Article: Jain beliefs

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

The fundamental aim of the Jain faith is to perfect the soul, which can be done only by following the teachings of the Jinas. Jains believe that the 24 Jinas revealed the essential truths of the universe and provided guidance to reaching liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

The teachings of the most recent Jina, Mahāvīra, were set down in the scriptures, which state the principal concepts Jains should believe and by which they should live. Over the centuries teachers and thinkers have written extensively on Jain beliefs and the rules of living that support them. Living according to these rules, whether mendicant or lay, puts religious principles into practice and helps Jains develop spiritually and eventually gain emancipation.

The most basic beliefs are the seven or nine tattvas, which comprise the universe. Accepting these fundamental concepts is the definition of a Jain believer. These principles are the bedrock of further Jain beliefs, such as the soul, karma and knowledge. The Jain notion of the soul or selfjīva – is unique. Spiritual fulfilment to Jains is the return of the soul to its original purity, free of the karmas that trap it in the cycle of rebirth. Karma clouds the inherent, bright purity of the soul, sticking to and permeating it, weighing it down. The 14 stages of the 'scale of perfection'guṇa-sthāna – chart the soul's progress in ridding itself of karmas and developing spiritually. The soul's spiritual level can also be seen in the leśyā staining it particular colours.

Knowledge is needed to recognise the delusions of the world, with omniscience or absolute knowledge the highest type of knowledge. The salvation of the soul – mokṣa – comes after omniscience, when there are no karmas bound to it. The road to emancipation from the cycle of births is long and difficult, lasting numberless lifetimes. The karma attached to a soul means it is reborn in different lives, a cyclical process that lasts for aeons until the soul is free of all karma. In each lifetime the soul exists in a different type of body, depending on the karma it has accrued in previous lifetimes, which are generated by behaviour and mental attitudes. The conviction that life pervades the universe and is interconnected underlies the most famous Jain principle of ahiṃsānon-violence. Observing this tenet explains many Jain practices.

All attachments to things of the world create karmas, which hinder the soul's attributes. Monks and nuns aim to achieve complete detachment, which is made easier by renouncing the world. Making vows of renunciation also aids the self-awareness and detachment of an ideal Jain follower. The various types of vows are an important part of religious practice because they are a kind of asceticism, which burns karma. Mendicants take five 'great vows'māha-vratas – while the laity can take the aṇu-vratas – 'lesser vows'. These are limited versions of the mendicant vows, tailored to work within the lay lifestyle.

The concept of the 'three gems'ratna-traya – summarises Jain doctrine, grouping it into three elements. Karma is gradually destroyed and spirituality grows from following the three principles, ultimately resulting in liberation. The jewels provide the starting point for other Jain principles and beliefs and their associated practices. The quality of 'right asceticism' – tapas – is often dubbed the 'fourth gem', reflecting the crucial part of ascetic practices within Jainism.

The two main, related notions in Jain philosophy are anekānta-vāda and syād-vāda. Jains believe that reality has many aspects and the term anekānta-vāda means that it cannot be understood from just one angle. The term can be translated as the doctrine of 'truth from many viewpoints' or 'non-one-sidedness'. The concept of syād-vāda is frequently rendered as the doctrine of 'qualified assertion' or 'assertion of possibilities' and means that any assertion or statement about something is true only in those specific circumstances. Thus it implies that generalising is unwise because all situations are unique, even though the differences may be subtle. Overall, Jain philosophy suggests that human beings can understand the complex truth of reality only to a limited degree. Nothing is absolute and final, and different viewpoints may be equally valid and accurate, because they come from differing perspectives. Jains believe that full understanding of reality arrives only with the attainment of perfect knowledge, which is part of enlightenment.

Even though it is an ancient religion, Jainism may be considered in modern scientific terms. Traditional Jain beliefs can also be presented as four 'Noble Truths'. The first three lay out principles that may be called the 'science of the soul' while the last describes how Jain beliefs and practices lead to liberation.

