What is Jainism?

Image: JAINpedia, nuns and monks.

Origins in the Religious Reformer Mahavira

Although Jains believe that Jainism has always existed and that it always will exist, it is Mahavira, regarded by Jains to be the most recent of 24 enlightened teachers (Tirthankaras) in the current era (Jains believe that each era lasts for millions of years and recurs in an infinite cycle of ages), who founded it. Some historians believe Mahavira was a contemporary of the Buddha, and much like the Buddha, his views were a reaction and rejection of Brahmanism, namely the religion based upon the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, and Upanishads. Jainism is also the most ascetic of all Indian religions as practitioners are expected to engage in self-denial as a means to attain liberation (moksha) and release from constant rebirth into this world of suffering.

Doctrinal Beliefs

Jain philosophy holds that the basic constituents of reality are souls (jiva), matter (pudgala), motion (dharma), rest (adharma), space (akasa), and time (kala). The universe is eternal, and matter and souls are both equally uncreated. Jains do not believe in a creator god although the universe is believed to contain gods. These beings may be worshipped for various reasons, but there is no being outside of the universe exercising control over it. The gods and other superhuman beings are also subject to karma and rebirth in the same way human beings are.

Jains believe that souls accumulate karma, that all souls have undergone an infinite number of previous lives, and will continue to be reincarnated. Reincarnation is determined by the type and amount of karma accumulated, and like Hindus and Buddhists, Jains believe that good karma leads to better circumstances in the next life and bad karma to worse. However, through following the path of self-denial laid down and taught by Mahavira and the Tirthankaras, one can hope to free himself from this repeated rebirth and infinite material existence. Without following such a path, life is just a continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation in which moksha will never be attained. All karma, whether good or bad, leads to rebirth in the body, and only no karma will result in one achieving liberation from rebirth. Karma is caused by attachment to worldly things, passions (i.e. anger, greed, fear, pride), sensual enjoyment, and ignorance or false belief. Jains thus seek to avoid attachments to the world which leads them to engage in asceticism.

Ethical Beliefs

Jains are extreme on the notion of the preservation and safeguarding of biological life. Every living thing has a soul, although they are classified in a hierarchy according to the number and kinds of senses they possess. The more senses a lifeform has, the more ways it can be harmed or helped. Many animals and lifeforms (worms and insects) have just two or three senses while the likes of higher insects (bees and flies) have these same senses but with the addition of sight. Plants are living entities with souls and are made up of just one of the four elements (Earth, air, fire, water). This is why Jains are required to be vegetarians. Human beings, along with birds, fish, and most terrestrial animals, have all five senses with the addition, according to some Jain thinkers, of a separate faculty of consciousness. Human beings are thus able to accumulate knowledge, which includes the knowledge of the human condition and the need for liberation from rebirth. In Jainism, the ideal way to die is to sit motionlessly and starve oneself to death, which is the way Mahavira is thought to have died. Such a death ensures that one does no harm to living things.

Rituals and Practices

The commitment to self-denial traces itself back to Mahavira and is central to Jainism. A few centuries after Mahavira, however, a schism arose within Jainism relating to the extent to which self-denial should be practiced. The result was two sects: the Schvetambara (“white-clad”) and Digambara (“sky-clad”) sects. Schvetambara monks hold that detachment and purity are not undermined by wearing a simple robe, whereas the Digambara wander naked. The Digambara believe that wearing clothes indicates that a person is not completely detached from sexual feelings and the ideas of modesty. Digambara monks also do not carry alms bowls to receive their food which they instead receive food in cupped hands. They also do not believe that liberation from rebirth is possible for women until they have been reborn as a man.

Jains worship at temples or domestic shrines at their homes. Their temples are viewed as replicas of celestial assembly halls where liberated Tirthankaras continue their teachings. Contemplating and revering these teachers is believed to bring about spiritual inner transformation, and worship typically takes the form of darshan, the practice of making eye contact with the image of a Tirthankara while reciting a sacred mantra. The Navkar Mantra is one such important Jain prayer because by reciting it the worshiper honors the souls of the liberated while also obtaining inspiration from them in his or her own quest for enlightenment. There are the Five Great Vows that Jain monks and nuns take, which function to assist the monk or nun to live a life of self-denial. These are non-violence (ahimsa), speaking the truth (satya), celibacy (brahmacharya), not taking what is not willingly offered (astray), and detachment from people, places, and things (aparigraha). The most important is ahimsa (non-violence), which is not just the avoidance of hurting humans but all animals, including the smallest organisms found in the water and the air. According to one Jain prayer: “I ask pardon of all living creatures. May all of them pardon me. May I have a friendly relationship with all beings.” The other four vows assist in one living a life dedicated to a wandering vagabond, dedicated to preaching, fasting, worshiping, and studying.

Recommended Readings

Ambalu, Shulamit. 2013. The Religions Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p. 68-70

Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 68-72.



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