I confess a strange amusement with the way certain idioms transcend time and space, keeping their relevance throughout history and across cultures. Though it is by no means the first time, I found one such saying while reading through one of the sacred discourses of Jain, a teaching by Indrabhuti Gautama entitled Uttaradhyayana (which, curiously, is a word too often neglected at spelling bees). In this passage, Indrabhuti Gautama is recording the deathbed discourse of his master, Mahavira, who is concerned that Gautama loves him too much. After musing for a time on the nature of reincarnation, Mahavira gives this curious advice:
Give up your wealth and your wife; you have entered the state of the houseless; do not, as it were, return to your vomit; Gautama, be careful all the while!
The regular reader of Scripture–or for that matter, anyone familiar with Western culture which has been so influenced by the language of the Bible–should immediately think of the famous biblical proverb: “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool that repeats his folly.” The parallel is striking and not at all, as it might first appear, entirely superficial. There is a strong sense in both Jain and Christianity of progress and of the profound sense of loss that comes from moving backward. Especially telling is that in both instances there is a sense in which it is better to have never been purified than to have been once cleansed and then again defiled. This is particularly pronounced when Peter takes up the proverb in his epistle, but first let us examine more deeply how the image functions in the Jain text.
Perhaps the crucial purpose of Mahavira’s speech is to convey to Gautama the rarity (though not the singularity) of human life. Mahavira explains in protracted detail just how fortunate one is to exist on earth at all, even as a speck of dust, a state in which the soul may remain “as long as an aeon.” And if it is fortunate, it may someday be reborn into a drop of water, where it can stay “as long as an aeon.” Mahavira continues this formula through rebirth into a flame, the wind, a vegetable, and various forms of advancing life until finally he speaks of the great fortune of being born as a human and then as an Aryan (as opposed to a barbarian). Mahavira even observes that not all are fortunate enough to ascend directly up this path, as “the soul which suffers for its carelessness is driven about in the round of rebirth by its good and bad karma.” But Gautama is even more fortunate still, because not only is he a human but a human who has had the karmic good fortune to be instructed in the sacred teachings and to believe the sacred teachings.
All this building of tension toward the climax is intended to indicate to Gautama just how blessed he is to be in a position where he literally stands on the cusp of enlightenment if only he would seize it. His existence–this particular life in this particular body with its nearness toward perfection–has been aeons in the making, the result of countless previous lives of karmic struggle toward this precise moment when he finally has the opportunity to break the vicious cycle of reincarnation and ascend into the eternal heavens. Given that this is true, how can Gautama still be distracted by inconsequential illusions. Mahavira insists, “Cast aside from you all attachments…Give up your wealth and your wife; you have entered the state of the houseless…Leave your friends and relations, the large fortune you have amassed; do not desire the a second time.” It would be worse to squander the opportunity for perfection so nearly grasped than to have never crawled up out of the mire to begin with. Or, in biblical parlance, “to whom much was given, of him much will be required.”
Peter will make the concept even clearer in his second epistle in a rant about the presence of false teachers leading Christians astray:
They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
The passage offers a very similar message to that of the Jain text. In both, those who have made that all important progress on the path toward perfection are being tempted by a host of apparent pleasures when the true goal lies just ahead of them. Peter exhorts them to fight on because “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials,” and to remember that those sins to which they are now drawn are the very things which they have labored so hard in Christ to be freed from. Having known the truth that freedom comes in Christ, how much more foolish would it be for them to return to slavery because it appeared to them to be liberty? Paul will make much the same point about the new life versus the old in Ephesians.
This is not to say that Christian and Jain ideas of progress, regress, salvation, and apostasy are in any sense the same, though clearly they have affinities which converse well with one another. The Jain concept of perfection is intimately tied to a much more extreme rejection of the world than Christ ever advocated, which is a matter for another text on another day. A greater difference still is the way Christianity relates the goal to progress. There is a sense, in Christ, in which we are truly liberated first and then are expected to progress and be sanctified. In Jain liberation is an end which precludes the possibility of further progress. The most interesting point of contrast, however, also bears the richest fruits for thought about Christianity. In spite of startling statistics that suggest this is changing, Christians do not traditionally believe in reincarnation, an idea which is central to the Jain understanding of progress. Mahavira’s aim, as already established, is to instill in his pupil a sense of the enormity of the task before him based on the aeons of karmic labor which led him to his current life and the prospect of ages more in the eternal cycle of rebirth should he fail. The importance of this life and this chance for liberation is based on the great struggle represented in reincarnation.
It strikes me then that Christianity should have an even greater sense of urgency than Mahavira does when we speak about the prospect of what we are to achieve in this life. Quite unlike the Jain system, there is no opportunity to struggle through the aeons to achieve a second shot at salvation in Christ. We are given this one life–of which Mahavira says “As the fallow leaf of the tree falls to the ground when its days are gone, even so the life of men” and of which Peter writes “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls.” As earnest as Mahavira’s pleas are to Gautama that he should get it right now while the opportunity is before him, how much more intense ought our own resolve be as Christians, when we know that we are given but one life and one opportunity to turn ourselves away from the world, to put off the old, and to clothe ourselves in Christ for all eternity?