Article: The 'Three Gems'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Religious practice

Two svastikas are below the three jewels of Jainism. The crescent at the top represents the siddha-śilā and the line above it the liberated soul. Auspicious symbols made of rice grains and other substances are common in temples

Svastikas and other auspicious symbols in the temple
Image by Cactusbones - Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0

In the course of time, right faith, right knowledge and right conduct have so often been known as the ‘three gems’ that this notion now appears in various areas of religious practice. The gems occur in symbolism, worship ceremonies, mantras and hymns. The Digambara Jains seem to favour it as an element of worship more than their Śvetāmbara fellows.

In modern times, the triplet is depicted on the Jain flag in the form of three dots on the same horizontal plane. The dots also appear as part of other symbolic representations of the Jain faith, such as the designs of rice grains lay Jains make on tables of offerings in the context of worship – pūjā. In its complete and most common form, this design shows:

  • at the top a dot and crescent moon symbolising final liberation from the cycle of rebirthssiddhi or mokṣa
  • the three dots symbolising the three gems that are the path to liberation
  • the svastika symbolising the four possible types of rebirths – gati (example in Wiley 2004: 130; Cort 2001: 17).

Religious practices centring on the three gems seem to be more popular among Digambara circles. Or, at least, more evidence is available from this sect.

The diagrams known as ratna-traya-yantras – ‘three-jewel diagrams’ – focus on the triplet, with relevant formulas – mantras – inscribed in their centres. These mantras either venerate each of the three jewels individually or pay ‘homage to right faith, right knowledge and right conduct’ in Sanskritsamyag-darśana-jñāna-cāritrebhyo namaḥ (see drawings in Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa, volume 3, 1987: 358).

These diagrams may be used in connection with ‘worship of the three gems’ – ratna-traya-pūjā. Accompanied by hymns, in Sanskrit or in the vernaculars, each term is praised, with its details described (Jñānapīṭha Pūjāñjali 1957: 220–289; 313–323).

Both diagrams and hymns of worship appear in the performance of the ratna-traya-vrata – ‘specific observance relating to the three gems’. A Digambara manual describing the ceremony says that the three-gem observance should be undertaken in the months of:

  • Bhādrapada
  • Caitra
  • Māgha.

It implies forms of fasting and, more specifically, recitation of the formula ‘homage to right faith, right knowledge and right conduct’ every morning  (Siṃhanandī Vrata-tithi-nirṇaya 1956: 195–196). The duration of the observance varies on the ability of the performer. Worshippers should draw a relevant diagram – yantra – either in their own house or in a temple, near a Jina image.

Fourth gem

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

A significant aspect of right conduct is penance, mainly fastingtapas. This is encouraged in the Jain faith as it helps to expel karmas that have already become attached to the soul. This expelling process is known as nirjarā. Given the central place of ascetic practices in Jainism, it is not surprising to see that samyak-tapas – ‘correct asceticism’ – is sometimes regarded as a fourth gem. As noted previously, one of the main Śvetāmbara writings on the three jewels, chapter 28 of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, adds a fourth jewel.

‘Austerities’ – tapas – is the fourth term supplementing the list in chapter 28 of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra:

Right knowledge, faith, conduct and austerities; this is the road taught by the Jinas who possess the best knowledge


translated by Herman Jacobi, 1895: 152

The text explicitly sets out this additional element as part of the road to salvation and gives it the same status as the other three gems. It also clearly relates to the third jewel, which is concerned with behaviour.

The fourth gem is echoed in contemporary Jain conceptions, although in common parlance Jains speak only of the ‘three gems’.

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