09/17/2013 04:27 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Response to Feedback on 'Is There Room for God in Jainism?'

By Hunter Joslin

Thank you for all your comments -- and even your criticisms -- on my previous article "Is There Room for God in Jainism?" Let me offer a general response.

When I visited India earlier this summer, I sat down with Jain Muni Prashumrati Vijayji, known as Maharaji, at the Pārśvanātha Vidyapīth in Varanasi to discuss Jain spirituality. We were discussing the six Obligatory Actions, which are called the Āvaśyakas. The Āvaśyakas are a Jain spiritual practice quite similar to the Examen of Consciousness in Catholic Ignatian Spirituality.

The practice requires introspection and repentance. The second action of the six stages is called chauvisattho. According to Maharaji, chauvisattho is the "remembrance and praise of God." When Maharaji spoke these words, I was unable to resist and asked him what he meant by "God."

He said that God can be remembered on two levels. On one level, God is understood as the tīrthaṅkaras, or spiritual teachers who were once human beings. This requires praising the memory of the human acts they accomplished while still in the world. The "ford-makers" walked on earth and taught the people right from wrong. They are praised for this. The second level is praise of the same individuals as liberated souls, the tīrthaṅkaras who are residing in the realm of siddha-loka.

This explanation by Maharaji led to my next question: How is God praised in the practice of chauvisattho? Maharaji said that God is praised in two ways. The many names of God (the 24 tīrthaṅkaras) are recited, and God is also spoken to in what he called a "dialogue." He stated that, although God cannot be spoken to directly, God's purity and transcendence can be meditated on.

Maharaji said that the relationship between God and man is similar to that of a couple who have been separated by distance. Although the couple may not be together physically, nor able to communicate directly, they can still speak to one other through the heart. This is a simple analogy, but it is perhaps more difficult in practice. God is pure, transcendent, and somehow accessible. With respect to the question at hand, the main point is simply that God is in fact understood by Jains.

God may be non-existent in Jain philosophy, but according to Maharaji God is something. The concept of God is real in Jainism, although the identity of that God varies drastically from the understanding of the divine in Christian doctrine. But what or who is this God? The Jain idea of God as the 24 tīrthaṅkaras is certainly not a Christian idea of God. The doctrines contradict and yet they are also similar. Perhaps the transcendent God of purity is more easily comparable between the two traditions. And the relationship of divine intimacy between God and humans is closer to the question which my previous article attempts to address.

My article raises a hypothetical question, as I mentioned before. I do not attempt to put a Christian God in the midst of Jain theology. I only attempt to question who or what God is to Jains. This comes after having spent six weeks studying in India in close communion with Jain laymen and ascetics, including Maharaji. The trip involved visiting Delhi, Jaipur, Jalgaon, and Varanasi with the International School for Jain Studies (ISJS).

The group of international scholars resided at Jain mandirs, vidjapīths, and even a Jain corporation. We were steeped in lectures on Jain religion for nearly five hours every day and visited numerous sacred Jain sites in several cities. Many lectures were on Jain philosophy, such as on the theory of anekāntavāda.

With that in mind, know that I realize there are and will always be certain similarities and differences between Jainism and Christianity. As many of the readers here will be aware, according to anekāntavāda, there are always two sides to a coin, if not more. This is what allows me the opportunity to study comparative religion. There are numerous perspectives on the reality of God, and from this I draw my research.

However, I find that often the two sides vary so much that they become nearly incomparable. Jain cosmology for instance is almost incomprehensible to me. It is something I struggle with, which is fine. For, in a way, I am comparing apples to oranges. I am not drawing parallels, although I do believe that some exist. I am comparing theologies, and here it is the problem of God.

Finally, I admit in my previous article that I am writing as a "Christian from the West." The statement is in itself incredibly loaded. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be from the West? I understand that there are vast differences between the United States and India. I also understand that the history of India surpasses the West by a few millennia and the United States by even more. The environment of each is quite different.

This is what makes comparing their religions, theology, and philosophical concepts so fascinating. Problems stem from the way we identify ourselves with our surroundings, including the divine. Axel Michaels refers to this as the "Identificatory Habitus." He states in his book on Hinduism that, in India, "the whole personality dissolves in Hindu religions, both for God and for man; and abstract doctrines of identity intervene" (343). Although he is referring to Hinduism and not Jainism, his idea is still relevant to my question about God, because India is a unique place where Western religious, spiritual, and psychological constructs are hardly applicable.

However, Michaels's statement is something to which I, as a Westerner, try to surrender to while in India: How can I participate in an Indian religious ritual, whether Hindu or Jain, without sacrificing my own religious convictions? Michaels opens the door to a different understanding of both God and religious identity founded on a more indefinite notion of religious boundaries.

My time with Maharaji and with ISJS allowed me to discover that the notion of God is not bound by such strict parameters in India. Rather, God is made more infinite and more personal simultaneously.

Hunter Joslin is a graduate of Georgetown University. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Theology at Loyola Marymount University with a concentration in Comparative Theology.