Overview: The Basic Concepts
Jainism is a religion known for its strong emphasis on non-violence and the incredible devotion its followers have to practicing it thoroughly.
Followers of Jainism, called, Jains, believe that every living thing is inhabited by a soul. They believe that all of these souls are subject to a cycle of rebirth where upon death, they are soon reborn as a different person, creature, plant in this world, or even celestial in a heavenly realm or an infernal being in a hellish realm. They believe that this process is the result of karma, which are particles that weigh down immoral, impassioned souls, and determine one’s state of being in their next life.
Just as in Buddhism and other religions in the Hindu tradition, Jainism conceives of our purpose in life as being to achieve liberation from suffering and the cycle of rebirth. Its followers thus strive to practice total non-violence toward all living beings and other principles which they believe will bring enlightenment, dispel karma, and cause them to be freed from the cycle of rebirth.
Souls and Living Beings
Jains believe that souls, called Jiva (pronounced Jee-vuh), are all eternal, uncreated, and indestructible, and one inhabits every living thing. These souls are not fundamentally connected to the body they inhabit and they will take on a new body each time they die and are reborn.
Jainism holds that there are four general states or types of being that a soul can be born into: human; animal or plant (see Note 1 below); heavenly being; or hellish being. In Jainism, there is no specific thing as a ‘human soul’. There are only ‘souls’, and they can inhabit any form. However, the human form is the only bodily state from which a soul has the ability to achieve liberation.
All souls are viewed as equal in terms of inherent value. However, Jains recognize that it is impossible to exist without doing harm to at least some living things. So Jain doctrine classifies beings according to the number of senses by which they are thought to experience the world and equates this to the degree of suffering caused by harming such beings. The fewer senses, the less pain is presumed to be caused if that being is harmed.
5 senses: Humans, animals (such as mammals, birds, and reptiles), heavenly beings, hellish beings
4 senses: Flies, bees, scorpions, crickets, spiders, etc.
3 senses: Ants, lice, etc.
2 senses: Worms, leaches, microbes, etc.
1 sense: Vegetables, water, air, earth, fire (See Note 2 below).
Jainism thus prescribes a vegetarian diet for its adherents since eating plant foods is believed to cause the least harm possible.
Karma are considered to be imperceptibly small, physical particles that pervade throughout the universe in countless number.
Immoral acts, words, and thoughts of a living being cause these particles to cling to the soul. A being’s passions and activities cause their soul to vibrate, and this vibration attracts karma. Karma then will then bond to the soul depending on a variety of factors.
The quality of a being’s current life is the result of the karma that has been accumulated over countless ages due to that soul’s actions in both their current life and their past lives.
No god or other being has any part in dispensing karma or exacting punishments or rewards. The natural order of the universe mechanically reacts to a living being’s moral and immoral behaviors, just as gravity or any other natural law. Responsibility for achieving salvation in Jainism therefore rests upon the individual’s efforts, and not the power of a god.
The universe and everything it comprises and contains has always existed and will never be destroyed. It operates entirely on its own without being sustained by or intervened in by gods or a supreme designer.
Jainism conceives of the universe as consisting of three worlds layered on top of each other in this order, from highest to lowest: the heavens, the middle world, and the hells. The middle world is the earth we are all familiar with. There are sixteen levels of heavens and seven levels of hells.
When a living being dies, it is either reborn as another life form, or it goes to heaven, or it goes to a hell. This depends on how much and what types of karma the being has accumulated, or if it has achieved liberation from karma.
The highest heaven is the abode of souls that have achieved liberation from the cycle of rebirth, while souls that have been incredibly cruel in life are reborn in one of the hells where they experience unimaginable suffering as souls fight constantly and are tortured in brutal ways. The levels of hell are progressively colder as they go down.
A soul never remains in any level of hell permanently. Once a soul has been punished enough to pay for their crimes, which can take billions of years, they are reborn with some remaining karma into the normal world or into a heaven. Jiva do not necessarily move through the worlds in a linear succession.
The Wheel of Time
Jainism holds that time has no beginning or end, and that a characteristic time cycle repeats endlessly, turning like a wheel.
