Jainism is an ancient religious and philosophical tradition that is thought to have originated in the Ganges River basin. There remain some 4 million Jains in India, spread mainly between five states, and there is also a small but influential community of emigrants in both Europe and the United States. The great philosophers of Jainism evolved a view of the universe as material and permanent, in strong contrast to the Buddhist view that everything is illusory and transient and nirvana or moksa means the merging or extinction of individuality in an undifferentiated final state. In contrast, in Jainism death leads ultimately to the liberation of the soul into an individual state of total knowledge and bliss, although this process may take several cycles of death and rebirth. In Hinduism, unlike Jainism, there is no possible form of transmitting conscious memory from one life to another, because its domain belongs to the world of illusions and dissolves at death.
The distinctive aspects of the Jain tradition are the belief in unending cycles and "half cycles" of time as well as of life and death; the spiritual model provided by twenty-four leaders ( jinas ) who regenerated the Jain tradition in the present "half cycle" of time; the five vows of noninjury or nonviolence; speaking the truth; taking only that which is given; chastity; and detachment from place, persons, and things. The aim of Jain spiritual endeavor is to liberate the soul ( jiva ), which is believed to leave the physical body with one's karmic matter. This matter supplies the energy for onward travel to a new destiny in the cycle of death and rebirth ( karma ), which in the Jain tradition has a material nature. "Drier," more dispassionate souls are not so easily polluted by negative karma, whereas karmic matter is more easily attracted to souls that are "moist" with desires that might contravene the five vows. The soul can leave the body through several orifices. The soul of a sinner is perceived as leaving an already decayed body through the anus. The suture at the top of the skull is the purest point of the soul's exit, reserved for those who have led a life of renunciation, such as that of a dead ascetic. Just before the body of the deceased is cremated, the eldest son may help the soul of his father on its way by cracking the skull.
"First there must be knowledge and then compassion. This is how all ascetics achieve self-control" ( Dasavaikalika 4:33). In Jainism, a good life through moral conduct ( ahimsaa, or nonviolence and reverence for life in thoughts, words, and deeds) leads to a good death, one in which the body remains, to the last, under an ascetic type of control. Jain scriptures detail the destiny of the soul after death and the causes of physical death. These causes are classified as death because of old age or degeneration; death with desires; death without desires; the fool's death; the prudent person's death; a mixed death (i.e., the death of one who is neither a fool nor a prudent person, but one who is only partially disciplined); holy death, and (the highest state) omniscient death. "The concept of omniscience," writes Natubhai Shah, "is the central feature of Jainism and its philosophy. . . . The ultimate goal of worldly life is to acquire omniscience" (Shah 1998, 2:114). Thus, by definition, the state of perfect knowledge or omniscience ( kevala jnaana ) is the highest form of life before death.
"When a wise man, in whatever way, comes to know that the apportioned space of his life draws towards its end, he should in the meantime quickly learn the method of dying a religious death." This extract from the Jain holy scriptures, known as Sutra krtraanga, identifies a ritual almost unique among the world's religions (except in the most ascetic sects): a holy fast unto death, which through inaction rids the soul of negative karma and brings about death with dignity and dispassion ( sallekhanaa ). Within the Jain tradition, this is not regarded as an act of suicide (which involves passion and violence and is thus anathema) and is recommended only for a few spiritually fit persons and under strict supervision, usually in a public forum, with the approval of the family and spiritual superiors. People who die in this "death of the wise" ( pandita-marana )are considered to be only a few births removed from final liberation from the painful cycle of death and rebirth. Two other forms of withdrawal from life are also practiced in conjunction with abstention from food. These are death through renunciation ( sannyasana marana ) and death through meditation ( samaadhi marana ).
At a Jain deathbed, the sacred mantra of surrender, obeisance, and veneration to the five supreme beings ( Navakara Mantra ) is recited and hymns are sung. The same mantra is recited after death, when hymns are sung and other prayers recited. In the Indian subcontinent, the dead person is normally cremated within twenty-four hours of death (though there may be a delay of up to a week among the diaspora in Europe and the United States). Before the body is consumed in the crematorium oven, there is a period of meditation for the peace of the soul, a sermon on the temporary nature of worldly life and advice to those present not to feel grief at the departure of the soul, which will be reborn in a new body. In the Indian subcontinent, the ashes of the deceased are dispersed in a nearby sacred river, or in the absence of a suitable river, a pit. The departure of the soul at death is part of a Jain worldview in which the concept of a living soul is thought to exist in all human beings, animals, insects, and vegetation, and even in the earth, stone, fire, water, and air. The distinctive Jain respect for life and refusal to kill animals, insects, and plants for food arises from this worldview.
Cort, John E. Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Laidlaw, James. Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society among the Jains. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Shah, Natubhai. Jainism: The World of Conquerors. 2 vols. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.