Insistent Life: Principles For Bioethics In The Jain Tradition

September, 2022 by Pragya Jain - Reviewer

Authors: Brianne Donaldson and Ana Bajželj

Publisher: University of California Press, Oakland, California

Year: 2021, Pages: xi+278, Price: Paperback – INR 2,804/- ($34.95; Euro 27.00) Kindle – 0.00

Edition: First, DOI:

Citation of the book: Donaldson, B. and Bajželj, A., 2021. Insistent Life. California: University of California Press. DOI:

Reviewer: Pragya Jain

Svāmī Samantabhadra (c. second century CE) was a Digambara ascetic who is mostly addressed as svāmī by his successors as they did not have the courage to call him by his name. He once suffered a deadly disease called bhasmaka-vyādhi in which his hunger could not be quenched by eating a normal quantity of food. Anguished by this disease, he asked his guru to grant him sallekhanā (voluntary death), but he denied looking at his ingenious brilliance which would be beneficial for generations. He, then, ceased to be an ascetic, disguised as a Hindu monk and cured himself by eating more food for a few days. Thereafter, his guru initiated him once again into Jain asceticism after which he set on his journey of writing great literature and demystifying philosophical myths (Ratnakaraṇḍa Śrāvakācāra, Jīvana Paricaya, p. 6).

The story highlights that a celebrated Jain ascetic, on suffering from a curable fatal disease, left his asceticism to cure himself and then got initiated again once he was completely cured. Although this is not an ideal case for all ascetics to follow, it illustrates that Jain asceticism does not permit taking care of a physical ailment. On evaluating by the parameters of the spiritual stages or “rungs”, an ascetic mainly swings between the sixth and seventh rungs (from where the asceticism commences) where his focus is on the Self and not on the body. If the body becomes the focus of his meditation, his asceticism falls in danger as he starts falling from the rungs. It also asserts there is no room for “accommodations” in modern-day ascetic life as the spiritual rungs do not modify their parameters with time.

Insistent Life: Principles for Bioethics in the Jain Tradition by Brianne Donaldson and Ana Bajželj portrays the ethical decisions that a follower of jina has to make regarding biological arrangements as an ascetic or a layperson. The basis of the book seems to be the Jain worldview that provides “a systematic description of living beings and a causal explanation through karma to explain each being’s essential qualities, as well as factors of its specific embodiment” (p. 3). About the authors – Brianne Donaldson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies and Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies at University of California, Irvine; Ana Bajželj is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Shrimad Rajchandra Endowed Chair in Jain Studies at University of California, Riverside.

Bioethical Imperative, proposed by Fritz Jahr (1895-1953), a German protestant and pastor, specified that every living being should be treated as an individual with life and desires. Jain philosophy entitles every living being to happiness and proposes to cohabitate in the ecosystem as a path towards it. A human should climb up the spiritual rungs while making sure his fellow beings are not harmed for any reason, as in the current epoch of time although one cannot attain liberation, he can tread on the path of liberation. It is only the human form of life that allows observing restraint (saṃyama) and penance (tapa) ensuring the continuity on the path in the following form of life as well.

Scholars of Jainism have been diving into Jain principles to understand the performance of a living being in relation to every existing thing in the universe. Brianne Donaldson and Ana Bajželj have dealt with the Jain principles concerning living beings, their behaviour, and factors concerning the ethics related to them. While dealing with the subject matter, they have divided the book into two parts where the first part called “Foundational Principles” discusses the metaphysical and ethical concepts, and the second part called “Principles of Application” discusses the bio-ethical dilemma. Part 1 has four chapters that deliberate into life and non-life, the shape of cosmos, types of living beings occupying the trasa-nādi, moving on to the ethical conduct and illness and medicine in view of Jainism as a “cumulative tradition”. Part 2, with its three chapters and an epilogue titled “Multiple Voices and Future Directions in Jain Bioethics”, presents the observations of the survey done by the authors in 2017-18 regarding medicine and traditional values, and death and rebirth.

