, we can say now that Jainism is not an off-shoot of the Vedic line of thought, as developed in the reformist school of the later Upanisadic tradition, is far older than Buddhism, and had its origin in the Pre-Aryan period of primitive currents of religious and metaphysical speculation, as prevailing in the early Sramanic culture of North East India. The stream, of which, could be traced back to the days of the Indus Civilizationitself. Dr. Jyoti Prasad Jain has recently put forth his thesis, that Jainism is the oldest living religion.4

Coming to the philosophical side of Jainism, the doctrine of Anekantavada (non-absolutism), being upheld by the peculiar dialectical method of Syadvada as supplemented by Nayavada,the conception of Reality as divided into six fundamental substances (dravyas),and the theory of karma are the unique aspects of Jaina philosophy with their comprehensive nature and realistic approach, etc.It makes the individual self-reliant who is the architect of his own fortune or misfortune. There is no place here for the priestly agency or divine intervention for seeking one’s mundane welfare or final salvation. God as creator, and controller of the Universe, and distributor of favors, and punishments for worldly beings is not admitted here. At this context, Dr. G. C. Pande’s observations are worth noting: “Sramanic atheism is not a variety of irreligion but of religion. It faces the evil and suffering of life squarely, and attributes it to human failing rather than to the mysterious design of an unknown being. It stresses the inexorableness of the moral law. No prayers and worship are of any avail against the force of karman. It emphasises self-reliance for the quest of salvation. Man needs to improve himself by a patient training of the will, and the purification of the fee1ings. Such purification leads to an inward illumination, of which the power is innate in the Soul or mind. This is quite different from the Vedic view where illumination comes from outside, either from the eternally revealed word or from the grace of God.”8

Jaina ethical doctrines, too are of immense significance. Hence, some scholars and thinkers have envisaged Jainism as Ethical Realism.Jaina ethics, having its root in metaphysics, permeated with practical features and having nirvana or moksa (emancipation or liberation) as its goal, trains one to attain it, through the systematized cultivation and assimilation morality, which are known as rules of conduct. All this amounts to the Right Conduct (Samyak-caritra), which is based on the Right Belief (Samyag-drsti) in, and the Right Knowledge (Samyag-jnana) of the Seven Principles (tattvas), leading to liberation (nirvana or moksa). The corpus of rules of Right Conduct are also termed as Ethical Discipline (acara-dharma) prescribed for the Community (Jaina-sangha) as a whole, which is a four fold social organization consisting of sadhu (monk), sadhvi (nun), sravaka (layman) and sravaki (layman) ad sravaki (laywoman). It has two-fold objective:

  1. It accomplishes spiritual purification and emancipation by liberating the soul from the clutches of karma.

  2. It trains the members of the community to cultivate and acquire an attitude of equality towards all the living beings, and also to nourish sanctity for each individual and his possessions. Such ethical discipline is properly graded to suit the capacity, equipment and environment of every individual.

It is prescribed in two forms: one is the rigorous and prefect for the monk and the other, naturally, less rigorous and partial for the householder, who has to shoulder numerous family and other social responsibilities. The first is known as yatyaca or mundharma (Ethical Discipline for the Monk), and the second, sravakacara or Sravaka dharma (Ethical Discipline for the Householder). This two-fold Ethical Discipline can be said to have been mainly represented by a set of five vows-rules of conduct (which, of course, are followed by a number of different secondary vows and virtues of protective and regulative nature).

The five vows are ahimsa (non violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (chastity), and oparigraha (non-acquisition). When prescribed for the house-holder, these are called anu-vratas -small or parital vows, and maha-vratas – great vows, to be rigorously and perfectly practiced by the monk. It is so very important to note at this juncture, that the conception and organization of the Jaina-Sangha and the nature and arrangement of these vows in two forms, with their complementary and consistent characteristics, duly serve both the socioeconomic needs, and religio-spiritual objects of the community as a whole. Moreover, the first of these vows viz. ahimsa (non-violence or non-hurting), is the cardinal vow, widely known as the doctrine of ahimsa, and holds a pivotal position in the entire super structure of this Ethical Discipline.12 Not only this, but all the doctrines of Jainism are said to revolve around this doctrine of ahimsa. Hence, Jainism is often designated as Ahimsa-dharma.

Moreover, it is now an established fact that no religion of the world has so far given such primacy for the all pervading moral precept of ahimsa as has been done by Jainism. It is also a well-known fact that in the whole of this violence-stricken world today, the Jaina house-holders (Sravakas and Sravakis) are the only people who give considerable importance to non-violence or non-hurting (ahimsa), and bring it into practice in their daily life according to their capacity. This significant phenomenon, it is heartening to note, is drawing now the attention of even the western world to the extent that recently, in June 1985, ‘Jaina Community’ came to be taken as an inter- disciplinary subject for the ‘ First Inter-national Seminar on Jainas as a Community which was sponsored by the Department of Social Anthropology at the reputed University of Cambridge (U.K.), wherein, a number of Social scientists from different parts of the world participated. 13 I do not, of course, mean to profess here that every member of the Jaina community today is sravaka or sravaki in the true or technical sense of the term.13A But we can actually see that a good many of them, even to this day, practice sravakacara (Ethical Discipline or Code of Conduct for the Householder), which could, naturally, be its latest 20th century phase, proving thereby its long, unbroken, active and purposeful existence from a hoary antiquity. So, now, it would be interesting, as well as, enlightening to have a critical view of sravakacara (the lay doctrine) with reference to the basic texts, and bring out its significance and its relevance to the present times.


