An introduction to the Jain faith


The Jain faith is one of the oldest faiths in India. Its presence is attested since the 6th–5th century BCE. This was the time when Mahāvīra preached in the eastern part of India, then known as Magadha. Since then the faith has been present on the Indian subcontinent, without any break. There is no way to historically pinpoint when it began; virtually no archaeological Jain ruins predate this time in India, but the earliest evidence there is suggests that Jainism was already a well-established faith. Today the Jains form a significant minority in Indian society, even though they make up hardly one percent of the total population, and have important diaspora communities in the UK, North America, Singapore, Belgium, etc.

Who do the Jains worship?

The Jain faith does not believe in a creator god like Hinduism or the Abrahamic faiths. In a way similar to Buddhists, the Jains venerate perfect ascetics who have been provided with valid authority on account of their career and abilities. They are named Jinas (‘Conquerors’) or Tīrthaṃkaras (‘Ford-makers’, because they have crossed to liberation) who provide ultimate models to the followers, the Jains. Mahāvīra was the twenty-fourth Jina. His predecessors are not historical figures, but this does not affect their place in respect and worship. Their existence lays emphasis on the idea of lineage which is at the centre of Jainism. Mahāvīra is thus a continuator and a reformer rather than a founder, which he is often said to be.

What is a Jina?

All Jinas led similar lives. They were born as princes in royal families and withdrew from society in order to take up religious initiation, either before or after marriage, depending on the case.

A Jina plucking out his hair as a sign of renunciation and carried on a palanquin to the garden where he will follow ascetic practices. Manuscript of the Kalpasūtra, IO San. 3177, fol. 50 recto, dated 1427 CE. (British Library)

A Jina plucking out his hair as a sign of renunciation and carried on a palanquin to the garden where he will follow ascetic practices. Manuscript of the Kalpasūtra, IO San. 3177, fol. 50 recto, dated 1427 CE. (British Library)

 

The first stage of their ascetic life was full of tests that they had to overcome, showing their perseverance when faced with challenges. This spiritual evolution finally led to full enlightenment, known in Jainism as omniscience (kevalajñāna). When a Jina reaches this state they are then able to grasp everything everywhere whether it relates to past, present or future. They can then teach others the principles of the doctrine. This takes place during a general assembly where the Jina sits at the centre, heard and seen by all beings wherever they are.

 

Mahāvīra preaching to all beings after enlightenment. The antelope and the lion, a traditional pair of enemies, symbolise the all-pervading positive impact of his teaching. Manuscript of the Kalpasūtra, Or 13700, fol. 32 verso, dated 1445 CE. (British Library)

Mahāvīra preaching to all beings after enlightenment. The antelope and the lion, a traditional pair of enemies, symbolise the all-pervading positive impact of his teaching. Manuscript of the Kalpasūtra, Or 13700, fol. 32 verso, dated 1445 CE. (British Library)

 

He then utters the divine sound which results in teaching expanded by him and his direct disciples, and builds around him a community of monks, nuns and lay followers. When his lifespan comes to an end and he has attained full perfection, the Jina leaves the human body for good and attains liberation from the cycle of rebirths.

 

Showing a liberated Jina, now at the top of the universe. Here Pārśva, the twenty-third Jina, can be recognised through the green colour associated with him. Manuscript of the Kalpasūtra, Or 13700, fol. 38 verso, dated 1445 CE. (British Library)

Showing a liberated Jina, now at the top of the universe. Here Pārśva, the twenty-third Jina, can be recognised through the green colour associated with him. Manuscript of the Kalpasūtra, Or 13700, fol. 38 verso, dated 1445 CE. (British Library)

 

Mahāvīra is said to have lived seventy-two years, thirty as a prince and forty-two as an ascetic. In historical terms, however, the exact dates of his life are still debated due to lack of evidence: the Śvetāmbara sect say his dates are 599–527 BCE, the Digambara sect say they are 599–510 BCE and modern scholarship suggests 549–477 BCE.

 

What are the main features of the Jain worldview?

