What Is Jainism?

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Jainism/Jain Dharma

Jainism Definition

Jainism is a non-theistic Indian religion, derived from the Sanskrit verb ‘ji’ meaning ‘to conquer’ and referring to Jains’ ability to conquer all inner passions and bodily senses to achieve liberation.

Jainism deep dive

History of Jainism

Jainism was founded in ancient India, some scholars believe that its roots are in the Indus Valley Civilization, a Bronze Age civilization in the northwest region of South Asia (now modern-day India, Pakistan, and northeast Afghanistan).

It’s one of the oldest civilizations in human history, also known as the Harappan Civilization, that is estimated to have existed around 3300-1300 BCE.

The Indus Valley was famous for its highly advanced technological and cultured urban centers. Jainism has been linked to it due to some artifacts found, but very little is actually known about this civilization.

Others suppose that Jainism was born during the same period as Buddhism, around 500 BCE. So, what we do know is that it’s at least 2,500 years old and one of the most ancient religions in India.

In modern times, Jains are now concentrated in the west of India, making up only about 0.4% of the population in India.

the indus valley civilisation map

Jainism Structure

1. Non-theistic

Though Jains do not believe in one omnipotent creator-like god, making it a non-theistic religion, they certainly believe in the divine and in higher beings who are worthy of devotion.

It is similar to Buddhism in this way.

Jainism does not deny the existence of Gods and Goddesses but does deny their role as creators, preservers, and destroyers of the cosmos (like other religions believe). Although, they do consider both Arihants and Siddhas to be God-like.

2. Arihants & Siddhas

In Jainism, the term Arihants is used to mean two groups:

  • Tirthankars (Tirthankar Arihants)

A human who has achieved enlightenment by destroying their soul-constraining (ghati) karmas. They are revered as a leader for those seeking spiritual guidance.

  • Ordinary Kevali(Ordinary Arihants)

A human who has achieved enlightenment by destroying their soul-constraining (ghati) karmas and remains in a state of perfect bliss for the rest of their lives, but does not take part in sustaining the Jain religious order.

three jain women meditating in white clothes
Tapasya – Jain meditation in progress”, by Claude Renault, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Ordinary ArihantsTirthankar ArihantsSimilarities between both
Each cosmic age has its own group of 24 Tirthankaras to revitalize cosmic orderBoth are Kevalgyan (omniscient/possessing supreme wisdom) having destroyed the four Ghati karmas (obstructive karmas that obscure the true nature of the soul)
Ordinary Arihants are not blessed with these unique characteristicsThey are blessed with 34 atishay (unique characteristics/attributes). E.g. The breath is fragrant like lotus and their is no growth of hair on the body.
They also possess 35 unique attributes of speech. E.g. their speech has quality, is free of ambiguity, and has profound meaning.

Both are at the 13th step in the fourteen-stage progression (14 Gunasthanas) towards being a Siddha. They will both therefore become Siddha after leaving the mortal body. The 13th stage is the Sayogi Kevali Gunasthan, the stage where all passions are destroyed. The 14th stage is where the soul leaves the body.
Does not establish religious order or play any active roles in maintaining religious orderThe person (Bhagwan) who, immediately after attaining Kevalgyan (supreme wisdom), establishes the Jain four-fold religious order of monks, nuns, sravaks (male householders), and sravikas (female householders). They go on to revive Jain philosophy, religion and ethics. To sum up, both are enlightened and will attain liberation
Only endowed with mati gyan and shrut gyanAre blessed with three gyans from birth.
Mati gyan – knowledge gained through mind and senses
Shrut gyan – knowledge gained through hearing
Avadhi gyan – knowledge gained from seeing or ‘the naked eyes’
A comparison of Ordinary & Tirthankar Arihants

Siddhas are souls that have achieved salvation. They are in a state of perfection, cleared of all karmic bondage, and hence have been released from the constant cycle of death and rebirth.

Having been freed of the human body, their soul remains in a state of perpetual bliss. They are liberated souls who have attained moksha.

The difference between a Siddha and an Arihant is that an Arihant has to be currently living, whereas Siddhas are no longer embodied souls.

3. Sangha

Sangha is the term for the four-fold order of Jainism, it’s also known as the Chaturvidha Sangha. Two categories make this up:

  • Monks and Nuns (ascetics): They practice self-control and have given up all desires and earthly possessions to become spiritual teachers. They follow strictly Five Great Vows (maha vrats – these are the same as the five yamas).
  • Sravaks and Sravikas (laypeople/householders): They are not required to renounce worldly possessions, but are expected to take part in their household duties honestly and purely. They follow the Twelve Vows of Laypeople.

4. Jiva/Ajiva

Another one of the Jainism beliefs is that everything can be fundamentally separated into two categories

1. Jiva

Jiva is a soul and therefore represents all living substance, that is, every living being. Though jivas are bonded to prakriti (the material world) through their physical body, they are also made up of purusha (eternal, immutable spirit).

They cannot be destroyed as they have no beginning or end. Jivas are all perfect and all-powerful.

They believe that godliness is an intrinsic quality of every jiva, all possessing innate qualities of infinite bliss, power, knowledge, and perception, and all have the potential to attain perfection.

They can be further split into two more distinctions:

  • Samsari (mundane souls/worldly souls)
  • Siddha or Mukta (liberated souls)

Samsari jivas are embodied souls who are still part of the cycle of samsara (death and rebirth), whilst Siddha jivas are liberated from their karmic bondage, free from the constant cycle of samsara. Therefore, Siddha jivas are, by their nature, without bodies.

chart of the jain souls
Jiva”, by  Jain, S.A., Reality, licensed under CC0 1.0

2. Ajiva

Ajiva is the opposite – a non-living substance (e.g. chairs, tables, houses, cars, etc). They do not have consciousness and so, because of this, they do not accumulate karma.

