Article: Jain beliefs

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly


A manuscript painting of the universal gathering and fourfold community. The universal gathering is the place and event when a Jina preaches to sentient beings. The fourfold community – saṇgha – is made up of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women

Universal gathering and fourfold community
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna – is omniscience or enlightenment and is a prerequisite to achieving liberation. Absolute or perfect knowledge is the highest of the five different types. An omniscient person knows everything that ever happened, is happening or will happen in all parts of the universe.

The hardest type of knowledge to achieve, enlightenment occurs in the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. All karma is destroyed when reaching omniscience so an omniscient individual becomes liberatedmokṣa – on death.

Someone who is enlightened is called a kevalin. All Jinas attain omniscience before reaching mokṣa but not all kevalins are Jinas. Kevalins do not teach others whereas each Jina founds a fourfold community of lay men, lay women, monks and nuns, and preaches the way to achieve salvation.

Digambaras believe that only men can attain omniscience but Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.


This manuscript painting shows the siddha-śilā. Found at the top of the triple world, on the forehead of the Cosmic Man, the siddha-śilā is the home of liberated souls.

Home of liberated souls
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Liberation means the freeing of the soul from the cycle of birthmokṣa – so it regains its original purity. On the death of the body in which it dwells, instead of being born into another body the liberated soul – siddha – flies up to the siddha-śilā. At the apex of the universe, this is where all the liberated souls exist as separate perfect beings in permanent ecstasy.

When it experiences mokṣa the soul is liberated from flesh and is perfected. Emancipation is also known as nirvāṇa. This is the ultimate goal of the Jain religion.

Humans are the only beings that can be liberated but not all humans are considered capable of reaching emancipation. Only perfect mendicants can develop spiritually enough to reach salvation because they achieve complete detachment, which reduces karma. Such detachment is impossible for lay people, who must live in the world and take part in life in the family and community, to varying degrees. This is why only mendicants, who leave behind the householder life, can move towards liberation.

The question of whether women can attain mokṣa is answered differently in the various Jain sects. The Digambara tradition holds that women cannot reach emancipation because they can never achieve the total detachment that is necessary. In contrast, the Śvetāmbara sects assert that women can accomplish salvation.

Cycle of birth

The Western game of snakes and ladders is probably based on a Jain visualisation of the unsteady progress of the soul through the cycle of rebirth. This 19th-century chart shows the uncertain path of spiritual development, involving many ups and downs.

Snakes and ladders
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the principal Jain beliefs is that an unliberated soul exists within the physical form of one body, dies and is then born in another life and body. This process continues until the soul has rid itself of all karma. Only then is it liberated from the cycle of birthssaṃsāra – which is often referred to as the ocean of rebirth. Jinas are often described as Tīrthaṃkaras or ford-makers, who cross the ocean of rebirth to liberationmokṣa – and create a ford for others to follow them.

The body and life into which a soul is born vary depending on the karma it has accumulated in previous lives. Only those souls that reduce their karma by practising austeritiestapas – can develop spiritually enough to progress up the scale of perfectionguṇa-sthāna. Over many many lifetimes, souls gradually reach the top of the scale and are then liberated from the cycle of rebirth.

Behaving badly – meaning, against Jain principles – in one birth means that certain karmas become attached to the soul and result in rebirth in a non-human body. Then it is more difficult to gain karmas that enable rebirth in a human body. This is vital for liberation because, out of all the types of living beings in the Jain universe, only human beings can be liberated.

A soul is usually reborn countless times in different lifetimes, sometimes developing spiritually, sometimes deteriorating spiritually. Spiritual progress is not normally a straightforward process, demonstrated in the Jain game of gyanbazi, which is similar to the Western game of snakes and ladders.

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