The Jain faith can be best labelled as a path to liberation or a path of purification. This is defined as consisting of correct faith, correct understanding and correct conduct. The Jain teaching in its multiple shapes is an expansion of these ‘three jewels’, the sequence of which is significant and emphasises a concern for rationality as one leads to the other: one can have a proper conduct only if one is aware of the proper way to analyse what exists. Correct faith means recognising the existence of nine verities or principles. They are:

  1. the fact that there are sentient souls or living beings (jīva)
Different living beings in connection with the hells where they can be reborn. Manuscript of Śrīcandra’s Saṃgrahaṇīratna, Or 2116 C, fol. 34 recto, no date, probably 17th–18th century. (British Library)

Different living beings in connection with the hells where they can be reborn. Manuscript of Śrīcandra’s Saṃgrahaṇīratna, Or 2116 C, fol. 34 recto, no date, probably 17th–18th century. (British Library)

 

  1. the fact that there are non-sentient or material things (ajīva) such as time or space
  2. the fact that karma flow in the soul (āsrava)
  3. the fact that once in the soul karma is attached to it (bandha)
  4. the fact that there are forms of activity that are good (puṇya)
  5. the fact that there are forms of activity that are bad (pāpa)
  6. the fact that flowing of karma should be blocked (saṃvara)
  7. the fact that karma that has flowed in should be annihilated (nirjarā)
  8. the fact that once all karmas have been eliminated final liberation from the cycle of rebirths takes place (mokṣa).

This systematic worldview forms the basis for the Jains way of life and their religious practices.

The Jain faith in practice

Since the beginning, the Jain society has taken account of the fact there are two ways of life, a stricter one for ascetics and a milder one for non-ascetics, who live in the world engaged in professional and family life and are often called lay followers. Male and female mendicants, on the one hand, male and female lay followers, on the other hand, form the fourfold Jain community.

Mendicants and lay followers in a Kalpasūtra manuscript, dated 1427 CE. (British Library)

Mendicants and lay followers in a Kalpasūtra manuscript, dated 1427 CE. (British Library)

 

Monastic life is regarded as an ideal aim but Jainism has devised a lot of possibilities for lay people to live their faith earnestly in daily practice.

Jain mendicants are people who have become monks or nuns after the official initiation ceremony called dīkṣā. They renounce ordinary life, receive a new name and the monastic equipment in accordance with the monastic order to which they will belong. Then they lead a life of itinerancy, walking long distances and not using any mode of transportation as a general rule. They conform to the ‘five great vows’ (mahāvratas) which provide a broad frame of behaviour.

  1. Non-violence (ahiṃsā)
  2. Truth (satya)
  3. Not taking what has not been given (asteya)
  4. Celibacy (brahmacarya)
  5. Non-attachment or non-possession (aparigraha)

Necessary adjustments (aṇuvratas) are made to some of the same vows for lay followers. For instance, the mendicant ideal is complete celibacy, the lay ideal is satisfaction with one’s own partner. Jain mendicants practice non-attachment through a nomadic lifestyle, depending entirely on the lay followers for subsistance.

A Jain lay woman offering food to a Jain monk. This is a fundamental act of religiosity in daily life. Manuscript of Matisāra’s Śālibhadracaupaī, Or 13524, fol. 33r, dated 1726 CE. (British Library)

A Jain lay woman offering food to a Jain monk. This is a fundamental act of religiosity in daily life. Manuscript of Matisāra’s Śālibhadracaupaī, Or 13524, fol. 33r, dated 1726 CE. (British Library)

 

Lay followers are engaged in economic life and earn money, so in their case non-possession often means extensive charity in the form of donations to the temples. Such is the broad frame in which Jain mendicants and lay followers live. But there is a wide range of practices that strengthen the main concepts of the faith.

Non-violence and its manifestations

The foundational Jain principle of non-violence is the consequence of an in-depth analysis of the Jain classification of life forms. These are based on the number of sense-faculties life forms possess, ranging from one to five, and apply to all living organisms, be them human, animal, plant or microbe. The most visible expression of this principle is the strict practice of vegetarianism, a key expression of Jain faith. Besides not consuming meat and fish, dietary restrictions extend to root vegetables such as onions, garlic, potatoes, fruits with a large number of seeds, alcohol (as fermentation means destroying minute life-forms), eggs and honey. Today’s lay Jains observe these restrictions in various degrees. For instance, they may consume potatoes for most of the year but abstain from them for a specific period corresponding to a religious observance. Mendicants follow these rules more stringently. During the rainy season (July to October in North India), the combination of warmth and humidity favours the birth of very minute organisms. Hurting them may happen accidentally, and for this reason Jain mendicants stop wandering during this period and lead a sedentary life. Another aspect of food in religious life is the offering of alms to the mendicant, which is ritualised and obeys very strict rules. For mendicants as well as for lay people, fasting is one of the most common practices. It is believed to favour elimination of karmic matter by purifying the soul.

How do Jains express their faith?

Jain faith puts a lot of emphasis on respect and worship to the religious teachers, from the ordinary mendicant up to the Jinas.

