Jainism and Other Religions
There are two great religious traditions in the world (which is not to say that there are not a number of important religious traditions outside the two). They are, first the Indian tradition, and, second, the Western. The Indian tradition comprises the whole range of the religious experience of India over the past 3000 years. This includes, of course, Hinduism, a single name to cover an immense spectrum of religious belief and practice. In addition, the Indian tradition gave birth to Buddhism. Jainism, of course, belongs within the Indian tradition. In the West the scene is dominated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, three religions which have close (though not always harmonious) links, and which trace their origins back to the ancient Middle East.
Before we look at the various religions individually the differences between the two traditions must be noted. Deeply rooted in India is the belief in reincarnation, that belief that the essential part of the individual, the soul, passes after death into a new body which is reborn as another living being, perhaps human, perhaps not. Thus we all pass, through almost endless ages, from one form of life to another, the nature of our rebirth (including whether it is favorable or unfavorable) being determined by the accumulated effects of our actions, our attitudes, our mode of life, in previous lifetimes. The accumulated effect of previous lives is called karma. We cannot escape it and we are not free of it until each unit, so to speak, of our karma has worked itself out in subsequent lives, by which time it has, of course, been replaced by fresh accumulations of the karmic forces.
By contrast the Western religions take the view that we have only one life on earth which leads on to an eternal afterlife, not always clearly defined but involving some idea of reward (heaven) or punishment (hell) for our behavior on earth.
The other fundamental difference between the Western and the Indian traditions lies in the nature of god. To the Muslim, the Christian, the Jew, God is one, a single all-powerful being who created the universe, watches over it, controls it, and may be influenced by the prayers of men and women. Indian thought is not so clear-cut on this issue. To most Indian thinkers the idea of a single god, totally excluding all others, is alien. The universe is often (but not always) seen as self-subsisting, needing no creator nor controller. If, to some schools of thought, god is in some way a unitary force or power, this expresses itself in the many forms of many different gods. Buddhism and Jainism do not accept the idea of god at all, at any rate in a form that would be understood by adherents of other religions: they have even been described as atheistic religions. This is in fact rather an over simplification, as the student of Jainism will appreciate.
Now let us look at the Jain religion in relation to the other major religions. Jainism has, of course, particularly close links with Hinduism. Although the teachings of Mahavira represented a reaction against aspects of the rule of contemporary Hindu religious leaders, yet for 2500 years since Mahavira Jainism has been a living force, preserving the ancient faith without becoming ossified, developing against the background of a predominantly Hindu environment. For most of this period Jains and Hindus have coexisted happily, with mutual tolerance and respect. In many ways the Jain community has been influenced by the customs and traditions of the larger Hindu community. In matters of ritual as well as social customs the influence is plain. Jain worship is directed fundamentally to the Tirthankara, to the liberated and enlightened souls, to religious teachers and monks. Yet some of the gods and goddesses of Hinduism receive, in a different way, respect from many Jains. Laksmi, the goddess of plenty, Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, are revered in a way which does not seem contradictory to the overriding respect and adoration due to the Tirthankara. Jain influence on Hinduism must include non-violence and vegetarianism Mahatma Gandhi, as is well-known, was deeply influenced, particularly in his attitude to non-violence by the Jains.
Jainism is often compared with Buddhism, indeed Western scholars in the early nineteenth century often confused the two. Certainly there are similarities. The Buddha and Mahavira were near contemporaries and both reacted against the over-rigid orthodoxy of the scholars of their time. The teachings of both are preserved not in the classical Sanskrit but in the colloquial languages in which they preached. Each laid down a course of training leading to ultimate salvation, moksa or nirvana. Both emphasized non-violence and strongly condemned the killing of living creatures. In both Buddhism and Jainism the order of monks and nuns is important. However the differences between Jainism and Buddhism are considerable. Mahavira, it must be remembered, was bringing new vigor into a religion already ancient in his day. The Buddha was the founder of a new religion. The course of spiritual training of the Jains lays much more emphasis on austerity and rigorous self-discipline than the 'middle way' between ease and austerity in Buddhism. The great philosophers of Jainism have evolved a view of the universe as material and permanent, in strong contrast to the Buddhist view that everything is illusory and transient. Illusory and transient even is the individual soul: to the Buddhist nirvana or moksa means the merging or extinction of individuality in an undifferentiated final state, whilst to the Jain it is a liberation of the soul into an individual state of total knowledge and bliss.
Christianity and Judaism share a common religious heritage for the early leaders of Christianity were Jews who followed the call of Jesus Christ, himself a Jew. The sacred scriptures of the Jews form the 'Old Testament' of the Christian Bible. Judaism, like Jainism, is both a religion and a community, a close-knit community with a way of life and worship which keeps religion in a central place in society. Unlike Jainism the religion of Judaism centers around the worship of a single all-powerful creator God. The code of right and wrong is strict but Judaism pays less attention to life after death than almost any other religion.
To the Christians also God is one (though seen in a mysterious way as having three aspects). Right conduct is all-important, non-violence expressed as turning the other cheek when an enemy strikes you, summed up in love for one's fellow men and women, and this brings its reward after death in Heaven where the individual soul passes eternity in the bliss of the presence of God. One Christian writer on Jainism, though admiring much of the Jain faith, felt strongly the lack of a personal god, a refuge in time of trouble. Yet this is seen by others as a strength of Jainism: the individual feels master of his fate, not a dependent suppliant.
Islam is the newest of the three great monotheistic religions; Here we see the power and unity of God expressed in the strongest terms. To associate any other being with God is the worst kind of heresy. The moral code is strict and in its most fundamental form Islam lays down rules for every aspect of human life. Islam does not shun the world, rather rejoices in it as God's creation, but a paradise of unimagined bliss awaits the faithful beyond death.
Are all religions equally true? That is a difficult question. There are people who hold, passionately, that they only have the truth and everybody else is wrong. At the other extreme others distort the teachings of different religions in an attempt to show that they all mean the same thing. Where should a Jain stand? Obviously a convinced Jain will feel that the teachings of Mahavira, as they have been interpreted and developed over the past 2500 years, form the outstanding guide to the nature of life and the universe and to the conduct which leads to ultimate freedom. But a fundamental Jain belief is anekantavada, that truth may be seen in different ways from different viewpoints. So, to the Jain, confidence should not lead to intolerance but to a sympathetic respect for the ways in which followers of other faiths make their own approaches to truth.