Article: The 'Three Gems'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The ‘three gems’ or ‘three jewels’ – ratna-traya – is the metaphorical expression often used for the triplet of correct faith, correct knowledge and correct conduct. Together, these form the Jain doctrine and are necessary to reach liberation from the cycle of rebirths, which is the basic purpose of the Jain faith. This is the path taught by the Jinas.

Since the three gems are fundamental to the Jain faith, they are discussed in many Jain writings. Early references, such as the Tattvārtha-sūtra and Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, describe the group of three concepts in detail but do not refer to them as the 'three gems'. Only in later texts does the term appear. Similar groups of three or four concepts are found in other religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, but there is no influence on the Jain triplet. Perhaps a group of related key concepts is easier to remember than separate principles.

The three jewels of right faith, right knowledge and right conduct can be defined as summaries of the Jain faith. Other principles and beliefs develop logically from the triplet, from which the various practices of Jainism arise. For example, samyag-darśana – right faith – is the first necessary condition of being a Jain because it entails fully accepting the Jain concept of the universe and reality. Only once an individual embraces right faith can he or she begin to make spiritual progress by accepting the other two gems and the principles and practices they imply.

This is why the three gems are always stated in this order and grouped together. The triplet helps Jains progress up the guṇa-sthāna – 14 stages of spiritual progression – towards salvation. Only when all three are perfectly realised does the soul reach the final stage and become liberated from the cycle of rebirth.

The 'conventional' and 'absolute' points of view in Jain thought distinguish between external ritual and inner self-realisation as ways of attaining liberation. Considered in this way, the three gems are conventional, since they form a means to an end.

The triplet is so fundamental to Jainism that it can be detected in all areas of religious practice. It can be seen in important symbols of the faith, such as the Jain flag and the svastika pattern frequently created as part of worship. The focus of a particular ritual among the sect of the Digambaras, it is accompanied by special mantras and hymns.

A 'fourth gem' makes its appearance early in Jain literature. Austerity – tapas – destroys karma and is thus vital in achieving spiritual emancipation. A very significant principle in Jainism, austerity is often practised as fasting and is believed to be vital to spiritual progress. Even though it is not classed formally as the 'fourth jewel', it is therefore commonly included in the concept of the ratna-traya.

Fundamental triplet

Jains strive to reach liberation from the cycle of rebirth and the triplet of the 'three gems' guides them on the journey. As the basis of Jain doctrine, the idea of the three gems is found in many written sources. Several religions have the notion of a summary or key principles of a religious faith distilled into three or four items that are considered together.

The three gems of Jainism are:

  • correct faith – samyag-darśana
  • correct knowledge – samyag-jñāna
  • correct conduct – samyag-cāritra or samyak-cāritra.

The epithet samyak or samyag applied to each of the terms is usually translated as ‘correct’ or ‘right’. Both are acceptable. ‘Right’ probably looks a stronger term but it is not out of place, as mithyā, the opposite Indian term, means ‘wrong’.

These three concepts are vital for spiritual progression and are deeply intertwined with the principles and practices of the Jain faith.

Sources

A Jain emblem found on the gate of a temple in India. It is made of several key Jain symbols, such as the cosmic man, the siddha-śilā, the three gems, svastika and open hand.

Jain emblem on a temple
Image by Shreyans Bhansali © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The triplet of right faith, right knowledge and right conduct is at the basis of Jainism, paving the road to liberation from the cycle of rebirths. It is defined as such in the earliest Jain sources.

Well-known early examples of references to the three gems are:

Indeed, the whole of chapter 28 of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra discusses ‘the road to final deliverance’ (Jacobi’s translation 1895: 152) and is one of the central sources on the topic. Interestingly, it includes ‘austerities’ – tapas – as a fourth element. This relates to the third gem, which is concerned with behaviour.

Undoubtedly the best-known reference to the three gems is the first sūtra in the Tattvārtha-sūtra. It states that:

Right faith, right knowledge and right conduct are the way to liberation

samyag-darśana-j̄ñāna-cāritrāṇi mokṣa-mārgaḥ

Tattvārtha-sūtra 1.1

This text is generally agreed among all sects to be the fundamental statement of Jain belief. The entire Tattvārtha-sūtra elaborates these three notions as the path to liberation.

In both these texts, however, there is no generic term to refer to the triplet and the term ‘three gems’ is not used. The historical development that led to this term needs further investigation.

One of the most famous references to and definitions of the ‘three gems’ – Sanskrit ratna-traya – is found at the outset of an important Śvetāmbara treatise written much later. The Yoga-śāstra, written by the 12th-century Jain monk and teacher Hemacandra, states that:

Liberation is the foremost among the four goals [of human objectives], the means of which is yoga. This [yoga, which also is designated] the three jewels, consists of [correct] knowledge, faith and conduct. Here [in this Jaina system], the wise define correct knowledge as the understanding, either in detail or in brief, of the [seven] principles as they really are. [To have] a liking for [these] principles, explained by the Jina, is the definition of true faith. That [faith] arises either spontaneously, or [indirectly] through the knowledge of [one’s] teacher. [Proper] conduct is defined as the abandonment of all blameworthy activities. That [proper conduct] has been described as fivefold because of the division into the vow of non-harm and so forth.

Yoga-śāstra 1.15-18
Qvarnström’s translation 2012: 26-27

This passage first refers to the general Hindu conception, which traditionally counts four ‘human objectives’ – puruṣārtha. They are:

  • religious conduct – dharma
  • material goals, such as earning money – artha
  • satisfaction of worldly desires and pleasures – kāma
  • liberation from the cycle of rebirthsmokṣa.

In the Jain context, liberation is the most important. The means to reach it is yoga, which here literally means ‘conjunction, combination’. The combination of the three Jain terms is known as the ‘three gems’ or ‘three jewels’ in common Jain parlance today.

Other religions

Similar ideas to the 'three jewels' can be found in other religious faiths as summaries of key principles or elements. For example, Buddhism uses ‘the three gems’ metaphorically to refer collectively to the:

But there is no connection with or influence from one tradition on the other in this usage.

Similarly, right belief, right knowledge and right conduct are sometimes equated with ‘the holy Trinity’ (Jaini 1923: 23) in Christianity when the author wants to underline that Jainism is not peculiar.

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