This time cycle is called a Kalchakra and lasts for an amount of time that is not specifically defined in Jain texts but is measured in terms that indicate it is incomprehensibly long. Unlike in traditional Hindu religions, the universe is not destroyed and remade at the end of each cycle. The cyclical process simply continues its course.
The time cycle consists of two half-cycles: an ascending cycle and a descending cycle. Within each of these half-cycles are 6 different periods of varying spans of time, being shorter near the bottom of the wheel and longer toward the top. The longer periods are marked by peace, prosperity, morality, happiness, and very long lifespans. The shorter periods are marked by chaos, poverty, immorality, sorrow, and short lifespans.
In the ascending cycle, the world transitions to the longer periods and all conditions improve. Then as the world transitions to the shorter periods in the descending cycle, everything increasingly degrades and brings more sorrow.
Jain texts use interesting units to describe incredibly long spans of time. Literally translated, they describe these as palyopama, which is a “pit of years”, and sagaropama, which is an “ocean of years”. A palyopama, or pit of years, is described as the amount of time it would take to empty a circular pit that is eight miles in diameter and eight miles deep and full of fine hairs, if someone carried away one hair every hundred years. Of course this is not a precise unit of measurement, but it conveys the immensity of the span of time being explained. A sagaropama, an ocean of years, is ten quadrillion (10,000,000,000,000,000) palyopama.
The longest time period of the wheel of time, where there is no sorrow, lasts for 400 trillion sagaropama. In this period, people grow to be six miles tall and live for three palyopama. The shortest time period, where there is immense sorrow, lasts 21,000 years and people grow to be only 1 ‘hand’ tall and live for about 20 years.
According to the Jain religion, we are living in the fifth period of the descending cycle.
There is no creator god or sustainer of the universe to be worshiped in Jainism. Jainism is atheistic in this sense. However the definition of “God” or “a god” is nebulous so everyone may have a different opinion of whether the Jain perspective on God really qualifies as atheism.
Jains sometimes make reference to “God”. This is sometimes used to refer to a universal divine consciousness similar to other religions, since many people who identify as Jains have mixed the beliefs of other religious traditions with Jainism.
But other Jains who adhere more closely to the scriptural tradition, use the word “God” in English when speaking of a Jina, which means “conquerer”. This term refers to a soul who has ‘conquered’ their worldy passions and attachment to pleasures, and has thus achieved liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Jains believe that countless numbers of these souls have achieved liberation before.
When Jains use the term “God” in the singular, they are referring to the most recent Jina whose personal name was Mahavira. Mahavira was one of the teachers of the Jain religion. Jain doctrine is clear on the point that Mahavira was not the religion’s founder, but rather was only the most recent teacher and reformer. The word Jain refers to a follower of the teachings of a Jina.
Jains believe that in every half-cycle on the wheel of time, twenty-four souls who achieve liberation act as human teachers of Jainism. These teachers are called Tirthankara, which means “ford-maker”. The term refers to the nature of explaining the right spiritual path to others so they can cross over the cycle of rebirth that is sometimes described as a ‘stream’. Mahavira is the 24th Tirthankara of our current cycle.
Jains also believe in celestial and hellish beings, although these differ from gods in the sense that people in the west might conceive of them. These beings are just another bodily form that a soul can inhabit, and they live in the blissful, luxurious realms which is generally translated into English as ‘heavens’. They are not worshiped as gods, nor are they like angels which act as messengers and can they intervene in human affairs.
The Three Jewels
The Nine Truths
Jainism includes belief in nine fundamental notions explaining the nature of life and solutions to the problem of suffering. These beliefs are called tattva, roughly meaning a ‘truth’. The nine together are referred to as the navatattva, meaning ‘Nine Truths’. In English they are also referred to as the Nine Fundamentals.
Note that some Jains consider the fifth and sixth Truths to be implicit parts of the third and fourth Truths, and thus do not list them separately. So you will often see various sources saying that there are seven Truths, instead of nine.
Knowledge of these truths is considered necessary to achieve liberation.
- Living substance
- Non-living substance
- Influx of Karma
- Bondage of Karma
- Arrest of Karma
- Eradication of Karma
The categories of destructive karma are: delusion; knowledge-obscuring; perception-obscuring; and action-obstructing. These types of karma actually impede your spiritual progress by misguiding you and obstructing good behavior. They require even greater effort to overcome.