Ajivas are acetana (unconscious).

They are divided into five broad categories:

  • Dharma (medium of motion)
  • Adharma (medium of rest)
  • Akasa (space)
  • Pudgala (matter)
  • Kala (time)

Jainism beliefs

1. Three jewels

In Jainism, three jewels constitute a three-part ethical code:

  • Right faith (samyak darshana)

Sometimes called right perception. This is the foundational element for Jainism, as it’s about using your own discernment to see things clearly.

In this step, it’s important to question the world and use the teachings of the Tirthankaras to alleviate doubts or misconceptions.

  • Right knowledge (samyak jnana)

Having a complete understanding of the true nature of the universe and Jain scripture. It includes a deep study of the six Universal Entities and nine Tattvas that interconnect to form the wholeness of the universe.

  • Right conduct (samyak charitra)

Once the first steps have been actualized, it’s possible to move on to right conduct. It requires living your life in accordance with Jainism’s ethical rules.

As discussed earlier, right conduct includes taking the Five Great Vows of ahimsa, satya, asteya, aparigraha, and brahmacharya. For householders, it means taking the Twelve Vows of Laity.

a wall painted with jain swastika symbol

2. Ahimsa

Nonviolence is a huge part of Jainism belief. Ahimsa is an important aspect of avoiding bad karma and stems from their belief that every living thing has a soul (jiva).

Ahimsa is an imperative condition for liberation. Without it, Jains believe that they cannot progress on from the cycle of samsara.

This is not just about nonharm to humans and animals, but also to plants and nature too. For this reason, some Jains even avoid farming because activities such as plowing the fields can cause death to small insects and destroy their habitats.

This is also why Jains are strict vegetarians and many are vegans.

Some Jains don’t eat underground root vegetables and some specific types of fruits to avoid uprooting the whole plant (and therefore killing it), as well as to prevent injuring or killing small insects and microorganisms.

As well as the principle of ahimsa, some root vegetables are avoided because they are considered tamasic foods (harmful to either the mind or body).

ahimsa hand

3. Karma

Jains view karma slightly differently from other religions, believing that karma is a physical substance. It’s considered to be an independent entity.

Karma is therefore attracted to individual jivas depending on their actions, thoughts, and words. Jains believe that karma’s purpose is to bring the soul into a state of perfection and gradual inner transformation.

There are eight main types of karma which are classified as either ‘harming’ or ‘non-harming’:

  • Harming (Ghatiya karmas)
    • Knowledge-obscuring karma
    • Perception-obscuring karma
    • Deluding karma
    • Obstructing karma

These directly affect the jiva.

  • Non harming (Aghatiya karmas)
    • Lifespan-determining karma
    • Body-determining karma
    • Status-determining karma
    • Feeling-producing karma

These do not affect the soul, but the body.

chart of jain  classification of karmas

4. The three worlds

Jainism advocates the philosophy that the universe is self-sustaining and eternal. It does not have a beginning or an end (much like Jivas).

Their view of the universe and cosmology is extremely complex and is intertwined with their ideas around karma, samsara, jiva, and ajiva.

Jains believe that the universe is composed of two types of space:

1.  Loka-ākāśa – World Space

Within this, there are three worlds. Where one is born depends on their karma.

  • ūrdhva-loka – upper world (Gods)
  • madhya-loka– middle world (humans)
  • adho-loka – lower world (hellish beings)

Jains believe that they move through these worlds as part of their spiritual journey, and once they are liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth they come to infinitely rest above all of the worlds, in siddha-śilā.

2.  Aloka-ākāśa – Non-world Space

This is completely uninhabited and is an infinite expanse that exists outside of the world space.

Jain symbols

1. Hand of ahimsa

The main Jainism symbol that you probably recognize is the hand of ahimsa (the hand with a wheel on the palm).

The wheel in the middle of the palm symbolizes dharmachakra, speaking to the Jains’ pursuit of halting the cycle of samsara through a commitment to ahimsa, truth, and peace.

hand of ahimsa
Jain”, by Guigenius, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

2. Swastika

Another Jainism symbol that you may be surprised to learn about is the swastika, which now has a grim association with Nazism. The swastika wasn’t just used in Jainism, but in Hinduism and Buddhism too.

Sadly, since being co-opted by Hitler’s Nazi Party, the symbol has become corrupted as a depiction of white supremacy, racism, violence, and hatred.

This is quite the opposite of what the original use of the symbol meant to Jains and other religious groups across Asia.

Derived from the Sanskrit word svastika, meaning ‘conducive to well-being’, the four arms serve as a reminder of samsara and to our four destinies (heavenly beings, human beings, animal beings, and hellish beings).

As well as this, the four arms represent the four-fold community or Sangha that is instrumental to our enlightenment and freedom from samsara, prompting us to keep liberation as the goal rather than rebirth.

jain symbol swastika flag

Jainism in your life

Like many eastern philosophies and religions, Jainism teaches a beautiful pathway to eternal bliss and spiritual liberation with compassion, equality, and peace at its center.

Despite what may feel like the complexities of its structure and their understanding of the universe, we can all learn a lot from the teaching at the heart of their practice: the art of love. To love all living things – animals, humans, plants, and microorganisms alike.

The idea that there is a sanctity to all life, not just human life, is something we could certainly do with more of in the world and a concept that we could all benefit from keeping at the forefront of our minds, with Jains leading the way on the path of love and compassion.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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