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Maintaining Relevance & Essence of the Message

e-Jain Digest I e-Jain Digest October 2009

Maintaining Relevance & Essence of the Message

While transiting through time, context changes and communication evolution

-An Essay by eJain Digest Editorial Team



The clear distinction between Jiv (living) and Ajiv (non-living) and the level of detailed understanding of the various life forms is unique to Jain thought. What is most amazing is that this knowledge of the ancient Nirgranth faith (old name for Jainism) is consistent with the current scientific thinking in many respects. Jainism talks extensively of independent single celled living creatures. However, the sheer knowledge of living cell in the scientific world did not start till the microscope was developed. The detailed working of a cell that formed the basis of the modern Cell Theory was only published in 1837 by the French scientist Henri Dutrochet. To make a claim of any early scientific discovery by Jain philosophers would not be appropriate as Jain philosophy and arguments were geared towards spiritualisms and to drive its core message towards self purification. However, this and various other similar examples does establish the depth and consistency of Jain thought, and that it relied greatly on understanding and explaining the nature of things and not just on faith.

Extending the discussion of living further, the scientific community is still not able to define life in unequivocal terms. It defines life broadly with characteristics of homeostasis which is regulating to maintain a desired state, regular and somewhat defined structure of one or more cells, metabolism, growth, adaptation - both in terms of adjusting to a situation and process of evolution over time, reproduction, and response to stimuli. Jainism broadly agrees with these observations, but goes further to define a living organism in unequivocal terms by bringing the concept of soul as being the essence of all living and a source of consciousness. It extends this concept with the idea of a constantly changing environment with the binding and unbinding of Karmic particles with the soul. The Karmic bonding curtails, filters, and distorts the powers of the soul. Thus, the level of consciousness or the state of life-form is defined by the level and depth of these karmic bonding. Both Jainism and science agree that humans are the most evolved beings on this Earth, and mostly distinguish themselves with highly developed sense of adaptation and refined complex methods of recognizing and responding to stimuli as well as deliberate thought process. Central to enhancing and elevating this ability of thought process is the sophisticated method developed by humans – the art of communication.

Recent scientific finding have confirmed that even the most primitive single celled species use some method of communication. Plants as a whole tend to release certain chemicals when under threat, which in-turn trigger neighboring plants to increase their defense mechanisms. While every life-form uses some means of communication to assist in its survival, growth, and adaptation, only humans have used this technique to communicate thoughts and ideas not immediately associated with survival, and consequently have evolved as the most dominant species on earth in a relatively short period of time. Based on available evidence life on earth began about 3.5 billion years ago, although the human ancestry as distinct from either ape or chimp is only about 3.5 millions years old. (Note the recent discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus). Many of these early human-like figures migrated to various parts of the world but genetic analysis indicates that they seem to have become extinct since current human beings do not share the genes of the early migrates. The current human race known as Homo-sapiens, is only about 250,000 years old. They are believed to have started migrating out Africa about 60-80,000 years ago. One such migration has been accurately traced using genetic analysis along the Indian coast all the way to Australia. One recent research suggests that majority of the people of India are a result of two sets of early migration, one that occurred 80,000 years ago and second that occurred about 40,000 years ago. This refutes the earlier European theory of Aryan - Dravidian divide. This recent evidence suggests that India has one of the oldest inhabitants of humans second only to Africa. One key distinguishing feature of homo-sapiens was their brain size, which in turn correlates to better learning and communication skills. Having learnt the art to develop and use tools, and communicating and always accumulating on the gained knowledge from one generation to the next, nothing stopped the humans in their evolutionary progress.

For almost 240 thousand years homo-sapiens lived like nomads. The agriculture era started about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. With humans living in a settled community, things started to progress fast. The discovery of metals led to sophisticated tools, and by 3500 BC (5500 year back) kingdoms and civilization began to appear. This is around the same time when we started seeing the development of natural languages and the use of script (writing) evolved. Over the next 5,000 years, as human kingdoms spread throughout the earth, wide variety of languages developed, some with complex scripts, grammar, huge vocabulary, and phrases, to allow humans to exchange their ideas in a very precise manner. The next quantum jump in communication did not come till 1439 with the creation of Gutenberg's movable type printing (credit for the first printing machine probably goes to Chinese Bi Sheng, but that machine never became popular).Photography added a new dimension to printing, with the first newspapers with photographs started appearing by 1880.The ability to communicate instantaneously over long distance came with the invention of the Electric telegraph in 1837. The telephone was invented in 1876. Other relevant inventions in late 19th century or early 20th century were the motion picture and the audio tape recorder. From a communications stand point, the 20th century was a century of broadcast media with radio followed by television. The last major invention of the 20th century supporting the print media was the Xerox machine. The joint and somewhat parallel technological advances backed by huge corporate and venture funding in the latter half of the 20th century in computers, microprocessors, Local Area Network (LAN), personal computers, common network protocol, Wide Area Networks (WAN), Routers and Packet Switches, simple to use browsers, intelligent search technology, and digital storage led to what we call the Internet boom in year 2000 and the Dot-Com- bust in 2001.This led the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman to say; "The World Is Flat”. Friedman was referring to the great equalizing element that allows an individual anywhere on the globe to receive up-to-date information, respond back, and open the doors for intellectual work to be performed anywhere. Maybe we are too literal in not interpreting the language in the Jain scripture correctly, which also mentions that the "world is flat”. Table 1, depicts the evolution history of communication.


