A Note on Jainism By Dr. Ranu Jain

(Reader, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India)

Jainism is popularly known for its properties of Ahimsa (non violence) and Aparigraha (self control). In the world of philosophy its important contribution lies in introducing the doctrines of Anekanta vada and Syad vada. An in-depth understanding of Jainism reveals its strong individualistic orientation and propagation of the principles of equality, synthesis, tolerance and self responsibility.

The antiquity of Jainism is located in a period much earlier to 6th century B. C. or to the Stone Age, the period of Rishabh Dev, the first Tirthankara (prophet), who supposedly has civilized the world. The teachings of Rishabh Dev are supposed to have reached the modern Jains through a chain of 24 Tirthankaras, Mahavira being the last one in the chain.

Among these 24 Tirthankaras, historical evidences are available only for the last two viz. Parsvanatha (9th century B.C. or 250 years before the period of Mahavira) and Mahavira (599-527 B.C.). Parsvanatha is associated with Nirgrantha order, in which the modern Jainism finds its roots. It is important to note that Mahavira's family was the follower of the Nirgrantha order and Mahavira's Jainism has furthered the Chaturyama Dharma of the Nirgrantha order.

The Jain Text

Unlike many religions, the Jain text is not God's dictums. Acknowledging the dominant prevalence of oral tradition in the era of Mahavira, Jains claim an access to the teachings of Mahavira through oral transmissions across generations of Acharyas (teachers). The written text of Jainism dates back to 980 years after the demise of Mahavira. For Jains the canonical literature of Jainism comprise 14 Purvas and 11 Angas. In the process of oral transmission of the text, 14 Purvas, which reckoned to have made the 12th Anga or Drishtivada, are supposed to be extinct. The Digambars (a sect of Jainism) feel that gradually Angas also got extinct thus making it impossible to reconstruct the words of Mahavira. Hence for construing Jainism, the Digambaras mainly rely on the writings of their Acharyas like, Kundakunda, Umasvami, Pushpadanta, Bhutavali, Ganadharacharya, Svami Kartikeya, Vattakera etc. It is important to note that even among the Svetambaras, who hold belief in the continued existence of 11 Angas, the writings of Acharya and even of Jain laities are permissible and are, in reality, highly appreciated.

More specifically, unlike Hindu text the Jain text are accessible to all irrespective of their caste, class and creed. This accessibility has provided a scope for interpretation of the text by people thus attributing contemporary relevance to the text. It is this contemporary relevance and possibility of interpretation that has resulted in sustained identification of the Jains with their religious philosophy and practice.

The Jain Sects

Svetambara and Digambara are two major sects in the Jain religious community. One does not find consensus in the year of emergence of these sects. For Svetambaras it is 83 A.D. while the Digambaras trace it to the year 80 A.D.

The literary meaning of the term `Digambara' is `the one, who puts on the sky', while, that of `Svetambara' is `the one who puts on white clothes'. According to Digambaras, it is essential to denounce every worldly thing including one's clothes for salvation. For Svetambara, on the other hand, one can put on limited white clothes as they are not obstructive to salvation. Some other differences between the two sects are:

  • For Digambaras women cannot attain nirvana, hence, the 19th Tirthankara Mallinath/sena was a male.
  • For Digambaras Kevala Gyani do not require food for sustenance.
  • For Digambaras embryo of Mahavira was not transplanted from the womb of a Brahmin woman to that of a Kshatriya woman.
  • For Digambaras the Jain sacred text are completely extinct.
  • For Digambaras Mahavira did not marry.

Over the years both the Svetambara and the Digambara sects developed various sub sects. The following chart mentions some of the popular ones.

The sub sect of Mandir Margi or Murtipujak is the only sect that prescribes idol worshipping. Not only do the Murtipujaks worship the idols of the twenty four prophets but also perform the rituals for a number of Gods and Goddesses associated with these prophets like, Goddess Padmavati associated with the Tirthankar Parsvanath. As the chart shows, the Mandir Margis are further divided into various `Gachachas'. However, these Gachachas are result of minor differences in opinion on religious issues and as such do not extend any fissile impact upon the social life of the Jains. The alokik (other worldly) dharma of Jainism does not bind its followers to any particular sect or doctrine. People are free to choose their own faith. That explains presence of more than one sect in one family.

The Concept of Jina

The most striking feature of Jainism is that the religion neither advocates the notion of God nor the practice of 'blind faith'. It is a religion of human beings rather individuals and advocates conquering world passions by controlling the self through one's own efforts. To quote Sangave (1980:190-1)

Jainism is nothing but a set of principles preached by such persons (who have attained salvation). Hence, Jainism is not an 'Apaurusheya' religion, i.e., a religion propounded by a non-human being or based on a sacred book of non-human origin. On the contrary, it is a religion of purely human origin and it has emanated from the mouth of a dignitary who has secured the omniscience and self control by his own personal efforts (parenthesis mine).

Perhaps that is why, Jainism places high value on Parameshthin or those who either have attained Nirvana (salvation) or are on its way. In the hierarchy of Parameshthin, top position is assigned to 'Siddha' or the one who has attained 'Siddha Chakra' (salvation or liberation from the life cycle). Having liberated from this-worldly affairs, the Siddhas neither are concerned nor can influence this-worldly affairs. Next position among these Parameshthin is assigned to the 'Tirthankara' or the one who have attained 'Kevala Gyana' (omniscience) but not nirvana yet. These Tirthankaras are prophets with the responsibility of propagating religion to the laity. After demise these Tithankaras attain nirvana and hence do not remain in the position to influence this world affairs. As has been mentioned earlier, the Jainas are supposed to have 24 Tirthankaras. The names are given in the appendix I.

The above two categories of Parameshthin refer to those who have attained omniscience and salvation; however, the Jains also have three categories of Parameshthin who are on the way to omniscience and salvation. These are 'Upadhyay' or head of ascetics; 'Acharya' or the teachers and 'Sadhu'/ 'Maharaj Sahib' or the ascetics.

Interestingly, Jainism distinguishes between the Lokik (this worldly) and Alokik (other worldly) religion, with an emphasis on the alokik religion, which aims to make the laity prepare for ascetic way of life that would ultimately lead to nirvana. One finds three categories among the laities: Yati or those who despite not being ascetics follow the rigorous life pattern of the ascetics; Sravaks/Sravikas, or those who practice 12 vratas (appendix II) prescribed in the Jain scriptures for an ideal Jain. The lowest rung in the hierarchy goes to those who use the nomenclature of 'Jain' due to ascriptive compulsions.

It is important to note that in Jainism all the above mentioned are open categories accessible to all irrespective of their religious affiliation, gender and class positions.

The Jain Philosophy

Due to space constraint, it will not be possible for us to discuss the Jain philosophy in details. However, attempts would be made to capture certain salient features of Jainism. For convenience of discussion, various Jain philosophical aspects would be covered under two headings:

  • Doctrine of Karma
  • Doctrines of Anekantavada, Syadvada and Nayas

Like Hindu religion the doctrine of karma forms the pivot of Jainism. It appears similar to Hindu religion when it focuses on the notions of life cycle and reincarnation in accordance to one's karma in the previous births. However, it differs from Hindu religion in projecting the birth in non evolutionary manner, i.e., in case of Jainism a soul of human being in this birth can be born as an animal in the next birth, similarly the relationships in this birth may not be same in the next one. For instance, the relationship of mother and son may develop into the relationship of brother and sister in the next birth.

Further, the Jain doctrine of karma advocates principle of equality. According to the Hindus, one cannot attain salvation till one reaches Brahminhood. For a Jain, it is possible to nirjara (get rid of) karma irrespective of the ascriptive status that an individual holds. It is the only religion which accommodates possibility of females attaining salvation at least in case of the Svetambara sect, in which, Mallinath Tirthankara has been considered to be a woman.

The Jain doctrine of Karma dwells on the notion that a human being comprises both, the spiritual and the material. It states that every mundane soul is bound by subtle particles of matter known as Karma. Karma, according to Jain metaphysics, is an atomic matter that clings to the soul when the soul interacts with matter, especially with `Dharma’ (punya) and `Adharma’ (papa), which are `Sukshma Pudgala’ (atomic matters). Karma clings to the soul and obscures its pure quality of `Ananta Darsana’ (infinite perception); `Ananta Gyana’ (infinite knowledge); `Ananta Virya’ (infinite power) and’ `Ananta Sukha’ (infinite bliss). The impact of different types of Karma may be different. Some may obscure knowledge, some right intuition, sensation, comfort, sleep, faith, age, individual status and the status of family. Above all, Karma may obscure the desire to perform a good activity. According to the Jain doctrine of Karma, each Karma has its predestined limit and that both good and bad karma hinder the process of attaining salvation.

