Article: Karma

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Blocking karma

This Śvetāmbara manuscript painting shows Prince Mṛgāputra becoming a monk. He finally convinces his parents to let him perform dīkṣā – renunciation. He completes the ritual of keśa-loca – pulling out of hair – that indicates a mendicant's detachment

Mr̥gāputra becomes a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Preventing karmas entering the soul is called saṃvara. Attachment to the world generates passions and emotions, provoking all kinds of activities, which cause the various kinds of karma. Therefore avoiding activity and maintaining absolute calmness at all times allows a soul to achieve saṃvara. Such calm can be attained only with total detachment from worldly affairs, which is extremely difficult to achieve.

In practice, Jains believe that such detachment requires renouncing the world to become a monk or nun. Jains who do not become mendicants can practise lesser degrees of detachment, such as limiting their possessions and trying not to become attached to them, meditating and remaining calm. Being able to reach saṃvara is a sign of advanced spiritual development.

Destroying karma

At the end of his fast a man is fed sugar-cane juice. Many lay people fast during festivals. Believed to help destroy karmas bound to the soul, fasting is also a way of gaining merit – puṇya. The ending of a fast is usually a time of celebration.

Completing a fast
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Jains can eliminate karmas in the soul by progressing spiritually. Karma can be destroyed by asceticism or austerities – frequently termed tapas – which eradicates the karma stuck to the soul. There are 12 sorts of austerities each for lay Jains and for mendicants. Since many austerities revolve around food practices, especially restrictions on food such as fasting, this indicates the importance of food in Jainism. Asceticism must be performed with the right religious attitude, which helps foster self-control and self-awareness. These qualities cultivate detachment, thereby connecting the two ways of stopping karma.

Religious austerities create bodily heat – properly called tapas – that burns away the karma permeating the soul. Ascetic practices may be either:

  • external or physical
  • internal or mental.

The texts detailing the conduct of ideal lay Jains – śrāvakācāras – describe recommended sorts of austerities. Similar writings on mendicant behaviour, such as the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra for Śvetāmbara orders, supply lists of austerities for monks and nuns.

Recommended ascetic practices for lay and mendicant Jains are summarised in the following tables.

External austerities for laity and mendicant


Lay people

Monks and nuns



fasting – anaśana


eating part of a meal

limiting the quantity of food before feeling full – avamodarikā


limiting the choice of food

restrictions in gathering almsbhikṣā-caryā


rejecting delicacies

avoiding tasty food, sauces and so on – rasa-parityāga


avoiding temptation

mortification of the flesh – kāya-kleśa


subjecting the body to discomfort

living in isolated places – saṃlīnatā

Most of these austerities relate to food, especially the practice of fasting. These highlight the importance of food and fasting in both Jain doctrine and practice. Although there are numerous types of fast or limited eating, the most common kind of fasting among contemporary Jains is probably taking a vow to practise partial fasting or limited eating during festivals.

Internal austerities for laity and mendicants


Lay people

Monks and nuns


confession in the ritual of penitence – pratikramaṇa

confession and repentance, which means atoning for sins and lapses – prāyaścitta


respect for mendicants

politeness or humility – vinaya


service to mendicants

serving the teacher and other senior monks – vaiyāvṛtya


studying the scripturessvādhyāya

study – svādhyāyaa


remaining perfectly still – kāyotsarga

meditation – dhyāna


meditation – dhyāna

'rejection of the body' – kāyotsarga, which means remaining motionless

All austerities must be performed with the correct attitude of calm deliberation. Austerities that people undertake for wrong reasons, such as hoping to gain admiration from others, instead generate negative karmas.

All ascetic practices emphasise self-control and self-awareness, which aid the development of detachment. The two methods of karma removal are thus inter-related. Studying the scriptures and putting religious principles into practice are central to spiritual development in the Jain faith. Practical and conceptual frameworks such as the three gems and guṇa-sthāna help followers of the Jinas to both deepen their knowledge of Jain principles and practise them.

Indian religions and the soul

This stone sculpture of Buddha dates from the tenth century. Called 'Buddha' – 'Awakened One' – after he reached enlightenment, the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama is similar to that of the Jinas. Art of Buddha and the Jinas is often very similar

Buddha-SD-Mus Art-Daderot
Image by Daderot © public domain

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. Karma is a highly refined theory in the Jain religion, with 148 detailed classes of karma. Souls remain individual once they are perfected.

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.

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