Some believe the first Jain Tirththankar Rishabhdev lived during the era of transition from nomadic Stone Age to a settled Agrictulture Age. If we go by historical evidence, then this date would be about 10,000 years ago. These dates do not coincide with the specific dates and timeframes in the Jain literature. However, evidences from the Vedic scripts, extended description of Rishabh as the king who taught people agriculture, and the analysis of Terracotta seals from the Harrapa and Mohenjodaro periods (at least the Sharaman tradition friendly version) point to such a time period.

During the time of Rishabhdev the means of communication was oral. The earliest evidence of manuscript writing (as opposed to seals and inscriptions) as a means of communication in the Indian sub-continent is about 3700 years old. However Mahavir and his followers who lived about 2600 years ago did not put his teachings (Agams) in writing, they continued with the oral means of communication as followed by the Shramana tradition. The followers organized the scriptures or teaching in a highly concise format of poetry with meter, such that they could be easily memorized. This however raises an important question, why would the early followers of Mahavir not document Mahavir’s teaching in the form of manuscripts? The most common explanation refers to how the possession of manuscripts would amount to violation of the vow of non-attachment and non-possessions. The second reason relates to a break in tradition. It is however the third explanation that is most relevant to our story of communication. This explanation lays emphasis on the fact that textual data in a manuscript can be easily misinterpreted if not understood in its true context and certain information could even be misused if used without restrains. In other words, knowledge should be transferred to only those who would use it properly. There is an interesting story of Acharya Bhadrabahu and his disciple Sthulibhadra related to misuse of knowledge in Jain literature.

Communication of religious teachings should always be done with care. Religious teaching by its very nature tends to promote an aspect of philosophy that is based on faith if not blind-faith. This is in contrast to scientific literature which is only true till it is proven false or inadequate and effectively replaced by another updated theory. Dogmatism is the biggest danger for any religion that is fully tied only to a specific scripture. We see this trend among many of the followers of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). The core message of all these faiths promotes universal values of tolerance, compassion, peace, and service to the society. However, when certain statements in the religious text that may have had cultural relevance at the time when they were written, continue to be interpreted in a narrow context, dogmatism and intolerance creep in. Eastern faiths have always taken a broader view. Most renowned scholars of the Santana Dharma (Hinduism) claim that it is not a bookish faith. The Vedas, Upanishad, and the Gita provide a path and guidance, and always need to be interpreted in the proper context. The great Hindu communicator Swami Vivekananda many time referred to understanding the faith in the modern or correct context. The Buddha asks the followers to experience the Truth, and not merely take His word regarding the Truth. The challenge for great religious leaders is not simply to bring about a change in the society, but to also communicate their message in such a way that the core message is always interpreted correctly or at least not misinterpreted. Over time certain cultural and tradition-related aspects are bound to creep in, which always tend to be a part of a larger social group. In addition, a person’s interpretation is influenced by his own biases, shortcomings or as Jains would put it - the Karmic filters.

Mahavir probably understood such fundamental shortcomings of humans very well. . There possibly cannot be a better example than that of Mahavir’s closest disciple Gautam Swami (Indrabhuti). Gautam Swami was blinded by his tremendous love and admiration and effectively that small attachment he had towards his own guru. Mahavir finally had to give a very unusual and seemingly harsh lesson to make his disciple realize his own inadequacy. If for even his closest disciple Mahavir had to come up with a unique way to convey the essence of salvation, how did Mahavir go about communicating his core message to humanity that would withstand the rigors of time? Even persons that are mainly concerned with society’s well being may have subtle attachments and aversions that may lead them to communicate a message that may be wrongly interpreted in future. With time one would have changes in culture, language, knowledge base, political domains, and necessities for survival, technology, and modes of communication.

While, this author has not even scratched the surface of Mahavir’s teachings, one cannot help but admire the foresight of this great 24th Tirthankar. With our limited knowledge we have tried to identify a few points that present Mahavir’s mastery of communicating the message.

First, Mahavir pointed out the limitation of language as a mode of communication. He told that everything that he had experienced or understood could not be expressed in the form of natural language available at that time. (Tools such as constructed languages, formal languages, and complex mathematical expressions were not developed at that time.These languages allow a significantly more precise expression of logic, physical phenomenon, and numerical expressions, which natural languages such as English or Ardh Magdhi would find difficult to present, leading to possible confusion or incorrect interpretation. The mathematical language itself may not be sufficient to express certain concepts and would require further extensions). By so doing Mahavir effectively warned the future flag bearers of his philosophy to not over-emphasize a particular phrase or text of his teaching and to pay more attention to the larger context.