Nonviolence, being the first of Jain ethics, is practiced by the Jains while being careful about the survival of all kinds of living beings. The statement “Jain practitioners realized that violence caused to other living beings is in fact violence caused to oneself…” (p. 15) is an implied version of two kinds of violence – to others and to the Self – as nonviolence is the foundation of Jain ethics. There are few instances that incite discussion, for example, the phrase “transfer of karma” as early scholars has “maintained that no one can affect another person’s karma” but the activities like donations and other social practices have been in practice with the intention of karmic transfer (p. 21). It does not deem fit in line with the Jain philosophy. The laymen’s practices are generally affected by their peer practices, and it is difficult to gauge someone’s intentions by their actions and emotions. The philosophical aspect and the social side of Jainism should be read to strike balance between the two. Such matters, if not dealt with care, may record a biased approach, and mislead further generations. The book translates Jain karma theory in detail in a lucid manner with cogent explanations of the technical terms and the role of 93 nāma karma in the formation of the physical body, entrapment of soul in the body, causes of bondage and logical role of karma in causing death.

The language of the book is free flowing, one can keep on reading despite the complex philosophical subject. The beauty of the book lies in the presentation of the concept of substance before introducing the soul as well as the unique concept of utpāda-vyaya-dhrauvya prevailing in all the substances all the time. Although briefly, the mention of the concept provides the standing of Jain philosophy. The philosophical observations by the authors are simple, systematic, and brilliant. At one instance, the book vividly observes non-one-sidedness as an ideology that identifies reality as “absolutely, and not only relatively, true”:

…the non-one-sided approach traditionally does not represent a form of philosophical pluralism or relativism since it is clear that for Jains their own view of reality is absolutely, and not only relatively, true…a perfectly developed comprehension of reality involves a complete capturing of all existing objects in their infinite complexity, which represents absolute truth that transcends all partial perspectives. (p. 17)

Part 2 of the book presents concepts from part 1 in light of science, juxtaposed with Caraka Saṁhitā and Suśruta Saṁhitā, and Buddhist and Hindu views. It also presents the Jains’ views on animals and reflect upon the “food philosophy”. It is interesting to note that the survey shows personal views of the Jain medical professionals regarding a profession in medicine, animals use in medicine, compassion, organ donation, death, and rebirth etc. It cannot be considered as Jain philosophical practices. The difference in upbringing of those professionals, and their personal, social or professional backgrounds should not be seen as a communal decree of philosophical practices. Many instances are given in the earlier texts when a Jain layman does not adhere by the ethical practices and is condemned by the community. If a born Jain observes unethical practices or “makes exceptions for honey and eggs”, it is not because he is permitted to do so or because Jains have adopted lenient ethical practices, but because it is his personal choice. It would have made it clearer if the survey had a question about how many weekly hours are dedicated to the scriptural reading by them. While the medical professionals may not have been in touch with the philosophical standings of practicing nonviolence, their grounding would be similar to non-Jain practitioners. Similarly, karma is a part of the system that plays its part in bondage and fruition. While Jain medical professionals may want to attribute disabilities and diseases to genetics and the environment, it is completely a scientific approach that should not be confused with the Jain philosophy. It is interesting to find a relation between the two while keeping their approaches separate.

The book is a perfect outsider’s view of Jainism that elaborates Jain ideologies without any bias. The prominent markings of the difference of views between Digambara and Śvetāmbara traditions in the book help the reader not get confused between the difference of opinions. In fact, while citing from the commonly revered text in both the traditions, Tattvārtha-sūtra, the book interestingly mentions TSDig and TSŚv in the in-text resources. It helps in establishing its authenticity and resourcefulness. The legitimacy of the book is apparent by taking references from various ācāryas like Umāsvāmi, Kundakunda, Samantabhadra, Ugrāditya, Pūjyapāda, Akalaṅka, Nemicandra, Amṛtacandrasūri, Vīrasena, etc. of Digambar tradition, Umāsvāti, Siddhasenagaṇi, Devendrasūri, Devaguptasūri, Abhayadevasūri, Oṃkārasūri, Maheśvarasūri etc. of Śvetāmbar tradition; and scholars like Robert Williams, J.L. Jaini, Padmanabh Jaini, Suzuko Ohira, Paul Dundas, Hermann Jacobi, Helmuth Von Glasenapp, John E. Cort, Jérôme Petit, Peter Flügel, Walther Schubring, Phyllis Granoff, Kristi Wiley, Mari J. Stuart, Anne Vallely, J.C. Sikdar, and many more. The meticulous referencing and original Sanskrit terms in parentheses help in navigating the source and meaning of a term.

