The “Intellectualization” of Jain Ethics

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The “Intellectualization” of Jain Ethics
By Jonathan Dickstein, PhD

Without being a philosopher, or even someone interested in moral philosophy, one may still ask themselves questions about the starting ground of ethical behavior: Should I concentrate on how my actions affect others? Should I focus on my own character, from which ethical actions will organically flow? Should I be concerned with my intentions as well as my actions? If so, how so? This article does not attempt to answer these legitimate and challenging questions, but rather describes how Jain ethics gazes outward towards others, inward towards oneself, and upward through a novel “intellectualization” of ethics.


Gazing Outward

The five great vows (mahāvratas) of Jainism are nonharming (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), nonstealing (asteya), celibacy (brahmacarya), and nonaccumulation/nonattachment (aparigraha) (Ācārāṅga Sūtra 2.15; Tattvārtha Sūtra 7.1). While the vows are certainly motivated by the workings of karma—specifically the avoidance (saṃvara) and shedding (nirjarā) of karma for the sake of one’s own liberation (mokṣa)—they are also clearly motivated by the negative effects that harming (hiṃsā), lying (asatya/anṛta), and so on have on other organisms. In fact, one could argue that the strikingly “outward,” empathetic relationship with other organisms that the Jain vision of reality requires is the most distinctive feature of Jainism when compared to other religious traditions, inside and outside of South Asia. However, as Paul Dundas has noted, even for the ascetic who shoulders the strictest adherence to Jain vows (compared with the “lesser vows,” or anuvratas, of the laity), “the continual likelihood of destroying organisms on the ground and in the air would appear to create an intolerable burden for the ascetic trying to follow the Jain path” (2002, 161). In response to this intolerability (or impossibility) of abstaining from all forms of harm, and perhaps also to assist the fulfillment of the lesser vows by the laity, over time “harming” came to be understood as not including all acts that negatively affect others, but specifically those acts accompanied by “carelessness” (pramāda) (Tattvārtha Sūtra 7.8). In this manner, the “inward” gaze of ethics becomes increasingly central.


Gazing Inward

The inward gaze of Jain ethics expresses that it is not the mere destruction of life or “vitalities” (prāṇas) that constitutes “harming” in an ethical-technical sense, rather it is how the destruction takes place that is significant. Unethical harming takes place by means of carelessness; a circumstance commonly understood as action accompanied by the presence of “passions” (kaṣāyas) in the actor. These passions—greed (lobha), anger (krodha), pride (māna), and deceit (māyā)—instigate harmful behavior towards others and are also harmful in a “spiritual sense” to the actor even in the absence of “physical injury” to others (Tatia 2022, 174). In sum, hiṃsā (harming) is possible through actions of the body and of speech, and through states of mind. As such, the self-directed gaze of Jain ethics, while including physical acts of harm and speech acts of harm directed at oneself, additionally considers the mental disposition of the individual—in other words, their character. 


Gazing Upward

“Upward” refers to the way in which the internalization of Jain ethics signals a trend of subtilization that has extended ethics even to the intellect, that is, to Jain philosophical doctrines. One of the Jain doctrines of relativity, anekāntavāda (non-one-sidedness), asserts that every entity possesses infinite attributes. Owing to this infinity of attributes, every entity can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, resulting in a second doctrine of relativity known as nayavāda (perspectivism). Additionally, since any claim about an entity emerges from (at least) one of these perspectives, a third and final doctrine of relativity, syādvāda (doctrine of conditional assertion), holds that the validity of an assertion depends upon a recognition of the specific perspective to which it applies, and perhaps only applies. These doctrines, individually or collectively, have been referred to by some modern figures (Cort 2000) as “intellectual ahiṃsā,” or “a practice of nonviolence extended to the realm of philosophical discourse, a kind of charity towards other positions and their possible insights into the character of reality” (Long 2009, 154).


It could be argued that these doctrines—particularly nayavāda (perspectivism)—also function as a practice of intellectual aparigraha, or nonattachment to any one view. Aparigraha originally referred to the nonaccumulation of material objects (consider the minimalism of Jain ascetics, especially Digambara ascetics), yet gradually internalized to focus on the feeling of nonattachment towards objects rather than one’s physical possession of them. A further subtilization of aparigraha to the realm of philosophical discourse encourages the practice of nonattachment to any one philosophical object, namely any one view of reality at the expense of all others.


Historically speaking, there is some irony in the modern notion of “intellectual ahiṃsā” since—as Piotr Balcerowicz has argued—anekantavāda was most likely formalized as an intellectual tool to resolve moral problems rather than as a moral tool to “charitably” resolve intellectual problems (2016, 323–27). In addition, the genuinely “tolerant” or “nonviolent” nature of anekāntavāda is disputable (Cort 2000), notably since Jainism rejects the validity of alternative “ultimate perspectives” (niścayanayas, paramārthas) on reality. Accordingly, one may ask: Is Jainism really as philosophically “non-one-sided” and “tolerant” as it claims? 


It is true that Jain doctrines of relativity probably did not originate as “intellectual ahiṃsā” and nor does Jainism endorse non-Jain ultimate perspectives. Nevertheless, Jeffrey Long adds that it remains possible that “these doctrines can legitimately be so interpreted as to be deployed in the name of religious toleration” (2009, 160–61). For example, while Jainism maintains that the perspective of the world as taught by the Jinas is ultimately true, there are many conventional perspectives (vyavahāranayas) that are conditionally true and thereby provide useful insights into our lived experiences. At the very minimum, anekāntavāda-inspired intellectual “charity” towards conventional and non-Jain perspectives encourages attentiveness, patience, humility, and compassion, attributes critical for healthy interfaith and interreligious dialogue.




Balcerowicz, Piotr. 2016. Early Asceticism in India: Ājīvikism and Jainism. London: Routledge.


Cort, John E. 2000. “‘Intellectual Ahiṃsā’ Revisited: Jain Tolerance and Intolerance of Others.” Philosophy East and West 50 (3): 324–47.


Dundas, Paul. 2002. The Jains. London: Routledge.


Long, Jeffrey D. 2009. Jainism: An Introduction. New York: I.B. Tauris.


Tatia, Nathmal. 2011. That Which Is: Tattvārtha Sūtra. New Haven: Yale University Press.