Article: Jina

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

The term Jina means 'spiritual victor' in Sanskrit and describes a human being who has achieved omniscience and then teaches other people the path to liberationmokṣa-mārga – from the cycle of rebirth. The term is used interchangeably with Tīrthaṃkara. This is Sanskrit for 'ford-maker' – that is, a person who builds a ford – tīrtha – across the river of rebirth.

Jinas are neither divine beings nor avatars of gods. They are enlightened human beings who spread the unchanging principles of Jainism. Jains believe that spiritual progress, which aims towards eventual enlightenment and liberation, is the responsibility of each soul. Jinas are removed from everyday human life and do not respond to the prayers of believers. Each Jina has a yakṣa and a yakṣī, often depicted in art. As gods, these attendants are not liberated and thus can act in the affairs of human beings.

As in many matters, the two main Jain sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara hold different views on certain aspects of the Jinas. This is given most obvious expression in the artistic styles of each sect, which are quite distinct.

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The 24 Jinas

Idols of Ṛṣabha, Māhavīra and Pārśva, in the Śvetāmbara temple in Potters Bar, England. The last of the 24 Jinas, Māhavīra, is in the centre. The first Jina, Ṛṣabha, is on the left while Māhavīra's predecessor, Pārśva, is on the right.

Śvetāmbara figures of Ṛṣabha, Māhavīra and Pārśva
Image by unknown © Oshwal Association of the UK (OAUK)

According to traditional Jain cosmology, time flows in an endless cycle in the Lands of Action, where human beings live. Each cycle of time is made up of 12 periods. In each cycle 24 Jinas are born, during the periods when life is comparatively harsher in terms of knowledge, lifespan, stature, pleasure, morality and spirituality. These conditions make it harder to lead a virtuous life and advance spiritually so the Jinas offer guidance to believers, reminding them of eternal truths. However, Jinas do not appear in the worst times, perhaps partly because these are the lowest points of the time cycle.

In this era the first Jina was Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha and the last Mahāvīra. The historical existence of Mahāvīra and his predecessor, the 23rd Jina Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva is generally accepted, but there is no historical evidence for the other Jinas.

  1. Ṛṣabha
  2. Ajita
  3. Saṃbhava
  4. Abhinandana
  5. Sumati
  6. Padmaprabha
  7. Supārśva
  8. Candraprabha
  9. Puṣpadanta
  10. Śītala
  11. Śreyāṃsa
  12. Vāsupūjya
  13. Vimala
  14. Ananta
  15. Dharma
  16. Śānti
  17. Kunthu
  18. Ara
  19. Mallī
  20. Munisuvrata
  21. Nami
  22. Nemi
  23. Pārśva
  24. Mahāvīra.

Life of a Jina

The lives of all the Jinas follow the same pattern, revolving around five key events:

Jains celebrate these auspicious moments – kalyāṇakas – on special occasions.

The oldest text giving details of some of the Jinas' lives is the Śvetāmbara Kalpa-sūtra. But in the course of time both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras have produced a vast body of literature narrating in detail the lives of all Jinas, including their previous births. As the literature grew, so these tales of their lives featured an increasing number of episodes. Standard representatives of this genre are the Śvetāmbara Lives of the 63 Illustrious Great Men Triṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra – and on the Digambara side, the Mahā-purāṇa. They are both in Sanskrit. The former text was written by the 12th-century monk, Hemacandra, while the Digambara ascetics Jinasena and Guṇabhadra composed the latter in the ninth century. As counterparts to the Hindu Purāṇas, such texts act as a storehouse of various legends and define what is known as 'Universal History'.

Conception and birth

This detail from a manuscript painting shows Marudevī experiencing the auspicious dreams. Carrying the baby who will become Ṛṣabha the first Jina, Marudevī has 14 dreams, according to the Śvetāmbara sect, 16 according to the Digambaras.

Marudevī has the auspicious dreams
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

  • The mother of a Jina-to-be experiences a sequence of auspicious dreams at conception or during pregnancy.
  • The child who will become a Jina is born into the kṣatriyacaste.
  • They are born with tremendously strong bodies, enabling them to survive the extreme physical and mental austerities needed to get rid of the karma from previous lives.
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