Article: Holy symbols

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Glossary

Ācārya

Preceptor, teacher. A title given to a Jain religious teacher, usually one who is a head monk.

Alms

Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.

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. 

Baladeva

One of the five types of 'great men' – śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – in Jain Universal History, Baladevas are the older half-brothers of the Vāsudevas, sharing the same fathers. They are both demi-Cakravartins or half Universal Rulers. In the part of the universe where humans live, nine Baladevas are born in each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time. Baladevas are devout Jains who, after renouncing the world to become monks, are usually liberated but may be reborn as gods in one of the heavens. Baladevas are also known as Balabhadras.

Buddhism

The religion founded by Buddha, often called the 'Middle Way' between the self-indulgence of worldly life and the self-mortification of a very ascetic way of life. Buddhism has similarities to Jain belief but some significant differences. For example, Buddhists hold that the world around us is a short-lived illusion and do not believe in individual, everlasting souls.

Buddhist

A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:

  • Theravāda – 'the Teaching of the Elders' in Pali – is older and is found chiefly in Sri Lanka and continental South East Asia
  • Māhayana – 'Great Vehicle' in Sanskrit – is the larger sect and is followed mainly in East Asia and the Himalayan nations.

Both sects are practised in India.

Cakravartin

Sanskrit for 'universal monarch'. There are 12 in the continent of Bharata in each progressive and regressive half-cyle of time. They have 9 treasures and 14 jewels they can use to conquer their enemies and become 'universal monarchs'. The cakravartin form one of the five groups of '63 illustrious men' in Jain mythology.

Carũrī

Usually written as 'chowrie' in English, the Hindi carũrī is a fly-whisk or fan. It is probably descended from the Sanskrit term cāmara, which means a 'yak-tail fan'. Like the cāmara, the chowrie is used to fan royalty or priests and thus signifies high status in Indian art.

Common Era

The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.

Deity

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

Devotee

An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.

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.

Fast

Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:

  • help destroy karmas that bind to the soul
  • gain merit – puṇya.

Festival

A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history. 

Gati

Type of destiny, mode of rebirth in the cycle of rebirth. There are four:

  • god
  • human being
  • animal
  • infernal being.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.

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.

Hinduism

The majority faith in India, often called Sanātana Dharma or Eternal Law. With no single named founder, Hinduism has a pantheon of gods and a range of different beliefs. Most Hindu traditions revere the Veda literature but there is no single system of salvation or belief, although many Hindus believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Large Hindu communities exist in southern Asia, with smaller groups across the world.

Hrīṃ

A sacred symbol or mantra that controls the false world that people experience.

Idol

An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

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.

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.

Laity

Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.

Loka-puruṣa

The ‘cosmic man’ whose standing form represents the upper, middle and lower worlds in Jain cosmology. The middle world of human beings is found at his waist.

Mantra

A sacred sound, syllable, word or phrase that is believed to produce spiritual change if recited correctly. A mantra can be recited aloud or silently, and is often repeated. Mantras are closely associated with religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Jainism. The chief Jain mantra is the Namaskāra-mantra, which is recited daily, while another mantra very popular in Indian culture generally is Auṃ.

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.

Namaskāra-mantra

Sanskrit for 'homage formula', the Namaskāra-mantra is the fundamental religious formula of the Jains. A daily prayer always recited in the original Prākrit, it pays homage to the supreme beings or five types of holy being:

  1. arhat - enlightened teacher
  2. siddha - liberated soul
  3. ācārya - mendicant leader
  4. upādhyāya - preceptor or teacher
  5. sādhu - mendicant

Note that chanting the mantra is not praying for something, material or otherwise. Also known as the Pañca-namaskāra-mantra or 'Fivefold Homage mantra', it is also called the Navakāra-mantra or Navkār-mantra in modern Indian languages.

Naraka

Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology.

Parameṣṭhin

The ‘supreme beings’ in Sanskrit, also known as the pañca-parameṣṭhin or 'Five Supreme Beings'. A term for the categories of teachers who are paid homage in the Namaskāra-mantra:

  • enlightened teachers – Arhats
  • liberated souls – siddhas
  • mendicant leaders – ācāryas
  • mendicant tutors – upādhyāyas
  • mendicants – sādhus.