It is not easy to write about a subject on which the original material is written in a foreign language. It is a privilege for contemporary scholars that they have a legacy of substantial work done in English. These stalwarts have worked hard, and the authors of Insistent Life have made efforts in quoting the western scholars while acknowledging the original source as well. The book includes figures that indicate symbols important for Jains, and charts explaining philosophical concepts as well as survey observations. The chapter-wise notes at the back are exhaustive and equally interesting as they provide extra information, a little more to the concept like dating of Lord Mahāvīra, International Jain Bioethics Conference 2012 in California, conversation with women, the interaction between jīva and pudgala, use of boiled water, etc. Many of the notes incite discussion among the circles, for example, the meaning of the word syādvāda to be taken as “the doctrine of maybe (syāt)” (p. 220). In another instance, a note of chapter 2 quotes Padmanabh Jaini saying the two-, three-, and four-sensed beings are incapable of attaining liberation in their immediate human form of life. It seems illogical as the one-sensed beings in nigoda are capable of attaining liberation from their immediate human life form. This is probably taken from the story of Bharata Cakravartī whose sons are said to be reborn from nigoda as humans and attained liberation in the council of Lord Ṛṣabhadeva. The missing part of the story has their rebirth as two-sensed beings before the human life form as a one-sensed being is not capable of taking a human life form itself.

Apart from the notes, there are various points of discussion in the book. At one point, it discusses the place of compassion (anukampā) in Jain philosophy and practices while quoting Tattvārtha-sūtra that calls it a cause of binding sātā-vedanīya-karman that “gives rise to pleasant feelings”, eventually “perpetuating one’s entrapment in saṃsāra”. It is also equipped with a useful index explaining important terminology and prominent people.

The book makes an interesting connection between karma philosophy and biological factors affecting one’s illness. The cause of illness is unpleasant feeling-producing karma (asātā-vedanīya karma) which also causes the imbalance in the three humors (tri-doṣa) of wind (vāta), bile (pitta) and phlegm (kapha). Similarly, a frail body is the result of a kind of karma (asthira-nāma karman) due to which one cannot perform rigorous penance. At the same time, a person “who is free from desires should desire neither life nor death” (p. 88).

It is a myth and a matter of research that Jain ascetics did not write about medical treatments. Ācārya Ugrāditya in his Kalyāṇa-kārakam details about various medicines and their usage for a layman. He also mentions by citing examples that there was a great text on medicine written by Ācārya Samantabhadra which is not available anymore. Similarly, saying that early canonical texts propose endurance while later practices provide “accommodations” is debatable. In a similar instance, the canonical texts state that early ascetics also used to practice duty to care for the old and sick ascetics, and it is not a modern practice. Insistent Life is well researched, provides food for thought, provokes discussion, hence is a successful attempt. From budding writers, medical professionals to students of Jainism, students of Religious Studies and Asian Studies, would find it interesting. All libraries should have a copy of this book. Shows efforts of the authors and the publisher.

Publicly available on several online platforms, the book suggests that Jains across the globe are seen as careful individuals who bother about other lives, putting an emphasis upon the Jains to observe nonviolence, practice ethics and bring peace to the world bionetwork. It also suggests to readers that it is possible to maintain a balance in the absolute and practical worldviews looking at the environment as a sensitive entity and practicing realization of the self at the same time.


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