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The Triple A Doctrines of Jainism

Published by Philip Carr-Gomm

The Triple A Doctrines of Jainism: Their Value to Druidry & The Wider World

‘aparigraha parmo dharm’. (Non-Possessiveness is the supreme duty or highest religion.)
Acharya Mahapragya

At the heart of Jainism lies a trio of related doctrines known as Ahimsa, Aparigraha and Anekant, which – although of great antiquity – have much to offer to our contemporary world, and to the followers of other faiths or none. Since I help to lead a Druid group whose concerns are very much focused on the contemporary challenges we face, I am particularly interested in the way these doctrines can be shared within Druidry, which over the last century has expressed a generous eclecticism and universalism.

Jainism, with its extreme reverence for all life-forms, is today seen as a religion that can champion ecological issues. From its beginnings it has welcomed women into the ascetic community, and it sustains one of the most cultured communities in India. It is responsible for the oldest libraries in the country, a highly developed system of logic and metaphysics that includes the most detailed doctrine of karma, finely carved temples, the earliest representations of mandalas and yantras in India, and a set of doctrines which, although ancient, speak powerfully to present-day concerns.

In addition to the value of exploring the differences between Druidry and Jainism, which by their very contrast can help to clarify one’s own views, I am convinced that a study of Jainism has much to offer the Druid – and in particular, the trio of doctrines mentioned at the beginning of this essay, of Ahimsa, Aparigraha and Anekant.

The most famous festival in Jainism occurs every 12 years in the town of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. The 10th century statue of Bahubali, Lord Gommateshvara, is annointed with water, milk and turmeric amidst great celebration.

The most famous festival in Jainism occurs every 12 years in the town of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. The 10th century statue of Bahubali, Lord Gommateshvara, is annointed with water, milk and turmeric amidst great celebration.

Ahimsa is the Doctrine of Harmlessness or Non-Violence, made famous by Gandhi, and espoused by the other Dharmic traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, but arguably first developed amongst the Jains. Whether or not this is historically true, it is undoubtedly the case that in Jainism, the application of ahimsa is more radical than in any other religion. Aparigraha is the Doctrine of Non-Attachment or Non-Possessiveness or Non-Acquisition, which is also found in the other Dharmic traditions, and applied rigorously within the Jain ascetic community. Anekant is the Doctrine of Many-sidedness or of Multiple Viewpoints (also known as the Doctrine of Relative Pluralism, Non-Absolutism, or Non One-sidedness), that is unique to Jainism, and constitutes, in some scholars’ eyes one of the religion’s most significant contributions to humanity.

To avoid repetition of these three terms, let’s borrow a title from American baseball – Triple A – which means the highest level of play in the minor league.

Rather than seeing the Triple A as three unique doctrines, it can be useful to see them as three facets of one teaching. In some literature the image of a three-legged stool is offered to illustrate this idea. Each leg is a unique entity, but combined they provide a stable basis for something – a seat in the metaphor, but in relation to the concept, a basis for a sound approach to life that can result in ethical behaviour, and positive spiritual, psychological and philosophical attitudes.

Of these three doctrines, two are specifically mentioned in the five vows that every Jain takes: to refrain from doing harm, from stealing, from lying, from inappropriate sexual conduct, and from possessiveness. The first vow, of Ahimsa, is seen by many to be the fundamental principle of Jainism, from which the doctrine of Anekant, as a way of appreciating a multiplicity of viewpoints, flows as a form of intellectual Non-Violence. But not everyone agrees in this supremacy of Ahimsa. Sadhvi Vishrutvibha in The Basics of Jainism (Jain Vishva Bharati 2010 p.37) writes: ‘ [Many people] consider non-violence as the fundamental principle of Jainism because it has been preached from time immemorial that ‘ahimsa paramo dharm’ i.e. non-violence is the highest form of religion.

When we read our scriptures, we find that non-possession is more important than non-violence. A person perpetrates violence due to their possessiveness. Possession is the basic requirement of life, and the need for more possessions leads people to indulge in violence. The main cause of violence therefore, is possession. Greed for money, land and acquiring more belongings causes violence. So it can be said, non-violence is secondary, whereas non-possession is the main principle of Jain philosophy. This is why, Acharya Mahapragya says ‘aparigraha parmo dharm’.’

Perhaps we can apply the doctrine of Multiple Viewpoints to the question of whether Ahimsa or Aparigraha are the main principles of Jain philosophy, saying that from certain perspectives both statements are true, and that from another perspective all of the Triple A doctrines are fundamental. Certainly this is the suggestion given in Natubhai Shah’s magisterial two volume Jainism: The World of the Conquerors (Motilal Banarsidass 2004 Vol I p.108) when he writes that the Triple A doctrines ‘are the distinctive principles of Jainism on which the conduct of a Jain is based.’

