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 self – jīva – 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 ahiṃsā – non-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.
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:
Two more tattvas are often added, namely:
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.
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 rebirth – saṃsāra – 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.
Another key Jain belief is karma. The soul is trapped in the cycle of rebirth – saṃsāra – 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.
The principle of non-violence that is one of the five chief vows of Jainism.
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.
The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.
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.
The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.
A belief system about the universe that covers its origin, structure and parts, and natural laws and characteristics such as space, time, causality and freedom.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
Not feeling attached to any things, people or emotions in the world, whether positive or negative. Jains believe that detachment from the world is necessary to progress spiritually towards the ultimate aim of freeing the soul from the cycle of rebirth.
'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.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
Substance. There are two main types of substances in the universe in Jain belief:
The second type is divided into pudgala – non-sentient matter – and the non-material substances of:
The last is not always included in this category.
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:
The 14 stages of spiritual development the soul passes through to gain liberation from the cycle of birth. The stages go from the state of delusion to the state of omniscience without activity, which is reached just before death of the body. When the body dies after the soul has attained the 14th stage, the soul instantly becomes liberated – a siddha.
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.
Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
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'.
Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:
Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.
'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.
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.
One who has attained omniscience. A kevalin is different from a Jina in that he does not teach the path of liberation to others.
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.
Karmic stain, the colour of which indicates a soul’s degree of purity. There are traditionally six colours:
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
The universe in Jain cosmology, composed of the upper, middle and lower worlds. Human beings can live only in part of the Middle World.
The five vows taken by ascetics. Monks and nuns must follow these ‘absolute’ vows of:
The 24th Jina Mahāvīra added a fifth vow to his predecessor Pārśva's four, making the vow of celibacy not just implicit but a separate vow.
Telepathy. The fourth of the five types of knowledge - jñāna - by which one has direct access to others’ minds. Humans in advanced states of spiritual development gain this kind of knowledge.
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.
The most basic form of vegetable life in which an infinite number of souls live together in a sub-microscopic body. Born and dying together, they breathe and eat together, and pervade the entire universe.
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.
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.
A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.
A series of 12 vows that constitute 11 stages of progressive renunciation for a lay Jain. These vows are:
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:
Matter. One of the five insentient material substances of dravya that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, jivastikaya.
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.
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.
Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.
The progressive eradication of passions and other negative features in order to reach total spiritual purity. In practice, it is the ritual of fasting unto death.
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:
Sanskrit for 'community'. The Jain ‘fourfold community’ is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.
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.
The ‘sevenfold predication’, a series of seven statements describing the various angles from which reality can be viewed:
Reality or truth. This is very important to Jains and the satya-vrata is the second of the mendicant's Five Great Vows and the lay person's Five Lesser Vows.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
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.
An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.
The realm of liberated souls, at the apex of the universe. All the liberated souls – siddha – dwell there in eternal bliss.
'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay man, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The feminine form is śrāvikā.
The Indian or South Asian subcontinent is a term for the geographical area roughly covering modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
'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.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.
Victoria and Albert Museum. IM 12-1931. Unknown author. Circa 1490
Royal Asiatic Society. 065.001. Unknown author. 1449