New article on Jaina philosophy @ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hey there,

Of interest to comparatists and people who want to know more about the philosophical context of early Buddhism, this new SEP entry by Marie-Hélène Gorisse. Being no specialist I cannot judge the quality of the work, but the general quality of SEP entries is quite high.




Thanks for this. I think the author explains the Jain theory of substances quite well. When the Buddha was alive, he was surrounded by substance metaphysicians. The Jains are one example, but there were other’s too such as the various schools of Brahminism at the time or Ājīvikism. The atta, the Self, is always a substance but these schools proposed other substances too. I thought this was interesting:

The Self, which is a substance, has a characteristic. The characteristic of the Self, in this system, is “experience”. Notice that in order to properly ground something as real and existing, you have to say it is a substance and we experience this real thing, which always exists (for substances, by definition, have independent existence), via it’s characteristics. If you remove substance from the world, which dependent origination does, then, ultimately, you can’t really say if anything really exists or not at all. Of course the Buddha focused upon the substance of the atta, but it also holds for other substances too (such as matter or some real conciousness). The criticism of atta theories was merely pointing at the paradigm case, as Gomrich would say. What is true of the atta would also be true of the aggregates, or sense spheres or anything else if we take them to be real. Of course conventionally we speak of substances, because it’s built into our very language. We speak of “Paul” or “a red ball” or “a hot sun” and this is fine, as long as we don’t get fooled by the words. That is to say, to start believing they actually refer to real things rather than being simply conventional modes of expression. Just as substances are conventional, so to are the aggregates and sense spheres.

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And on their atomism, the parallels with certain forms of Buddhist scholasticism (Abhidharma) is striking

2.2 An atomism
The whole physics of Jainism is an atomism. In this, Jaina conceptions are close to those of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika tradition. An atom (paramāṇu) is infinitesimal, ultimate and eternal. From this, it is neither created nor destroyed. Now, contrarily to the conceptions of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika philosophers, according to which God (Īśvara) is the one who presides over the association of these atoms and creates the world as we experience it, Jaina philosophers hold that there is no such entity. For them, atoms have always been there and their association follows natural laws. Jaina philosophers are especially critical of an attitude that does not favor ethical responsibility, and the recognition that an external consciousness is responsible for the state of the world risks to undermine this ethical responsibility beyond repair. According to them, ethics especially requires that the individual can make or unmake herself in this world. This is partly what explains that there is a lengthy tradition of refutations by both Jaina and Buddhist philosophers of the Naiyāyika arguments in favor of the fact that God is the sustainer of the world.

Next to this, an atom is not necessarily material. Indeed, selves are a type of atom. Matter exists as atom or as aggregate (skandha). The aggregates, produced out of a mutual attraction of atoms, vary from binary to infinite compounds and every perceivable object, that is to say every object endowed with a form, is an aggregate. As such, atoms are the formless basis of all forms, although sometimes it is said that it has form inasmuch as it can be perceived by the omniscient ones. Furthermore, in contradistinction with the conception of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and in agreement with Leucippus and Democritus, Jaina philosophers hold that an atom of one type is first undifferentiated, similar to any other atom of the same type, and then develops differentiated characteristics so as to become an atom of earth, an atom of water, etc. Atoms therefore acquire a kind of taste, color, smell, contact, as well as weight, the heavier moving downwards and the lighter upwards. An interesting characteristic of Jainism is that an atom may develop a motion so swift that it traverses in one moment the whole universe. This explains that some saints, who are well advanced in the path that consists in realizing the proper nature of things, can perform this miracle.

Finally, atoms can contract and expand. When in subtle state, innumerable atoms occupy the space of one gross atom. Matter is an eternal substance undetermined with regards to quantity and quality. It is because the atoms in it can expand that matter may increase or diminish in volume without addition or loss of particles. For a self, which also is an atom and which has dimensions although it is not material, this means that it is capable of expansion and contraction. The self is actually co-extensive with the physical body it occupies. This is what explains that we have sensations from the top of the head to the tip of the toes. This means that the self is of a very small size when it starts in the womb, then it expands and, at the end of each earthly life, it contracts again into the seed of the next birth. To explain how this works, Jaina philosophers use metaphors such as that of a lamp: whether placed in a small pot or in a larger room, a lamp illumines the whole space. In the same way, the self imparts consciousness according to the dimensions of the body it occupies. Another specificity of Jainism is the belief according to which, under special circumstances, an embodied self can expand beyond its body, up to the size of the universe, and act outside of it. This projection, called “samudghāta”, “extermination”, enables her to annihilate specific karmic matter (Pragya 2021).

Also interesting how the Jains also refused to answer the unanswered questions, but in a different way to the Buddha

Is the “loka” (here meaning both “world” and “self”) eternal or is it, Jamāli, non-eternal?

Being asked in this manner, Jamāli was doubtful and wanted to know, but was overwhelmed with confusion. He was unable to speak in reply and remained silent. When Jamāli was confused, Bhagavān Mahāvīra addressed him as follows:

The world is, Jamāli, eternal […] it was, it is and it will be […].

The world is, Jamāli, non-eternal. For it becomes progressive after being regressive. And it becomes regressive after being progressive.

The soul is, Jamāli, eternal. For it did not cease to exist at any time.

The soul is, Jamāli, non-eternal. For it becomes animal after being a hellish creature, becomes a man after becoming an animal and it becomes a god after being a man.

So in this example, the Jaina teacher insists on the fact that:

with respect to its substance, the self is eternal, like atoms are.
but with respect to its modes, the self is non-eternal, like combinations of atoms.
Here, Mahāvīra does not make contradictory predications, but he refutes extremes views, which are considered as wrong, by making explicit the parameters of the different predications. It is interesting to notice that at the same period, the Buddha, who also uses distinctions of the sort in his speech, is known to refuse to answer questions of the sort (Matilal 1981).

The article’s source for this characterising of Jainism is the Tattvārthasūtra of Umasvati, who seems to have lived some time between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE. So while it may be an accurate account of the Jain view in its fully developed scholastic phase, are there any grounds for thinking that the Jains had already conceived such notions during the Buddha’s lifetime?


Yes that’s right, and it’s a limitation. We do see substance theories in the suttas themselves, and Kaṇāda of Vaiśeṣika was possibly contemporary with the Buddha. It’s also present in the early Upanishads and in what we know of Ājīvika.

Sometimes it feels like these guys were the original theoretical physicists !! :rofl: :joy:

(The Jains could be said to have proto- Newtonian views of substances while the Buddha’s views are proto- quantum?)