Article: Karma

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

One of the most important concepts of the Jain religion, karma is closely connected to the other principal Jain theories of the soul – jīva – and the cycle of birth – saṃsāra.

Jain cosmology describes karma as a category of material – dravya – in the universe. It is a pudgala, which is an insentient, extremely fine physical matter. Characteristically, the Jains organise karma into numerous classes, mainly sorted according to their effects. The 148 types of karma may be negative or positive and may obscure the soul's innate attributes or influence the body in which the soul is embodied.

All the karmas 'bind to' or infuse the soul. Once attached, karma's relation to the soul is divided into six steps. The various karmas obscure the soul's true nature or affect its embodiment. The impure, embodied soul takes on one of six colours or stains, depending on its karmas. The soul's leśyā reflects spiritual purity, but does not affect the physical body or the soul itself.

Karma is both cause and effect of the soul's embodiment. Karmas are generated by any activity, whether mental or physical, which are driven by feelings and responses to worldly concerns. Attachment and actions may be positive or negative, producing positive or negative karmas. The motive behind an action is also significant in creating positive or negative karma. Positive karmas result in rebirth as a god or human being whereas negative karmas cause rebirth as a being in hell or a being with limited reason, such as an insect or plant. Only human beings are able to reach salvation or liberationmokṣa – but few humans achieve this incredibly difficult goal.

The karmas accrued over a lifetime trap the soul in the cycle of births. The karmas mature by affecting the soul or the physical body of its next lifetime or birth. When the body dies, the soul is born in a different body, which is shaped by karmas from the previous birth and the ones before that. The condition of the soul in that lifetime is also influenced by karmas from previous incarnations. This cycle of birth, death and life repeats endlessly while the soul has karmas attached to it.

The soul yearns to fulfil its true nature, which it cannot do while it is imprisoned within the cycle of rebirth. Only a soul without karma can be liberated from the cycle of birth, reaching self-realisation. Following the teachings of the Jinas and developing spiritually lead to the prevention of new karmas entering the soul – saṃvara – and the removal of existing karmas. Avoiding the creation of new karmas entails practising detachment from the world to a high level, which is extremely hard. Jains believe that only people who become mendicants can reach and maintain total detachment. Destroying karmas that are attached to the soul requires ascetic practices such as fasting, meditation and denying bodily needs and comforts. Observing such austerities needs self-control and self-awareness, which are instrumental to attaining complete detachment.

Jainism shares some features with other religions that developed in India, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. However, the concept of karma has been developed to the most detailed degree in the Jain faith.

This piece is a summary of the article "Karma". The full article will be available soon.

Definition

The Western game of snakes and ladders is probably based on a Jain visualisation of the unsteady progress of the soul through the cycle of rebirth. This 19th-century chart shows the uncertain path of spiritual development, involving many ups and downs.

Snakes and ladders
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

To Jains karma is a type of pudgala, which is an insentient, highly subtle matter that affects the soul. The concept of karma is very detailed and complex, with 148 types distinguished in Jain thought, based on their various effects. Some karmas are classed as destructive because of their deleterious effect on the soul's essential attributes. Other karmas are considered non-destructive because they affect the physical body in which the soul is embodied and do not inhibit spiritual development. All karmas have levels of intensity, depending on its cause and the other types of karmas present.

Karma has contact with the soul in six principal ways. When it matures or comes into effect, its influence lasts for a specific period of time. After this it falls away from the soul.

Types of karma

Jains organise karma into 148 distinct types, which are divided into eight main groups – mūla-prakṛtis. Each group produces different effects on fruition and is classed into the uttara-prakṛtis. Each type of karma is characterised by various elements, such as duration, intensity and quantity. Each sort of karma presents different aspects.

Destructive karmas

Of the eight main types of karma – mūla-prakṛtis – four types affect the innate qualities of the soulguṇas – and are called 'destructive' – ghātiyā – karmas. A soul that has achieved omnisciencekevala-jñāna – is free of these four karmas.

