Article: Knowledge

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Knowledge – jñāna – is an important attribute because it is needed to progress spiritually, as it helps people recognise the delusions of the world. It is an inherent quality of the soulguṇa.

The Jains split knowledge into five types, which are linked to level of spiritual development. The highest type of knowledge is omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna. Once this has been reached, the salvation of the soulmokṣa – follows when the body dies.

The concept of the ratna-traya'three jewels' – associates spiritual level with the attributes of correct faith, knowledge and behaviour. True knowledge is fully grasping the teachings of the Jinas, which forms the basis of behaviour that aids spiritual progress. The development of different types of knowledge is also connected to specific phases in the guṇa-sthāna14 stages of spiritual progression.

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Types of knowledge

This manuscript painting depicts the shapes of divine clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna. The first of the three types of 'direct knowledge', clairvoyance comes with advanced spirituality. The gods are on a higher spiritual plane than human beings but they canno

Shapes of divine clairvoyance
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Knowledge is one of the innate qualities – guṇas – of the soul – jīva – but may be obscured by karmas. All souls retain this characteristic, even those that are deluded by attachments to the world and thus ignore the path of liberation.

[the first gem of] ‘Correct faith’ may or may not exist, but knowledge or cognition of one form or the other always exists in a soul

Sukhlalji 1974: 18

Like the other qualities of the soul, knowledge has various modes – paryāyas – that change constantly. Knowledge – jñāna – has five modes, which are usually described as the five types of knowledge.

This table, based on page 112 of Wiley 2004, summarises the types of knowledge.




Types of beings that have it



sensory knowledge, coming from the five senses and the mind

All living beings, even those that have only one sense, that of touch



verbal cognition, implying language in gestures or words, especially knowledge of ‘what has been heard’. This means the tradition as handed down by the Jinas or scriptural knowledge

Five-sensed beings with the ability to reason



extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance

Beings in the heavens and hells are born with this but humans can gain it through specific practices



knowledge of other’s minds or telepathy

Human beings who are highly advanced spiritually



omniscience or knowledge of everything everywhere, whether it relates to the past, present or future

Kevalins and Jinas

Three gems

This concept is a key Jain doctrine, which effectively summarises the steps towards liberation. The second gem or jewel is samyag-jñāna, which literally means 'correct knowledge'. Also translated as 'right knowledge' or 'proper knowledge', samyag-jñāna means fully understanding the basic truths. These are the tattvas or seven 'fundamentals of existence'.

Accepting the tattvas is the first step – first jewel – in being a follower of the Jinas but properly grasping these first principles is the second. The concept of right knowledge means the believer must completely comprehend the Jain view of the universe, including its cosmology and traditional history, frequently known as Universal History.


Found in Digambara temples, a śruta-skandha-yantra represents the scriptures and scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna. In the form of a tree, it has 24 branches showing types of sacred texts. This example in Tamil Nadu is surrounded by Jina images.

Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Knowledge is a central element of Jain doctrine from the beginnings of 'right faith' to final liberation.

As a soul develops spiritually, freeing itself from karma, it acquires greater knowledge, until it accomplishes perfect knowledge – kevala-jñāna. This is achieved solely at the highest spiritual levels, shortly before final emancipationmokṣa. The possessor of perfect knowledge knows everything – whether past, present or future, and knows everything in all its modes.

Thus a soul can gain different types of knowledge with spiritual progress. But knowledge is also a way to advance spiritually, because 'proper knowledge' – samyag-jñāna – is required for 'proper behaviour' – samyag-cāritra or samyak-cāritra. Without knowledge of what is right and wrong, there can be no substantial spiritual development.


  • Shapes of divine clairvoyance This manuscript painting depicts the shapes of divine clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna. The first of the three types of 'direct knowledge', clairvoyance comes with advanced spirituality. The gods are on a higher spiritual plane than human beings but they cannot attain liberation as humans can.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Śruta-skandha-yantra Found in Digambara temples, a śruta-skandha-yantra is a metal or brass representation of the scriptures. A symbol of the scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna – vital for spiritual development, it takes the form of a tree, with 24 branches showing the various types of sacred texts. This śruta-skandha-yantra in Tamil Nadu is surrounded by Jina images.. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Further Reading

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

'Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Jaina Sutras Part II: Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra and Sûtrakritâṅga
Sacred Books of the East series; series editor F. Max Müller; volume 45
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1895

Full details

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

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

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



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.


A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.


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.


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.


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.


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.


'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.


'Reality’, defined in the seven principles that form the basis of the Jain system of thought:

  • jīva – sentient entities
  • ajīva – non-sentient entities
  • āsrava – influx of karma into the soul
  • bandha – bonding of karma with the soul
  • saṃvara – stopping the inflow of karma
  • nirjarā – progressive elimination of karma
  • mokṣa – liberation.

This list comes to nine items when good action – puṇya – and bad action – pāpa – are counted separately. One who has reached right insight – samyag-darśana – believes the tattvas as an item of faith.

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