by Marie-Hélène Gorisse
Jains consider that each of us – as well as each living being, up to the many microscopic forms of life that also exist around us even though we are not able to perceive them – is an embodied Self (ātman/appā/ādā, jīva). While the Self is permanent; its current embodied configuration is not. To explain, what we call ‘life’, is a given entanglement of the Self with matter; and that what we call ‘death’ is not an end, but the cessation of this precise entanglement with matter and the transit to another one. In such a way that we are always faced with embodied Selves. Now, the Self is radically different from this matter, may it be physical, karmic or fiery, and Jain religious practices focus on getting us free from these entanglements of the Self, especially that with karmic matter, as this is because from this entanglement, called ‘bondage’, that suffering stems.
Philosophical significance for philosophers of religion
The bondage of a Self with karma displaces several traditional questions of the field of philosophy of religion. For example, in order to cop with the loss of a dear one in death, the hope for the Jains is not for this person to leave as she was in a better realm, but it is that she avoided enough accumulation of karmic matter to leave in a better form within this realm. And this process of avoiding karmic bondage is repeated until one’s Self, who is already immortal in essence, also accesses to a state of acquired immortality. Thinking of our immortal essence, and of our mortality only illusorily brought forwards by karmic bondage, authors like Kundakunda claim “He who thinks ‘I kill’ and ‘I am killed by other beings’, he is an ignorant fool. But the one who knows thinks otherwise” (Essence of the Self, Samayasāra, SSā 247).
The bondage of a Self with karma also shakes the methodology of philosophy of religion. First, karmic bondage is a medium between the physical state of an embodied Self, its moral state, as well as its epistemic state, therefore building bridges as they little exist in other traditions. Second, the vast Jain literature on karmic bondage contains a proliferation of physical metaphors that guide the philosopher’s comprehension. It would be interesting, as we compare space-problems between different philosophical paradigms, to compare traditions of metaphors between them.
In South Asian traditions, it is a shared conception that things which have parts are impermanent. For Jains, matter (pudgala) is the only type of substance that can associate or dissociate and, therefore, that has parts. Therefore, impermanence only comes from one’s association with matter. Contrarily to matter, (i) a Self is a single atom devoid of parts and totally independent from both other Selves and other substances; (ii) space, medium of motion and medium of rest are each a single indivisible whole that occupies all cosmic space; and (iii) time has no extension. Therefore, it is the bondage with matter, especially karmic matter, that accounts for any non-permanent feature of the Self, while any permanent feature is accounted by the isolated and essential nature of this Self.
The seminal Treatise on What there is, Tattvārthasūtra (TS 8.5, written in Sanskrit in 350-400, allegedly by someone called Umāsvāmin) lists eight types of karmic matter, divided into four harming (ghātiyā) ones:
- The delusory karma (mohanīya), which reduces one’s innate bliss and brings about one’s attachment to incorrect views;
- The knowledge-obstructing karma (jñāna-avaraṇīya), which blocks the faculties of the Self, of the mind, and of the senses;
- The perception-obstruction karma (darśanāvaraṇīya), which operates likewise;
- And the obstacle karma (antarāya), which reduces one’s innate energy.
Next to these, there are four non-harming (a-ghātiyā) types of karmic matter:
- The feeling karma (vedanīya), which determines whether an experience of the Self is pleasant or not;
- The name karma (nāman), which determines what sort of rebirth is attained;
- The life karma (āyus), which decides the duration of one’s life;
- The clan karma (gotra), which determines one’s status within a species.
In what follows, let us base our reflections on like karma. The fact that a type of karmic matter decides the duration of one’s life means nothing less than when one dies, say, because of a car accident, these external forces are only the material cause of the death of the embodied Self, while the fruition of her life karma is the efficient cause of her death. In such a conception, death happens as the fruit of the actions that one has herself performed in a previous life. This is how bound by karma we are. The metaphor of the process of sedimentation will help to understand how this karmic bondage works: take a muddy water and leave it without any movement for a sufficient amount of time. The different types of substances involved in this mixture will slowly start to separate, the more gross particles being at the bottom. In this process, the separation time differs for each mixture, since it depends upon the nature of the substances involved, as well as of the intensity of the mixing. The same happens with the Self and its bodies: their type of entanglement in the previous life mechanically has an effect on the lapse of time that the next entanglement will last. In such a way that this has nothing to do with a deserved punishment after some fault, nor with some deserved reward after some good deed. Instead, this has everything to do with the laws of physics. Jain thinkers develop a complex system, with calculations, to explain the practical effects of karmic matter on us. Notably, which mass of material particles is assimilated after a given reprehensible act, as well as the duration and intensity of this assimilation. These calculations resemble a physics, and are found as early as the Elucidation of the Teaching [of Mahāvīra] (ViyāhapannattiSutta, also known as Verses of the Venerable, Bhagavaī Sutta, old parts 5th c. BCE; new parts 1st c. CE). Later on, in the Treatise on What There Is, it is for example stated that: “Bondage to life karma lasts up to thirty-three ocean-measured periods.” (Tattvarthasutra 8.15)
The commentaries develop this, by explaining that this equates to 1/3 x 8,400,00 x 8,400,00 x 107 years. Of course, this maximal possible duration does not concern human embodied lives like yours or mine. Next to one’s life duration, the rest of the states of our embodied Self are similarly regulated by the fruition of a type of karma and can be inferred through calculation.