Destructive karmas

Sanskrit term

Details

darśana-āvaraṇīya-karma

Obscures the soul's perception – darśana

jñāna-āvaraṇīya-karma

Obscures the soul's knowledgejñāna

antarāya-karma

Dampens the soul's energy – vīrya – and:

  • hampers giving to others
  • hinders receiving things from others
  • reduces enjoyment of food and material items

mohanīya-karma

Clouds the soul's bliss – sukha – and:

  • deludes the soul into accepting the wrong view of reality
  • produces passions – kaṣāyas – and emotions – no-kaṣāyas

  • prevents proper behavioursamyak-cāritra

Non-destructive karmas

Of the eight main types of karma – mūla-prakṛtis – four sorts influence the body within which the soul exists for a lifetime. They are called non-destructive – aghātiyā – karmas because they do not hinder the acquisition of:

These 'three jewels' of Jain doctrine can be reached and practised while the soul remains within the cycle of rebirth.

Because these types of karma affect the embodied soul, they are active while the soul is within a body, even if the soul becomes enlightened. When the body dies, these karmas fall away from the omniscient soul, thus allowing it to attain liberation.

Non-destructive karmas

Sanskrit term

Details

āyu-karma

Sets the body's:

  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 a plant – tiryag-gati.

nāma-karma

Forms the body and physical attributes

gotra-karma

Determines the status of the body, for example high or low social status in the case of human beings

vedanīya-karma

Causes pleasant and unpleasant feelings

Karma and the soul

This 19th-century manuscript painting shows the parable of the tree. Six hungry men suggest ways of reaching the fruit, ranging from chopping down the jambū tree to picking up windfalls. The colours of the men reflect their souls' colours – leśyās.

Parable of the tree
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

One of the most significant and unique Jain beliefs, the notion of karma must be understood alongside another of the principal Jain concepts – that of the soul or self. In Jain cosmology karma is a very fine physical substance that becomes firmly attached to the soul – jīva. The various karmas permeate or 'bind to' the soul. Karmic contact with the soul can be divided into six stages. The different karmas corrode the soul or shape the physical body in which the soul is embodied and its circumstances. The soul's spiritual development is affected by its karma, which can be evaluated by its colour. The pure soul is colourless, but when it is pervaded with karma it is coloured or stained. This leśyā can be used to assess its spiritual level.

In Jain thought the soul or self is a type of sentient, non-material matter – dravya – unlike other substances in the universe. Jains believe that karma is pudgala, which is an insentient, physical substance. The question of how a physical substance can attach to a non-material thing is not explained in Jain writings.

The table presents the stages of karma's relationship with the soul.

Stages of karma's contact with the soul

Sanskrit term

English rendering

Details

āsrava

influx, entry

karma enters the soul

bandha

bondage

the period after the karma enters the soul, during which it remains dormant

udaya

maturity, fruition, ripening

when the karma comes into effect

sattā

existence

the total length of time the karma is bound to the soul

saṃvara

stopping the influx

stopping the entry of karma to the soul

nirjarā

separation, falling away

the separation of existing karma from the soul

Karma can be bound to the soul for a long time before it ripens, even lasting several lifetimes. Once it has come to fruition, karmic effects last for a certain time period. Following this, the karma falls away from the soul of its own accord.

In Jain belief karma obscures or covers the four essential qualities of the soul – guṇas – hampering their realisation. These innate attributes of perception, knowledge, energy and bliss each has a particular karma that affects it. These 'destructive' karmas – ghātiyā-karmas – are all negative because they cloud a particular soul quality and make it extremely difficult to make spiritual progress.

The karma stuck to the soul produces a karmic body – kārmaṇa-śarīra – that remains with the soul throughout its experiences in the cycle of births. The various karmas have fixed powers, dormancy and duration, and may mature many lifetimes after they were generated.