The categories of non-destructive karma are: happiness and compassion; physical body and appearance; social status; and longevity of life. These types of karma may not bring pleasant consequences - for example, they could make you less attractive and reduce the length of your life - but they do not impede your spiritual progress. In other words, they do not cause you spiritual harm, and thus are classified as non-destructive karma.
Karma remains attached to the soul for a certain duration of time until it "ripens" and has an effect. The amount of karma which bonds to the soul can also vary.
The type, amount, and duration of karmic bondage depends on: whether the act was physical, verbal, or mental; the way in which someone can participate in an action, such as carrying out the act directly yourself, inciting another person to commit the act, giving permission for the act, or approving of the act; and the intensity of the passions and severity of the actions which caused the karma to bond to the soul.
After producing an effect, karma will detach from the soul.
Deeds which cause suffering to others will attract bad karma, and will result in oneself experiencing worldy suffering in this life and future lives. This type of karma will make a person likely to be born as a lower creature, possibly even as a hellish being that will be tortured in one of the hells.
The influx and subsequent bondage of new karma can be prevented by practicing the inverse of what causes influx and bondage of karma. This entails holding right beliefs, practicing self-restraint (and holding to vows), being mindful of ones thoughts and actions at all times, having no passions and worldy desires, and thus ensuring that your mental, verbal, and bodily activities cause the soul to vibrate the least amount possible.
Karma that is already attached to the soul can be shed by allowing the karmic effects to occur naturally, or by shedding the karma before it matures by practicing meditation, performing penance (such as fasting or self-harm), engaging in religious study (that which is deemed correct by Jainism), and asking forgiveness (from people they may have harmed, as opposed to asking forgiveness from a deity). Because suffering from natural causes sheds karma, Jains allow living beings to suffer from the effects of natural diseases and misfortunes instead of killing them out of mercy.
When a soul has conquered its passions and no longer accumulates more karma, and has shed all good and bad karma attached to itself, then the soul experiences nirvana, a mental state of total equanimity and blissful peace. This means the soul has attained moksha, meaning 'liberation'.
Upon this liberation, the soul exists in its pure state. Now undefiled by karmic impurities, it experiences its true qualities of perfect perception of truth and falsehood, infinite knowledge, and perfect blissful equanimity.
When the body it inhabits dies, the soul which is no longer weighed down by karma ceases to be subject to the cycle of rebirth and thus has no material existence. The liberated soul rises to live in the highest heaven, called Siddhashila, at the apex of the universe where it will abide forever.
The Five Great Vows
The primary principle of Jainism is to commit no violence against other beings. Jain scriptures declare that "Non‑violence is the supreme dharma", where dharma can be roughly translated as 'way', 'truth', 'teaching', or 'religion'.
In the Jain view, violent acts can be physical actions, speech, or thoughts. Verbal insults are considered violence since they cause unhappiness, and thoughts can be violent if a person wants someone else to suffer, or if one silently approves of a violent act. Asking another person to commit a violent act is also considered an act of violence. All these things will attract karma, so they train themselves to feel peace and compassion at all times and toward all living beings.
Because they believe that all souls are equal and fundamentally the same, Jains apply the practice of non-violence to all things they consider to have a soul, including all mammals, insects, plants, and even rain. The doctrine of non-violence is so important to Jain teaching that their scriptures give this the sweeping, unambiguous command to their followers: "Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being."
But Jains acknowledge that it is impossible to live without causing some harm to other beings. Yet at the same time, their goal is to develop spiritually in order to achieve liberation, and thus need to keep themselves alive and healthy.
So they adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, since plants and water are considered to suffer the least of all living beings when harmed, as I explained in an earlier section. Many Jain monks and nuns also wear a cloth square over their mouth to avoid breathing in insects. They also carry a short-handle broom to sweep the ground in front of them as they walk when there isn't enough light to see if there might be insects in their path. They will even sweep the ground immediately besides themselves before turning over when they wake up and want to continue sleeping.
This is related to their views on carelessness and intention. In the Jain view, carelessness, and desire to commit violence, and desire for violence to occur, are themselves all acts of violence, although they are less severe acts than if it accompanied by a physically violent act. If a violent act occurs due to a person not being sufficiently mindful or aware of what they're doing, then that person bears responsibility for the violent act and will attract karma. In other words, a person can be responsible for violence even when they do not intend to commit it. Jains believe that intention to commit a violent act causes the soul to vibrate more and attract even more bad karma.
