Article: Cycle of rebirth

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

The cycle of birth – saṃsāra – is one of the principal theories in Jain belief and is closely linked to the concepts of the soul and karma. Literally meaning 'wandering around' in Sanskrit, the term saṃsāra describes the recurring process in which a soul is born into a body, which lives and dies, and then is reborn into a different body. Jains believe that this event repeats endlessly for souls that have karmas bound to them. The aim of Jainism is liberation of the soul from this cycle, which requires the soul to be free of karma.

The Jains also call the concept the 'river of rebirth', which explains why the term Tīrthaṃkara is frequently used as a synonym for Jina. Meaning 'ford-breaker', Tīrthaṃkara emphasises that the Jinas have led the way to liberationmokṣa – and left a path for others to follow.

Rebirth can take place in one of four conditionsgatis – which relate to the karmas gathered in previous lifetimes. All activities and thoughts create karmas, which can be negative or positive. Bad karmas lead to rebirth as a creature of low spirituality and minimal senses, whereas good karmas effect birth as a god or human being. The most desirable condition is that of the human being, because liberation is impossible for any other kind of being.

The Jain cycle of rebirths is similar to the saṃsāra found in Hinduism and Buddhism, but is different in that the transmigration of the soul from one body to another is instant. There are other major differences in religious tenets that influence the various conceptions of the cycle of births.

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Endless cycle

This manuscript art shows Mahāvīra in Puṣpottara heaven before his birth as a human who will become a Jina. All Jinas are born as celestial gods before their final lives as humans. Jinas are always human as only they can reach omniscience and liberation

Mahāvīra in the Puṣpottara heaven
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The concept of continuous rebirth is one of the principal Jain beliefs. Jains hold that a soul exists within one physical body, dies and is then born into a different body in a different life, with this process repeating. This continues for eternity or until the soul is free of all karma. The liberation of the soul from the cycle of rebirth – mokṣa – is the ultimate aim of Jainism.

The cycle of births is usually considered to be aeons long for each soul, with the soul reborn many many times in different lifetimes. The traditional number of rebirths is 8,400,000. Only souls that become Jinas have few births. The 24th Jina Mahāvīra, for instance, is said to have had 27 rebirths before the last, when he became a Jina. Various numbers of rebirths are given for other Jinas. In each lifetime or birth a soul may develop spiritually or it may deteriorate spiritually, which influences future births. Spiritual progress can be tracked against the 14 stages of the 'scale of perfection' – guṇa-sthāna – which links conduct and beliefs to level of spirituality. Spiritual development is not a straightforward advance, as the diverse conditions of the various births and the activities in different lives all influence karma's interaction with the soul. The Jain game of gyanbazi, which is similar to the Western game of snakes and ladders, clearly sets out the ups and downs of the soul's journey.

Eventually, a soul may develop spiritually enough to free itself of old karmas and avoid creating new ones. It then gains omniscience or enlightenment and, when its body dies, can become a liberated soulsiddha. Instead of being born into another life, it remains disembodied and rises to the siddha-śilā, at the apex of the universe. This place is where all the siddhas dwell together, enjoying the realisation of their true nature of perfection.


A variety of animals is shown in this painting from a manuscript as examples of five-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul is born in different types of body according to the karma it has collected from previous lives.

Five-sensed animals
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

When a soul enters a new birth, it is born into a body and life according to the karma it has gained in previous lives.

The soul can be born in one of the following conditions – gatis:

  1. a human being – manuṣya-gati
  2. a heavenly being, living in the heavensdeva-gati
  3. an infernal being, living in the hellsnāraka-gati
  4. an animal or plant – tiryag-gati.

Activities and thoughts during a lifetime create karmas, which may be positive or negative. Positive karmas arise from behaviour Jains consider meritorious, such as giving alms to mendicants and avoiding violence. Negative karmas are generated by conduct condemned in Jain scriptures, such as lying, being greedy or committing deliberate violence.

Gathering positive karmas may lead to birth as a god or human being. Having lots of negative karmas may result in birth as an animal or even an insect, plant or hellish being. This makes it difficult to follow Jain principles and gain enough positive karma to be born in a better condition in the next life. However, even a soul born as a god is trapped within the cycle of births. The best condition to be born into is that of a human, because it is the only one in which the soul can be liberated.

