Article: Jain beliefs

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Types of bodies

Some types of living beings are illustrated in this manuscript painting. Over the course of the cycle of birth, a soul is born into various types of body according to the karma that has become attached to it. This painting shows examples of these beings.

Examples of types of living beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

During its time in the cycle of birth, the soul is reborn in different conditions depending on the karma gathered in various lifetimes. There are four conditions or mode of rebirthgatis:

  • human being – manuṣya-gati
  • god or heavenly being – deva-gati
  • animal or plant – tiryag-gati
  • infernal being – naraka-gati.

Living beings are also classified by the number of senses they have. The single sense of touch is the most basic and is found in the simplest form of life – nigoda – and other beings that exist in elements such as fire, water, air and earth. Human beings, gods and hellish beings have five senses

The more advanced a soul’s spirituality, the more senses its body has during this birth or lifetime.

Non-violence

The most important Jain principle is ahiṃsā. Usually translated into English as 'non-violence', ahiṃsā is thus often understood as 'doing no deliberate violence'. A more accurate translation of the Jain concept might be:

  • 'doing no harm, whether deliberate or accidental'
  • trying to actively achieve whatever is required to protect living beings by restraining oneself.

It underlies the other principal beliefs and is the foundation of Jain religious practices. The vows of Jain mendicants and lay people are based on ahiṃsā, which forms the first of the five 'fundamental vows'.

Jains must take care to avoid violent thoughts, speech or behaviour. Harming other living beings, even accidentally, creates karma that attaches to the soul, obscuring its purity and hindering its liberation. Avoiding injury to all living beings, which are all interconnected, is therefore vital to spiritual development. Deliberate violence is the worst kind but carelessness can also damage or kill living beings. This explains why carefulness and self-awareness are two of the key elements of being a perfect lay Jain or ideal mendicant, since these qualities minimise accidental violence.

Detachment

In Indian culture, the lotus flower symbolises spiritual purity and detachment from the material world. It features in many stories, including a famous parable Mahāvīra tells about following the right path to truth.

White lotus
Image by Haha169 © public domain

This is an important aim in practising the Jain faith because karma is generated by passions – kaṣāyas – or emotions, among other things. Being in a permanently calm condition free from passions, and thus karma, is a crucial stage in spiritual development. Passions are created by attachment to the world so spiritual progress requires utter detachment from the world.

When Jains renounce the lay condition to become monks and nuns, they detach themselves from all aspects of life in the world. This includes family relationships and concern for the physical body, such as tasty food, desire for warmth, comfort and personal cleanliness and the instinct to avoid or stop pain.

Jains who remain householders cannot achieve this level of detachment because they have duties to family and community. But they can work within these limits to progress spiritually. For example, they can attempt to avoid developing feelings of attachment to material things. The fifth aṇu-vrata formalises the idea of setting limits on material possessions, so that lay Jains can practise a degree of detachment.

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