Jainism FAQs

Who are the Jinas or Tīrthaṃkaras?

This manuscript painting is of the 20 Jinas between Ṛṣabha, the first one, and Nemi, the 22nd. Omniscient and in the lotus meditation pose, they have bumps on their heads, signifying wisdom. Their jewellery and open eyes are typical of Śvetāmbara images.

Twenty Jinas
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

They are human beings who:

  • have conquered their passions – kaṣāyas – and attachment to the world
  • have reached spiritual enlightenment and omniscience – kevala-jñāna
  • teach other people the way to enlightenment
  • have liberated their souls from the cycle of rebirth and thus reached mokṣa or nirvāṇa

The word Jina means ‘spiritual victor’ while Tīrthaṃkara means ‘maker of a ford’. Referring to the same people, these Sanskrit terms are titles. The first one describes how a person has successfully battled his natural attachment to the world, including emotions, people and things, to achieve enlightenment. The second term highlights how the enlightened person has built a ford across the river of rebirth so others can follow him to liberation.

Do Jains have a god or gods?

Jinas are not gods but human beings. Liberated souls can be described as supreme souls – paramātman. This word is sometimes thought of as being equivalent to 'God' but is not like the monotheistic concept of God familiar in the West. Jains do not believe that a supreme being created the universe or judges people after death. The Jinas, however, are often called ‘Lord’ in English or dev – ‘gods’ – in Indian languages. Jains talk of Rishabhdev for instance. This is because they represent perfection in every way.

Even so, Jains traditionally believe in gods and goddesses because they live in the upper world of the three worlds of Jain cosmology. They are, however, unliberated souls and can only achieve liberation if they are reborn as human beings in the middle world.

Liberated souls are completely detached from the concerns of the world. Even though gods and goddesses have unliberated souls, they have supernatural powers. Deities can intervene in human affairs so some lay Jains may pray to them for help in matters such as health, happiness, fertility and wealth.

Do Jains believe in karma?

Along with other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, Jains believe that:

  • souls are trapped in the neverending cycle of rebirthsaṃsāra
  • souls are reborn in different bodies according to the karma they have collected
  • the only way to break out of the cycle of rebirth is to be born a human being, achieve enlightenment and then, leaving the body behind, reach liberation
  • souls that have karma attached to them can never be enlightened – the bondage of karma.

The Jain concept of karma is very different from that of the other Indian faiths, however. It is a material that gets stuck to the soul, which is a physical thing.

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