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.
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:
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.
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.
Right faith, right knowledge and right conduct are the way 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.
Qvarnström’s translation 2012: 26-27
This passage first refers to the general Hindu conception, which traditionally counts four ‘human objectives’ – puruṣārtha. They are:
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.
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.
The principle of non-violence that is one of the five chief vows of Jainism.
The 'Five Lesser Vows' that householder Jains take. These are not as strict as the 'Five Greater Vows' that ascetics observe but are more practical in daily life. Few Jains take these non-compulsory vows these days. The vows are to:
A term used by Digambaras for thinking about the 12 topics that stress the negative nature of the world of rebirths and that help to overcome it:
A dialect of the Prākrit language used for many Śvetāmbara Jain scriptures.
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.
Infraction, violation of conduct. There are five infractions for each of the five mendicant vows and for each of the 12 lay vows. For instance, overburdening pack animals breaks the vow of non-violence for a lay Jain.
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future.
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:
After six years he reached enlightenment while meditating and from then on was known as Buddha – 'Awakened One' or 'Enlightened One'.
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.
A religion based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ or Anointed One. Jesus is an historically attested figure, who lived around 4 BCE to 30 CE in modern Israel. Adherents hold that Jesus is the Messiah or saviour, fulfilling a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible.
An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:
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 god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
Duty, religious codes or principles, the religious law. Jains think in terms of dharma or underlying order in the universe.
Related to this, the term is also used for the true nature of an object or living entity. For example, the dharma of:
The 15th Jina of the present age is called Dharmanātha or Lord Dharma. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the vajra – diamond thunderbolt. There is no historical evidence of his existence.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. 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.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
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:
Type of destiny, mode of rebirth in the cycle of rebirth. There are four:
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.
The 14 stages of spiritual development the soul passes through to gain liberation from the cycle of birth. The stages go from the state of delusion to the state of omniscience without activity, which is reached just before death of the body. When the body dies after the soul has attained the 14th stage, the soul instantly becomes liberated – a siddha.
A set of three restraints on Jain householders that is meant to reinforce the practice of the minor vows or aṇu-vrata:
Sanskrit term meaning both:
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.
The terms stavan, stavana, stava, stotra and stuti are all used for a prayer, song, chant or hymn to a Jina, a god or any other holy figure. Religious songs are always hymns of praise in Jainism. These devotional songs may be performed during daily rites or on special occasions, such as completion of a fast or a wedding. The hymns may be performed:
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
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.
'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:
With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
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:
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 five vows taken by ascetics. Monks and nuns must follow these ‘absolute’ vows of:
The 24th Jina Mahāvīra added a fifth vow to his predecessor Pārśva's four, making the vow of celibacy not just implicit but a separate vow.
A sacred sound, syllable, word or phrase that is believed to produce spiritual change if recited correctly. A mantra can be recited aloud or silently, and is often repeated. Mantras are closely associated with religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Jainism. The chief Jain mantra is the Namaskāra-mantra, which is recited daily, while another mantra very popular in Indian culture generally is Auṃ.
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.
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.
A system of contemplative prayer, meditation and complete detachment from worldly affairs in the hope of gaining direct spiritual experience of the divine. In Jainism those who practise mystical techniques hope to gain true self-realisation and thus destroy karma and be liberated.
The highest soul, the liberated soul, the Absolute, often used instead of siddhi. Jains believe that a soul or ātman can achieve liberation from the cycle of birth through its own spiritual development. This concept has been called God in Western thought since the start of the Christian era.
'Affliction’, used especially for mendicants, who have to overcome the 22 traditional afflictions or hardships that could shake their commitment:
A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.
Someone who is declared by a religious organisation or by popular acclaim to be of outstanding goodness and spiritual purity, usually some time after his or her death. The person's holiness is often believed to have been demonstrated in the performance of miracles. Saints are frequently held up as examples for followers of a religious faith.
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:
Sanskrit for 'community'. The Jain ‘fourfold community’ is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
In common use it refers to any sacred text. However, strictly speaking, it means an extremely concise style of writing, as illustrated in the Tattvārtha-sūtra, or a verse.
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.
Extremely famous Jain holy text written in Sanskrit in perhaps the fifth century CE. Śvetāmbaras call the author Umāsvāti while Digambaras know him as Umāsvāmin. Going into the principles of karma in ten chapters, it discusses the principles and the reality of existence in a concise style – sūtra. The Tattvārtha-sūtra is a key text, fundamental to all Jain sects. Its title is often translated into English as That Which Is.
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.
The everyday or common language spoken by people in a particular country or region, often contrasting with the literary form or the national or official language. Similarly, vernacular architecture reflects local conditions and conventions more than other considerations, such as national or international design trends, and may be built by non-professional architects.
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:
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.
Sanskrit for 'instrument' or 'machine', a yantra is a mystical diagram used in religious rituals. Yantras are typically formed of symmetrical, concentric circles and may also have the diagram of a lotus in the middle of numerous squares. Containing the names of the Jinas and sacred mantras, such as oṃ, yantras are meditation aids.
Spiritual discipline. But Jains also use it to mean an ‘activity’ that produces vibrations.
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
Bodleian Library. Prakrit c.1. Unknown author. 1465 CE
Victoria and Albert Museum. IS 2-1972. Unknown author. Circa 1450