Jain beliefs offer a contrast to the Western scientific method. True understanding of self and reality are central to the Jain journey towards liberation. Traditionally, Jains do not distinguish between scientific and other types of knowledge, considering the world as a complex, interconnected whole. Western thought has developed by specialising in certain areas, with the break between science and other forms of knowledge particularly marked. However, viewing the world holistically is an emerging trend in scientific thought. It increasingly acknowledges that reality is an extremely convoluted web of relationships, which can most fruitfully be approached from many different perspectives. This is one way Jain traditions continue to be relevant in the 21st century.

'Fundamentals of existence'

Becoming a follower of the Jinas involves accepting and understanding the proper view of reality, which they taught. All other Jain beliefs stem from these seven 'fundamentals of existence' – tattvas. These are:

  1. the sentience of the soul, which is found in many physical forms – jīva
  2. that some things do not have souls – ajīva
  3. influx of karma to the soul – āsrava
  4. binding of karma to the soul – bandha
  5. stopping the influx of karma – saṃvara
  6. separating existing karma from the soul – nirjarā
  7. liberation of the soul – mokṣa.

The seven tattvas are described in the Tattvārtha-sūtra, the key statement of Jain principles that is accepted as the basic religious text by all Jain sects.

Two more tattvas are often added, namely:

  1. meritorious action – puṇya
  2. negative action – pāpa.

These nine principles are analysed in detail in the Navatattva-prakaraṇas. Available in shorter and longer recensions, these are among the works that form the basis of the monastic curriculum.


A typical Digambara representation of a siddha, shown as an empty space. This underlines the idea that a siddha has no body and is a soul that has recovered its original purity. It regains this purity when it is liberated from the cycle of rebirth. In thi

Image of a siddha
Image by Hindi Granth Karyala © Public domain

The Jain faith revolves around the notion of the soul – jīva. The ultimate objective of the Jain religion is for the soul to attain self-realisation, which is liberation.

The soul is a concept found in many religions but Jain beliefs about the soul or self are very distinctive. In Jain cosmology the soul is a pure substance with:

  • consciousness – caitanya
  • energy – vīrya
  • bliss – sukha.

The soul always has these qualities – guṇas – and others, regardless of the body it inhabits.

Souls are found within many types of living beings, ranging from those with one sense to those with five. A soul contracts or expands to fill the available space inside a body, from a tiny, one-celled nigoda to a five-sensed blue whale.

The soul is a non-material substance – dravya – and there are infinite numbers of individual souls. They are all bound in the cycle of rebirthsaṃsāra – by the karma generated by the bodies within which they exist, until they are liberated from flesh and ascend to the siddha-śilā. There, at the top of the universe, all the siddhas – liberated, disembodied, perfect souls – exist in permanent bliss.

The opposite of jīva is ajīva, which can be described as the absence of soul. Ajīva is found in non-living things. Both forms of matter make up the universe, according to Jain cosmology.


This manuscript painting shows the structure of four of the seven hells in the triple world of traditional Jain cosmology. The lower one lives, the more one suffers. Souls are born in hellish bodies in the cycle of birth because they have created negative

Structure of four hells
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Another key Jain belief is karma. The soul is trapped in the cycle of rebirthsaṃsāra – by karma. In the cycle of births, the soul – jīva – is born into many different types of body – kāya – each with attachments to its world, including passions or emotions. Thoughts, speech and action create different types of karman or karma, which are bound to the soul, weighing it down and obscuring its shining brightness. To regain its original pure condition, the soul must rid itself of karma by progressing spiritually.

The concept of karma is found in other religions that originated in the Indian subcontinent, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. However, the Jain notion of karma is unique, as it is considered a physical material that gets stuck to the soul. It is a type of pudgala – highly subtle matter – that is insentient.

Karma is a highly complex notion for Jains, with 148 kinds grouped into eight main categories – the mūla-prakṛtis – each of which has different effects. These eight categories are classified into the uttara-prakṛtis. Each type of karma is defined by elements, such as duration, intensity and quantity, and presents different aspects.

The various types of karma influence different elements of a birth and future births. For example the lifespan of a living being is determined by its āyus-karma.

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