Leśyā

A soul's level of spiritual development can be gauged by its leśyā. Produced by the interaction between karma and soul, leśyā is a staining of the soul, making it certain colours. These six colours indicate spiritual level and have no bearing on the colour of the body.

A perfect soul – siddha – has no karmas, so its inherent purity and clarity can be seen. As a soul develops spiritually, it gets lighter and brighter.

Causes of karma

The various kinds of karma are produced by activities. Karma is generated constantly, as long as any kind of activity is undertaken, including thought, because activity stems from the passions and emotions created by attachment to the world. Good actions bind beneficial types of karma – puṇya-prakṛtis – to the soul whereas bad actions bind negative karmas – pāpa-prakṛtis.

Activities, whether mental, emotional or physical, are motivated by passions – kaṣāyas – and emotions – no-kaṣāyas – which derive from attachment to worldly concerns. This includes affection for family and friends, interest in personal appearance and status, and concern for warmth, comfort and tasty food.

Intention is important in creating karma. Activity may be deliberate or inadvertent. Choosing to do something that accords with Jain principles is positive. Doing the right thing by mistake or out of habit is also positive but less so. Doing something against Jain principles because of absent-mindedness, accident or to protect or help others is negative but not as bad as deciding to do it. All these karmas are bound to the soul and usually take effect in later lives.

Effects of karma

The four types of existences for beings trapped in the world of rebirths, with the white crescent representing final liberation. From the 2004 'Illustrated Sthanang Sutra', in the Illustrated Agam series, overseen by Pravartak Shri Amar Muni.

Four types of existence
Image by Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan © Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan

The concept of the cycle of birth – saṃsāra – helps to explain the importance of karma in Jain doctrine. The various karmas created in one birth or lifetime influence different elements of the soul's later embodiments. They may affect the soul itself or the body it has during that lifetime and in future births. As they are created by activities carried out during embodiment, karmas can therefore be understood as both cause and effect of the soul's entrapment within the cycle of births.

In Jain belief the soul is embodied because it is bound with karmas and is impure. When the body dies, the soul is reborn into another body, according to the karmas it has produced. A soul is reborn many many times, over aeons, and cannot stop this repeating process of rebirth, which is the cycle of birth. Only a soul that has no karmas can be liberated from flesh, and can then realise its own perfection, which is called liberation – mokṣa. Over its numerous lifetimes in the cycle of birth the soul can make spiritual progress towards enlightenment, which is the step before liberation. However, it is an extremely long and difficult journey, with many pitfalls and setbacks.

The non-destructive – aghātiyā – karmas affect the physical body, its attributes, lifespan and general experiences. The destructive – ghātiyā – karmas alter the soul by hiding or hindering its essential qualities.

Broadly speaking, the bad activities generate negative karmas – pāpa-prakṛtis – while good activities produce positive karmas – puṇya-prakṛtis. 'Bad' behaviour goes against Jain doctrine, while 'good' conduct follows Jain principles.

Negative karmas, which include destructive karmas, lead to birth as spiritually devoid beings. These range from infernal creatures, animals and beings that lack the capacity for reason, such as less intelligent animals, plants or nigodas. Once embodied in such conditions, the soul finds it difficult to make spiritual progress and accrue positive karmas.

Positive karmas effect birth as an intelligent animal, god or human being. Although deities may have superhuman powers and have enjoyable lives free of care in the heavens, they are still souls caught in the cycle of rebirth. As beings with high intelligence and insight, they can develop spiritually quite far but cannot be liberated. Jains believe that only souls embodied in human beings are capable of reaching emancipation. Being human is therefore considered a rare and fortunate birth and is why human beings should do their best to work towards liberation, even if not all souls can achieve it within their first human incarnation.