In his Essence of the self, Samayasāra (SSā, 3rd – 8th c.), Kundakunda is the one to redefine the Self as active only in its own domain, not in the material world of karma (kamma). Concretely, the Self is the material cause only of the modifications of consciousness, while karmic matter is the (indirect) instrumental cause of modifications of consciousness. In turn, the self is the (indirect) instrumental cause of karmic modifications, but only as a king indirectly causes the virtue in his subjects when he acts in a virtuous way and is taken as a model. Another metaphor that Kundakunda uses to think the association between the Self and karmic matter is that of the mirror-like crystal. If a red flower is reflected in a crystal, we see the crystal as red, while it is not (with the pun that the Prakrit term ‘rāga, rāya’, means both ‘red object’ and ‘attachment’). Likewise, the Self sees attachment/wrong notions superposed with it, not being it. The Self and karmic matter always keep their essential distinct natures, even in the midst of karmic bondage, which might lead one to think that they are genuinely mixed.
Whether we use the mirror-like or the sediments-like metaphors, it seems that we haveto understand the world as a whole in which things are mechanically combined together. Even though the types of substance which are the Self and non-self stuff, like karmic matter, are radically separated, they co-exist within the same conditions and so they experience paralleled modifications.
Overview of significant references/uses by contemporary scholars
Phenomena – may they be physical, subtle, or moral – can be explained in terms of karmic bondage. In the Jain system, this means that they can be expressed through calculus. This, in turn, means that equivalences between different planes of reality – physical, moral, epistemic – can always be handled thanks to these calculations based on karmic bondage. Karmic bondage therefore can serve as a translation medium. The tradition of calculation by means of karmic bondage has culminated in Jainism in a textual tradition stemming from the Essence of [the teachings of] Mahāvīra, Gommaṭasāra, written in the 10th c. by Nemicandra as a commentary to the Digambara Sacred Scriptures in Six Parts, Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama.
Finally, there is a remaining philosophical question, namely, how come that it is not only an internal death, out of the exhaustion of one’s life force, how come that it can also happen due to external factors, like the being hit by a truck? We are not here dealing with a type of occasionalism, since originated aggregates are efficient causes only in their own realm. But this remaining question makes us think that at least, such a conception is only possible if one conceives the world as a rational whole in which things make sense together, even though only the omniscient ones can experience that. In this dynamic, it is interesting to notice that a lot of South Asian traditions share this holistic approach.
Related emic terms
Pudgala (matter), harming/non-harming karma, permanence/impermanence, life karma, calculation.
Related etic terms
Embodied self, permanence/impermanence, material/efficient cause, holism, metaphors.
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. “The Jain Ontological Model according to Kundakunda and Umāsvāti.” Asian Studies 1.17, 2013: 3–16.
GS = Nemicandra, Gommaṭasāra, in Gommatsara Jiva-Kanda (the soul), Rai Bahadur J. L. Jainia (trans.), The Sacred books of the Jainas 5, Lucknow: The Central Jaina Publishin House, 1927.
Jaini, Padmanabh, 1979, The Jaina Path to Purification, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Johnson, William. 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.
Pragya, Unnata, 2021, The Concept of Samudghāta in Jaina Philosophy, PhD defended in London.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. 1923, “The pluralistic Realism of the Jainas”, Indian Philosophy 1, London: Georges Allen & Unwin Ltd, pp. 236–285 (reed. 2008, Delhi: Oxford University Press).
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.
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.
Wiley, Kristi, 2011, “The significance of adhyavasāya in Jaina karma theory”, International Journal of Jaina Studies 7/3 (Online), pp. 1–26.
YS = Yogaśāstra, Hemacandra, in The Yogaśāstra of Hemacandra. A twelfth century Handbook on Śvetāmbara Jainims, Olle Qvarnstrōm (trans.), 2002, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.