Understanding Jain Dharma


The term Jain is derived from the Sanskrit root Ji, which means to conquer, and a Jain, therefore, is one who strives to conquer his senses and passions to liberate his soul. Jainism, or the Jain Dharma, is one of the most ancient religions in the world and owes its origin to an eternal lineage of realized beings or Tirthankaras[1], the last of whom was Mahavira (599-527 BC).  The Jains believe that there have been 24 Tirthankaras in each era of the human cycle,  Mahavira being the last one of the current cycle of time.  

Jainism has developed as one of the two main Sramana traditions that the Indian subcontinent has given to the world, the other being Buddhism.  The sramana, or striver, renounces the world of action of the householder or royalty, or belief in any past scripture such as the Vedas, to find his own Truth by going forth, pravrajya, from home and becoming a wandering mendicant. The austerity, tapas, involved in gathering equanimity and concentration in the midst of external and internal risks and hardships of such a life would be the source of knowledge and realization of the niggantha monk (niggantha means one who is free from bonds) of the Jain tradition as they are called in the Vedas and the Puranas.   

While the life and teachings of Mahavira are available in some detail from several sources, the Kalpa Sutra, ascribed to Badrabahu of the 4th century  also describes the life of the 22nd and 23rd Tirthankars, Neminath and Parsvanath, as well as of the first, Rishabnath. The intermediary twenty Tirthankaras are named and fitted into the vast timeframe in the Kalpa Sutra[2]. Each of them has been associated with a particular emblem and other characteristics, empowering them as guides  for inspiring the Jains to realize their own soul and attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Each Tirthankara not only achieved enlightenment (kevala jnana) but is also believed to have started a community of ascetic and lay followers, forming a tirtha or spiritual ford for human beings to cross over the ocean of rebirth.  Each Tirthankara, is born in a royal Kshatriya family, renounces his family and kingdom, undergoes years of penance before attaining enlightenment.  Then, after years of preaching and conversion, they attain liberation or moksha in a state of meditation, shedding their physical bodies. Their liberated soul rises to the highest levels of consciousness, the Siddha Ksetra,[3] where they abide eternally in supreme bliss.  The Jains believe in the divinity of each soul, and that each human being can attain the same state of bliss and omniscience by following the example and the path shown by the Tirthankaras.   

The Doctrine

Jains believe in the eternal existence of soul and matter as independent entities with no role of a creator. All substances or dravya in the universe have been eternally present and there is no need of a first cause to explain their existence. All dravya is characterized by permanence, but is subject to modification or paryaya. Thus, the soul has innate attributes of infinite perception, knowledge, power and bliss but because of modification by karma, seen discretely as karmic particles or matter, is bound to the earth by birth and death.  The goal of the Jain aspirant is, by self-effort alone, to purify the soul of karmic matter, to regain its original status of perfect knowledge, power and bliss, and attain moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.  

A couple of points should be highlighted in the above description. Firstly, the eternal permanence of both soul and matter is accepted with their modifications as being the cause of apparent impermanence. And hence, there is no God as first cause or creator of the universe in Jain metaphysics.

Secondly, although Jainism believes in the Divinity of the soul, it believes that each soul is independent in its effort towards liberation and cannot be helped by another soul or even by a Divine being or God, as in other religions. Hence, there are an infinite number of souls embodied in living beings and each has a potential to realize its purity by its own self-effort.  

The self-realized, pure soul that has liberated itself of all its karmic matter is alone the Paramatma or God in Jainism.  The twenty four Tirthankaras are revered for showing the aspirant, by example, the purity and manifest attributes of the soul and the potential for their own liberation. In Jainism there is no role of a God who can bestow Grace or help the individual soul in worldly or spiritual matters other than an inspiration by example.

The association of subtle karma particles, karma skandhas, with the soul causing its bondage as opposed to the abstract concept of karma in other systems of Indian faith and philosophy is unique to Jainism. This is in concert with its faith in Jiva (soul) and Ajiva (non-soul) entities as constituting all existence. The soul in all embodied living beings has been held in bondage by the modification caused by the influx, or asrava, of karmic particles under the influence of attachment (raga) and aversion (dvesha).   

A deluded world-view, vowlessness or indulgence, an attitude of laxity or carelessness and certain negative passions are states of consciousness which allow karmic particles to be attracted to us or, metaphorically speaking, flow into the soul under the influence of vibrations produced by activities of the mind, body or speech. Passions such as anger, pride, deceit and greed play an important role in producing the assimilation and binding (bandha) of the karma particles to the soul, producing a long-term bondage. This bondage allows the soul to carry its karmic load even after it has shed its body at the time of death. The opposites of these passions are qualities of forgiveness, humility, straightforwardness and contentment, qualities that are celebrated in the Jain way of life.