Getting rid of karma

Removing karma from the soul is vital for reaching liberation – mokṣa. Exemplary Jain behaviour, such as avoiding violence and practising austerities, is therefore undertaken to stop karma forming or to eliminate it. New karma can be prevented from forming and entering the soul while existing karma can be annihilated. The 24 Jinas left guidance on how to do both, found in the Jain scriptures.

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

1

fasting

fasting – anaśana

2

eating part of a meal

limiting the quantity of food before feeling full – avamodarikā

3

limiting the choice of food

restrictions in gathering almsbhikṣā-caryā

4

rejecting delicacies

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

5

avoiding temptation

mortification of the flesh – kāya-kleśa

6

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

1

confession in the ritual of penitence – pratikramaṇa

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

2

respect for mendicants

politeness or humility – vinaya

3

service to mendicants

serving the teacher and other senior monks – vaiyāvṛtya

4

studying the scripturessvādhyāya

study – svādhyāyaa

5

remaining perfectly still – kāyotsarga

meditation – dhyāna

6

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.

Images

  • Snakes and ladders The Western game of snakes and ladders is probably based on a Jain visualisation of the unsteady progress of the soul through the cycle of rebirth. Depending on its karma, the soul takes birth in different states in any one of the three worlds. This 19th-century chart clearly shows that the path of spiritual development is uncertain and difficult, and may involve many ups and downs.. Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Parable of the tree This 19th-century manuscript painting shows the parable of the tree. Six hungry men suggest ways of reaching the fruit, ranging from chopping down the jambū tree to picking up windfalls. The colours of the men indicate the spiritual state of their souls. The soul takes on one of six colours – leśyās – according to the karma that has bound to it.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Four types of existence Rebirth as gods, human beings, animals or hell-beings are the four types of existences for beings trapped in the world of rebirths. At the top the white crescent represents final liberation. From the 2004 'Illustrated Sthanang Sutra', in the Illustrated Agam series, a 20th-century attempt to translate abstract concepts into figurative art, overseen by the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin leader Pravartak Shri Amar Muni.. Image by Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan © Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan
  • Mr̥gāputra becomes a monk This painting from a late-medieval Śvetāmbara manuscript shows the steps Prince Mṛgāputra takes to become a monk. After much debate he 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 from the world.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Completing a fast 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. Feeding someone who is completing a fast is also a way of getting merit. The ending of a fast is usually a time of celebration.. Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah
  • Buddha-SD-Mus Art-Daderot This stone sculpture of Buddha, whose teachings form the basis of the Buddhist religion, dates from the tenth century. Called 'Buddha' – meaning 'Awakened One' – after he reached enlightenment, the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama is similar to that of the Jinas. Depictions of Buddha and the Jinas are also often very similar. Most early European Indologists wrongly believed that Jainism was a sect of Buddhism.. Image by Daderot © 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

Karma
Johannes Bronkhorst
Dimensions of Asian Spirituality series
University of Hawaiʻi Press; Honolulu, Hawai'i, USA; 2011

Full details

‘Doing for Others: Merit Transfer and Karma Mobility in Jainism’
John E. Cort
Jainism and Early Buddhism in the Indian Cultural Context: Essays in Honor of Padmanabh S. Jaini
edited by Olle Qvarnström
Asian Humanities Press; Fremont, California, USA; 2003

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

Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy
Helmuth von Glasenapp
translated by G. Barry Gifford
edited by Hiralal R. Kapadia
Asian Humanities Press; Fremont, California, USA; 2003

Full details

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

Full details

‘Bhavyatva and Abhavyatva: a Jaina Doctrine of Predestination’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Collected Papers on Jaina Studies
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 2000

Full details

‘Indian Perspectives on the Spirituality of Animals’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Collected Papers on Jaina Studies
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 2000

Full details

‘From Nigoda to Mokṣa: The Story of Marudevī’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Jainism and Early Buddhism in the Indian Cultural Context: Essays in Honor of Padmanabh S. Jaini
edited by Olle Qvarnström
Asian Humanities Press; Fremont, California, USA; 2003

