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.”

Ashik Shah is an active lay member of the Jain community. He was a founder of Young Jains of America, and is an active member of Young Jains in the UK. He has been in the fund management business for the last 15 years.
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Euston has to be the most horrible station in London, especially before ten in the morning

So off I go to Birmingham, the city where J G Ballard meets Captain Kirk.

A friend posts an ad for the John Lewis Soft Touch Washable Mattress Topper on a social medium. She doesn’t usually post adverts. “This actually will change your life,” she writes, “in the sense that you will not get out of bed and your muscles will atrophy and you will be penniless.”

I am tempted, I must say. Lately I have simply not been getting out of bed. The trick is to wake up at, say, eight in the morning, and then utilise that early-morning grogginess to go back to sleep. That way you wake up again around noon feeling deranged from the extra-weird dreams you’ve been having. The one where I stole my ex-girlfriend Debbie Milton from Prince Charles, whom she had unwisely married, and escaped with her in a white Rolls-Royce while an enraged Greg Chappell chased after us was quite something. (All details true, promise.)

But Saturday comes and I have to get out of bed because I am off to Birmingham. Why Birmingham? Because I’m being paid to. I am also chairing a talk between Diego Marani, whose most excellent novel New Finnish Grammar I am proud of having introduced to a wider audience than it might have received, and Frank Witzel, a German author of whom I know nothing, but the title of whose prize-winning (untranslated) novel, The Invention of the Red Army Faction By a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969, is suggestive of greatness to follow.

My train is at quarter to ten in the morning. That is horribly early, and it’s from Euston. Euston has to be the most horrible station in London. Crammed with fast-food outlets and shops selling tat, it is a wholly commercialised space, beneath which the trains hulk in confinement on their platforms like trapped beasts. They are also mostly Virgin trains, and bitter experience has taught me that these are unreliable and that one should never, under any circumstances, use their toilets. It’s best to Go before or, at a pinch, to soil oneself. After all, using one more or less amounts to the same thing.

I don’t have much experience of Birmingham, bitter or otherwise. I once gave a talk at Birmingham City University and was distracted by the Ballardian architecture of the place and by an audience member’s beauty, so much so, in the latter case, that I could not speak for a couple of minutes. But my attention is drawn to the fact that the Star Trek convention is taking place at the National Exhibition Centre in the city at the same time, and I think that as my event ends at around three I’ll skip over to the convention and, for a mere £15, have myself photographed on the set of the original Enterprise, sitting in the Captain’s chair.

I would have done anything for Captain James T Kirk when I was a child, and to this day you can catch me, from time to time, punching light switches with the fleshy part of my fist, the way he answers the internal comm-system in the TV series.

But it turns out, I learn from a friend who has had the same idea but actually committed himself to it, that there is a huge entry fee and the queues for the Captain’s chair are “apocalyptic”. So I decide not to go, and ask the hotel staff instead where the nearest decent old man pub is. They steer me in the direction of the Shakespeare round the corner.

This splendid pub huddles amid another Ballardian cityscape of car parks and stunted skyscrapers. The barman is nice, but does not know how to pronounce “Laphroaig”. “I wouldn’t even try,” he says. I teach him. It occurs to me that the whisky in the bottle is probably older than most of the buildings around it.

Why do we do this to cities? The view from my hotel is of a vast building site, behind which the few survivors of Birmingham’s Victorian heritage cluster like exhibits in a freak show: “See the Amazing Buildings Built More Than Twenty Years Ago!!” Still, at least Birmingham Library is, as modern buildings go, rather cool: and then I realise this is because the outside is modelled on the Sam Browne belt worn by Lieutenant Worf in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

I sigh at my nerdiness and take my place on stage. The chair, I decide, is suitably captainesque, and in front of us lies the flag, blue with yellow stars, of another federation, different from the one Gene Roddenberry dreamt of. I remember being excited, as a child, about the future, thinking of the progress we would make as it happened. The desire to go home, and dream, returns.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood