Article: Jainism in scientific terms

Contributed by Kanti V. Mardia

Karmic process

The concepts of karmons and karmic activity lead to an explanation of the cycle of birth and rebirth through karmic matter, which is covered in the third noble truth.

Without conscious effort or deliberation, human beings keep absorbing karmons through activity and throw some out after their effect has taken place. Thus the soul has what might be thought of as a karmic computer. This personal karmic computer keeps records and also dictates some tasks from previous records – that is, past lives. The fundamental aim in life is to remove this old karmic matter as well as to stop the inflow of new karmons, resulting in new karmic matter. So this karmic process can be stopped and rehabilitated through Jainness.

One of the key negatives responsible for heavy karmic matter, as given in the fourth noble truth, is kaṣāyas – passions or emotions. These passions may be destructive or positive. The destructive emotions are composed of:

  • anger – krodha
  • greed – lobha
  • ego – māna
  • deceit – māyā.

In English the initials of these words form the acronym AGED, introduced by Gurudev Chitrabhanu in the late 20th century. This is an apt acronym because the passions have an ageing effect.

Indeed, the term 'Jina', from which 'Jaina' is derived, stands for the one who has conquered these inner enemies. Surprisingly, Albert Einstein’s idea of a follower of a true religion (Nature 1940: 146) is:

a person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires[.]

Emotional intelligence

The ability to accept other people's emotions is crucial to being a good Jain. This can be thought of in modern terms as having well developed emotional intelligence.

In the present time there has been considerable work done on understanding human emotions, including the rise of interest in 'emotional intelligence' or EQ – emotional quotient. This can be understood as being both in contrast to and complementary to IQ – intelligence quotient.

One of the key factors in EQ is achieving emotional intelligence. This is similar to samyaktva – first awakening – which is the fourth step of the Jain guṇa-sthāṇa. One of the key qualities in EQ is empathy – that is, the ability to sense how other people feel. It is the capacity to accept another person’s feelings. It may be described as the quality of being able to:

  • listen to others without getting carried away by personal emotions
  • distinguish between what others do or say and one’s own personal judgements.

This is the definition of a śrāvaka – the term used for a Jain lay man, which means a great listener.

Summaries of Jain belief

An ancient lucky sign, the svastika is one of the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala. A Jain svastika frequently has several dots laid out through and above it, with a crescent atop, often with a dot over it.

Jain svastika
Image by Malaia / Stannered © public domain

The 'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma explained in this article are reminiscent of the 'Four Noble Truths' of Buddhism. There are several well-known ways of synthesising Jain principles. These commonly take the form of numbered qualities or definitions. Since some of them are probably thousands of years old, the aim of providing a symbolic representation of key ideas is very traditional. The more contemporary method of the four noble truths can be linked to two of the conventional symbolic summaries.

The four noble truths are connected to the 'three jewels' – ratna-traya – of the Jains, which consist of:

  1. right faith – samyak-darśana
  2. right knowledge – samyak-jñāna
  3. right conduct – samyak-cāritra.

The table makes clear the relationship between the four noble truths and the three gems.

'Four Noble Truths' and 'Three Gems'


Noble truth

Right jewel


interaction between soul and karmic matter

right knowledge


hierarchy of life

right knowledge


cycles of birth and death

right knowledge


a. karmic fusion in practice

right conduct


b. activities and absorption of karmons

right conduct


c. the path to self-conquest

right conduct

Belief in these four truths taken together represents 'right faith'.

In deva-pūjā – a worship ceremony in a temple – a composite svastika is used, which has three layers. This can also be thought of as equivalent to the four noble truths. The symbol's four arms represent the cycle of birth and rebirth going into the four different states of existence – gati. The four dots in between the arms symbolise the four parts of the Jain community – monks and nuns, lay men and lay women. Together with the cycle of birth and rebirth, these make up the first layer, which is the third truth. The second layer is the three dots representing the three jewels, which comprise the four truths as a whole. The top layer is a crescent disc with a dot. This represents liberationmokṣa – which is covered in the first and last truths.

Note that there are other symbolic summaries in the Jain faith. For example, the siddha-cakra – 'circles of Jinas' – is made up of the nine dignitaries – Nava-pada. The highest beings or concepts of Jainism, these are:

These four essentials or fundamentals are similar to the eightfold path of Buddhism.

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