These ideals of causing no harm, being generously non-Absolutist in our understanding of life, and practicing a non-grasping approach to all that we encounter, are all self-explanatory and clearly laudable, and in their application in everyday life we can see them as answers to truly contemporary needs. We know that the world suffers now from too much conflict, too much fundamentalism, and too much consumption. This suffering can be alleviated by applying the Triple A doctrines: seeking non-violent solutions, respecting and learning from others’ opinions and beliefs, and reducing consumption to sustainable levels.

It is vital to ‘walk our talk’ and apply our beliefs in action, but it also important that these beliefs are intellectually appreciated, and are also grounded in our inner experience. Jainism offers an ancient practice that can help us to do exactly this, so that we can experience these key attitudes at both a rational and spiritual level. This practice is known as samayika (derived from the Prakrit word samaya – ‘time’ – and meaning ‘the practice of the attainment of equanimity.’) Ideally samayika is practiced every day for a period of 48 minutes (an ‘Indian hour’ based on sacred mathematics). During this time the practitioner enacts the five vows literally and ritualistically. Not stealing, lying or engaging in sexual misconduct for 48 minutes should not be hard for most of us (although if those commonly quoted statistics, probably produced by Cosmopolitan Magazine, that men think of sex every six minutes perhaps it is hard for many!) It is perhaps more likely that the enactment of ahimsa and in particular aparigraha, will form the central focus of this activity. In a ritualised way, with prayers, meditation and recitations the practitioner lets go of all attachments, in some instances casting aside all clothing to become, for this brief time each day, like their respected skyclad ascetics, entirely without possessions (See Padmanabh S.Jaini, The Jaina Path of Purification, Motilal Banarsidass 1979 pp.221-226 for a detailed description of Samayika).

Padmanabh S.Jaini in his essay ‘The Jaina Faith and Its History’ (In the Institute of Jainology’s edition of the Tattvartha Sutra, HarperCollins 1994 explains that samayika is ‘a fusion with the true self through increasing detachment from all external objects… a temporary renunciation of all possessions before sitting in meditation for up to one Indian hour.’ The outer act of forsaking attachments and sitting in meditation prepares the way for an inner process of attaining equanimity through the application of aparigraha by progressively releasing one’s inner emotional, intellectual and psychic attachments. Jaini writes: ‘Jaina lawbooks repeatedly commend this ritual as the highest form of spiritual discipline.’

The Triple A doctrines combined with the practice of samayika gives us a set of rational beliefs which provide an ethical framework that can inform the way we behave in the world, together with a daily spiritual practice that allows us to enact, ritually and in our awareness, our determination to inflict no harm, to free ourselves of possessiveness and of attachment to singular viewpoints. There is an elegance and simplicity, but great depth, in these doctrines and this practice that Druids could usefully emulate. For many Druids, sitting or standing each day, ‘naked before God’ in Christian terminology, attempting ‘naked awareness’ in Buddhist terminology, using whatever ritual felt appropriate but with the main emphasis being holding to nothing, attached to nothing, offers a powerful way of embodying his or her core beliefs, of reducing any tendency to violence, possessiveness or fundamentalism, and of walking the path of peace in the world.

Peace has always been a core value in Druidism, and a fundamental conviction of most, if not all, Druids today is that we must reduce our consumption to ease the strain on the Earth’s resources. Many will try to put this belief into practice through exercising restraint and making ethical buying choices. In addition, those Druids who are sympathetic to universalism will also naturally appreciate the value of a philosophy that advocates the appreciation of multiple viewpoints. These approaches and beliefs held by many Druids today, which are essentially those of Ahimsa, Aparigraha and Anekant, can be sustained and deepened by a study of these doctrines, and by ‘taking a leaf’ from the Jain tradition and developing a regular practice inspired by the idea of samayika.

Essentially, the practice of samayika involves letting go at the deepest level – opening to the experience of wanting nothing, needing nothing, expecting nothing. In doing this we are reversing the psyche’s trend to want more, get more, consume more – experiences, thoughts, desires, things. How peaceful it is to let the tide go out! If I can spend time every day not trying to grasp, pull in, hold on, consume, in this place of deep awareness, perhaps – so the theory and I believe the practice goes – I will act differently in a world that sorely needs less voraciousness.

Philip Carr-Gomm