Jain – non-violence is the highest virtue

Jainism, traditionally known as Jain Dharma, is an ancient Indian religion. Followers of Jainism are called “Jains”, a word derived from the Sanskrit word jina (victor) and connoting the path of victory in crossing over life’s stream of rebirths through an ethical and spiritual life. Jains trace their history through a succession of twenty-four victorious saviors and teachers known as Tirthankaras, with the first being Rishabhanatha, who is believed to have lived millions of years ago, and twenty-fourth being the Mahavira around 500 BCE. Jains believe that Jainism is an eternal dharma with the Tirthankaras guiding every cycle of the Jain cosmology.

The main religious premises of Jainism are ahimsa (“non-violence”), anekantavada (“many-sidedness”), aparigraha (“non-attachment”) and asceticism. Followers of Jainism take five main vows: ahimsa (“non-violence”), satya (“truth”), asteya (“not stealing”), brahmacharya (“celibacy or chastity”), and aparigraha (“non-attachment”). These principles have impacted Jain culture in many ways, such as leading to a predominantly vegetarian lifestyle that avoids harm to animals and their life cycles. Parasparopagraho Jivanam (“the function of souls is to help one another”) is the motto of Jainism. Namokar Mantra is the most common and basic prayer in Jainism.

Jainism has two major ancient sub-traditions, Digambaras and Svetambaras; and several smaller sub-traditions that emerged in the 2nd millennium CE. The Digambaras and Svetambaras have different views on ascetic practices, gender and which Jain texts can be considered canonical. Jain mendicants are found in all Jain sub-traditions, with laypersons (śrāvakas) supporting the mendicants’ spiritual pursuits with resources.

Jainism has between four and five million followers, with most Jains residing in India. Outside India, some of the largest Jain communities are present in Canada, Europe, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Suriname, Fiji, and the United States. Major Jain festivals include Paryushana and Daslakshana, Mahavir Jayanti, and Diwali.

Non-violence (ahimsa)

Ahiṃsā Paramo Dharma (‘non-violence is the highest virtue or religion’).

The hand with a wheel on the palm symbolizes Ahimsa in Jainism. The word in the middle is ahimsa. The wheel represents the dharmachakra, which stands for the resolve to halt the saṃsāra (‘transmigration’) through relentless pursuit of truth and non-violence.

The principle of ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) is a fundamental tenet of Jainism. It believes that one must abandon all violent activity, and without such a commitment to non-violence all religious behavior is worthless. In Jain theology, it does not matter how correct or defensible the violence may be, one must not kill any being, and “non-violence is one’s highest religious duty”.

Jain texts such as Acaranga Sutra and Tattvarthasutra state that one must renounce all killing of living beings, whether tiny or large, movable or immovable. Its theology teaches that one must neither kill another living being, nor cause another to kill, nor consent to any killing directly or indirectly. Furthermore, Jainism emphasizes non-violence against all beings not only in action, but also in speech and in thought. It states that instead of hate or violence against anyone, “all living creatures must help each other”. Violence negatively affects and destroys one’s soul, particularly when the violence is done with intent, hate or carelessness, or when one indirectly causes or consents to the killing of a human or non-human living being.

The idea of reverence for non-violence (ahimsa) is founded in Hindu and Buddhist canonical texts, and it may have origins in more ancient Brahmanical Vedic thoughts. However, no other Indian religion has developed the non-violence doctrine and its implications on everyday life as has Jainism.

The theological basis of non-violence as the highest religious duty has been interpreted by some Jain scholars to “not be driven by merit from giving or compassion to other creatures, nor a duty to rescue all creatures”, but resulting from “continual self discipline”, a cleansing of the soul that leads to one’s own spiritual development which ultimately effects one’s salvation and release from rebirths. Causing injury to any being in any form creates bad karma which affects one’s rebirth, future well being and suffering.

Late medieval Jain scholars re-examined the Ahimsa doctrine when one is faced with external threat or violence. For example, they justified violence by monks to protect nuns. According to Dundas, the Jain scholar Jinadatta Suri wrote during a time of Muslim destruction of temples and persecution, that “anybody engaged in a religious activity who was forced to fight and kill somebody would not lose any spiritual merit but instead attain deliverance”. However, such examples in Jain texts that condone fighting and killing under certain circumstances, are relatively rare.

