Jainism, one of the oldest religions in India, and Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion, may seem to have little in common. While their differences are many, they do share some basic commonalities. Chief among the shared characteristics of Shintoism and Jainism is a belief in many spirits that inhabit the world. Differences include cultural practices and different views of reincarnation and nonviolence.
The centerpiece of Shinto is a belief that the world is populated by unseen spirits known as “kami.” They are not deities, as such; instead, worshipers propitiate them as part of a responsibility to live in harmony with the spirit and natural worlds. Jainism subscribes to a world full of “jivas.” Although Jainists believe jivas are everywhere, they are more like souls than spirits, and unlike kami, they include human souls and gods.
Both Jainism and Shintoism believe humans must live in harmony with the natural world. Because souls or spirits are not unique to humans, but exist in animals, inanimate objects and celestial bodies, humans owe respect, and in some cases veneration, to these things around us. Part of this worldview is a firm belief in ecology as an ethical practice.
One key difference between Jainism and Shintoism is the Jainist belief in reincarnation, which is considered infinitely possible, given the infinite number of jivas. Jains believe that each soul, embodied in whatever object or being, wanders the cosmos until achieving liberation; those who have done so are known as “jinas,” or champions, from which the religion takes its name. Shintoism, on the other hand, does not espouse a doctrine of afterlife.
The primary tenet of Jainism is nonviolence, known as “ahimsa.” Jains are vegetarians and must avoid any occupation that involves violence, however indirectly; the holiest Jains, monks and nuns, adhere to difficult strictures that seek to avoid harm even to microbial beings. Shintoism includes no such strictures, and in fact it was the state religion of Japan from 1871-1945, a period of aggressive imperialism and war.
The most visible differences between Jainism and Shintoism concern their practice. Jainism is highly ascetic and ritualistic, with no priests. Jinas, also known as "tirthankaras," or “ford-makers,” earn reverence because they achieved liberation of the soul through their own self-teaching. Although similarly ritualistic, Shintoism has priests and shrines but no tradition of asceticism; the emperor of Japan is the de facto high priest. Shintoism is less a theology than a set of ritual practices; very few Japanese espouse belief in kami, for instance, but most Japanese participate in Shinto ceremonies on holidays such as New Year's. Masakuzu Hara suggests that Shintoism can be seen more as a culture than a religion, coexisting well with Buddhism.
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