Article: Jainism in scientific terms

Contributed by Kanti V. Mardia

Although Jain dharma or belief developed over many centuries, it can be thought of in terms of modern science. This rich inheritance of universal philosophy on a scientific basis means that many Jain concepts have more relevance now than ever before. However, factors such as the technical terminology and language of the original works present obstacles for contemporary readers and mean that key concepts need to be recast. It is extremely important to reinterpret the foundations of Jainism in the light of recent scientific findings, since some of the answers that individuals seek now were given by Jains many centuries ago.

A summary of the essence of Jain belief may be termed the 'Four Noble Truths'. Drawn from the ancient scriptures, these use the vocabulary of modern science to describe the basic Jain principles of the soul and karma. These truths set out the path to spiritual liberation. The concepts of karmic matter and the working of karma through the cycle of rebirth are likened to photons and computers. Contemporary research into emotional intelligence underlines the vital importance of listening and empathy to being a good lay Jain. The four noble truths are related to other summaries of Jain doctrine, such as the 'three jewels' and the svastika. The two distinctive elements of Jain philosophy are the doctrines of:

  • 'qualified assertion' – syād-vāda
  • 'truth from many viewpoints' – anekānta-vāda.

These philosophical approaches embrace uncertainty in human experience, stressing that the individual cannot grasp the complete truth.

What is important is the quality of being Jain. That is, instead of Jain-ism, this article focuses on Jain-ness.


The ancient Jain texts are written in an obscure technical language that makes them almost impenetrable to a modern readership. Some of the concepts are very deep and to contemporary readers it is surprising that these could have been propounded in a non-scientific era. The texts were also originally written down in Sanskrit and Prakrit, which are unknown to most contemporary Jain followers, especially perhaps those Jains who live outside India. In addition, rituals and obscure interpretations have arisen over the centuries that can be confusing.

There is a clear need to reinterpret these concepts so they can be understood by the present generation and generations to come.

'Four noble truths'

To help contemporary readers understand more clearly, here are four axioms that have been formulated from various old scriptures and translated into English. While using the terminology of modern science, these echo the notion of the 'Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhism.

'Four Noble Truths' of Jainism


Noble Truth


interaction between soul and karmic matter


hierarchy of life


cycles of birth and death


a. karmic fusion in practice
b. activities and absorption of 'karmons'
c. the path to self-conquest

The first three truths set out the science of the soul, and the three parts of the fourth truth give their Jain applications.

The foundation of Jainism starts with the first noble truth, which asserts the existence of karmic particles or 'karmons', as they are called here. These are unusual elementary particles in the sense that they interact with the soul as if they were spiritual photons. That is, Jainism explains life through the interaction of such small invisible atomic particles and the soul.

The four noble truths present the way to reach the ultimate end of Jain belief, which is becoming a siddha or liberated soul – that is, achieving mokṣa.

The 'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma, which lead to liberation

Noble Truth



interaction between soul and karmic matter

The soul is contaminated with karmic matter and longs to be purified – bhavyatva


hierarchy of life

Living beings differ due to the varying density and types of karmic matter


cycles of birth and death

Karmic bondage – bandha – leads the soul through the states of existences in the cycle of birthsaṃsāra


a. karmic fusion in practice

Karmic fusion is due to:

  • perverted views
  • lack of self-restraint
  • carelessness
  • passions – kaṣāyas – and activities

b. activities and absorption of karmons

  • Violence to oneself and others results in the formation of the heaviest new karmic matter – pāpa
  • Helping others towards liberation with positive non-violence results in the lightest new karmic matter – puṇya

c. the path to self-conquest

Austerity or tapas:

  • forms a karmic shield against new karmons – saṃvara
  • sets off the decaying process of old karmic matter – nirjarā

A full discussion of these concepts of Jain dharma is given in Four Noble Truths (Chatvarwe Arya Satya) (Mardia 1990), written with the help of many prominent gurus and scholars.

The 'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma are presented in the concentric circles. These show gradual progress towards the ultimate aim of Jain belief, which is becoming a siddha or liberated soul – that is, achieving mokṣa.

'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma
Image by K. V. Mardia © K. V. Mardia


The extremely minute particles that form karmic matter are here called 'karmons'. These karmons are embedded in the soul, obscuring the inherent key properties of the soul such as infinite bliss.

Invisible particles such as photons, which give light, became known only at the beginning of the last century. So it is surprising that the Jinas could put forward such a concept of ‘spiritual photons’ so many centuries ago. If they are physical particles then it is still a challenge for science to hunt for their existence.