Many-sided reality (anekāntavāda)

The second main principle of Jainism is anekantavada or anekantatva. The word anekāntavāda is derived from anekānta (“not one ended, sided”, “many-sidedness”, or “manifoldness”) and vada (doctrine, way).

The anekantavada doctrine states that truth and reality is complex and always has multiple aspects. Reality can be experienced, but it is not possible to totally express it with language. Human attempts to communicate is Naya, explained as “partial expression of the truth”. Language is not Truth, but a means and attempt to express Truth. From Truth, according to Mahavira, language returns and not the other way around. One can experience the truth of a taste, but cannot fully express that taste through language. Any attempts to express the experience is syāt, or valid “in some respect” but it still remains a “perhaps, just one perspective, incomplete”. In the same way, spiritual truths are complex, they have multiple aspects, and language cannot express their plurality, yet through effort and appropriate karma they can be experienced.

The anekantavada premise of the Jains is ancient, as evidenced by its mention in Buddhist texts such as the Samaññaphala Sutta. The Jain Agamas suggest that Mahavira’s approach to answering all metaphysical philosophical questions was a “qualified yes” (syāt). These texts identify anekantavada doctrine to be one of the key differences between the teachings of the Mahavira and those of the Buddha. The Buddha taught the Middle Way, rejecting extremes of the answer “it is” or “it is not” to metaphysical questions. The Mahavira, in contrast, taught his followers to accept both “it is” and “it is not”, with “perhaps” qualification and with reconciliation to understand the Absolute Reality. Syādvāda (predication logic) and nayavāda (perspective epistemology) of Jainism expand on the concept of anekāntavādaSyādvāda recommends the expression of anekānta by prefixing the epithet syād to every phrase or expression describing the “permanent being”. There is no creator God in Jainism; existence has neither beginning nor end, and the permanent being is conceptualized as jiva (‘soul’) and ajiva (‘matter’) within a dualistic anekantavada framework.

In contemporary times, according to Paul Dundas, the anekantavada doctrine has been interpreted by many Jains as intending to “promote a universal religious tolerance”, and a teaching of “plurality” and “benign attitude to other [ethical, religious] positions”. This is problematic and a misreading of Jain historical texts and Mahavira’s teachings, states Dundas. The “many pointedness, multiple perspective” teachings of the Mahavira is a doctrine about the nature of Absolute Reality and human existence, and it is sometimes called “non-absolutism” doctrine. However, it is not a doctrine about tolerating or condoning activities such as sacrificing or killing animals for food, nor violence against disbelievers or any other living being as “perhaps right”. The five vows for Jain monks and nuns, for example, are strict requirements and there is no “perhaps” or “that is just one perspective” about them. Similarly, since ancient times, Jainism co-existed with Buddhism and Hinduism, according to Dundas, but Jainism was highly critical of the knowledge systems and ideologies of its rivals, and vice versa.

Non-attachment (aparigraha)

The third main principle in Jainism is aparigraha which means non-attachment to worldly possessions. For ascetics, Jainism requires a vow of complete non-possession of any property. For Jain laypersons, it recommends limited possession of property that has been honestly earned, and giving excess property to charity. According to Natubhai Shah, aparigraha applies to both material and psychic. Material possessions refer to various forms of property. Psychic possessions refer to emotions, likes and dislikes, attachments of any form. Unchecked attachment to possessions is said to result in direct harm to one’s personality.

Attachments to the material or emotional possessions are viewed in Jainism as what leads to passions, which in turn leads to violence. Per the aparigraha principle, a Jain monk or nun is expected to be homeless and family-less with no emotional longings or attachments. The ascetic is a wandering mendicant in the Digambara tradition, or a resident mendicant in the Svetambara tradition.

In addition, Jain texts mention that “attachment to possessions” (parigraha) is of two kinds: attachment to internal possessions (ābhyantara parigraha), and attachment to external possessions (bāhya parigraha). For internal possessions, Jainism identifies four key passions of the mind (kashaya): anger, pride (ego), deceitfulness, and greed. In addition to the four passions of the mind, the remaining ten internal passions are: wrong belief, the three sex-passions (male sex-passion, female sex-passion, neuter sex-passion), and the six defects (laughter, like, dislike, sorrow, fear, disgust).