Indian religions and the soul

Along with other religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, Jains believe that souls:

  • are trapped in the neverending cycle of rebirth – saṃsāra
  • are reborn in different bodies according to the karma they have collected
  • can only break out of the cycle of rebirth by being born a human being, achieving enlightenment and then, leaving the body behind, reaching liberation
  • with karma attached to them can never be enlightened – the bondage of karma.

The Jain concepts of the soul and karma differ from those of the other Indian faiths, however. In Jainism souls are individual with the same innate qualities. They accrue karmas that are bound to them throughout the cycle of birth until they mature and fall away. Souls remain individual once they are perfected. In the Jain concept of saṃsāra, on the death of the body the soul moves almost immediately to the next new body. This is different from saṃsāra in Hindu and Buddhist thought.

Followers of the Buddha do not believe in a soul in the same way as Jains and Hindus. The Buddha preached anatta – the doctrine of no soul – and that the cycle of birth involves a transfer of consciousness from one body to another, influenced by karma. Nirvāṇa is the term usually used for liberation or salvation – in which followers of the Buddha realise that there is neither self nor consciousness. It describes the extinguishing of the 'fires' of attachment, aversion and ignorance that cause suffering. Enlightened souls thus gain release from the cycle of births when they die – mokṣa – instead of another rebirth.

There is a variety of belief among Hindu traditions, although most Hindus believe in the soul or self – ātman – and liberation. Broadly, for Hindus ignorance of the true self or soul creates desire for and enjoyment of the world, which traps the soul in the cycle of birth. Karma comes from thoughts, words and deeds, and influences future lives. Between two births, the soul goes either to hell, to be punished for bad actions, or to heaven, where it enjoys rewards for good actions. Hindu mokṣa is the perfecting of the soul and release from the cycle of rebirths, although various schools differ on whether realisation of the soul can be achieved during or after life.


  • Mahāvīra in the Puṣpottara heaven This manuscript painting shows Mahāvīra as a god in the Puṣpottara heaven before being born as a human being who will become a Jina. All Jinas are born as celestial gods before their final lives as human beings. Jinas are always human because only humans can reach omniscience and liberation from the cycle of rebirth.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • Five-sensed animals A variety of animals is shown in this painting from a manuscript as examples of five-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul is born in different types of body according to the karma it has collected from previous lives. In traditional Jain cosmology, beings can be classed according to the number of senses they have. The animals pictured have the five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Further Reading

Narrating Karma and Rebirth: Buddhist and Jain Multi-Life Stories
Naomi Appleton
Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK and New York, USA; 2014

Full details

The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

Full details

The Jaina Path of Purification
Padmanabh S. Jaini
University of California Press; Berkeley, California USA; 1979

Full details

Commentary on Tattvārtha Sūtra of Vācaka Umāsvāti
Pandit Sukhlalji
translated by K. K. Dixit
L. D. series; volume 44
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1974

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details



Title meaning ‘Enlightened One’ in Sanskrit and Pali. It is most frequently used for Siddhārtha Gautama, whose teachings form the basis of the Buddhist faith. He lived about 563 to 483 BCE in the north-eastern area of the Indian subcontinent, around the same time and in the same area as Mahāvīra, the last of the 24 Jinas.

His life story is similar to that of the Jinas in certain ways, such as:

  • his mother had significant dreams on the night of conception
  • he was born a prince into a kṣatriya family
  • as an adult he renounced his wealthy, pleasurable life to seek the meaning of life through asceticism.

After six years he reached enlightenment while meditating and from then on was known as Buddha – 'Awakened One' or 'Enlightened One'.


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.


A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:

  • Theravāda – 'the Teaching of the Elders' in Pali – is older and is found chiefly in Sri Lanka and continental South East Asia
  • Māhayana – 'Great Vehicle' in Sanskrit – is the larger sect and is followed mainly in East Asia and the Himalayan nations.

Both sects are practised in India.


A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.


A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.


Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.


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.


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.


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:

  • negative – deriving from harmful acts
  • positive – arising from beneficial actions.

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.


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.


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.


Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology.


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:

  • remind hearers of religious principles and rules
  • encourage piety
  • persuade non-believers of the correctness of the preacher's religious beliefs.


Sanskrit for a 'right or good action'. Similar to a merit in Buddhism, it helps to reduce karma.


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:

  • in which of the three worlds the life is lived out
  • which of four conditions – gati – the body takes, namely human, divine, hellish or as a plant or animal.


Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.


An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.

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