1. Of course, this realm later, came to belong to Science for the discovery of order in the phenomena of nature.

2. (i) These figures are as per the 1981 census. (ii) It may also be noted, that the Jainas have always constituted a small religious minority of Indian society throughout their historical existence. (iii) For further details on this point, vide A Demographic Analysis on Jains in India, by Shri M. K Jain, Jain Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 2. (iv) Some inquisitive persons think that the figures of the 1981 census are not correct owing to wrong entries made under the ‘Dharma’ column. On the ground of some private survey, they estimate that the number of followers of Jainism is still, far bigger. Vide Shri Ramanlal Sheth, Conference Sandesa (Bombay), July 1989.

3. (i) During the infancy of Jaina studies, some scholars held Jainism to be a later branch of Vedic religion, others that of Buddhism, etc. Moreover, in the Cambridge Lectures of Prof. Max Muller, delivered in 1882 and pub1ished in the book form, entitled India: What can teach us ? (Indian edition, by K. A. Nilkantha Shastri, Longmans Green Ltd., i934), there is not a single reference to Jainism, though it was once to Buddhism. (ii) I need not discuss here all details on this point, but just refer to some of the important sources: (a) Prof. Hermann Jacobi, Studies in Jainism, pp. 3-4; (b) Mrs. Gusheva N. R., Jainism, pp. 20 25; (c) Dr. A. N. Upadhye, Preface to his Pravacanasara (d) Dr. G. C. Pande, sramana Tradition (Its History and Contribution to Indian Culture), particularly Lecture I, p. 2.

4. In his booklet, Jainism: The Oldest Living Religion.

5. (i) Dr. D. S. Kothari points out that the eminent scientist Neils Bohr’s Principle of Complementality, which is a significant and revolutionary concept of modern physics, is philosophically very close to the concept of Syadvada. For a fund of valuable details on this subject, in his paper on Modern Physics and Syadvada, Jeet Abhinandana Grantha, Part 11, pp. 187- 199. (ii) (a) Dr. Dayanand Bhargav thinks that Syadvada has almost become a synonym for Jainism. Jaina Ethics, Preface, p. vii. (b) He also, observes that Jaina ethics is based on the fundamental doctrine of Anekanta–non-absolutism. Op. Cit., p. 37. He appears to have considered the doctrine of Anekanta as the doctrine of Ahimsa or the plane of thought.

6. Dr. M. L. Mehta writes; (i) “None of the realists tried to divide Reality exactly in the same sense as Jainism did.” It may be noted that Jainism resolves the Whole of the Universe of being (Reality) into two uncreated, everlasting, co-existing, and independent categories of ajiva and jiva. Ajiva is further divided into pudgala (matter), dharma (principle of motion), adharma (principle of rest), akasa (space) and kala (time). (ii) “The conception of dharma and adharma as the categories of substance is the unique contribution of Jaina Philosophy.” Outlines of Jaina Philosophy, pp. 29 and 34.

7. Op. cit. p. 74.

8. Sramana Tradition, Lecture IlI, p. 73.

9. Justice T. K. Tukol remarks: “Jaina ethics is the most glorious part of Jainism and it is simply itself.” Compendium of Jainism, p. 195.

10.(i) This is wonderfully epitomized in a single Sutra (No. 1) by Umasvami in his Tattvarthsutra: Samyag-darshan-jnana-charitrani moksamargah. (ii) The seven tattvas (principles) represent an ethical classification of Reality: jiva, ajiva, asrava, bandh, samvara, nirjara, and moksha – soul, no-soul, inflow (of karmic matter into the soul), bondage, stoppage, elimination and liberation.

11. To elucidate this system at some length, the monk is enjoined to preserve, preach and perpetuate the Sacred Law and to guide the house-holder in his religious-spiritual pursuit. The householder, on the other hand, sticking to enjoined ethical code of conduct, discharges his family and other socio-economic duties and creates proper conditions for the monk’s rigorous course of life. Moreover, the householder, whose pious life is a kind of training in the ascetic life, later, at a certain stage, enters the monk’s life himself.

12. Dr. K. C. Sogani has recently endeavoured to show that the entire Jaina ethics tends toward the translation of the Principle of Ahimsa into practice: vide his Preface, Ethical Doctrines in Jainism, p. XI.

13. (i ) For details in this regard, vide Dr. V.A. Sangavi’s Presidential Address, Jaina Sangha and Society Section, First All India Conference of Prakrit and Jaina Studies, Varanasi, Jan. 1988, Souvenir of P.V.R.I. Golden Jubilee and this Conference- Smarika, Varanasi, 1988. (ii) The Publication of the Volume containing the deliberations and findings of this Seminar is awaited.

13A. My close observation, and a little of field work in my home (Belgaum) District, have shown me that even to this day, there are found, here and there, such pious house-holders who follow this code of conduct after accepting the twelve fold vow at the hands of their teachers. One Shri Dattubhai Kothadia, a land lord-cum-banker, a svetambara sravaka of Nipani, observed even the vow of acamla-Vardhamana that spread over the span of l9 years. Shri Annasaheb Khot, an agriculturist, a Diagmbara sravaka of Shamnevadi, never allowed pesticides to be used in his farms.