Jain ethics and five vows

Jainism teaches five ethical duties, which it calls five vows. These are called anuvratas (small vows) for Jain laypersons, and mahavratas(great vows) for Jain mendicants. For both, its moral precepts preface that the Jain has access to a guru (teacher, counsellor), deva (Jina, god), doctrine, and that the individual is free from five offences: doubts about the faith, indecisiveness about the truths of Jainism, sincere desire for Jain teachings, recognition of fellow Jains, and admiration for their spiritual pursuits. Such a person undertakes the following Five vows of Jainism:

  1. Ahimsa, intentional ‘non-violence’ or ‘noninjury’: The first major vow taken by Jains is to cause no harm to other human beings, as well as all living beings. This is the highest ethical duty in Jainism, and it applies not only to one’s actions, but demands that one be non-violent in one’s speech and thoughts.
  2. Satya, ‘truth’: This vow is to always speak the truth, neither lie, nor speak what is not true, do not encourage others or approve anyone who speaks the untruth.
  3. Asteya, ‘not stealing’: A Jain layperson should not take anything that is not willingly given. A Jain mendicant should additionally ask for permission to take it if something is being given.
  4. Brahmacharya, ‘celibacy’: Abstinence from sex and sensual pleasures is prescribed for Jain monks and nuns. For laypersons, the vow means chastity, faithfulness to one’s partner.
  5. Aparigraha, ‘non-possessiveness’: This includes non-attachment to material and psychological possessions, avoiding craving and greed. Jain monks and nuns completely renounce property and social relations, own nothing and are attached to no one.

The 7 Tattvas of Jain philosophy

Tattva connotes “Reality, Truth” in Jain philosophy, and is the framework for salvation. According to Digambara Jains, there are seven tattvas, while Svetambaras believe in nine tattvas:

  • The sentient (jiva, soul)
  • The insentient (ajiva)
  • The karmic influx (Āsrava) to the soul
  • Good karma (punya, merits), found in the tattva theory of Svetambara, but not of Digambaras
  • Bad karma (papa, negatives), found in the tattva theory of Svetambara, but not of Digambaras
  • The bondage (Bandha) of karmic particles to the soul, thereby causing its change, which cumulatively determines the future rebirths
  • The stoppage (Saṃvara) of karmic influx
  • The dissociation and wiping away of past karmic particles (Nirjarā) from the soul
  • The liberation (Moksha)

The true insight in Jain philosophy is considered as “faith in the tattvas”. The spiritual goal in Jainism is to reach moksha for ascetics, but for most Jain laypersons and ascetics it is to accumulate good karma that leads to better rebirth and a step closer to liberation.

Soul and Karma

According to Jainism, the existence of “a bound and ever changing soul” is a self-evident truth, an axiom which does not need to be proven. There are numerous souls, but every one of them has three qualities (Guṇa): consciousness (caitanya, most important quality of soul), bliss (sukha) and vibrational energy (virya). The vibration draws karmic particles to the soul and creates bondages, but is also what adds merit or demerit to the soul.

Karma, like in other Indian religions, connotes in Jainism the universal cause and effect law. However, it is envisioned as a material substance (subtle matter) that can bind to the soul, travel with the soul substance in bound form between rebirths, and affect the suffering and happiness experienced by the jiva in the lokas. Karma also is believed to obscure and obstruct the innate nature and striving of the soul, as well as its spiritual potential in next rebirth.

The relationship between the soul and karma, states Padmanabh Jaini, can be explained with the analogy of gold. Like gold is always found mixed with impurities in its original state, Jainism holds that the soul is not pure at its origin, but is always impure and defiled such like natural gold. One can exert effort and purify gold, similarly, Jainism states that the defiled soul can be purified by proper refining methodology. Karma either defiles the soul further, or refines it to a cleaner state, and this affects the future rebirths. Karma is thus an efficient cause (nimitta) in Jain philosophy, but not the material cause (upadana). The soul is believed to be the material cause.

Tirthankara-nama-karma is a special type of karma, bondage of which raises a soul to the supreme status of a tirthankara.

Jain texts state that souls exist as “clothed with material bodies”, where it entirely fills up the body. There are five types of bodies in the Jaina thought: earthly (e.g. most humans, animals and plants), metamorphic (e.g. gods, hell beings, fine matter, some animals and a few humans who can morph because of their perfections), transference type (e.g. good and pure substances realized by ascetics), fiery (e.g. heat that transforms or digests food), and karmic (the substrate where the karmic particles reside and which make the soul ever changing).