The second noble truth implies that this karmic matter is responsible for different species. So in some sense karmic particles are far more subtle than DNA. It has only recently become clear through genomics that there is hardly any difference between the genes in human beings and chimpanzees and many others. There are also questions that prompt a further look into Jain belief and cloning. The Jain belief is that all souls are separate entities – that is, individuals – whereas cloning might imply that a new life can begin in this way. But this is a misunderstanding because cloning only implies changing the genetic code of an existing egg. Therefore the same soul continues, so the fundamental Jain principle is still valid.

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.

Jain logic

Śvetāmbara nuns meditate in front of a cloth-wrapped bookstand, used to hold scriptures. To Jains, meditation helps purify the soul of karma and is thus vital for spiritual progress. It is a daily obligatory duty – āvaśyaka – for mendicants.

Śvetāmbara nuns meditate
Image by Claude Renault © CC BY 2.0

Although knowledge is crucial to spiritual progress, Jain philosophy stresses that a lack of certainty is not to be feared. Instead, it should be welcomed in some respects as uncertainty contributes, paradoxically, to greater understanding. The field of Jain logic contains the two important ideas of:

  • 'doctrine of qualified assertion' – syād-vāda
  • 'truth from many viewpoints' – anekānta-vāda.

The concept of syād-vāda means that only what is known at a particular time and place, involving those specific circumstances, can be stated with any degree of certainty. It asserts that there are many aspects of reality, which no one person can know. Examples can be found in chapter nine of Mardia 1990/2007. The notion of syād-vāda stresses that nothing is absolute. Karl Popper, one of the greatest logicians of the last century, also emphasised principles of non-absolutism in science.

Secondly, Jain logic recommends elements of relativism in thinking, in the holistic principle of anekānta-vāda. This notion may be translated as 'truth from many viewpoints'. The concept of anekānta-vāda holds that the same thing can be seen from many various standpoints and thus appears different to each viewer. Each distinct view may contain a glimpse of the truth. The truth of reality cannot be understood from a single point of view. See chapter nine of Mardia 1990/2007 for examples. In fact, relativism in thinking and open-mindedness is needed for a true Jain.

Thus the label 'Jainism' is a misnomer for what can be termed 'Jain-ness' or the 'Jain spirit'.


  • 'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma The 'Four Noble Truths' of Jain dharma are presented in the concentric circles. These show gradual progress towards the ultimate aim of Jain belief, which is becoming a siddha or liberated soul – that is, achieving mokṣa.. Image by K. V. Mardia © K. V. Mardia
  • Jain svastika 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. The svastika's four arms probably symbolise the four conditions of existence – gati – while the four dots in between may represent the fourfold community. The three dots above symbolise the 'three jewels' of the Jain faith while the crescent represents the siddha-śilā, with a liberated soul inside.. Image by Malaia / Stannered © public domain
  • Śvetāmbara nuns meditate Śvetāmbara nuns meditate in front of a bookstand or sthāpanācārya, which is used to hold scriptures, here wrapped in cloth. To Jains, meditation helps purify the soul of karma and is thus vital for spiritual progress. It is a daily obligatory duty – āvaśyaka – for mendicants.. Image by Claude Renault © CC BY 2.0

Further Reading

‘The Scientific Foundations of Jainism’
Shamil Chandaria
Jain Spirit
volume 1
March to May 2003

Full details

‘Science and Religion’
Albert Einstein
volume 146

Full details

The Scientific Foundations of Jainism
K. V. Mardia
edited by Dayanand Bhargava
Lala Sunder Lal Jain Research series; volume 5
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 1996

Full details

‘Modern Science and the Four Noble Truths of Jains’
K. V. Mardia
Young Jains International Newsletter
volume 22: 1
February to May 2008

Full details

‘Knowledge-based Jainism & Eco-Warriors’
K. V. Mardia
Ecology – the Jain Way

Full details


Albert Einstein

German-born theoretical physicist (1879–1955), who is best known for his general theory of relativity and the formula E = mc2. His work transformed traditional physics and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.


The doctrine of 'truth from many viewpoints', which is 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.


Principle or statement that is either self-evidently true or generally accepted without proof.


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.


Production of genetically identical cells, DNA fragments or whole organisms, which are called clones. Cloning occurs in nature. For example, some species of ferns, wasps and geckos do not need a sexual partner to reproduce. Instead, individuals produce offspring that are genetic copies of themselves. In the closing years of the 20th century, scientists artificially cloned cells, organs and animals, such as Dolly the sheep.