There are eight kinds of karma, with 148 subdivisions: jnanavaraniya or knowledge obscuring; darshanavaraniya or conation or intuition obscuring; mohaniya or deluding, antaraya or obstructing the actions, good or bad, vedaniya, producing feelings of pleasure or pain, ayu, determining human, animal, hellish or celestial nature of existence, nama, giving attributes of the embodied existence, gotra, producing racial or social status. The first four are ghati karmas as they modify the essential attributes of the soul and the last four are aghati as they do not do so and only determine the physical manifestation of the embodied being or its environment.

The crux of Jain ideology lies in its belief that each individual is responsible for its own karma, and the only way to salvation is to stop the inflow of new karma and to rid the soul of karmic matter by its own self-effort. As one delves deeper into Jain philosophy and metaphysics one is awed by the discrete, precise, nearly mathematical logic and reasoning in its approach.  Not much is left to abstraction or ambiguity.

Stopping the inflow of new karmic matter into the soul is called samvara.  Methods are enumerated and described, including austerity of mind, speech and body, the development of moral virtues, the reflection or anupreksha on the essential truths of the Jain faith and metaphysics, the conquering of various hardships, physical, emotional or psychological and the initiation and purification involved in joining the Jain ascetic order.  Ten moral virtues, or Dashalakshana, are celebrated by Jains during the annual ten day festival by the same name, each quality being reflected upon and emulated on each of the days. These virtues are: forgiveness, humility, straightforwardness, freedom from greed, truthfulness, self-restraint, austerity, renunciation, detachment and continence.

The removal, dissociation or falling away of bound karmic matter from the soul is called nirjara. This can occur by experiencing the fruits of past karma at their destined time when they are ripe with equanimity, called savipaka nirjara. The peaceful experiencing of past karma with fortitude and equanimity is essential to prevent the generation of new karmic matter by getting disturbed or generating negative thoughts or passions internally or externally and thus generating an endless, vicious cycle.  The other method, avipaka nirjara, involves austerity by self-effort to cause the dissociation of karmic matter from the soul before the destined time to bear the results of past karma, or before the ripening of the fruits of karma. The latter may make it easier to bear the results of the former, or metaphorically the fruit of past karma may be made ripe before its time by the heat of austerity.

The elimination of all karma particles from the soul allows it to be liberated and pure in its inherent attributes of a perfect enlightened world-view, perfect knowledge, perfect intuition, infinite energy and bliss. This requires the complete elimination of all the four ghati karmas — deluding, knowledge-covering, intuition-covering and obstructive, which also prevents the generation of new karmic bondage.  This leaves the four non-ghati karmas to be eliminated, which happens with time when the lifespan karma is exhausted at its appointed time and moksha takes place. The Arihant is the enlightened but not fully liberated being, free of the four ghati karmas, who continues to live in the world, teaching and leading by example as the Tirthankars are known to do before they attain the Siddha or final liberated state at moksha.  The liberated soul spontaneously rises upwards and resides eternally at the top of the universe or cosmic space.

The Path

To be on this path to liberation or mokshmarga, one has to have the right belief, the right knowledge as well as the right conduct, samyagdarshana, samyaggyana and samyagcharitra.  One has to be possessed of all three, also called the triratna or the three jewels of the Jain path. The right belief is to have the enlightened world-view or faith in the seven essential tattvas or categories of truth, which are:

  1. Jiva – soul or sentinent entities
  2. Ajiva – non-sentinent entities
  3. Asrava – the inflow of karmic particles to the soul
  4. Bandha – the binding of karmic particles to the soul
  5. Samvara – the stopping of the inflow of karmic particles
  6. Nirjara – the falling away of karmic particles
  7. Moksha – the liberation from worldly (karmic) bondage

The ajiva entities are further classified into pudgala or matter, dharma, the principle of motion, adharma, the principle of rest, akasa or space and kala or time. Of these kala is non-spatial and only pudgala is corporeal.  

The belief in the above truths is a prerequisite for acquiring right knowledge and practicing the right conduct. The right conduct itself is characterized essentially by the five vows or mahavratas taken by the Jain ascetic or anuvratas taken by the lay-person or shravaka which were given by Mahavira himself:

  1. Non-violence – Ahimsa
  2. Truthfulness – Satya
  3. Non- stealing – Asteya
  4. Non-possessiveness – Aparigraha
  5. Chastity in thought, word and deed – Brahmacharya

The belief in, and the practice of, non-violence against other sentient beings is not only the most important of these vows, but may be said to summarize the whole of Jain religion, as suggested by the saying, ahimsa paramo dharma. If non-violence is clearly understood as a psychological virtue, the other vows tend to follow as corollaries of it, as not to cause harm knowingly to other sentient beings. Here violence, injury, killing or an attitude of causing harm intentionally is to be avoided and care taken by all means at our disposal to prevent unintentional harm, not only to fellow humans, but to all living beings, even the smallest, called nigodas, or one-sensed micro-organisms. 

