Article: Jainism and scientific thought

Contributed by Aidan Rankin and Kanti V. Mardia

The Jains have a distinctive attitude to science and knowledge. The Jain approach defines science as encompassing all forms of knowledge, including the physical sciences, the humanities and the spiritual journey. This contrasts with the deep-rooted separation in Western philosophy between spiritual and scientific approaches, which has softened in recent decades.

For Jains, the purpose of the quest for knowledge is to understand the true nature of reality and the true self. Such understanding is identified ultimately with spiritual liberationmokṣa. The pursuit of knowledge and the spiritual path are interchangeable for Jains. Thus there is no division in Jain thought between the ‘scientific’ or rational and the ‘intuitive’ or spiritual modes.

The Jain concept of science is based on the rational pursuit of knowledge, uncluttered by dogma and seeking to peel away layers of preconception. Jain science aims to challenge views of reality that are false because they are ‘one-sided’. In Jainism, ‘the individual must ultimately find the truth for himself as no priest or scripture is believed to have the answers. These principles are intended to be self-verifying so that the follower discovers truths for himself rather like a research worker in a laboratory’ (Mardia 2002: 4–5).

There is a similarity to the dominant, Western, scientific method, which values reason and aims for objectivity. However there are also radical differences, notably the blending of science and ethics in Jain philosophy, and a distinctive mode of thought that contains multiple facets of reality. The Jain approach to science can be distinguished in five principal areas:

  • dharma and ethical science
  • jīva and karmic matter
  • cycles of time, the cycle of birth and the hierarchy of life
  • anekānta-vāda
  • interconnectedness and 'careful action'.

The Jain position has repercussions for contemporary scientific research. In particular, the interconnected nature of life itself and the importance of ethics in the pursuit of knowledge are becoming clear to many researchers.

The sūtra Parasparopagraho jīvānām in the Tattvārtha-sūtra (5.21) is often considered one of the key expressions of Jain belief. It may be translated as both:

  • ‘Souls render service to one another’
  • ‘All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence’.

The first places an emphasis on the spiritual quest while the second presents a scientific and rational world view. From the perspective of Jainism, both translations mean the same.

Dharma and ethical science

The Western idea that science stands apart from ethics and is more purely intellectual when it is not influenced by morality is not found within Jain thought. In Jainism the idea of ‘scientific neutrality’ is a contradiction in terms. The pursuit of knowledge is not ‘neutral’ but a process of tuning in to dharma and living according to its principles.

Jains think in terms of dharma or underlying order in the universe. The term 'dharma' is also used to convey the true nature of an object or living entity. For example, the true nature of fire is to burn and the true nature of water is to produce a cooling effect. In the same way, the true nature of the jīva – soul – is to seek self-realisation. This means full self-knowledge and understanding of the true nature of reality.

In the same way as the laboratory researcher tests his or her theories and explores new possibilities, the spiritual enquirer is open to alternative perspectives and insights. Meditation on the nature of reality can therefore be seen as an aspect of scientific research, because its aim is to increase knowledge and understanding of the universe.

Dharma operates according to ethical as well as physical laws, which complement and reinforce each other. When someone practises ahiṃsānon-violence – by avoiding or minimising harm to others and showing respect for all living beings, that person is obeying the natural laws of dharma. Conversely, adharma is that which disrupts the workings of the universe and obstructs self-knowledge. Examples might include aggression against fellow humans or other species.

Therefore Jains cannot separate ethical and intellectual concerns in the search for knowledge.

Soul and karmic matter

The Jain view of karmic activity is a form of scientific analysis as much as a guide to ethical standards. In Jain belief, minute karmic particles – ‘karmons’ – are attracted to the soul and produce karmic matter. This karmic matter is attached to the soul and attracts more ‘karmons’. Karmic matter is classed as either positive or negative. The soul seeks to escape karmic matter and revert to its original pure state.

The relationship of the soul with karmic activity is encapsulated in the 'Four Truths' or Axioms of Jainism. These relate to the conception of karmic activity and each individual's discovery of the truths (Mardia 2012; Noble Truths 1 and 4A).

Such an analysis of karma and the soul does not imply determinism or predestination. The individual conscience is crucial to Jain practice and intelligence gives human beings the responsibility to avoid actions which increase their karma. This also involves believers continuously questioning their values so that they avoid mithyātva – distorted world views and destructive activities.

The starting point of understanding karmic activity is the jīva, which is translated as ‘soul’ or ‘pure soul’. It can also be understood as a unit of consciousness. Literally, it means that which is alive or permanent. All living systems have in common the fact that they contain soul and so they require understanding and respect. Ajīva, in contrast, is all that is non-living or impermanent.


A typical Digambara representation of a siddha, shown as an empty space. This underlines the idea that a siddha has no body and is a soul that has recovered its original purity. It regains this purity when it is liberated from the cycle of rebirth. In thi

Image of a siddha
Image by Hindi Granth Karyala © Public domain

Each soul is individual and unique. It is the true ‘self’ of which people seek knowledge. The ‘selves’ in which it is born, or takes bodily form in the cycle of rebirth are merely layers on the surface, obscuring what lies beneath. They are products of the karmic activity from which the soul seeks liberation.

The soul as a unit of consciousness, or pure soul, comes into existence and automatically enters the lokākāśainhabited universe. There it comes into contact with ‘karmons’, which encase it in physical material and obscure knowledge of the inner self. A useful comparison can be made with gold ore. The dross is karmic matter and the remaining 24-carat gold is the pure soul. The pure soul is jīva, whereas the ‘karmons’ are ajīva.

The pure soul has four main properties, which are known as guṇa:

The first two of these guṇas represent consciousness. Bliss includes compassion for all beings and at the same time self-awareness or spiritual self-sufficiency.

In its pure form, the soul is fully equipped with all these qualities. However, in contact with ‘karmons’ these features become hidden, corrupted or distorted.

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