The Jains have a distinctive attitude to science and knowledge. The Jain approach defines science as encompassing all forms of knowledge, including the physical sciences, the humanities and the spiritual journey. This contrasts with the deep-rooted separation in Western philosophy between spiritual and scientific approaches, which has softened in recent decades.

For Jains, the purpose of the quest for knowledge is to understand the true nature of reality and the true self. Such understanding is identified ultimately with spiritual liberationmoksha. The pursuit of knowledge and the spiritual path are interchangeable for Jains. Thus, there is no division in Jain thought between the ‘scientific’ or rational and the ‘intuitive’ or spiritual modes.

The Jain concept of science is based on the rational pursuit of knowledge, uncluttered by dogma and seeking to peel away layers of preconception. Jain science aims to challenge views of reality that are false because they are ‘one-sided’. In Jainism, ‘the individual must ultimately find the truth for himself as no priest or scripture is believed to have the answers. These principles are intended to be self-verifying so that the follower discovers truths for himself rather like a research worker in a laboratory’ (Mardia 2002: 4–5).

There is a similarity to the dominant, Western, scientific method, which values reason and aims for objectivity. However, there are also radical differences, notably the blending of science and ethics in Jain philosophy, and a distinctive mode of thought that contains multiple facets of reality. The Jain approach to science can be distinguished in five principal areas:

The Jain position has repercussions for contemporary scientific research. In particular, the interconnected nature of life itself and the importance of ethics in the pursuit of knowledge are becoming clear to many researchers.

The sūtra Parasparopagraho jīvānām in the Tattvārtha-sūtra (5.21) is often considered one of the key expressions of Jain belief. It may be translated as both:

  • ‘Souls render service to one another’.
  • ‘All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence’.

The first places an emphasis on the spiritual quest while the second presents a scientific and rational world view. From the perspective of Jainism, both translations mean the same.

Dharma and ethical science:

The Western idea that science stands apart from ethics and is more purely intellectual when it is not influenced by morality is not found within Jain thought. In Jainism the idea of ‘scientific neutrality’ is a contradiction in terms. The pursuit of knowledge is not ‘neutral’ but a process of tuning in to dharma and living according to its principles.

Jains think in terms of dharma or underlying order in the universe. The term ‘dharma’ is also used to convey the true nature of an object or living entity. For example, the true nature of fire is to burn and the true nature of water is to produce a cooling effect. In the same way, the true nature of the jīvasoul – is to seek self-realisation. This means full self-knowledge and understanding of the true nature of reality.

In the same way as the laboratory researcher tests his or her theories and explores new possibilities, the spiritual enquirer is open to alternative perspectives and insights. Meditation on the nature of reality can therefore be seen as an aspect of scientific research, because its aim is to increase knowledge and understanding of the universe.

Dharma operates according to ethical as well as physical laws, which complement and reinforce each other. When someone practises ahiṃsānon-violence – by avoiding or minimising harm to others and showing respect for all living beings, that person is obeying the natural laws of dharma. Conversely, adharma is that which disrupts the workings of the universe and obstructs self-knowledge. Examples might include aggression against fellow humans or other species.

Therefore, Jains cannot separate ethical and intellectual concerns in the search for knowledge.

Soul and karmic matter:

The Jain view of karmic activity is a form of scientific analysis as much as a guide to ethical standards. In Jain belief, minute karmic particles – ‘karmons’ – are attracted to the soul and produce karmic matter. This karmic matter is attached to the soul and attracts more ‘karmons’. Karmic matter is classed as either positive or negative. The soul seeks to escape karmic matter and revert to its original pure state.

The relationship of the soul with karmic activity is encapsulated in the ‘Four Truths’ or Axioms of Jainism. These relate to the conception of karmic activity and each individual’s discovery of the truths (Mardia 2012; Noble Truths 1 and 4A).

Such an analysis of karma and the soul does not imply determinism or predestination. The individual conscience is crucial to Jain practice and intelligence gives human beings the responsibility to avoid actions which increase their karma. This also involves believers continuously questioning their values so that they avoid mithyātva – distorted world views and destructive activities.

The starting point of understanding karmic activity is the jīva, which is translated as ‘soul’ or ‘pure soul’. It can also be understood as a unit of consciousness. Literally, it means that which is alive or permanent. All living systems have in common the fact that they contain soul and so they require understanding and respect. Ajīva, in contrast, is all that is non-living or impermanent.

Interconnectedness and careful action:

For Jains, all life in the inhabited universe is interconnected and interdependent. From this it follows that all beings are held to have a unique purpose and the potential for enlightenment. The ancient Jain concept of ‘careful action’ takes account of this and gives equal significance to each form of life. Contemporary science is finding evidence of how deeply interrelated eco-systems are, in which even minute or overlooked elements are necessary for the whole system to continue.

Millennia before the invention of the microscope, Jain thinkers held that the earth and cosmos were teeming with ‘invisible’ life-forms, which could be complex systems playing a crucial role in sustaining life as a whole. In Mahāvīra’s words, ‘Non-violence and kindness to living beings is kindness to oneself’. Compare also Noble Truth 4B.

Modern laboratory-based science is increasingly bearing out these conclusions. The critical role of plankton in regulating the health and temperature of the oceans is an example of previous assumptions about a micro-organism turning out to be wrong. In fact, plankton occupies a powerful place in the hierarchy of life and is complex rather than elementary, as once supposed. Similarly, the cyclical view of time and the universe accords with what is now known of the expansion and contractions of stars or galaxies. This view is much more accurate than the linear view of progress.

Like Jainism, modern science asks radical questions about the way human beings behave and think, including the exploitation of other species. Īryā-samiti – careful action – is a concept that lies at the core of Jain philosophy (see Noble Truth 4C). It involves thinking of ways to minimise actions that harm or adversely affect other forms of life. This ancient insight gives a philosophical basis to contemporary understanding of the effects of human activity on the environment.

In the context of the 21st century, the concept of careful action has profound implications for human behaviour. It asks human beings to live within limits rather than continuously expand and is a reminder that knowledge has a wider social purpose. In this context the term ‘social’ covers all living systems.

The implications for scientific research are also radical. Taking this stance of careful action, human society is realigned with ‘the rest’ of nature, rather than viewed as superior to or in conflict with it. In the same way, science is reunited with an ethical framework. Its purpose becomes understanding of and working with dharma, rather than asserting human mastery of it. In this holistic world view, the rational and intuitive aspects of human thought work in partnership, rather than opposition. They are aspects of the reality for which both the laboratory researcher and the spiritual practitioner search.


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