Jain philosophy further divides the earthly body by symmetry, number of sensory organs, vitalities (ayus), functional capabilities and whether one body hosts one soul or one body hosts many. Every living being has one to five senses, three balas (power of body, language and mind), respiration (inhalation and exhalation), and life-duration. All living beings, in every realm including the gods and hell beings, accrue and destroy eight types of karma according to the elaborate theories in Jain texts. Elaborate descriptions of the shape and function of the physical and metaphysical universe, and its constituents, are also provided in the Jain texts. All of these elaborate theories attempt to illustrate and consistently explain the Jain karma theory in a deeply moral framework, much like Buddhism and Hinduism but with significant differences in the details and assumptions.


Souls are reborn in various realms of existence depending on their karmas, according to Jainism.

The conceptual framework of the Saṃsāra doctrine differs between the Jainism traditions and other Indian religions. For instance, in Jaina traditions, soul (jiva) is accepted as a truth, as is assumed in the Hindu traditions, but not assumed in the Buddhist traditions. However, Saṃsāra or the cycle of rebirths, has a definite beginning and end in Jainism. The Jaina theosophy, unlike Hindu and Buddhist theosophies, asserts that each soul passes through 8,400,000 birth-situations, as they circle through Saṃsāra. As the soul cycles, states Padmanabh Jaini, Jainism traditions believe that it goes through five types of bodies: earth bodies, water bodies, fire bodies, air bodies and vegetable lives. With all human and non-human activities, such as rainfall, agriculture, eating and even breathing, minuscule living beings are taking birth or dying, their souls are believed to be constantly changing bodies. Perturbing, harming or killing any life form, including any human being, is considered a sin in Jainism, with negative karmic effects.

Souls begin their journey in a primordial state, and exist in a state of consciousness continuum that is constantly evolving through Saṃsāra. Some evolve to a higher state, some regress asserts the Jaina theory, a movement that is driven by the karma. Further, Jaina traditions believe that there exist Abhavya (incapable), or a class of souls that can never attain moksha (liberation). The Abhavya state of soul is entered after an intentional and shockingly evil act. Jainism considers souls as pluralistic each in a karma-samsara cycle, and does not subscribe to Advaita style nondualism of Hinduism, or Advaya style nondualism of Buddhism. A liberated soul in Jainism is one who has gone beyond Saṃsāra, is at the apex, is omniscient, remains there eternally, and is known as a Siddha.

Jain texts propound that the universe consists of many eternal lokas (realms of existence). As in Buddhism and Hinduism, Jain cosmology believes both time and the universe are eternal without beginning and end, and that the universe is transient (impermanent in attributes) at the same time. The universe, body, matter and time are considered in Jain philosophy as separate from the soul (jiva or jivatman). Their interaction explains life, living, death, rebirth.

According to the Jain texts, the universe is divided into three parts, the upper, middle, and lower worlds, called respectively urdhva lokamadhya loka, and adho loka. As with the realms of existences, Kāla(“time”) is without beginning and eternal; the cosmic wheel of time, called kālachakra, rotates ceaselessly. According to Jain texts, in this part of the universe, there are six periods of time within two aeons (ara), and in the first aeon the universe generates, and in the next it degenerates. Thus, the worldly cycle of time is divided into two parts or half-cycles, ascending utsarpiṇī (“ascending”) and avasarpiṇī (“descending”). Utsarpiṇī is a period of progressive prosperity, where happiness increases, while avasarpiṇī is a period of increasing sorrow and immorality. According to Jain cosmology, it is currently the 5th ara of avasarpiṇī (half time cycle of degeneration). The present age is one of sorrow and misery, of religious decline, where the height and shape of living beings shrink. The Jain thought holds that after the sixth ara, the universe will be reawakened in the new cycle and the start of utsarpiṇī aras.

According to Jain texts, sixty-three illustrious beings, called śalākāpuruṣas, are born on this earth in every Dukhama-sukhamā ara. The Jain universal history is a compilation of the deeds of these illustrious persons. They comprise twenty-four Tīrthaṅkaras, twelve chakravartins, nine balabhadra, nine narayana, and nine pratinarayana.

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