Pilgrimage

A journey to a place of religious significance. Some religions encourage pilgrimage as ways to advance spiritual progress and deepen the faith of those who make the trip – pilgrims.

Prākrit

A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.

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.

Ratna-traya

The ‘three jewels’ that form the fundamentals of Jainism, without which spiritual progress is impossible. They are:

  • right faith – samyak-darśana
  • right knowledge – samyak-jñāna
  • right conduct – samyak-cāritra.

Rite

A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.

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.

Saṃsāra

Cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth caused by karma binding to the soul as a result of activities. Only by destroying all karma can this perpetual cycle finish in mokṣa – liberation. The karma gained in life affects the next life, and even future lives, for example:

  • in which of the three worlds the life is lived out
  • which of four conditions – gati – the body takes, namely human, divine, hellish or as a plant or animal.

Samyak-cāritra

'Right conduct'. A person who has faith in the principles of Jainism and knows them should put them into practice. This is the third of the Three Jewels vital for spiritual progress.

Samyak-darśana

'Right insight' or the proper view of reality, which means faith in the principles of Jainism taught by the Jinas. The first of the Three Jewels of Jainism and a necessary first step in spiritual progress.

Samyak-jñāna

'Right knowledge'. Once one believes the principles of Jainism, one has to learn them and know them properly. The second of the Three Jewels.

Saṇgha

Sanskrit for 'community'. The Jain ‘fourfold community’ is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.

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.

Sect

An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.

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.

Siddha-śilā

The realm of liberated souls, at the apex of the universe. All the liberated souls – siddha – dwell there in eternal bliss.

Siddhacakra or Navadevatā

The most common mystical diagram – yantra – in Jainism, which is believed to destroy karma and bring prosperity and good luck. There are nine parts, usually arranged in the shape of a lotus flower. The Five Highest Beings are depicted on five parts of the yantra. On the four other parts, there are sectarian differences.

Digambaras call it the navadevatā or navdevata or navpad. The other four elements for them are:

  • a Jina image
  • a temple
  • the dharma-cakra or sacred wheel of law
  • the speech of the Jinas, in the scriptures.

For Śvetāmbaras it is the siddhacakra or navapada or navpad, which has representations of:

  • the 'three jewels' of Jain tradition
  • 'right austerity', often called the 'fourth jewel'.

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.

Temple

A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.

Three worlds

In Jain cosmology three worlds make up world space, where life exists:

  • ūrdhva-loka – upper world
  • madhya-loka– middle world
  • adho-loka – lower world.

These are frequently represented in art as the Cosmic Man, a human figure whose legs stand for the lower world, whose waist symbolises the middle world and whose torso represents the upper world.

Upāśraya

Dwelling-hall near a Jain temple where wandering ascetics stay. They may stay for a short time during their travels or for the long rainy season. There is usually a main room where lay Jains come to listen to sermons. Lay people may also perform fasts here, such as upadhāna tapas or rituals such as posadha that involve leaving household activities for a while.

Vāsudeva

One of the five types of 'great men' – śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – in Jain Universal HistoryVāsudevas are the younger half-brothers of the Baladevas, sharing the same fathers. They are both demi-Cakravartins or half Universal Rulers. In the part of the universe where humans live, nine Vāsudevas are born in each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time. Each one battles his mortal enemy, one of the Prati-vāsudevas. For breaking the principle of non-violence, the Vāsudevas are reborn as hell-beings – nārakis. Some may then become Jinas in their next lives. Vāsudevas are also known as Nārāyaṇa.

Yantra

Sanskrit for 'instrument' or 'machine', a yantra is a mystical diagram used in religious rituals. Yantras are typically formed of symmetrical, concentric circles and may also have the diagram of a lotus in the middle of numerous squares. Containing the names of the Jinas and sacred mantras, such as oṃ, yantras are meditation aids.

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