Jainism— an old religion appeals to modern science and academia with competing agendas

Appeals to science and academia are being put to use in Jainism both by reformers who challenge religious authorities and by supporters of traditional views, with the authority of science being “paradoxically challenged by references to science and academia,” writes Knut Aukland (University of Bergen, Norway) in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March). Looking for sources of legitimacy in secular knowledge can be found both in new religious movements and in older religions. In the case of Jainism, Aukland pays attention both to (interrelated) “scientization” and “academization.” Scientization refers to an appeal to modern science by proponents of a religion, especially in the field of natural science. Academization describes at the same time the establishment of institutions modeled on academia, the creation of ties with academia, and the invitation for academic appraisals by members of a religion, sometimes connected to humanities (especially history, archaeology, and philology). While it is not surprising to see contemporary Jain (or other) believers claim that their religion is “scientific,” Aukland’s research suggests that this should be seen as more than rhetoric: it leads to deeper changes with a reformulation, reinterpretation, and re-imagination of one’s religion.

The fact that Jain canonical writings are considered as authoritative and show a systematic tendency may encourage such an approach since the scriptures are seen as compatible with modern science. The founding figures of Jainism are thus described as “scientists” or “ascetic-scientists;” ancient saints are alleged to have become aware of quantum mechanics long before modern science was born, for instance. Such views have become widespread among Jains, even those who do not engage with modern science. There are also occasional references to alternative science. As early as the 1920s, Indian universities were approached for establishing positions in the newly invented field of “Jainology” (a goal reached three decades later). At a later point, Jains also launched their own academic institutions. Efforts toward scientization and academization have consequences: one can observe a switch from an emphasis on rituals to a more reflective approach of religion.

“For some advocates of scientization, being a Jain becomes an intellectual endeavor,” writes Aukland. While mere claims of Jainism as being scientific do not involve deep changes, discipline-specific appeals lead to reinterpretations; bringing Jainism in dialogue with modern science means extracting doctrines out of their traditional surroundings in a quest for new relevance. The philosophical parts of Jain scriptures are given preference over ritual and mythological parts. Some advocates of scientization feel that they could reach “pristine Jainism,” which is seen as rational. Moreover, since Jain monastics are usually not trained in modern science and academia, those developments offer a potential challenge to their authority or lead to the perceived need to include science in the curriculum of Jain monks. But Aukland also mentions conservative reactions (even polemics against the heliocentric cosmos or the theory that the Earth is round in an attempt to defend traditional cosmography). Not unlike some Christians in the U.S., such circles also appeal to science and academia in their fight against modern science, thus showing “how scientization and academization do not point in one simple direction, but feed into different theological projects, traditional or novel,” Aukland concludes.

(Journal of the American Academy of Religion, https://www.aarweb.org/publications/journal-american-academy-religion)