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.

Renunciation

  • The child is a prince, brought up in luxury and enjoying the pleasures of the world.
  • The gods remind the young man of his great destiny as a Jina, prompting him to give up the ease of his worldly life and become a monk.

Enlightenment

This manuscript painting shows the 24th Jina Mahāīra enduring some of the trials – upasarga – each Jina goes through to test his spiritual resolve. He takes the kāyotsarga meditation posture though animals attack and two men push spikes into his ears.

Mahāvīra is tested
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

  • The monk is a 'perfect ascetic', exemplary in his behaviour and spirituality.
  • He undergoes a series of gruelling physical and mental trials – upasarga – that tests his strength and mental fortitude to the limit before he can purge his soul of karma.
  • While meditating under a tree, the ascetic reaches enlightenment, equivalent to absolute knowledge or omniscience.
  • The gods build an assembly hall for the new Jina, who preaches his first sermonsamavasaraṇa – to all animals, gods and human beings using the divine sound – divya-dhvani.
  • The Jina forms a fourfold community consisting of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.
  • His teachings are collected into Āgamas by his chief disciples – gaṇadharas.

Liberation

Sources

This manuscript painting shows Prince Nemi’s renunciation in two parts. First he visits his fiancée Princess Rājīmatī and then he flees the scene, upset by the distress of the animals about to be killed for his wedding feast

Nemi's renunciation
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The main source of information about the lives of the Jinas is the first part of the Kalpa-sūtra, called the 'Lives of the Jinas' – Jina-caritra. This Śvetāmbara text is attributed to Bhadrabāhu although the date of composition is unknown. The 'Lives of the Jinas' consists of biographies of four of the 24 Jinas who are important figures of worship. They are, in order:

The lives of the remaining 20 Jinas are sketched much more briefly and are closer to outlines of key events than to narratives.

Other Śvetāmbara canonical sources for the lives of the Jinas are:

Differences between Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras

The two main Jain sects of the Digambaras and the Śvetāmbaras differ in their beliefs about Jinas. These are relatively minor and partly relate to disagreements over whether women can gain liberation and whether monks should be nude.

When the Jinas are represented in Mūrti-pūjaka art, the differences between the sects become visually clear although the figures always adopt one of two meditation poses. There are also small differences in the emblem of each Jina between the two sects.

Different beliefs about Jinas

Digambara

Śvetāmbara

The mother of a Jina-to-be has 16 auspicious dreams.

The mother of a Jina-to-be has 14 auspicious dreams.

All the Jinas are conceived and born of kṣatriya women.

The soul of Mahāvīra was conceived in the womb of a brahmin woman, Devānandā, and was then transferred by the gods to a kṣatriya woman, Triśalā, who bore and gave birth to him. This episode of the 'embryo transfer' is unique to Mahāvīra.

Jinas are always male.

The 19th Jina Mallī was female.

Mahāvīra turned to ascetic life without having known family life.

Mahāvīra was married and fathered a daughter before turning to ascetic life.

All Jinas practise nudity after they become ascetics.

Only Mahāvīra and Ṛṣabha went nude after renunciation.

Images of the Jinas

This statue of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, is in the lotus position of meditation. Typically of Digambara idols, he is naked and has closed or downcast eyes, with no headdress or jewels. Mahāvīra is identified from his lion emblem, flanked by svastikas.

Idol of Mahāvīra
Image by Dayodaya © CC BY-SA 3.0

Images of the Jinas produced among the Digambara Mūrti-pūjaks are always naked, very plainly sculpted and have closed eyes. They do not wear any jewellery, although they may have have a kind of tilaka on the forehead and an endless knot on the chest.

This artistic Mūrti-pūjak tradition contrasts with Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak statues of the Jinas, which have open eyes and loincloths, and are often painted and set in ornately sculpted altars and temples. This is because the Jina is thought of as a spiritual king and is frequently depicted with ornaments and pictured seated on a throne. Otherwise he wears only a loincloth or perhaps the simple white robe of a monk.

