Jaina cosmogony offers a different perspective of creation, time and the cycle of life, writes Ashok Vohra...
In Jainism, the study of the cosmos talks about a cyclical notion of time. Cosmic cycles, according to Jain doctrines, comprise utsarpini - the age of expansion, and avasarpini - the age of contraction or decay. We are in the avasarpini age. Based on this conception of time the Jainas conclude that the belief in a definite beginning of the cosmic universe is illogical and unconceivable. For, if time is cyclical, then, as in a circle there is no definite starting point, for time, too, there cannot be such a point. Any point, depending upon one's need and context, can be taken to be the starting point.
Jainas do not believe in a God who creates the universe. Because, if there were a Creator God, then one would have to logically infer that the said God was 'non-creative' before the beginning of the universe and then, suddenly, without any apparent reason, simply changed His mind to become creative. Such a conception of God is thought to be illogical.
Therefore, the universe comprising jivas or souls, and ajivas or beings that have no souls, has to be eternal. Ajivas are objects of enjoyment of jivas. The jiva is a knower and an actor who enjoys the rewards of his deeds, that is, karmas. Jivas are happy or miserable in accordance with the deeds they have accumulated in their present or past lives.
Jivas are identified with consciousness. Consciousness is not an accidental product of matter as was believed by the Carvakas, the materialists. Jivas, on the other hand, can exist independently of the body. The association of jivas with the body is the sole cause of birth and death and it is not their essential property. It is a paryaaya - a modification of the soul. Just as muddiness of water is a modification in the true nature of water due to the water's accidental mixing with soil, the modification of the jiva as bonded is the outcome of its accidental association with its karmas. Depending on the kind of or intensity of karmic bondage, the souls that dwell in the cosmos are classified into four kinds. First there are gods or devas. These gods are embodied beings. They dwell in the heavens. They are higher (more evolved) than human beings in the scale of evolution. They, however, are subject to birth and death, just like human beings. Due to their accumulated good karmas they are born in the heavens, they enjoy the fruits of their deeds, and die when the effects of their good deeds are exhausted. Nevertheless, to attain liberation - liberation from the bonds of karma - devas have to be born on earth in the form of human beings.
Human beings are the second group of jivas inhabiting the cosmos. Triyaks - animals and the vegetable kingdom form the third group of jivas and they occupy a place lower on the evolutionary scale than do human beings. The group of jivas lowest in the order are called naaraks - the beings inhabiting 'Hell' or the lower nether regions. These four groups are in bondage. They are subject to the cycle of birth and death because of their ignorance about their true nature that is essentially pure, perfect, conscious, all-encompassing and divine. To become a kevali or the liberated soul, one has to make efforts and follow the threefold path of right faith - faith in the teachings of the Jainas, right knowledge - comprehensive understanding of these teachings, and right conduct (practicing the five vows, namely, ahimsa or nonviolence, satya or truth, asteya or non-stealing, brahmcarya or celibacy, and aparigraha or non-attachment with the world. The jiva who realises its true nature transcends the world of relativity and evolves to the stage where there is no desire, no more action and consequently no limitation and bondage. The pure jiva is known as the siddha, kevalajnani or the perfected soul. As opposed to it, the samsari jiva - the jiva in the world - is invariably incarnated in a material body. The sansari jiva in his understanding of reality is limited by the organs of his sense perception and thought, and the siddha has a direct, immediate, intuitive, non-perceptual and non-conceptual grasp of his true nature as well as reality.