Furthermore, Jains believe that a person must possess correct knowledge (derived from Jain teaching) that explains what things are living beings and what are not. If a person does not know what things are living or what actions upon them incur karmic punishment, then that person cannot possibly practice non-violence.
Therefore the only way that a violent act can cause no karmic punishment is if the person has knowledge of Jain teachings on living beings, has been consistently careful to the utmost degree possible, and has no intention for violence to occur.
However, Jains may act in self-defense. And if their occupation requires causing harm to some beings, then they are advised to do whatever possible to minimize the amount of harm that is caused.
Jains must only speak the truth and act honestly. They must never incite others to speak falsehoods or approve of a falsehood being propagated.
Dishonesty that is communicated as a result of non-action is still considered dishonesty. For example, omitting a truth at a pertinent time is still a lie. One should only omit a truth if speaking the truth would cause harm, such as pain or death to a living being.
Passions like greed, anger, and fear incite people to speak falsehoods so Jains work to remove these feelings from their mind.
Taking what belongs to others without their consent is always prohibited. Even worthless objects for which no owner can yet be determined should be left alone if they do not belong to you. Jains should also never cheat or exploit others, and they are forbidden from avoiding taxes.
Sensual pleasures are viewed as a force over the mind that overpowers virtue and reason while it is being experienced. For this reason, Jain monks must abstain from experiencing or even thinking about experiencing sensual pleasures, including sex or delicious food.
For regular Jains, or "lay Jains", the rules are less strict. They must abstain from sex until marriage and are permitted to have sex only with their spouse. However, they must also avoid sexual pleasure experienced by viewing erotic images.
Jains believe that as people acquire more wealth and material possessions, they become more likely to commit violent acts (as defined by Jain teaching). Possessions become a distraction from moral and spiritual development and can increase passions like greed, selfishness, and jealousy.
Therefore Jains try to keep their possessions to a necessary minimum and develop a mindset of non-attachment to material things. They strive to use few resources, as this keeps one's possessions reduced and minimizes harm caused to the environment. Surplus acquisitions should be used to help others.
They also avoid attachment and passion toward sensual pleasures including taste and smell and sound. Jains eat only for sustenance, and not for pleasure. They even try to maintain emotional tranquility when listening to music, experiencing good or bad smells, and witnessing beautiful or unattractive sights. They try to remain compassionate but mentally unattached, or not emotionally clinging, to relationships with family and friends; and they avoid harboring negative passions toward people who they might otherwise view as enemies.
The Symbol of Jainism
The official symbol of Jainism incorporates many distinct Jain symbols within it that each embody specific aspects of the religion.
The hourglass (or lava lamp) shape that defines the edges of the symbol is a visual depiction of the Jain conception of the universe. The bottom triangular portion represents the hells; the top hexagonal portion represents the heavens, and the concave area where those two regions meet represents earth, called the ‘middle world’.
The highest heaven, Siddhashila, is depicted as the crescent at the top of the image while the dot within it represents a liberated soul.
Below the crescent are three dots each representing one of the Three Jewels: Right Faith, Right Knowledge, and Right Conduct.
The swastika is an ancient symbol used by many ancient cultures, including the Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. The four arms of the swastika have a triple meaning in Jainism. They represent the four types of beings into which souls can be reborn (Human beings, Animal beings, Heavenly beings, and Hellish beings), the four groups of the Jain community (Monks, Nuns, Laymen, and Laywomen), and the four attributes of a pure soul (Infinite Perception of truth and falsehood, Infinite Knowledge, Infinite Power, and Infinite Bliss).
The open hand is a symbol which means fearlessness, and is used in Hinduism and Buddhism as well. The wheel shown on the palm represents the cycle of rebirth, and the 24 spokes stand for the 24 Tirthankaras who have taught the Jain religion. And most importantly, the word in the center of the wheel is ahimsa, the supreme precept of Jain doctrine which means “non-violence”.
The writing sometimes shown underneath the complete symbol is roughly translated as “Souls render service to one another” or “All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence.”