Jainism from the word ‘Jaina’ which means literally a follower of a ‘Jina’ or ‘Conqueror’ is an ancient religion of India founded at least 600BC and may be 5,000 years old. It now has approx. 10 million followers world-wide of whom most are located in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat in Western India.

Jina is an honorific title given to the 24 great teachers of the movement also known as ‘Tirtankharas’, which means ‘maker of a ford (ie to cross a river). These 24 teachers are held to have freed their souls from their bodies thus possessing all knowledge of the universe and then come back to teach us.

Jainism doctrines and history are permeated by religious convictions related to the notion of conquest, and its goal is absolute triumph over all material existence.

Simularities to Hinduism: Although a separate religion, Jainism is like an extremely ascetic version of Hinduism with which it shares many of its basic beliefs like Karma, Reincarnation, Samsara (the circle of lives) and the possibility of escape from Samsara or ‘Moksha’, the ultimate goal of Jainism.

Jains generally observe the caste system, and follow a set of life-cycle rites that are modified versions of the Hindu perfections (samskaras), rituals for birth, death, marriage and the like. The Jainas have temple rituals which resemble Hindu Pujas consisting of offerings of flowers and fruits before the images of the Tirtankaras. At the same time Jainas maintain veneration of the Tirtankaras does not elevate them to the status of divinities and they maintain atheistic.

Jiva and Zjiva: Jains believe that there is no God or Creator as conceived in many other religions. The Universe is divided into two substances:

Jiva: Soul or life-force. Every living being is eternal. The Jiva;s natural state is one of perfect knowledge and self-contained bliss; but it has become clouded by involvement in:

Ajiva: matter, time and space.

Just as there are laws here in the material world, there are laws for souls. No God is going to save you from these natural laws or save you from your own karma. There is only your soul and the karma that attaches to your soul. So the ultimate purpose in Jainism is to cleanse your soul so clean that you can escape this world of suffering, escape the cycle of reincarnation, to achieve Moksha (Escape) and reach Nirvana (meaning literally ‘blown out’, ie the personality is extinguished like blowing out a candle) – a supremely blissful state above the human condition.

The only way to free the Jiva is to reduce inner and outer activity to a bare minimum and eventually stop it altogether. Inactivity will stop the accumulation of Karma, but the karma already accumulated must decay before freedom is attained.

A Life of Severe Asceticism: Therefore, you have to live a life that will renounce all activity that is likely to accumulate karma on the Jiva. This is the life of severe asceticism.

You must aim to become a monk or a nun giving up home, household and property; to beg all sustenance; to vigorously avoid doing harm to any living thing; to wander all your life alone or in small groups.

The Jaina ascetic is obliged to take extraordinary pains to avoid harming any living being so they carry a small broom to sweep away any tiny insects in their way, wear a face-mask, be vegan vegetarian, avoid recreational drugs, abstain from sex (if a monk) or keep it to a minimum for reproduction only (if a lay member). 

The Three Jewels of Jainism: The Three Jewels taken by Monks and Nuns in their fullness:

1/ Right Faith: Accept the Seven Truths of Jainism:

  • Jiva: all living things have a Soul.
  • Ajiva: non-living things have no soul.
  • Asrava: doing actions drags karma to your soul.
  • Bandtha: karma can stick to your soul.
  • Samvara: you can stop the influx of karma.
  • Nirjara: you can separate karma from your soul.
  • Moksha: separating karma from your soul frees it from the cycle of death and rebirth.

2/ Right Knowledge; Samyag-Jnana: a proper understanding of the seven truths. Listen to monks/nuns and the Jain scriptures.

3/ Right Behaviour: Samyak-Caritra: using your knowledge and life to live a good life and not harm others.

The Five Great Vows: The Five Mahavratas or Great Vows of a Sadhu to be taken in their fullness by Monks and Nuns:

1/ Ahimsa: Non-Violence: non-injury to other creatures including the intention of harm. Barefoot, broom, masks. Vegan vegetarianism: no milk, no eggs, no root vegetables.

2/ Satya: Be Truthful.

3/ Ateya: Don’t Steal.

4/ Brahmacharya: Be faithful to your partner or be Celibate.

5/ Apigraha: Don’t get weighed down by possessions.

In addition there is the principle of Anekantavada: no single viewpoint can be the only truth. Full truth can only be built out of a number of viewpoints.  Tolerance of other religions.

Following these Jewels and Vows can lead to conquest of desire, ego, greed, anger so the soul can free itself from negative karmas and therefore eventually find Moksha, or escape from the worldly human condition.

The Small Vows: The ideal for Jains is to become a monk or a nun (there are many more nuns than monks!) and live out the requirements listed in their completeness.

What about regular Jains living in the world?

They must follow the Anuvarata or ‘Small Vows’:

  • Try to avoid violence.
  • Don’t Lie;
  • Don’t Steal or Cheat;
  • Remain sexually loyal to your partner in life;
  • Give to Charities.

The emphasis on non-violence and dedicated study means that many lay Jains choose the Law or Business as their professions and, strangely  for a religion that stresses asceticism, many are amongst the wealthiest people in India.

Jain Prateek Chihna: The Symbol of Jainism The symbol encompasses all Jain teachings:

The Universe is in Three Levels: Heaven;  Human and Animals; Hell.

