Date of Publication: July-September 1999
Year of Publication: 1999
Publisher: Mahavir World Vision
Author(s): Michael A. Giannelli, Ph.D.
Journal: Jain Spirit
Like most students of philosophy and religion, I have long been aware of Jainism, but my personal introduction to Jains resulted from my work as an animal rights activist. My admiration for these Jain friends and my respect for the profound tradition which they represent really began with our alliance to protect animals from exploitation. Over the years, however, my appreciation has expanded, based upon my growing awareness of the cultural values which Jainism has long offered to the world. I would like to mention a few of these elements as I understand them.
RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WORLD – In welcome contrast to the proprietary materialism so characteristic of Western cultures, Jains look at the world through the gentle eyes of humane stewards. Consistent with the fundamental principle of Ahimsa, Jains attempt to practice nonviolence in relationship to other people, to animals and to the environment as a whole. No other ancient tradition has more consistently resisted the unfortunate human tendency toward aggression and militarism. In this era of recurring wars, excessive consumerism, ecological destruction, and gross violation of human and animal rights, one would be hard-pressed to find a value which is more greatly needed in the modern world.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION – Jains place an exceptionally high value on learning, knowledge and rationality. But unlike many other traditions which view science and religion as being in essential conflict, incorporated into the Jain world view are modern scientific thinking and regard for the potential benefits of technology, wisely used. This outlook ensures that Jainism will remain relevant to changing times and is a great advantage in the perpetual struggle to adjust to new challenges.
ELEVATION OF DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES – Thousands of years before the French revolution, the American revolution, the U.S. Constitution, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement, Jains espoused and practiced the doctrine that all human beings should be treated as equals. Rejecting the widespread, historical, and concurrent infliction of slavery, the caste system, the subordination of women, and the sacrifice of humans and animals, Jains long ago set an egalitarian example which still serves as a beacon of enlightenment for advocates of a democratic philosophy.
TOLERANCE FOR DISSENTING OPINION – Most religious and philosophical traditions have shown a regrettable propensity for dogmatism and prejudice toward those who hold dissenting opinions and values. Although deeply rooted in solid conviction, Jains have resolutely cultivated a system which acknowledges the relativity of knowledge and which resists the temptation to arrogantly view one’s group as the only people chosen to carry “the truth” to the world. The Jain perspective readily accepts that non-Jains have made important contributions to the development of ethics, religion, philosophy, social values and in many other ways.
RESPECT FOR THE ARTS – In societies such as the United States, the importance of artistic inspiration and expression are, at best, compartmentalized into a role subordinate to that of science, technology and commerce. In the language of cognitive psychology, Westerners place greater value on “left brain” modes of thinking — which emphasize linear and analytic modes of perception — over “right brain” modes of thinking — which are characterized by holistic and intuitive modes of perception. Jains understand that these two forms of information processing need to be balanced for the optimal evolution of human potential. In the service of that ideal, art, sculpture, music, dance and even architecture have played a central and honored role in the manifestation of Jain tradition. Art is seen neither as the exclusive province of the elite, nor as a segregated activity of no practical relevance to daily living. Through artistic creativity, the sublime can be injected into daily activities, and the past may be kept alive in the present.
HONORING SPIRITUAL VALUES – My professional education is that of a clinical psychologist. Although I find substantial value in that discipline, in my view virtually all Western theories of psychology (from psychoanalysis to behaviorism, and the many schools in between) have inherent limitations when seeking to address the complexity and the profundity of the human condition. Understanding the emotional, the behavioral and the cognitive elements within each human being is a necessary, but not sufficient, basis for forming a general theory of humanity. Missing from this equation is the recognition that people (indeed, all living beings) have a spiritual dimension to their identity. It would be highly presumptuous on my part to say what that dimension is, precisely, or what others should believe. Nevertheless, I think that Jainism has much to teach us about this spiritual quest because, for thousands of years, it has brought forth wise masters who have devoted their lives to this most important of inquiries: What is our ultimate identity and most fundamental relationship to the universe of which we are an expression?
In summary, I admire Jains because they seek to embody the best of seeming opposites: They are steeped in rich and ancient tradition, yet thoroughly modern in their outlook; they hold high regard for ancient wisdom, but have a healthy appetite for scientific discovery and rational debate; they are vigorous and consistent proponents of their values, yet they exercise humility and tolerance for persons of different persuasions; they are not preoccupied with materialism, but they are successful at securing the practical, financial means for quality of living, and most generous in sharing these resources with others; and while they are solemn critics of injustice and exploitation, nevertheless, on a personal level, they maintain the congenial attitude that life is a divine gift to be enjoyed by all.
My association with my Jain friends has enriched me in many ways, and I hope to give back something of value. It is my earnest desire that the maximum number of other people, and animals, will benefit from the blessings which Jainism offers to our little planet, a world still so very much in need of peace, justice and ethical maturity.