by Marie-Helene Gorisse

Conceptual definition

At the heart of Jainism is the belief that every living being is the transitory embodiment of a permanent Self (jīva) and individuals are meant to progress until they reach a state at which their Self is no longer embodied again. Embodied, the Self is co-extensive with the body it occupies, like light in a room, and this is what explains why we have sensations from the top of our head to the tips of our toes. However, the innate cognitive powers of the Self are obstructed by this entanglement, especially when it comes to karmic matter. While liberated, the Self is essentially unobstructed consciousness whose experience (upayoga, uvaoga) consists of cognition (āna) and intuition (darśana).

Furthermore, not only Jainism is the teaching of those worshiped beings who are unobstructed cognition and unobstructed intuition, but we too are, in principle, similar omniscient Selves. Consequently, we can know what is beyond the mundane, human epistemic range, either thanks to an openness to this higher order of being within ourselves through meditative practices; or by relying on the Scriptures—the teaching of the liberated beings—which, in turn, can be fully understood only by beings with a similar mind.

Philosophical significance

An important theme in mainstream Western philosophy of religion is the tension that exists between faith, belief, and reason. In fact, a prevalent number of discussions are articulated around this tension and on what counts as good evidence to support a given worldview. For instance, should one entrust the regulated use of the epistemic abilities of human beings within their inherent limitations, or should one rather entrust the transformative experience ensured by religious practices, the testimony of miracle, or the shared observation that good, morality, and harmony exist in the world, etc.? In this dynamic, does science discredit religion? And what about the epistemic status of intuitions? In these discussions, theistic arguments usually tend to show that faith is only seemingly, but not in truth, contrary to reason.

An interesting feature of Jainism is that its religious practices aim at the practitioner’s liberation from wrong beliefs (mithyātva), which is the final step before her liberation from the infinite circle of rebirths. In such a perspective, the exercise of consciousness as cognition has a central position, while intuition—which includes the closest equivalent to faith (śraddhā)—is a preliminary requisite meant to ensure that one has the correct mindset thanks to which the transformative practices of Self-realization can happen, hence shifting the complementarity and tension between faith, belief, and knowledge.

Historical context

In South Asian philosophico-religious traditions, the divine, the absolute, is usually, primarily consciousness (cit), cognition/knowledge (jñāna), insight (prajñā), the subject of experience (puruṣa), or the Seer (draṣṭṛ). Jain conceptions of the Self (ātman, jīva) as unobstructed cognition, unobstructed intuition, unobstructed bliss, and unobstructed energy, which focus on the cognitive part of these items, are no exception to this state of affairs. Nor is the fact that our spiritual progress consists of a path that is both virtuous and epistemic up to omniscience. In fact, even though the oldest Jain texts say very little on the Self, they already agree on characterizing it in terms of consciousness. For example, in the canonical On Behaviour, Āyāraṃga Sutta (ĀS, written in early Ardhamāgadhī in 3-2 BCE), even though an apophatism according to which the Self is not long, nor small, nor round, etc. is developed, even there, it is said “that which is the Self is that which knows, that which is the knower is the Self, that by which one knows is the Self” (ĀS 171) and “while having knowledge and intuition, there is no condition of (this) unconditioned (Self)” (ĀS 176).

Umāsvāmin and Kundakunda are the two authors who systematize a classical Jain epistemology and ontology out of these canonical texts. To begin with, the first chapter of the seminal Treatise on What there is, Tattvārthasūtra (TS, written in Sanskrit in 350–400, allegedly by someone called Umāsvāmin, probably by an unknown author), is devoted to the seven categories of reality and describes the many ways of knowing them. The following chapters are then dedicated to a detailed analysis of each category, starting with the Self (jīva). There, the defining characteristic (lakṣaṇa) of the Self is experience [of consciousness] (upayoga) (TS 2.8). Further on, the Commentary on the treatise on what there is, Tattvārthasūtrabhāṣya (TSBh, written in Sanskrit by Umāsvāti in 400–450) divides this cognitive operation into cognition (jñāna) and intuition (darśana) (TSBh 2.9.1). This gives rise to two lengthy classifications. First, a taxonomy within which all living beings are classified depending on the number of sense faculties they possess and can use when experiencing the world around them, and on whether or not they have a mind, from one-sensed beings like an earth-being to five-sensed beings like humans. Second, a full-fledged epistemology which will be the basis of a tradition of systematic inquiry on our knowledge faculties, from the functioning of inferential reasoning, to that of perception or of verbal testimony. Most of what is called “Jain philosophy” actually consists in these treatises of epistemology.

The second major author is Kundakunda. Kundakunda is actually not a single author, but the name that stands for the collective authorship of a Jain textual tradition (composed in Prakrit, more precisely in Jain Śaurasenī, between the third and ninth centuries around Karnataka). This tradition includes the Essence of the self, Samayasāra (SSā), which presents the Self in similar lines: “The essential characteristic of the Self as seen by the omniscient is permanently exercise [of consciousness] (uvaoga)” (SSā 1.24). However, this tradition differs from canonical and classical Jainism, and will be the basis for a mystical branch in Jainism. There, it is considered that the Self is never genuinely bound with karmic matter. Therefore, the practices which aim at a gradual dissociation between the Self and karmic matter and which are traditionally associated with Jainism, like endurance of hardships, restrained and careful acts towards all living beings, penances, or the study of the Scriptures, are dismissed as “worldly practices.” Indeed, since the Self is bound with karmic matter only from a conventional perspective, then the one who knows from the ultimate perspective realizes that in fact, the Self has never been genuinely bound. Henceforth, the direct inward experience that is Self-knowledge is the only practice that matters. Kundakunda wants us to realise that this is actually the core message of Mahāvīra, since Mahāvīra advocated meditative practices on the Self as the culmination of rigorous asceticism.

