The following is an imaginary dialogue between a Hindu and a Jain, to highlight some of the fundamental differences (and similarities) between the two faiths.
A Hindu and a Jain walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “Hey, Arjuna, you’re welcome to stay, but your Jain friend will have to leave.” The bartender points to a sign that reads “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service.” The naked Jain turns quietly and sweeps out the door. Arjuna quickly follows his friend onto the street.
Jain: Well, that guy was certainly rude! All I wanted was some filtered water. It’s not easy being space-clad. I get that everywhere I go. Life is nothing but misery.
Arjuna: Oh well, let’s carry on our argument out here. It’s very peaceful on this path, don’t you think? There’s not another soul in sight.
Jain: Yes, it’s quite peaceful. But you don’t really believe that ours are the only souls here, do you? Are we not walking among birds, insects and trees? What about those sheep grazing beyond the fence? What about the stones beneath our feet? We are surrounded by souls, all of them suffering the pain of existence the same as you and me. (Jain picks up a particularly large stone and carefully moves it to the side of the path, out of harm’s way. The stone rolls down a hill, crashing into another stone and breaking into two parts. Jain winces, then sighs.)
Arjuna: Two steps down the path and already you’re pushing my buttons! Yes, I agree with you that sheep and birds have souls. But surely you can’t believe that the stones have souls, Jain! The stones are not even alive!
Jain: The stones come from the earth, just as we do. How can we assume to know that they aren’t alive, just because we can’t see them eat or communicate?
Arjuna: I can’t suppose to know all the mysteries of Brahma’s creation.
Jain: Oh, don’t get me started on that again. You know I don’t believe in any creator. There can’t be a God behind all this. If God created the world, where was he before creation? What would God need to create a universe for if He is perfect?
Arjuna: We’ve argued over this a thousand times, but I still believe in a creator. How can this universe just exist without something starting it? Your atheism explains why you see souls as individuals instead of part of the Universal Soul. In your understanding, there is no God for the Soul to unite with.
Jain: Exactly – the Soul simply attains its own freedom. But I know that doesn’t sit well with you. For you, the Soul’s existence makes no sense without a God to unite with.
Arjuna: So we will never agree on the nature of the Soul. But we both understand the concept of “Not-Soul.”
Jain: We both consider Matter as Not-Soul, but otherwise I think we are miles apart on the subject. Hinduism has “The Field” with all those evolving elements and the Gunas; you include the Mind as part of Matter, but you think the Soul is beyond the power of the material world. We Jains define Not-Soul as Space, Time and Motion, among other things. The mind isn’t really a defined part of Matter, although we do believe that Matter creates conditions that can bind or free the Soul. Our two beliefs couldn’t be more different.
Arjuna: Alright, but I’ll bet you can’t argue with me over salvation. I know for you it means the freedom of the Soul. With Hindus it means becoming One with Brahman. But here we can both agree that salvation brings liberation from samsara. We may not agree on the paths to salvation, but we do agree on that.
Jain: Finally, something I can’t argue with! But just watch out for bad karma, and you won’t have to go through so many incarnations on your way to salvation! You’ve got to rid yourself of bad karma constantly. That’s why I willingly suffer so much misery in my life.
Arjuna: Jain, I fear you suffer in vain. I respect that you have renounced virtually every worldly thing, I really do. You are free from unhealthy attachments, I can see that. But when you have achieved such a state, you don’t need to seek out additional suffering. Your work can be done with joy.
Jain: But bad karma stays with you, like a virus in the blood stream. You can only shed it through huge amounts of good karma, or better yet, by suffering willingly. You should heed my words, Arjuna. After all the killing you’ve willingly engaged in, you’ve got a lot of bad karma stuck to you.
Arjuna: I hate to think that could be true, Jain! I don’t believe I’ve garnered any bad karma from fighting. I’m a warrior – it’s my nature to fight, and in honoring my nature, I’m on the path to God. Honoring dharma brings good karma.
Jain: And I’m a merchant. But sometimes I am the opposite of a merchant, giving my wares away to those in need.
Arjuna: I commend you for that, my friend. But a person can only work within the class they are born into. A laborer’s dharma is to work and earn to survive and feed his family, whereas the nobleman’s dharma could be to help those less fortunate.
Jain: But shouldn’t responsibility for our fellow souls be considered the dharma of every living thing? A laborer can sometimes help another laborer – he may even be able to help the nobleman! And he can help animals and plants, and the water. He must do whatever is within his ability.
Arjuna: You know, I see why Gandhi borrowed some of his philosophy from your religion. Your regard for every facet of the universe is truly remarkable and admirable.
Jain: A wise man follows truth, regardless of where he finds it. That’s why Gandhi also favored the Gita.
The two men walk quietly for a space, listening to the singing of birds and the bleating of sheep. Arjuna begins to sidestep the stones along the path.
Arjuna: I’m so glad that you and I are able to talk about these things with such respect for each other. I think that’s why it is so easy for us to be friends.
Jain: Our friendship brings me much joy.
Arjuna: Let’s go to my house. I’ll filter some water for you.