Second, he pointed out that his teaching or his path did not have a monopoly to salvation and there are possible other methods by which salvation could be achieved. With this simple statement not only did Mahavir show his humility but effectively told his followers to be open to other ideas and points of view. While being open to other ideas, Mahavir did not let his followers to compromise on the fundamentals. The doctrine of Anekantwad or looking from multiple points of view is of course a testament to this kind of thinking in the entire Jain communiqué. Anekantwad does not accept falsehood of any kind but does accept that truth is complex and an individual may only be able to comprehend a partial truth. When combined with the deeper concept of Ahimsa, it encourages individual to confront falsehood first within self and only then against external injustices. Yet this confrontation against falsehood is to be done in a manner that avoids polarization or being judgmental.

Third, Mahavir expressed his teachings in a relativistic manner or emphasizing its validity within the scope of a specific context. One can argue that presenting a material in relativistic manner may give more room for a wide range of interpretations, versus an absolute statement that give little room for deviation. One fact that people forget is that communication and language by its very nature has some context, and if this context changes over time, which evidence suggests that it invariably does; one’s interpretation can be completely off-base. Mahavir clearly gave more importance to the credence that dogmatism should never creep in the religion of Ahimsa.

In this life-history of over 3.4 billion years, based on some estimates, over a billion species have become extinct. If we follow Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, the surviving species are the ones that can adapt to changing conditions and find ways to confront adversities. Both science and Jain thought agree that humans have reached a very unique evolutionary state. What did Mahavir do to ensure that the basic tenets of Dharma are maintained for many many centuries to come and possibly till the avtar of the next Tirthankar? The secret may lie in that aspect of faith that tries to see goodness even among most dreaded adversaries and if one can expose that goodness, and bring it to the forefront, even the most violent individual may start seeing aspects of rationality.

Mahatma Gandhi exploited this fundamental human nature in his political struggle against the oppressor. Such struggle is clearly not easy, and requires the highest level of discipline, courage, and conviction. The continuing struggle of Dalai Lama against China is a testament to the difficulty of such an approach, however, one feels that if and when this struggle is successful, the very class of individuals who are vehemently opposing the overtures of Dalai Lama may become the biggest proponents of his philosophy.

Finally, Mahavir presented the core message of achieving purity of a soul form various different angles. So with certain divergence of views and practices over time the essence of Dharma will never be lost. For example, practice of any one of basic principles of Ahimsa, Non-possessiveness, Truthfulness, or the deeper meaning of Non-Stealing leads to a path of liberation. Similarly, the path that results in the enlightened understanding and practice of right Faith, Knowledge, and Character leads to truth. While, one may raise the level of awareness by dwelling deep in the Karmic theory, or come to an understating of internal folly by practicing penance, or getting detached from the mundane world affairs by being fully focused on the purity of the soul, the ultimate goal and direction is freedom from all forms of attachment and aversion.

Mahavir’s message is 2600 years old. During this period the human society has seen tremendous changes. The Jain faith and its followers have also seen changes and adapted to changes in the society. Some new followers must have joined and some old followers may have left the fold. Various sects or traditions have formed, each has somewhat different interpretations and practices. If one understands the basis of evolution and the functioning of humans, the formation of different tradition and sects is only natural. However, what is surprising is the fact that even after some of the sects that have gone their separate ways for over 2300 years, groomed under separate gurus, and evolved in different geographical locations in India, they yet fully preserved the essence of Mahavir’s message. This is a testament to the genius of Mahavir; the great communicator.

It took 3.4 million years for humans to evolve from early life form, 250 thousand years to move from oral mode of communication to manuscript based mode, 4.000 years to go from manuscript to print, and 500 years to move from print to print & media. Now after 100 year of print & media communication, we have just entered a new mode of communication called Internet. 2600 years have past, and the message of Mahavir has been preserved, but now the communication world is changing very rapidly. How will internet affect Mahavir’s message, will it retain its essence? What will Jain faith and Jain traditions look 25 or 50 years from now?

"When we look ahead, we need to realize that some principles are meant for all times, while some are relevant only for a specific period. The word ‘new’ does not mean a radical change nor does the word ‘ancient’ mean preservation of everything that existed in the previous age. The permanent principles remain useful for a long period. The principles formulated for a specific period need to be altered even before they degenerate into conservative practices.”

Quote form the book: The Family and the Nation, by Acharya Mahapragya & A.P.J Abdul Kalam

To explore potential answers to the above questions, why not explore the use of Internet itself. Dear Jain community members, here is the opportunity for all of you to think and explore the future. Why don’t we work together and build on the second half of this article? The long monolog above represents the old way of doing things. In this new world not only can we all express our views but have the wider community comment on our views. Some will diverge, some will contradict each other, some will come up something really creative and profound that will make many of us stop, think and ponder.Just like the advent of Internet was not created by one individual or one group or one technology; it was a combination of multiple advances coming together at the same time; let us all come together, blog, ponder, debate, invent, research and continue moving forward. Let us get involved in this new age of many-to-many dialog and in the process save some trees and save this earth.

Let the experiment begin!


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