Article: Soul

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

The Jain faith revolves around the notion of the soul – jīva – which can also be understood as sentience or consciousness. The ultimate objective of the Jain religion is for the soul to attain self-realisation, which is liberationmokṣa – from the cycle of births.

The soul is a concept found in many religions but Jain beliefs about the soul or Self are very distinctive. For Jains there is an infinite number of individual souls. All souls are trapped by karmas in bodies within the cycle of rebirth until they reach liberation from the cycle of birth – saṃsāra. This occurs when a soul is free of all karmas and can realise its inherent attributes.

The innate qualities of the soul are obscured by karmas when the soul is embodied. The quantity and type of karmas bound to a soul stain it one of six colours. The soul's spiritual level corresponds with its leśyā.

Produced by activities, whether mental or physical, karmas are either negative or positive but all bind to the soul. Activities come from attachment to the world, which must be conquered to progress spiritually. The different kinds of karma attach to the soul, influencing the type of body it is born into in various lifetimes. Souls can be born into all kinds of living beings, but only souls born into human bodies can attain emancipation, by following the teachings of the Jinas.

Liberated souls – siddhas – are perfected and realise all their innate qualities. They exist without bodies at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.

Jain notions about the soul are similar to those of other religious faiths that first developed in India, but there are some key differences.

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A typical Digambara representation of a siddha, shown as an empty space. This underlines the idea that a siddha has no body and is a soul that has recovered its original purity. It regains this purity when it is liberated from the cycle of rebirth. In thi

Image of a siddha
Image by Hindi Granth Karyala © Public domain

In Sanskrit, the soul or self is jīva – 'that which is sentient or has consciousness'. The opposite of jīva is ajīva, which can be described as the absence of soul. Ajīva characterises non-living things. Both forms of matter make up the universe, according to Jain cosmology.

In Jain cosmology the soul is one of the three types of substance – dravya. It is non-material, not made up of atoms or molecules. In its pure condition, the soul does not have material properties of colour, odour, form and taste. It is a pure substance with:

  • perception – darśana
  • energy – vīrya
  • bliss – sukha
  • knowledgejñāna.

The soul always has these innate qualities – guṇas – although karma may obscure them. The first two attributes together produce consciousness – caitanya. This awareness or sentience is jīva and distinguishes this non-physical substance from the other two substances – dravyas – in the universe.

There are infinite numbers of individual souls. The soul is either embodied or disembodied. Souls within bodies have karma bound to them, dooming them to be born and reborn within the cycle of birth until they can rid themselves of all karma. Souls that exist outside bodies are perfected souls, known as siddhas – liberated souls – because they are emancipated from the cycle of birth. This final liberation of the soul – mokṣa – is the ultimate objective of the Jain religion.

Some souls have the quality of abhavya, which means they lack the capability of achieving liberation. Most souls, however, are bhavya and can attain emancipation.

Karma and rebirths

In this manuscript painting, hellish beings endure some of the tortures of the lower world, such as being attacked by animals or other hell-beings. Suffering is a big part of living in the lower world of the three worlds of the Jain universe. Souls who ha

Infernal tortures
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Souls exist within bodies because they have karma bound to them. All souls are embodied at one stage, even those that have been liberated from the cycle of birth – saṃsāra – and are now perfect. To regain its original pure condition, the soul must rid itself of all karma by progressing spiritually.

There are many different types of karma, both positive and negative. Both kinds of karma limit and corrupt the soul, hiding its essential qualities and trapping it within the cycle of rebirth. Karma is both a product of the soul's embodiment and a source of it.


Being born into many different bodies, with attachments to the world they live in and passions or emotions, means the soul gets karma bound to it. 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 has no karmas, so its inherent purity and clarity can be seen. As a soul develops spiritually, it gets lighter and brighter.

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Related Manuscripts

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    World of humans

    Victoria and Albert Museum. Circ. 91-1970. Unknown author. 19th century

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    Victoria and Albert Museum. IM 8-1931. Unknown author. Second half of the 15th century

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