The Jain doctrine of karma promulgates individualism. It states that every individual can liberate her/his soul from the karmic matters. The liberation, however, has to be effected through the person’s own efforts. No one – yaksha, priest, temple, kin or friend – can extend assistance in this process. The scriptures, however, mention that the practice of `Samyag Darshana’ (right perception), `Samyag Gyan’ (right knowledge) and `Samyag Charitra’ (right conduct) would help in attaining the omniscience and the salvation.

The Doctrines of Anekantavada, Syadvada & Nayas:

The doctrine of Anekantavada is considered the central theme in Jain philosophy. It is a philosophy of ‘synthesis’ and ‘reconciliation’; a theory of ‘many sided nature of reality’. To quote Matilal (1981:1-2)

The Anekanta philosophy, being itself a synthetic development, historically presupposes the existence of many rival and well-developed philosophical schools. In fact, the Jain philosophy unfolded itself in the context of many severe and serious controversies among such schools as Samkhya, Buddha, Nyaya, Mimamsa and Vedanta.

He further states that,

The term ‘anekanta-vada’ is … used … as a method which allows for reconciliation, integration and synthesis of conflicting philosophic views. (ibid: 25)

The Anekanta philosophy appears mainly to synthesize permanent and changing notions of natural elements and reality. Synthesizing both the Brahminical and Buddhist schools, it states that the elements are permanent only to the extent the reference is made to their substance. Their characteristics originate and perish, thus, attributing different forms to the substance at different points of time. The significance of the doctrine of Anekantavada can best be understood when placed with reference to Syadvada and Nayas. Syadvada mainly refers to ‘the dialectic of sevenfold predication’ implying manifold/complex nature of natural elements including human beings. In practical terms it draws attention to the fact that a single entity is variegated by a plurality of attributes. The doctrine of Nayas or Nayavada is ‘the doctrine of standpoint’. The Jain theory of Nayas proclaims that a view point ‘is only one out of many, equally viable, standpoints…. (Hence) when we emphasize only one standpoint by excluding all others, we employ a durnaya ‘an incorrect philosophical method.’ (ibid: 30)

Taken together, the three doctrines focus upon the most relevant doctrine in the contemporary world namely, the doctrine of the multifaceted ness of the truth/reality. The doctrines emphasize complex nature of reality of elements and human beings, stressing upon the need to forego rigid stand on any one viewpoint/ interpretation of reality, implying the need for respect for alternative even contradictory viewpoints/interpretations. The doctrines imply that the ultimate truth (Kevala Gyana) may be absolute (universal or without contradictions). However, due to our partial understanding, it may appear as many truths, at times even contradictory to each other. These apparent contradictions loose their significance once placed in context of the absolute truth. At that time, the earlier perceived contradictions may appear complementary to each other as then they would be understood in their totality. The relevance of philosophy for the quest of knowledge is that every reality (truth) should be understood in time-place-object dimension, as change in any one would initiate apparent changes in any given reality. It is needless to state that at the level of individualism it will propagate the lessons of tolerance for differences and respect for alternative viewpoints. At this level it will also advocate self reliance and the need to accept responsibilities for one’s own Karma including both the thought and the deed.


  1. Matilal B. K., 1981, The Central Philosophy of Jainism (Anekanta-Vada), L.D. Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad.
  2. Roy A.K., 1984, A History of the Jainas, Gitanjali Publishing House, New Delhi
  3. Sangave V.A., 1980 (1959), Jaina Community: A Social Survey,Popular Prakashan, Mumbai