Significant references/uses

First, Jain views on what the exercise of consciousness consists of and how this defines the Self and distinguishes it from every unconscious thing are likely to give new perspectives of the hard problem of consciousness. Especially since there is the belief that a concrete change within the substance of the Self has to happen for it to be disassociated from the body and karmic matter. There is not much done on these subjects currently, but one should investigate the precise karmic associations, types of bodies and many metaphors (alloy between gold and silver) with this in mind. This will also help scholars to understand the intricate relationship between the ontological and the epistemological in Jainism.

Second, this splitting of the exercise of consciousness into cognition and intuition is also most likely to shed new light on the epistemological status of diverse faculties.

Related emic terms

Self (ātman, jīva), cognition (jñāna), intuition (darśana), obstructed and unobstructed by karmic matter, sense faculties of living beings, faculties of knowledge, wrong beliefs (mithyātva), faith (śraddhā), Self-knowledge, meditation

Related etic terms

Faith, belief, reason, intuitions, hard problem of consciousness

List of references

ĀS = Āyāraṃgasutta. In Kumar, Muni Mahendra (tr.): Āyāro (Ācārāṅga Sūtra). Jain Canonical Text Series 1. New Delhi: Today and tomorrow’s Printers & Publishers, 1981.

Bajželj, Ana. “Kundakunda on Modal Modifications of Omniscient Jīvas.” In N.Balbir and P.Flügel (eds.): Jaina Studies. Selected Papers presented in the ‘Jaina Studies’ Section at the 16th World Sanskrit Conference, Bangkok Thailand and the 14th World Sanskrit Conference, Kyoto Japan. DK Publishers, New Delhi 2018: 97–111.

Bajželj, Ana. “The Jain Ontological Model according to Kundakunda and Umāsvāti.” Asian Studies 1.17, 2013: 3–16.

Balcerowicz, Piotr. “The philosophy of mind of Kundakunda and Umāsvāti,” in: Jonardon Ganeri (ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2017: 190–208.

Bronkhorst, Johannes. “Kundakunda and Sāṃkhya on the soul.” In N. Balbir (ed.): Svasti. Essays in honour of Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah for his 75th Birthday. Muddushree Granthamala Series 75. K. S. Muddappa Smaraka Trust, Bangalore 2010: 215–226.

Den Boer, Lucas. Early Jaina Epistemology. A Study of the Philosophical Chapters of the Tattvārthādhigama with an English Translation of the Tattvārthādhigamabhāṣya I, II.8-25, and V, PhD dissertation, not yet published, defended in April 2020.

Gorisse, Marie-Hélène. “Characterising the Self: Knowledge and liberation in the Samayasāra“. In Cāruśrī. Essays in honour of Svastiśrī Carukīrti Bhaṭṭāraka Paṭṭācārya, Hampasandra Naganarajaiah and Jayandra Soni (eds.), Sapna Book House, Bangalore, 2019: pp. 95-107

Jaini, Padmanabh S. The Jaina Path of Purification. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979.

Johnson, William J. “Kundakunda. Two standpoints and the socio-religious function of Anekāntavāda.” In N.K.Wagle and O.Qvarnström (eds.): Approaches to Jain Studies, Center for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto, 1999: 101–112.

. Harmless souls: Karmic bondage and change in early Jainism with special reference to Umāsvāti and Kundakunda. In: Lala Sundar Lal Jain Research Series 9. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1995.

SSā = Samayasāra of Kundakunda. (1) Chakravarti, A (ed., tr. and comm.): Ācārya Kundakunda’s Samayasāra. Benares 1950 (5th ed. Bharatiya Jnanpith, New Delhi 2008). (2) Jaini, J. L. (ed., tr. and comm.): Samayasara by Shri Kunda Kunda Acharya. Sacred Books of the Jainas 8, The Central Jaina Publishing House, Lucknow 1930. (3) Zaveri, Jethalal, (ed., tr. and comm.): Samayasāra by Ācārya Kundakunda. Jain Vishva Bharati University, Ladnun 2009.

Soni, Jayandra. “Upayoga according to Kundakunda and Umāsvāti.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 35.4, 2007: 299–311.

Tatia, Nathmal. Studies in Jaina Philosophy. In Sanmati Publication 6. Calcutta: The Modern Art Press, 1951.

TS = Tattvārthasūtra of Umāsvāmin. In Tatia, Nathmal (tr.): That which is. Tattvārthasūtra. A Classic Jain Manual for Understanding the True Nature of Reality. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.

TSBh = Tattvārthasūtrabhāṣya of Umāsvāti, ibid.