Images

  • Śvetāmbara figures of Ṛṣabha, Māhavīra and Pārśva 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.. Image by unknown © Oshwal Association of the UK (OAUK)
  • Marudevī has the auspicious dreams 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.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • Mahāvīra is tested This manuscript painting shows the 24th Jina Mahāvīra enduring some of the trials – upasarga – each Jina must go through to test his spiritual resolve. Smiling serenely, he stands in the ideal ascetic posture of kāyotsarga – rejection of the body – even though fierce animals attack him and two men push spikes into his ears as a torture. Dressed as a Śvetāmbara monk, Mahāvīra wears ornate jewellery and a kind of tilaka on his forehead.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • Nemi's renunciation This manuscript painting depicts Prince Nemi’s renunciation in two parts. The top shows the prince visiting his fiancée, Princess Rājīmatī. Below, Nemi hurries away from pens of animals, his charioteer urging the horse onwards. Deeply upset by the distress of the animals that are to be killed for his wedding feast, Nemi flees the scene and decides to become a monk instead. This episode underscores the central importance of the notion of doing no harm, which includes avoiding hurting or killing animals where possible.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • Idol of Mahāvīra This statue of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, is seated in the lotus position of meditation. Typically of Digambara idols, he is naked and has closed or downcast eyes. The endless knot – śrīvatsa – on his chest is quite noticeable as the statue does not have a headdress or jewellery, unlike statues from the Śvetāmbara sect. Mahāvīra is identified from his lion emblem, flanked by sacred svastikas. His status as a spiritual king is underlined by the parasol and pedestal, standard emblems of royalty in Indian art.. Image by Dayodaya © CC BY-SA 3.0

Further Reading

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details

Glossary

Ascetic

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.

Auspicious

Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future. 

Caste

Hindu society is traditionally divided into numerous jātis or classes, which are usually grouped into the four varṇas – often called 'castes' – of:

  • Brāhmaṇa – priest
  • Kṣatriya – warrior
  • Vaśya – merchant or farmer
  • Śūdra – labourer.

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.

Caturvidha-saṅgha

The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Dhyāna

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.

Digambara

'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.

Dīkṣā

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.

Gaṇadhara

'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.

Hindu

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.

Jina

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.

Jīva

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.

Jñāna

'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:

  • mind-based and sensory knowledge – mati-jñāna
  • scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna
  • extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna
  • knowledge of others’ minds or telepathy – manaḥparyaya-jñāna
  • omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna.

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'.

Kalyāṇaka

An auspicious moment in a Jina's life. There are five pañca-kalyāṇakas:

  • garbha – conception
  • janma – birth
  • vairāgya – renunciation
  • kevala-jñāna – enlightenment
  • mokṣa or nirvāna – liberation.

Karma-bhūmi

'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.

Kevala-jñāna

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.

Kṣatriya

The Indian caste of warriors and kings, with the role of 'protectors'. Jinas are born into this caste.

Mahāvīra

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.

Mokṣa

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.

Monk

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.

Mūrti-pūjaka

Jains who venerate and worship images of Jinas in temples.

Nemi

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.

Nirvāṇa

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.

Nudity

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.

Nun

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.

Paramātman

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.

Pārśva

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.

Preach

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:

  • remind hearers of religious principles and rules
  • encourage piety
  • persuade non-believers of the correctness of the preacher's religious beliefs.

Pūjā

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:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Renunciation

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.

Ṛṣabha

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.

Sanskrit

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.

Scripture

Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.

Sermon

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.

Siddha

An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.

Śrāvikā

'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.

Śvetāmbara

'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.

Tapas

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.

Tilaka

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.

Universal History

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:

  • Śvetāmbara monk Hemacandra's Triṣaṣti-śalākā-puruṣa-caritraLife Stories of 63 Great Men
  • Mahā-purāṇaGreat Ancient Tale – of the Digambara writers Jinasena and Guṇabhadra.

Upasarga

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.

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra

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.

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