The “Pluralistic” and “Non-theistic” Reality of Jains

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The “Pluralistic” and “Non-theistic” Reality of Jains
By Cogen Bohanec, MA, PhD

Ontological Pluralism vs. Monism 

In a previous article (“Jain Dharma as Pluralistic”) I mentioned how Jain Dharma supports social pluralism, and the related concepts of interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding. This social pluralism of the Jain tradition follows coherently from the Jain view of reality, or Jain “ontology,” or the study of what is “real” and what aspects of our perception are mentally constructed illusions. 


Some forms of Hindu philosophy (such as Advaita, non-dual Vedānta) and some forms of Buddhism are anti-realist about the existence of the material world and are anti-realist about individual souls. That is to say, they don’t believe that the material world and the living beings therein, as they appear to be—devoid of consciousness and filled with countless, multiple entities—are real; rather it is only our ignorance (avidyā) that makes the world appear as if there are divisions between conscious beings and the supposed many types and forms of individual material things.  These monistic schools (the belief that all of reality is ultimately composed of a single thing) assert that divisions of time and the plurality of things that we perceive, are ultimately singular, and divisions and enumerations of anything are just a fabrication of the individual, subjective mind. 


Monism as a Basis for Theism 

This perceived oneness of reality also becomes the basis for a theistic belief in the unity of existence as a single “God,” asserting that all of reality is part of this single, absolute being. The monism of some Hindus purports that all of reality is but an emanation or permutation of one single substance, namely, God (usually here as brahman). Stated differently, monism is the idea that all things are but subcategories of a singular divine entity or God. 

Jain Ontological Pluralism 

Unlike these monistic traditions who see that all of reality is ultimately composed of a single substance, Jain Dharma is realist about the existence of the plurality and multiplicity of things in the material world, but also the plurality of souls. This is because Jains are realist about enumerations and divisions, that is to say, for Jains the divisions between things material and sentient are not mere mental fabrications.  This makes Jains, like early Pāli Buddhists and some Hindus (e.g. Dvaita Vedānta, Sāṃkhya- Yoga, Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, etc.), ontological pluralists in contrast to the ontological monism of many other Hindus, such as those who espouse a philosophy of Advaita “non-division” (sometimes translated as “non-dualism”). 


However, for ontological pluralists like the Jains (and Pāli Buddhists, Madhva Vedāntists, Sāṃkhya-yoga, Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, etc.), all of reality consists of multiple categories of entities (can be either physical or metaphysical or both) and multiple souls that all interact with each other. Stated differently, ontological pluralism does not propose that all of reality is but a permutation of a single entity, substance, or monotheistic God. Explained by Parveen Jain, the “whole universe is an interconnected, intertwined and interdependent network” of the plurality of entities, but for Jains “there is no God (Īśvara) or Superior Soul (Brahman) or Ultimate Reality” (“An Introduction to Jain Philosophy,” 2019, 86) that is the substance from which everything else is but a sub-category or permutation. 

Jain Pluralistic Categories of Existence 

We can understand Jain ontology as allowing for a division of that which is measurable, such as material reality, and that which is not-measurable directly and is beyond the physical—that which is metaphysical. This is described in the three categories of “substances” (dravya-s) allowable in Jain ontology. These include categories that are: (1) non-material & sentient (the metaphysical soul), (2) material and non-sentient (physical, material reality), and (3) that which is non-material and non-sentient (non-soul metaphysical entities). By this, the purview of study for the natural sciences only deals with one of these three categories directly, although mathematics, which is in many ways foundational, deals with the purely metaphysical features of category #3 (numbers, for example, are purely metaphysical since they do not directly occupy a position in space and time, and are therefore “non-material and non-sentient”). 


Jain Pluralistic, Non-Theism

Certainly, the idea that the divisions in reality between consciousness and various material entities does not necessarily imply non-theism. For most theistic, Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) God is separate from the multiplicity of individual souls, and the multiplicity of material entities, as is the case for Madhva’s Bheda-vedānta, or “Division-based” Vedānta (also sometimes called Dvaita-vedānta, or “dualistic” vedānta). For these traditions God is a unique, and individual being, distinct from other souls because God is all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), all-present (omnipresent), and all-merciful (omni-benevolent). Jains do have some beliefs in the latent power of living beings in the material world, a power that has been actualized by the liberated beings of the spiritual world, that are somewhat similar. For example, these liberated Jinas have realized the full power (vīrya) within the conscious soul, the full knowledge-potential of the soul (jñāna/caitanya), and the full potential of unobstructed happiness of the soul (sukha) that is realized only when one becomes compassionate to others to such a degree that one no longer produces any karma. However, this is different from standard theism for a number of reasons. First, nearly all souls, which are quantitively plural (but qualitatively similar) have this capacity to actualize these potentials, not just a single, monotheistic God. Secondly, once this potential is realized, these liberated, fully actualized beings are not responsive to petitionary prayer the same way most monotheistic versions of God is. They become an exemplary object of the practitioner’s meditation, and by setting the example of what the soul’s actualization is like, they have demonstrated tremendous compassion, but for Jains, unlike for most theists, our spiritual development is ultimately our own responsibility. Other advanced beings can teach us, but we must choose to act. 

“God” in Jainism

However, we will often hear Jains speak of “God” and “oneness” and other such terms that seem at odds with Jain non-theism and ontological pluralism. This is because the Sanskrit words that are translated as “God” in Hindu, theistic contexts (such as brahman, bhagavān, īśvara, etc.) are also used in Jain canonical scriptures. However, while they have a monotheistic connotation in a Hindu context, they just refer to the liberated soul in the Jain contexts. Thus, when communicating in South Asian languages, Jains are comfortable sharing the lexicon of theistic traditions—but their meaning is quite different—so many Jains are equally comfortable sharing the English lexicon with Western theistic traditions, although the Jain meaning of “God” is not monotheistic, but rather refers to the countless, individual, pluralistic liberated beings, and potential of other living beings to achieve the same. 


“Oneness” In Jainism

Moreover, Jains will often speak of “oneness” that sounds like ontological monism. But again, Jains are comfortable employing a shared lexicon while conveying Jain beliefs in ontological pluralism. 


For example, when Jains speak of “oneness,” they are referring to the systematic, interdependent nature of a pluralistic reality, and the various qualitatively similarities that living entities possess. This systematic reality is expressed, for example, in Tattvārtha Sūtra (5.21):  parasparopagraho jīvānām, where “All living entities (jīvānām) are bound in a network (parasparograho) of mutuality (upagrahaḥ)” (my translation). This is similar to how Dr. Martin Luther King, who, as a Christian, likely didn’t believe in ontological monism described that “We are caught in aninescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (Letter from Birmingham Jail). To some degree karma is collective, such as in examples of systematic violence (such as environmental destruction, animal exploitation, structural racism, patriarchy, etc.) where there is no single perpetrator, and individuals who perpetuate these systems are generally oblivious to the existence of that violence. Thus, the Ācārāṅga-sūtra tells us (1.7.147) that, “One who knows the inner-self (ajjhatthaṃ, Sk. antar-ātman) knows the external world; one who knows the external world knows the inner-self.” In this sense, we are “one” despite existing in a system of diverse, individual conscious souls and material entities.



Professor Cogen Bohanec, MA, PhD, an Assistant Professor at Arihanta Institute, received his doctorate in Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion from the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California where his research emphasized comparative dharmic traditions and the philosophy of religion. He teaches several foundational self-paced, online courses based in Jain philosophy, yoga, ecology, languages, and interfaith peacebuilding, including: