Article: Jain beliefs

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

'Three gems'

A Jain emblem found on the gate of a temple in India. It is made of several key Jain symbols, such as the cosmic man, the siddha-śilā, the three gems, svastika and open hand.

Jain emblem on a temple
Image by Shreyans Bhansali © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This summary of Jain doctrine helps guide Jains towards liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The 'three gems' or 'three jewels'ratna-traya – is a term describing:

  • proper view of reality or right faith – samyag-darśana
  • proper knowledge – samyag-jñāna
  • proper behaviour – samyak-cāritra.

The three jewels form the basis of further principles and beliefs and their related practices. For example, samyag-darśana – 'right faith' – is the most fundamental, necessary condition because it means fully accepting the Jain concept of the universe and reality. When someone has 'right faith', it is the very first step in spiritual progress. Characteristically Jain beliefs and religious practices develop from this stage and from following the principles summarised in the other two gems.

Considered fundamental to the Jain faith, the triplet is discussed in numerous scriptures and is found in religious ceremonies and as part of auspicious symbols. It helps Jains progress up the guṇa-sthāna14 stages of spiritual progression – towards salvation. Only when all three are perfectly realised does the soul reach the final stage and become liberated from the cycle of rebirth.

To Jains austeritytapas – burns karma and is thus necessary to attaining liberation. Austerity in practice often means fasting. Although it is not formally a jewel of Jain doctrine, tapas is often described as the 'fourth jewel' in early Jain literature and is frequently referred to as such among contemporary Jains.

'Truth from many viewpoints'

This detail from a Śvetāmbara manuscript painting shows the mantra hrīṃ, which controls the false world that people experience. Often used in meditation or worship, it is frequently found in yantras, sacred objects or manuscripts as a powerful mantra.

Hrīṃ mantra
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The term anekānta-vāda may be translated as the doctrine of 'truth from many viewpoints' or 'non-one-sidedness'. Considered to be typical of Jainism, it means that the same reality can be seen from various angles and that reality cannot be understood from a single viewpoint.

Anekānta-vāda derives from the 24 Jinas, whose omniscience revealed full knowledge of all things everywhere at all times. The doctrine is a way of recognising that reality has many facets and no single point of view is correct. For human beings, who lack the perfect knowledge of enlightened souls, the full truth can be glimpsed in the partial truths of numerous viewpoints, even if they seem to contradict each other. The doctrine states that all views – naya-vāda, often called nayas or nyayas nowadays – have equal validity. One-sidedness – ekānta – which can be defined as asserting that a single view is the truth, is always to be avoided.

Among contemporary Jains, anekānta-vāda is often interpreted as an extension of the principle of ahiṃsā and may be used to describe tolerance of multiple, different viewpoints. It is especially applied to the doctrines of other religions. However, despite modern Jains' acknowledgement of the value of other faiths in aiding spiritual development, they hold that following the teachings of the Jinas is the only route to liberation.

'Assertion of possibilities'

The philosophical notion of syād-vāda is another distinctive Jain belief. It is usually translated into English as the doctrine of 'qualified assertion' or 'assertion of possibilities'. Human understanding of multi-facted reality is always partial and limited, but it can be known 'in some respects' – syād.

Syād-vāda means that an assertion is correct only in certain, very specific circumstances. The assertion cannot be applied accurately to circumstances in which one of particular four factors is different. Because there is always something different in two situations, even if they appear very similar or almost identical, the doctrine emphasises that nothing is absolute. Thus an assertion can be accurate about one aspect of reality but not about all.

To Jains reality has numerous aspects, which cannot be accurately described by human languages. The concept of syād-vāda is used with sapta-bhaṅgi-naya – 'formulation of sevenfold predication' or 'formula of seven assertions' – to describe reality. The term sapta-bhaṅgi-naya describes how one item, being or situation can be described accurately yet partially in seven ways. Together, these seven statements about something describe reality accurately and properly. For example, a soul may be defined as eternal because it has permanent qualities – guṇas – but it is not eternal because its modes – paryāyas – are always different in its various births. Both these statements are true, yet they counter each other.

The concepts of syād-vāda and sapta-bhaṅgi-naya are part of Jain philosophy, used alongside anekānta-vāda to explain reality. All these notions stress that reality is too complex for humans to appreciate with their limited knowledge. Complete understanding of the truths of reality comes with absolute knowledge, which can be gained only by people of advanced spiritual development.

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