The Swastika (means in Sanskrit: ‘Good Fortune’): each point a different point for entry into the Universe for our souls.: heavenly; human or animal; hellish creature; subhuman.  Four points also represent features of the soul – infinite knowledge; infinite perceptions; infinite happiness; infinite energy.

Three Dots: Path to achieve Moksha (Escape) – Belief; Knowledge; Conduct.

The Hand:  Ahimsa or Non-Violence.

The Wheel: Samsara: the Wheel of Birth, Death and Rebirth. The spokes on the wheel represent the 24 great teachers of Jainism (Tirthankaras).

Motto in Sanskrit language:  All life is bound together by mutual support and dependence.

Mahavira: Founder of Modern Jainism: Jains hold that their tradition has existed eternally but in the present cycle, they say a group of 24 teacher, the Tirttankharas, have shown us the way to freedom from material bondage.

The first Tirtankara, Rsaba or Adinatha, and 21 of his successors existed in prehistoric times. The most recent teacher, Mahavira, (the Great Hero), was a contemporary of the Buddha Gautama in the 6th century BC, who built his teachings on one of his predecessors, Parsva 850BC.

Born in 599BC in NE India near the city of Patna, Mahavira followed a career similar to the Buddha, ie born into a rich family, left at the age of 30 to join ascetics for 12 years and gained complete knowledge at the age of 42 and gathered 11 disciples. By the time he died in 527BC his followers numbered 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, and 377,000 lay people.

Under the guidance of his followers the movement grew rapidly during the religiously tolerant period of the Mauryan Dynasty. Disputes arose over the practice of ascetic nudity. Some followers said that it was necessary to give up all attachments to the material world, even clothes!  Another group said that Mahavira was not clear on this point and that monks and especially nuns could wear clothes – a single white garment.

Two Jain Sects: Digambaras and Svetambaras: The attitude of these groups towards clothing led to the formation of two sects of Jainism which exist down to the present day. Since the 1st century AD the vast majority of Jains have identified themselves with either group. Both agree on the fundamental beliefs of Jainism but disagree over clothing which led onto disagreements about the details of monastic rules:

The Digambaras (meaning ‘clad in the four-directions, ie naked).  They do not accept women in their order. The teach that the karma-bondage which holds a Jiva in a woman’s body cannot be undone until the Jiva is born into a man’s body.

The Svetambaras (meaning ‘clad in white’).  They accept orders of nuns and hold that there is absolutely no difference between the sexes in terms of their capacity for attaining release, ‘Moksha’.

The Literature of Jainism: The Jainas maintain a reverence for learning. In addition to doctrinal and philosophical texts, Jaina authors have produced important commentaries on Hindu works, eg. Mallinath’s commentary on the poetry of Kalidasa.

Both Jain sects have their own literature. The Svatambaras have scriptures of 45 texts in 6 groups, the oldest and most important of these is a record of Mahavira’s sermons, 11 texts called the ‘angas’ (limbs).

The Digambaras maintain that Mahavira’s original works have been lost but that their own texts recall the original purpose of Mahavira’s message most accurately.

Both sects have produced a considerable series of works on religious philosophy, principally in Sanskrit, discussing analysing, and expanding the original teachings of Jainism.  This tradition of rigorous scholarship and preservation of Jain and non-Jain texts in libraries is one of the main factors preserving their ascetic tradition within the wider Hindu world in India.

The Daily Practice of Jainism: Jainism is not at all attractive to Westerners because of its extreme asceticism. So, how is it possible to practice Jainism in Western society today?

Prayer: saying prayers and mantras each day. Most important is the Navkar Mantra  said several times each day or continuously in your mind. In this mantra  Jains say the names of Panch Parmesthi (five supreme spiritual people). They worship their virtues rather than worshipping any one particular person and remind Jains of what is required to achieve Siddha or and advanced state of spiritual development.

Home Shrine: every home has a small shrine with various  ‘Bhagvans’ or gods that they pray to. In the form of ‘murtis’ or statues.

Temples: Jains pray regularly in their temples. A directory of them at jianatemples.org

Pure Vegetarian Diet.

Pathshala: religious classes for children (and adults). Many of Jain values are taught through allegorical stories such as the elephant and the blind men.

Paryushan:  a holiday of penance and asking for forgiveness, fasting, abstinence and prayer that lasts 8 days when Jains get together.

Other Things: wear a bracelet that reminds Jains of their heritage. Hindus also wear something similar;   practice non-violence by not killing anything, even insects  and spiders; cleanliness is a requirement in all areas of life. Jains usually have very clean homes. If you are unclean you can attract life-forms which you might have to kill.

Greatest way to practice is to have belief and to know the reasons why you have that belief based on Jain teaching.

The Legacy of Jainism: Unlike Buddhism, Jainism has never seriously spread beyond India. In fact, from the 12th century onwards Jainism retreated from  central and south India back to its present location in the  west and north-west.  But also unlike Buddhism, it has survived in India and  retained its own identity within a predominantly Hindu country. The movement is not large with only approximately 10 million followers throughout the world, but its practices and teachings have remained strong, and its influence on many dimensions of Hindu culture has been significant. Now there are many Jain education centres throughout the Western world especially in the USA.

Jainism has very relevant messages for all of us in the modern world. The world is not here for human consumption. Humans are not dominant over other life forms where animals and plants are more than just things to consume.

This is an ancient philosophy of great relevance to today’s world challenges: Non Violence; Vegetarianism; Environmentalist.

All these teachings are very relevant to a world coming to terms with the fact that it might be consuming itself.