The faith in the correct world-view of the universe composed of soul and non-soul entities, and the recognition of every other soul as one’s own, equally capable of sensing pleasure and pain, spontaneously promotes a non-violent attitude towards all sentient beings. Jainism also believes in the equality and freedom of all human beings, and Mahavira preached against the caste system, saying that none is high or low based on birth and all are equally capable of uplifting themselves spiritually.  

Though non-violence as a basic tenet of the Jain path was promoted by all previous Tirthankaras, Mahavira is credited for instilling it in the Indian psyche and propagating vegetarianism at a time when animal sacrifice was widely practiced as a Vedic ritual and when meat-eating was popular.  Indeed, the principle of non-violence and the practice of vegetarianism may be the most significant contribution of Jainism to the world, even among the non-Jains. Gandhi’s non-violent, civil disobedience against British rule in India was inspired by Jainism, and Martin Luther King’s similar approach in the struggle for the blacks in the US was in turn inspired by Gandhi. Both non-violence and vegetarianism have potentially a lot more to offer to the world in handling its problems today.

In its classification of sentient beings, Jainism includes plants and micro-organisms as one-sensed, possessed of the sense of touch only, worms as an example of two-sensed, possessed of touch and taste, ants as three-sensed, with touch, taste and smell, flies as four-sensed and demons, gods, animals and humans as five-sensed.  Since nigodas, or microorganisms, were recognized to be present in the earth, water, air and fire-bodies and since plants are sentient too, Jainism preaches respect for all of the environment and can be said to be the most environmentally friendly religion today.  Cultivation of livestock and animals as food for meat-eaters is also recognized today as one of the most environmentally damaging human activities, producing one of the largest share of green-house gases and climate change.

On a deeper level, Jainism recognizes that attachment and aversion, or raga and dvesha, and the identification of oneself with one’s ego complex born of these is the root cause of the subtle violence towards others and the creator of karmic bondage. Hence, its vows of not betraying the truth for personal gain, non-stealing and non-possessiveness as well as chastity can be understood in this context.


While non-violence may be the most important principle of Jainism in practice,  philosophically, its enunciation of anekantavada,  or non-absolutism, and sydavada, or relativity, shed a rare floodlight on logical discourse which is not only unique and logically unbeatable, but also promotes world peace by leaving no room for dogmatism.   

For example, non-absolutism sees no contradiction between the Vedantic ideal of a permanent reality and the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence.  The ancient Jain text, Tattvartha Sutra states, “Origin, cessation and persistence constitute existence.”  In other words, the substance which constitutes existence is permanent, but the substance has modes, which appear and disappear and are impermanent. Both, permanence and impermanence are required in a reality which is non-absolute.

To elaborate further, the existence of a substance in a certain form may change over time and space. Hence what exists in a certain form may not exist in that same form in a different time and place. Also, since it may have several forms at different times and places and its observer may have different standpoints, it may be inexpressible. Hence, there may be seven attributes that may be predicated of a reality:

  1. Existence
  2. Non-existence
  3. Inexpressibility
  4. Existence and non-existence
  5. Existence and inexpressibility
  6. Non-existence and inexpressibility
  7. Existence, non-existence and inexpressibility

Hence, truth grasped by an observer will be different based on the variables involved, both in the status of the observed as well as the standpoint of the observer. It is relative or non-absolute. This approach towards reality generates humility, non-dogmatism and a potential for a more comprehensive understanding of reality by allowing different standpoints, and is in a way, a manifestation of non-violence in philosophic thought. 

In summary, Jainism as one of the most ancient religions should be recognized as a profound spiritual path for the realization and liberation of one’s soul, and as a scientifically and logically sound belief system for promoting peace in the world as well as a healthy, sustainable environment.

1Tirthankara, from the Prakrit, tirtha, meaning a passage, path, crossing or ford that helps one cross the sea of endless cycle of births and deaths. Tirthankara, therefore, refers to the person who establishes such a tirtha or makes such a tirtha known to the people. Literally, a ford maker.

2The Kalpa-sūtra is a text in the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures and one of the best-known, most fundamental Jain holy texts. Written in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, it is partly in prose and partly in verse — http://www.jainpedia.org/home.html

3 Siddhakṣetra (सिद्धक्षेत्र) situated at the symbolic forehead of the creations where all the jīvās having attained nirvana reside in a state of peace and eternal happiness. Outside the symbolic figure of this creation nothing but aloka or ākāśa (sky) exists.
Source: Shodhganga

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