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 liberation – mokṣa-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.
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.
The lives of all the Jinas follow the same pattern, revolving around five key events:
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'.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future.
Hindu society is traditionally divided into numerous jātis or classes, which are usually grouped into the four varṇas – often called 'castes' – of:
Relating to ritual purity, castes are hereditary and probably based on occupation. Members of different castes performed particular socio-economic roles and did not mix or eat the same food. People outside the caste system were usually looked down upon.
The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
Religious initiation through which a man or woman leaves the householder or lay status to become a mendicant. Parts of this ritual renunciation are public ceremonies, depending on the sect.
'Supporters of the order'. This term is used for the first mendicant disciples of a Jina. They are able to understand his teachings properly and can pass them on. A gaṇadhara leads his own group of ascetics until he becomes enlightened.
Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.
'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:
With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
An auspicious moment in a Jina's life. There are five pañca-kalyāṇakas:
'Realm of action', used in Jain cosmology for the lands in the Middle World where people must work to live. However, here they can progress on the path of salvation. These lands are Bharata-kṣetra, Airāvata-kṣetra and Mahā-videha. However, Uttara-kuru and Deva-kuru in Mahā-videha are Lands of Pleasure or bhoga-bhūmi.
Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.
The Indian caste of warriors and kings, with the role of 'protectors'. Jinas are born into this caste.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
Jains who venerate and worship images of Jinas in temples.
The 22nd Jina of the present age, also called Ariṣṭanemi. His symbolic colour is blue or black and his emblem the conch. There is no historical evidence of his existence.
The Jains hold that Nemi is the cousin of the Hindu god Kṛṣna. The tale of his renunciation and jilting of his fiancée Princess Rājīmati are famous among the Jains.
Release from the bondage of neverending rebirths, in which an enlightened human being undergoes his or her final death, followed immediately by salvation instead of rebirth. Note that this differs from the Buddhist concept of the same name.
The Digambara mendicants are 'sky-clad' because they believe that all the Jinas and their male ascetic followers went nude as part of their vow of renunciation. This vow entails renouncing all possessions, including clothing. Female Digambara ascetics wear white saris and are thus technically spiritually advanced celibate laywomen. Śvetāmbara mendicants of both sexes, however, wear white clothing. The difference of opinion over whether the vow of non-possession includes clothing was one reason for the Jain community's split into these two major sects early in the Common Era.
A woman who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, nuns perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
The highest soul, the liberated soul, the Absolute, often used instead of siddhi. Jains believe that a soul or ātman can achieve liberation from the cycle of birth through its own spiritual development. This concept has been called God in Western thought since the start of the Christian era.
The 23rd Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is green and his emblem the snake. Historical evidence points to his living around 950 to 850 BC.
To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
First Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the ox or bull. There is little historical evidence of his existence. Jains believe that he established many social institutions, such as marriage and the caste system, and introduce crafts and agriculture to the people.
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
A speech on a religious topic, usually delivered by a member of the clergy. Frequently a sermon has a moral lesson or is based on a sacred text.
An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.
'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay woman, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The masculine form is śrāvakā.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
Austerity or asceticism in general. A tapas is an act of austerity or self-discipline that produces bodily heat – tapas – that burns up karma. Austerities may be internal – mental – or external – physical. Both lay and mendicant Jains practise austerities. Fasting is the most common external austerity for lay people these days.
A mark worn on the forehead and other parts of the body for religious reasons. It symbolises the third eye, which is associated with spiritual enlightement and meditation. Historically, only deities, priests, ascetics and worshippers wore tilakas. It is usually a paste or powder made of sandalwood, ashes, coloured powder (kumkum) or clay and may be applied in various lines, dots and U shapes.
A Western academic term used for the largely medieval texts that hold the Jain legendary history of the world. Recounting the life stories of the '63 Great or Illustrious Men', the writings are intended to provide role-models for later Jains. The main texts of Jain Universal History are the:
Attack or test, especially those posed by disguised gods or bad people to the Jinas before they became omniscient to check whether they could properly meet the demands of asceticism.
An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.
British Library. Or. 13623. Yaśo-vijaya. 1733
British Library. Or. 13455. Unknown author. 14th to 15th centuries