The five Supreme Entities saluted by all Jains in the Navakāramantra: Arahants, Siddhas, Ācāryas, Upādhyāyas, Sādhus. For meditation purposes a colour became associated to each of the group. Manuscript of Śrīcandra’s Saṃgrahaṇīratna, Or 2116C, fol. 1 verso, no date (probably 17th–18th century.) (British Library)

The five Supreme Entities saluted by all Jains in the Navakāramantra: Arahants, Siddhas, Ācāryas, Upādhyāyas, Sādhus. For meditation purposes a colour became associated to each of the group. Manuscript of Śrīcandra’s Saṃgrahaṇīratna, Or 2116C, fol. 1 verso, no date (probably 17th–18th century.) (British Library)

 

This is expressed in the daily prayer known as the ‘Fivefold homage’ (Navakāramantra or Pañcanamaskāra) which is a chanting of mantras or recitations, and is endowed with protective values. It is a key component of Jain worship, similar to the three refuges for the Buddhists or the Gāyatrīmantra for Hindus. Other important religious acts include mantras for confession and repentance, meditating on key topics (anuprekṣā) such as impermanence, impurity of the body, etc., singing praises to the Jinas, worshipping Jina images in the temples, remembering important dates in the Jinas’ lives through festivals or pilgrimage to Jain sacred places.

 

A Jina in a temple with worshippers and accessories for worship. The Sukasapati or The seventy-two tales of the parrot (British Library)

A Jina in a temple with worshippers and accessories for worship. The Sukasapati or The seventy-two tales of the parrot (British Library)

 

There are a large number of magnificent Jain temples in India that are often constructed in white marble, where serenity and beauty are striking. Places like Shatrunjaya Hill in Gujarat or Shravanabelgola in Karnatak are known worldwide. Among prominent Jain festivals are the Mahavir Jayanti (beginning of April), which commemorates Mahāvīra’s birth or Paryushan (end of August–September), when everybody asks forgiveness for all faults that might have been done over the year.

Do all Jains believe the same thing?

With such a long and vital history it is to be expected that Jains have not always agreed on everything and that these differences in belief or practice resulted in divisions. However, divisions are based on practices, rather than doctrines, and all Jains agree on the foundational principles of karma and ahiṃsā.

The oldest division goes back to around the 1st century CE and remains the most important today. It produced the separation between the Śvetāmbaras and the Digambaras who hold the following main differences:

Śvetāmbaras Digambaras
mendicants wear white clothing (this the meaning of the word) fully initiated male mendicants go naked (digambara means sky-clad), others wear white clothing
use a bowl for alms receive alms in their hands
believe that women can reach final liberation believe that full detachment, represented by nudity, is a prerequisite for final liberation and is therefore impossible for women (they must be reborn as a man first)
believe that the Omniscient being experiences hunger and needs to eat believe that the Omniscient being no longer needs food
consider a body of thirty-two or forty-five texts as ‘canonical’ recognise the authority of other scriptures
consider that Mahāvīra was married and fathered a son before becoming a mendicant consider that Mahāvīra was fully celibate

 

In the Digambara temples Jina images are shown naked and with no ornament. Manuscript of the Ādityavārakathā, Or 14290, fol. 15 recto, dated 1792 CE. (British Library)

In the Digambara temples Jina images are shown naked and with no ornament. Manuscript of the Ādityavārakathā, Or 14290, fol. 15 recto, dated 1792 CE. (British Library)

 

In the 15th century a subdivision emerged amomg the Śvetāmbaras as to the canonicity of image-worship. The Mūrtipūjaks are the ‘image-worshippers’, the Sthānakavāsins and the Terāpanthins are not in favour of visiting temples and performing image-worship. They represent a kind of protestant aniconic movement.

Other subdivisions which cannot be detailed here do exist, but they do not endanger the existence of the faith as one and of the Jains as a community.


  • Nalini Balbir
  • Nalini Balbir is a Professor of Indology at Sorbonne Nouvelle University Paris, where she teaches Sanskrit. She has specialised in research on various aspects of the Jain tradition. Her publications include a Catalogue of the British Library Jain manuscripts (2006, with co-authors K V Sheth, K K Sheth and C B Tripathi). She has also contributed to the JAINpedia website which includes digitised Jain manuscripts from various London collections.

Originally published on the British Library site.

Cite this page as: The British Library, "An introduction to the Jain faith," in Smarthistory, December 22, 2020, accessed July 27, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/an-introduction-to-the-jain-faith/.