Full details

Harmless Souls: Karmic Bondage and Religious Change in Early Jainism with Special Reference to Umāsvāti and Kundakunda
William J. Johnson
Lala Sundar Lal Jain research series; volume 9
Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, India; 1995

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

‘The Story of King Śreṇika: Binding and Modification of Āyu Karma’
Kristi L. Wiley
Jainism and Early Buddhism in the Indian Cultural Context: Essays in Honor of Padmanabh S. Jaini
edited by Olle Qvarnström
Asian Humanities Press; Fremont, California, USA; 2003

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

Jaina Yoga: A Survey of the Mediaeval Śrāvakācāras
Robert Williams
London Oriental series; volume XIV
Oxford University Press; London, UK; 1963

Full details

Glossary

Ascetic

Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.

Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.

Asceticism

The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.

Buddha

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'.

Buddhism

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.

Cosmology

A belief system about the universe that covers its origin, structure and parts, and natural laws and characteristics such as space, time, causality and freedom.

Deity

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

Detachment

Not feeling attached to any things, people or emotions in the world, whether positive or negative. Jains believe that detachment from the world is necessary to progress spiritually towards the ultimate aim of freeing the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

Dhyāna

Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.

Doctrine

A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.

Dravya

Substance. There are two main types of substances in the universe in Jain belief:

  • jīva – non-material, sentient substance
  • ajīva – substance without soul.

The second type is divided into pudgala – non-sentient matter – and the non-material substances of:

  • ākāśa – space
  • dharma-dravya – principle of motion
  • adharma-dravya – principle of rest
  • kāla – time.

The last is not always included in this category.

Fast

Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:

  • help destroy karmas that bind to the soul
  • gain merit – puṇya.

Festival

A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history. 

Hindu

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.

Hinduism

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.

Jain

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

Jina

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.

Jīva

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.

Kaṣāya

'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'.

Kevala-jñāna

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.

Laity

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.

Leśyā

Karmic stain, the colour of which indicates a soul’s degree of purity. There are traditionally six colours:

  • kṛṣṇa – black
  • nīla – blue
  • kāpota – ‘pigeon-colour’, usually grey
  • tejas – ‘fiery’, usually red or yellow
  • padma – ‘lotus colour, usually yellow or pink
  • śukla – white.

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

Mokṣa

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.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Naraka

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

Nigoda

The most basic form of vegetable life in which an infinite number of souls live together in a sub-microscopic body. Born and dying together, they breathe and eat together, and pervade the entire universe.

No-kaṣāya

A subgroup of passions or emotions – kaṣāyas – that must be eliminated to reach liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Traditionally, there are nine:

  • hāsya – laughter
  • rati – sensual pleasure
  • arati – sensual displeasure
  • śoka – sorrow
  • bhaya – fear
  • jugupsā – disgust
  • veda – sexual craving
  • puṃ-veda – sexual desire for a woman
  • strī-veda – sexual desire fora man
  • napuṃsaka-veda – sexual desire for both men and women.

Nun

A woman who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, nuns perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Preach

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.

Pudgala

Matter. One of the five insentient material substances of dravya that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, jivastikaya.

Ratna-traya

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.

Renunciation

Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.

Saṃsāra

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.

Samyak-cāritra

'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.

Samyak-darśana

'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.

Samyak-jñāna

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

Scripture

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

Siddha

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

Śrāvakācāra

Codes of rules for the behaviour of lay Jains. The Jain laity performs austerities such as fasting to develop spiritually.

Śvetāmbara

'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Tapas

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.

Ūrdhva-loka

The highest of the three worlds in Jain cosmology, the home of the various types of gods.

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra

An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.

Vrata

Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā

Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:

  • aṇu-vratas – 'Five Lesser Vows'
  • guṇa-vratas – three supplementary vows
  • śikṣā-vratas – four vows of spiritual discipline

All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders. 

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