In Jainism, the central figures are twenty-four Tirthankaras. The word Tirthankara means “ford-maker,” one who creates a path through the river of death and rebirth (samsara) to the shores of Jain heaven (siddha-sila). They are seen not as gods or redeemer figures, but as pioneers who discovered and taught the path that all Jina (conquerers) can follow. Jains revere the statues of Tirthankaras, they meditate on them, reflecting on their life and manners in order to discover how to follow after them. Mahavira, the final Tirthankara, was the son of a king, who renounced his royal luxuries and adopted poverty and an ascetic lifestyle to attain liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.
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Jesus’ life is similar in many respects to Mahavira’s. Like Mahavira, Jesus was the son of a king. But his father was not the king of a realm in India; his father is the King of Loka (the universe). Like Mahavira, who renounced his plush life for a humble life of homeless poverty and insult, we are told that Jesus, “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7). Both men had a small group of disciples with whom they wandered the countryside, preaching and teaching parables about “the beauty of poverty, of spirit, of meekness, of righteousness, of mercy, of purity, of peace, and of patient suffering. . . [and] how much greater a thing it was ‘to be’ than ‘to do’, and how perilous ‘to have'” (Stevenson, The Heart of Jainism, 1915, 291-92). Whereas the Tirthankaras pioneered a path through the river of samara, Jesus alone has the most accurate knowledge of how to ford the river beyond this life, for he alone has made the journey twice, from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven. Therefore, he is the True Tirthankara. Through his double-crossing, he is not only a pioneer but also a perfecter of this crossing (Heb 12:2). In fact, he himself is the Tirtha, the Ford (John 14:6).
A key concept of Jainism is that we do not see all of reality. There is a manypointedness (anekantavada) to ultimate reality that is far beyond our human comprehension. Christianity has always viewed the cross of Christ as a manypointed act beyond our full understanding. It is sacrifice, substitution, ransom, satisfaction, victory, example. One view of the cross is the moral influence theory of Peter Abelard. Abelard saw the cross as the great demonstration of God’s love that enkindles a similar response of love within us. This is similar to the Jain approach to the Tirthankaras. As Paul Dundas notes,
Ancient tradition . . . is emphatic that worship of the fordmakers does not actually elicit a response from them but rather brings about an internal, spiritual purification in the worshipper[.] . . . So, while it might be the case that worship destroys karma, such an effect is regarded as having been brought about by the inner transformation which worship effects.Paul Dundas (The Jains, 1992, 180)
How much greater Jesus is to both inspire and respond? A scribal addition to the Jain text Tattvarthadhigama (1.1) states, “I bow to him who is the guide on the path to liberation, the destroyer of mountains of karmas and the Knower of the principles of the universe, so that I may attain these qualities belonging to him.” This could be a prayer of any Christian to Jesus, “the pioneer of their salvation [who was made] perfect through what he suffered” and so he can now “bring many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10). Although Jains see the Tirthankara as an example and not a redeemer, still they can pray, “Lord, you’ve become almighty, omniscient. I want to be just like you. Give me the power and the wisdom to do this, so I can leave this world and attain salvation” (Salgia, Areopagus 7:3, 1994, 36). This almost sounds like Paul’s admonition to Christians to continue working out their salvation with fear and trembling by becoming more and more like Jesus, who has been exalted to the highest place (Phil 2:1-13).
While Christians affirm that Jesus was fully human and learned obedience from his suffering (Heb 5:8-9) and that through this he has made a ford to the shores of liberation (moksha), we cannot agree with Jains that there is not a higher being who can assist us with attaining this liberation. The cross has always been a confrontational object to every group of humans, whether as “a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles,” (1Co 1:23) or weakness to Jains. The supreme ethic of Jainism is ahimsa, non-violence to all creatures. The second is aparigraha (non-attachment), because the chief problem that keeps me (my jiva or “self”) from attaining liberation is “attachment”: the desire for things or longing for relationships. Yet the story of the cross reveals a desire for own ways that is achieved through violence. We humans put to death the very one who came from heaven to reveal the ford back to the Father, the path to the shores of liberation. All of us—Jain or not—in one way or another have violently rejected his forgiveness and love. We have clung to the self, to our own selfish desires.
The resurrection, however, reveals Jesus as the Conqueror (Jina) over sin, death, rebirth, and any other enemy that keeps us from liberation. Through his rising from the dead, Jesus demands recognition not only as the human Tirthankara of Tirthankaras but also as the Living Kara, the Creator of the universe. Anyone who would follow this one to the shores of moksha must be willing to fully practice aparigraha by letting go of that to which she or he is most attached: the self and its preservation. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:24-25).