Duty, religious codes or principles, the religious law. Jains think in terms of dharma or underlying order in the universe.

Related to this, the term is also used for the true nature of an object or living entity. For example, the dharma of:

  • fire is to burn
  • water is to produce a cooling effect.

The 15th Jina of the present age is called Dharmanātha or Lord Dharma. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the vajra – diamond thunderbolt. There is no historical evidence of his existence.


Shortened term for deoxyribonucleic acid. Found in the cell of a living being, a DNA molecule holds genetic instructions for the development and functioning of that organism. DNA contains genes, which pass on characteristics from parent to child. A living being produced by sexual reproduction inherits DNA from both parents, which is unique to it.

Eightfold Path

The fourth 'Noble Truth' of Buddhism is a set of related principles to help reach enlightenment. All eight tenets should be followed at the same time, and comprise:

  1. right view
  2. right intention
  3. right speech
  4. right action
  5. right livelihood
  6. right effort
  7. right mindfulness
  8. right concentration.

Four Noble Truths

The core of Buddhist belief, which states that:

  1. suffering and dissatisfaction exists – dukkha
  2. suffering results from attachment to desires – samudāya
  3. suffering ends when attachment to desire ends – nirodha
  4. freedom from suffering can be gained from practising the Eightfold Path – magga.


Type of destiny, mode of rebirth in the cycle of rebirth. There are four:

  • god
  • human being
  • animal
  • infernal being.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.


Unit of heredity within an organism. A gene contains information:

  • to create and maintain the cells of a living being
  • on the characteristics passed from parent to child.


Study of the genome. The genome is all the genetic material of a living being, which is inherited from parents when the organism is the result of sexual reproduction.


Quality, positive point.


Sanskrit term meaning both:

  • a spiritual teacher
  • 'heavy', in contrast to laghu or ‘light'.


Abbrevation of the term 'intelligence quotient'. This is a score indicating intelligence, which derives from standardised tests that use an average score of 100 within an age group.


Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.


The quality of being Jain, coined by Kanti Mardia. 'Jainness' implies that Jain belief is not an 'ism' but a science of life, the spirit of being Jain.


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.


'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:

  • mind-based and sensory knowledge – mati-jñāna
  • scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna
  • extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna
  • knowledge of others’ minds or telepathy – manaḥparyaya-jñāna
  • omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna.

With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.


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.


A contemporary term for a sub-atomic particle of karmic matter, coined by Kanti Mardia. These 'karmons' interact with the soul and conceal its key qualities, such as bliss – sukha.


'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:

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

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.


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.


Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.


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.


The ‘supreme beings’ in Sanskrit, also known as the pañca-parameṣṭhin or 'Five Supreme Beings'. A term for the categories of teachers who are paid homage in the Namaskāra-mantra:

  • enlightened teachers – Arhats
  • liberated souls – siddhas
  • mendicant leaders – ācāryas
  • mendicant tutors – upādhyāyas
  • mendicants – sādhus.


A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.


Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.


The ‘three jewels’ that form the fundamentals of Jainism, without which spiritual progress is impossible. They are:

  • right faith – samyak-darśana
  • right knowledge – samyak-jñāna
  • right conduct – samyak-cāritra.


A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.


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.


'Right conduct'. A person who has faith in the principles of Jainism and knows them should put them into practice. This is the third of the Three Jewels vital for spiritual progress.


'Right insight' or the proper view of reality, which means faith in the principles of Jainism taught by the Jinas. The first of the Three Jewels of Jainism and a necessary first step in spiritual progress.


'Right knowledge'. Once one believes the principles of Jainism, one has to learn them and know them properly. The second of the Three Jewels.


Righteousness, deriving from the three gems of Jain belief and practice.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.


A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.


Reality or truth. This is very important to Jains and the satya-vrata is the second of the mendicant's Five Great Vows and the lay person's Five Lesser Vows.


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


'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay man, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The feminine form is śrāvikā.


'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay woman, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The masculine form is śrāvakā.


'Doctrine of it might be’, which is similar to the notion of ‘in some respect'. The doctrine of qualified assertion is typical of Jain philosophy, which is meant to describe the multi-faceted nature of reality.


Austerity or asceticism in general. A tapas is an act of austerity or self-discipline that produces bodily heat – tapas – that burns up karma. Austerities may be internal – mental – or external – physical. Both lay and mendicant Jains practise austerities. Fasting is the most common external austerity for lay people these days.

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