Appendix I

Twenty Four Tirthankaras

Tirthankara Colour Tree Emblem Yaksha Yakshini
1. Rishavanatha or Adinatha Gold Banyan Bull Gomukha Chakreshvari (D); Apratichakra (S)
2. Ajitanatha Gold Shala Elephant Mahayaksha Rohini (D); Ajitabala (S)
3. Shambhavanatha Gold Prayala Horse Trimukha Prajnapti (D); Duritarih (S)
4. Abhinandana Gold Priyangu Monkey Yaksheshvara (D); Yakshanayaka (S) Vajrashrakhala (D); Kalika (S)
5. Sumatinatha Gold Shala Curlew (kravncha) Tamburu Purushadatta (D); Mahakali (S)
6. Padmaprabha Red Chatra Red lotus Kusuma Manovega, Manogupti (D); Shyama, Achyuta (S)
7. Suparshvanatha Gree (D); gold (S) Shirisa Svastika and 5 snake hoods above head Varanandi (D); Matanga (S) Kali (D); Shanta (S)
8. Chandraprabha White Naga Crescent moon Shyama (D); Vijaya (D.S.) Jvalamalini (D); Bhrikuti (S)
9. Pushpadanta or Suvidhinatha White Shali Makara Ajita Mahakali or Ajita (D); Sutara (S)
10. Shitalanatha Gold Priyangu Shrivriksha (wishing tree) (D); Shrivatsa (S) Brahma, Brahmeshvara, or Brahmashanti Manavi (D); Ashoka (S)
11. Shreyamshanatha Gold Tanduka Rhinoceros Ishvara (D); Yakset (S) Gauri (D); Manavi (S)
12. Vasupuja Red Patali Buffalo or bullock Kumara Gandhari (D); Chandra, Chanda (S)
13. Vimalanatha Gold Jambo Boar Shanmukha or Karttikeya Vajroti or Vairotya (D); Vidita (S)
14. Anantanatha Gold Ashoka Falcon Patala Anantamati (D); Ankusha (S)
15. Dharmanatha Gold Dadhi- Vajradanda (thunderbolt) Kinnara Manasi (D); Kandarpa (S)
16. Shantinatha Gold Nandi Deer Kimpurusha (D); Garuda (S) Mahamanasi (D); Nirvani (S)
17. Kunthunatha Gold Bhilaka Goat Gandharva Vijaya or Jaya (D); Bala (S)
18. Aranatha Gold Mango Fish (D); nandyavarta (S) Kendra (D); Yakshet, Yakshendra (S) Ajita (D); Dharani, Dhana (S)
19. Mallinatha Gold (D); blue (S) Ashoka Water pot or jar Kubera Aparajita (D); Vairotya or Dharanapriya (S)
20. Munisuvrata Black Champaka Tortoise Varuna Bahurupini (D); Naradatta (S)
21. Naminatha (Nimi or Nimeshsvara) Gold Bakula Blue lotus Bhrikuti Chamunda (D); Gandhari (S)
22. Neminatha (Arishtanemi) Black Vetasa Conch Sarvahna (D); Gomedha (S) Kushmandini or Dharmadevi (D); Ambika (S)
23. Parshvanatha Blue Dhataki Serpent on seat and 7 snake hoods above head Dharanendra or Parshvayaksha Padmavati
24. Mahavira (Vardhamana) Gold Shala Lion Matanga Siddhayini or Siddhayika

Appendix II

The Twelve Vratas (Vows)

The twelve vratas comprise five Mahavatras (essential vows) and six Anuvatras (supplementary vows).


  1. Ahimsa, i.e., to be free from injury
  2. Satya, i.e., to be free from false hood
  3. Asteya, i.e., to be free from theft
  4. Brahmacharya, i.e., to be free from unchastity, and
  5. Aparigraha, i.e., to be free from worldly attachment


  1. Digvrata, i.e., Taking a lifelong vow to limit (one’s) worldly activity to fixed points in all directions,
  2. Desavrata, i.e, Taking a vow to limit the above also for a limited area,
  3. Anarthadanda-vrata, i.e., Taking a vow not to commit purposeless sins,
  4. Samayika, i.e., Taking a vow to devote particular time everyday to contemplation of the self for spiritual advancement,
  5. Proshadhopavasa, i.e, Taking a vow to fast on four days of the month, namely, the two 8th and the two 14th days of the fortnight,
  6. Upabhoga-paribhoga-parimana, i.e., Taking a vow everyday limiting one’s enjoyments of consumable and non-consumable things, and
  7. Atithi-samvibhaga, i.e., Taking a vow to take one’s food only after feeding the ascetics, or in their absence, the pious householders.