Karma is central to all the Indian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Basically, karma is the belief that every moral action has its own consequence that pursues the doer often beyond the grave into many different lives.
A key concept in Jain beliefs is that the world or reality is made of two distinct dimensions:
- the visible world – made up of souls in their
various forms, matter, space, the principles of motion and rest, time –
it is eternal and formless, continually in the process of change but is
- the invisible world – a realm behind the visible world, unperceived by the senses – an indestructible and eternal realm of limitless knowledge and infinite power, a pure state of “release” or moksha
So – the primary goal of Jainism is the perfection of the soul – for it to be perfected from the all its layers of karma, from its current place in the visible world to the invisible world. Thus, moksha is the ultimate goal.
Although, the idea of karma is central to all the Indian religions, Jainism has a particular twist on this doctrine: the notion of the karmic body.
The karmic body is a kind of subtle matter – tiny atoms of matter in which the soul in enmeshed during the state of transmigration and from which it is not separated even at the time of death. This subtle matter in which the soul in enmeshed obstructs the true nature of the soul, which is pure power, knowledge and bliss.
Karmic matter pervades space and is drawn to vibrations of the molecules that compose the organs of the mind, speech, and the body. Karmic matter gets attracted and, when the soul is actuated by passions and indulges in evil actions, the soul absorbs the karmic matter, like a wet cloth absorbs dust.
Many of the Jain texts on this idea – these texts are called the Karmagranthas – explicate at length the varieties of will and action that bring about the influx of particular categories of karmic matter, and their influence in people’s lives, their duration, characteristics, etc.
Some examples include: knowledge-obscuring karmas, perception-obscuring, deluding, body-determining, status-determining, falling-producing, age-determining – some attack the nature of the soul itself, others attack the body in which the soul is housed.
Some of these can be expelled easily, but some require great effort. Some stay in the soul for only a few moments, some for eons, awaiting the time of their maturity, at which point they disassociate of their own accord from the soul after yielding their respective fruits, positive or negative. They will be later reabsorbed by a new series of passions and actions and the wheel of samsara will turn on and on.
Liberation from the cycle of transmigration occurs only by stopping the influx of karmas – by arresting the passions and by guarding the channels of activity: the mind, the body and speech. This is called “samvar” or “blocking” – blocking the inflow of karma into the soul. Hence the Jain focus on right knowledge, right faith and right action - which is translated to right speaking, thinking, and acting.
Also, the accumulated karmas have to be shed – either passively (waiting for them to burn out of their own accord) or actively via forgiveness, making amends, meditation, etc.
The boat analogy helps in understanding this:
Imagine we are in a boat, having a good time. We notice that it’s filling with water. So, first, we find the hole, then plug it. This is “samvar” – finding and plugging the leak, stopping the inflow of water into the boat. Our lives have many “holes” in which karmic matter flows: wrong beliefs, passions, lax speech, evil activities, etc. Once we see that they are sinking us, we can begin to “plug” those holes so they don’t sink our soul.
Once we plug the holes – “samvar” – then we must undertake “nijara” or “falling off.” Again, using the boat analogy, we must begin to dip out the water that accumulated in the boat. We must not only stop new karmic matter from coming in, we must take out that which has accumulated while we weren’t watching.
Once this is done completely, the soul will be in its true natural state, able to exist in full capacity – full power, full knowledge and bliss.
All the austerities of Jainism exist in this effort of samvar and nijara, and they are both external efforts and internal efforts:
-external: complete or partial fasting, bodily endurance (standing or sitting in a posture for a long time despite the pain), controlling the senses via staying in isolation for extended periods
-internal: asking forgiveness or forgiving, humility or being polite, serving others, studying spiritual ideas, meditating
These can be less or more extreme depending on whether one is householder or monk.