The hierarchy in Jainism

How the hierarchy in Jainism is driven by spiritual development

I pay homage to the Arihants (ones who have conquered their inner enemies)
I pay homage to the Siddhas (Liberated Ones)
I pay homage to those Acharyas (who head the Order)
I pay homage to those Upadhyays (who teach the message)
I pay homage to all Sadhus (Monks/Seekers)
These five acts of homage can wash away all sin
Of all that is auspicious
This is the foremost.

Ultimately hierarchy in Jainism is driven by spiritual development, the result of personal striving. We can look at it in two specific ways, firstly from an organisational perspective, and then from the perspective of a soul’s progress to its final goal of Moksha. The terms in the prayer above will help us understand the hierarchy and organisation of the faith as it stands today. In this discussion we will also touch briefly on the sects within Jainism and also on the role of the Law of Karma as it impact the soul’s journey.

The universal Jain prayer with which we opened is composed in one of the Prakrit languages called Ardha Maghadi. A Prakrit is a language of the common people from a particular date, as opposed to the Sanskrit of Brahminical orthodoxy. A large number of Jain scriptures are written in Ardha Maghadi, a vernacular which Lord Mahavira also spoke, perhaps in the same way that Aramaic was used. The message is not restricted to members of any caste or race, or gender. The terminology of the prayer is also universal, and has not used words which are specifically Jain.

The Jain community or Sangha is typically divided into four distinct categories, basically householders and ascetics, of both genders. The ascetics have renounced all possessions and relationships with the material world, called taking Diksha, under the auspices of the head of a particular order, known as an Acharya. From then the monk or nun is known as a Sadhu or Sadhvi. They are expected to firmly uphold the 5 great vows mentioned in yesterday’s blog. Within the monastic system, certain monks are responsible for the scriptural education of monks and nuns and these are known as Upadhyays. No monk has a permanent residence and each one wanders continuously so as to avoid attachment to any particular place, save for the 4-month rainy season, when their wandering would cause too much damage to the life forms which spring up at monsoon time.

Appearance and possessions, while minimal, distinguish the sect to which an ascetic belongs: for Shvetambar (literally “white-clad”) ascetics, possessions are restricted to two pieces of white unstitched cloth, a mouth piece and a broom to prevent injury to living beings; the Sthanakwasi ascetics will wear the mouthpiece at all times; Digambar (literally “sky-clad”) ascetics are naked and only possess a pot for water and a broom made of peacock feathers.

The division between Shvetambar and Digambar communities is thought to date back to 300 BCE. This is disagreement over the nature of freedom from possessions (and thus nudity). The Digambar community rejects the texts accepted as authentic by the Shvetambar community. In the mid-15th Century CE, the Shvetambar community became further divided over the worship of idols, leading to the birth of the Sthanakwasi order. Today, within these sects, there are a multitude of orders, headed by a number of Acharyas. There do not appear to be significant differences of philosophy or doctrine beyond this.

In looking at the monkhood, we have considered 3 of the 5 beings to whom homage is paid in the opening prayer. The two remaining ones are the liberated Siddhas, who have already attained Moksha, and the Arihants. While Arihants have yet to attain Moksha, they have already attained Enlightenment or Omniscience, while still embodied, and so are considered worshipful. Thus Mahavira attained Enlightenment, Kevalgnan, aged 42 and became an Arihant, but did not cast off his body until the age of 72. There do not appear to be significant differences of philosophy or doctrine beyond this.

While the hierarchy described above relates to the roles played in society or monastic structure, there is another way of considering the hierarchy of soul in terms of their spiritual progress, and this is also inextricable bound with the Law of Karma. Jain doctrine describes Karma in physical and psychic terms: the inclinations of a soul cause vibrations which act on physical matter in the vicinity and these bind to the soul. The precise nature of the inclination and resulting thought, word, deed and the intensity of passion involved determine the precise nature and timing of the fruits which this bound Karma will bear. The psychic dimension determines the nature of physical Karma bound.

There can be an infinite variety of Karma, but these have been summarised eight categories, four of which determine life-span, body type, status and sensations of pain and pleasure: the remaining four are considered more dangerous and they impact the characteristics of the soul by obscuring knowledge, perception, innate spiritual energy and, worst of all, causing delusion. The deluding or Mohaniya Karma is like the ringleader in the gang of Karma!

In the blog on Jain belief, we discussed the impact of deluded misidentification with the body. It is this deluding, Mohaniya Karma which drives this process deluding our vision, making us forget our nature as souls, and deluding our conduct, manifested as the duality of like and dislike and the passions. The path to Moksha is basically overcoming the various aspects of this deluding Karma.

The soul has been born in vegetable, animal, hellish, celestial and human life forms. The human form is considered the highest as it is in this form that one can really think and discriminate about what is of spiritual benefit, and act positively and with equanimity in the face of karmic fruition, and so break the cycle. Human life is also extremely rare.

The soul’s progress is described by the 14 Gunasthanaks, often envisioned as a 14-rung ladder, starting with the very first stage, a state of total delusion, called Mithyatva, reaching the heights of the 13th and 14th stages discussed earlier as embodied and liberated Enlightenment. In the 13th stage, the four types of Karma impacting the soul’s characteristic qualities have been eliminated, but the soul is still embodied until it casts of the remaining four types of Karma as described above.

As we break through this delusion, we first attain a momentary experience of the soul. This transformative event is the result of suppressing or eliminating certain types of deluding karma which mean we are free from deluded vision and the most intense passions, even if momentarily. The experience of spiritual ecstasy and the realisation of our spiritual nature leave a lasting impression. This is the fourth stage of the ladder or 4th Gunasthanak as discussed above. The soul strives to increase the moments of self-experience and gradually its duration increases. Gradually conduct is purified with the elimination of various degrees of passion, until the soul is free from these passions and in a state of equanimous detachment from the 13th stage onwards.

Very clearly, the soul’s spiritual progress depends on the gradual process of eliminating and overcoming the various aspect of deluding Mohaniya Karma and so this must ultimately be the object of spiritual focus. This way we can move from darkness, to the ecstasy of self-realisation, and finally to the Enlightenment and Moksha.

“In the blind darkness of spiritual folly
You opened my inner eye, by applying the collyrium of wisdom with your wand
Enabling me to see reality as it
That is why I bow to you, my Guru”

This rare human life presents us with a golden opportunity. In the words of Lord Mahavira to his chief disciple Gautam:

“Life is like a drop of dew on a blade of Kussa grass.
O Gautam, do not waste even a moment.”

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