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A Jain Scholar's Perspective on God

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By Dr. Sulekh C. Jain

Some foolish men declare that a creator made the world. The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised and should be rejected. If God created the world, where was he before the creation? If you say he was transcendent then and needed no support, where is he now? How could God have made this world without any raw material? If you say that he made this first, and then the world, you are faced with an endless regression.

-- Excerpt from Mahapurana of Acharya Jinasena

Hunter Joslin's article several weeks ago, "Is There Room for God in Jainism?" has created a good bit of debate. There seems to be some confusion arising from the terminology used. In Christianity the term is God, in Islam Allah, in Hinduism Ishwar, and in Jainism bhagwan. All of these terms in fact have very different meanings and are not interchangeable.

In the Judeo-Christian religions, God is the creator, destroyer, operator, rewarder, and punisher all at once. In Hinduism, Ishwar is the creator, preserver, and destroyer, as seen in the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh. In some cases, this figure is also a rewarder and punisher. Hinduism has hundreds (and maybe thousands) of different versions of Ishwar, and some are indeed very close to the bhagwan of Jainism. In all of these concepts, God, Allah, or Ishwar is singular and refers to only one deity. In Jainism, though, there are many.

In Jainism, we only have the term "bhagwan," which refers to arihantas (the divine in human form) and siddhas (the divine after leaving the human body). Neither arihantas nor siddhas are considered a creator, preserver, destroyer, operator, rewarder, or punisher. All kevali, or beings who have attained enlightenment, are arihantas first, and, once they leave the human body, they become siddhas. Siddhas have become free from the cycle of birth and death. They are formless too and have nothing to do with this unending process of birth and death any more.

The concept of a prophet, a son of God, or an avatar of God or Ishwar does not exist in Jainism. An avatar is the being of Ishwar himself when he comes back and takes birth in a human body. In Jainism, everyone has the potential to become a bhagwan. Furthermore, the position is not reserved for any one person.

There are actually an infinite number of siddhas or bhagwans. There is no place for the concept of God, Allah, or Ishwar among these numerous bhagwans. However, a state that we call "godhood" is acknowledged. This refers to the state of complete perfection: veetragtaa, absolute bliss, complete happiness, and perfect knowledge. Any soul can achieve this state of godhood.

It must be stressed that the Jain religion is not a religion of Godhead or Ishwaratav. It has faith in the liberated ones including the tīrthaṅkaras. Jains do not believe in an indirect and unseen God. For Jains, this revered God or bhagwan can only be one who has lived a human life, who has experienced joy and sorrow, conquered emotions through his or her spirituality and intuition, and moved beyond as a determined aspirant until he or she attained a state of liberation.

The Jain tīrthaṅkaras fall under this category. They were not divine or extraordinary in the beginning. They were mortal like us, but, by the power of their spiritual practices, they gained liberation and eternal divinity. Thus, their lives give us models for the gradual and methodical evolution and success of moving beyond the infinite cycle of living and dying.

When Jains pray, they pray to the qualities of those souls who have achieved perfection, requesting that they (the ones who pray) may become like them (the bhagwans) by following their paths, teachings, and characteristics. They are our role models, our beacons of light to follow to cross the ocean of this samsara. Since a bhagwan is not a punisher or rewarder, no arihantas or siddhas can give anything except guidance on the spiritual path.

Similarly, in all Indian Dharmic traditions, there is no equivalent terminology for leaders such as clergyman, rabbi, or Imam. We have purohits, pujaris, pandits, priests, swamis, gurus, acharyas, monks, and nuns, all of whom are practitioners seeking liberation.

I would suggest that we avoid the terms God, Allah, and Ishwar when discussing Jainism. We should only use the word "bhagwan," which refers to all kevali and siddhas.