European Vegetarian and Animal News Alliance (EVANA)
Select language:
en de fr pt es
it nl ro sl sq sv

Book recommendation:
Paving the Way for Peace: Living Philosophies of Bishnoi and Jains
Join us on
facebook logo

RSS engl.
RSS all lang.

Donation to EVANA.

JAINISM - Questions and Answers

Reverence for all forms of life is deeply ingrained in the Jain ethos

1. What is Jainism?
2. What is the Central Concept of Jainism?
3. What is the Jain Code of Conduct?
4. What is the Most Important Doctrine of Jain Living?
5. What are the other main aspects of Jain Living?
6. Does this ancient religion have any relevance to the modern world?
7. Do Jains proselytize their religion?
8. What is Karma and Reincarnation?
9. Is Karma something like destiny?
10. What is Liberation of Soul (Moksha)?
11. Do Jains Believe in God?
12. Who Created the Universe?
13. How do you pray and worship?
14. Is Jainism an off-shoot of Hinduism?
15. How can I find out more about Jainism?
16. In the Words of Mahavir (Twenty-fourth Tirthankara, ca. 600 B.C.E.)
Questions and Answers

1 What is Jainism?

Jainism is one of the oldest religions. Its basic philosophy and practice originated at least 8,500 years ago in India. This ancient system was revived by a monk called ‘Mahavira’ in the 6th century BCE, and became known as Jainism.

Through the ages, ascetics have been the teachers and the preservers of the ancient Jain doctrines and their sacred texts. Today there are about ten million Jains, mostly in India, and about 80,000 people follow Jainism in North America. There are currently 84 Jain Centers in the US and Canada and almost all are affiliated with a federation called Jain Associations in North America (JAINA).

2 What is the Central Concept of Jainism?

Like most other religions, Jainism aspires to answer some of the fundamental human questions, such as: Who am I? What is the purpose and goal of life? How do I achieve permanent happiness and bliss? Jain answers to most of these questions are based on logical and intellectual deductions. I hope you will find them to be a source of inspirational wisdom as well.

The central theme of Jainism is that we are the masters of our destiny. We can shape our future. No other being is responsible for our happiness or misery, only we. Jains explain this by deducing that every living being is made up of two components, namely, a material component – the body, and an energy or consciousness component – which is known by various names – soul, spirit, Jiva, atman, etc. Death is merely the departure of the soul* from the material body.
(* The Jain concept of Jiva is somewhat different from the Western concept of ‘soul‘. However we will continue to use the term ’soul’)

An absolutely pure soul has four intrinsic characteristics, namely infinite perception, infinite knowledge, infinite power and infinite bliss. However, the soul becomes impure by its association and bonding with a foreign substance known as karmic matter. Karma, as a Jain concept, is unique in that it is sub-atomic particulate matter (this is explained later). Our impure soul goes through many births and rebirths, until it is purified and liberated. We alone can purify or further defile our soul and thus can shape our future with happiness or misery.

For the Jains, the ultimate goal of every soul is liberation, and the main purpose of human life is to work towards that goal. Over 8,500 years ago, a monk – Rikhav (also known as Rishabhadev or Adinath) – perfected a path to liberation (moksha), achieved moksha, and recommended the path to his followers. Over a period, his path was refined and perfected by 23 other teachers – the peaceful liberators (Tirthankaras). This path to liberation forms the basis for the Jain Code of Conduct.

3 What is the Jain Code of Conduct?

According to Jainism, liberation requires a self-disciplined lifestyle. Self-discipline can be achieved by practicing daily contemplation, meditation, and austerity. Jains believe that such a lifestyle stops the inflow of bad karma and burns off accumulated karmic particles.

However, our behavior and lifestyle is largely controlled by our mind. A well-disciplined, motivated mind will better control our conduct and emotions than an undisciplined one. Jainism therefore places great emphasis on training, disciplining and controlling the mind. This training starts with the five simple vows:
1. Being Non-violent
2. being truthful
3. not stealing or acquiring anything by illicit means
4. refraining from illicit sex
5. imposing limits on needs, acquisitions, and possessions.

These are really ordinary rules of good conduct, which all of us try to follow in our daily lives. However, life’s temptations often lead us to stray from these rules. We can be helped to resist these temptations by formalizing these vows, practicing yoga, and meditating daily. These vows help us achieve self-restraint, equanimity and control over emotions. These are our first steps on our journey to liberation.

4 What is the Most Important Doctrine of Jain Living?

Jainism begins with a serious concern for humans in their relationship to:
 laws governing all that exists
 our ecosystem
 other living beings
 our own future state in eternity

Therefore, the first and the foremost Jain doctrine is that of Non-Violence (Ahimsa). Jainism insists upon observance of non-violence in thought, speech and action at individual and collective levels.

Reverence for all forms of life is deeply ingrained in the Jain ethos. Both in its philosophy as well as in daily practice, Jainism invokes an intense and constant awareness of non-harming. This is not only with regard to all living beings but, indeed, with all elements of nature. Jainism insists on practicing harmonious co-existence between humans and nature. Its code of conduct encourages the creation of a non-violent environment that is non-polluted, peaceful, and conducive to spiritual uplifting.

5 What are other the main aspects of Jain Living?

Equality of souls is another important Jain tenet. Accordingly, all souls – may they be embodied as humans, animals, plants or micro-organisms – are equal. They all must be respected, revered and preserved. Among living beings, only humans can think rationally. Therefore, we have the responsibility of being the guardians of all life. We must carry it with compassion, forgiveness, humility and equanimity.

Vegetarianism is a required way of life for a Jain, as it is a natural outcome of the principle of non-harming. It is also a strengthening instrument for the practice of peaceful and cooperative co-existence with nature.

Limiting our needs and possessions (Aprigraha): The Jain understanding: ‘by soul alone I am governed’ and ‘let karma not bind my soul’ is directly translated into the practice of aparigraha. A restrained, simple life is conducive to self-control, suppression of aggressive urges, and abstinence from over-indulgence

Finally, the Multifaceted Nature of Truth (Anekantavada) is another important Jain doctrine. The logic behind this principle is:

 only the pure soul is omniscient (i.e. capable of knowing absolute truth)
 an impure soul loses its omniscience
 humans have impure, bonded souls and therefore cannot know whole truth.

Since humans cannot perceive absolute truth, the best we can do is to realize that truth is multifaceted and that we can perceive only a few of its facets. Our knowledge and perception is limited by our senses (and obscuring karma).

This realization, combined with control over our emotions, such as pride and ego, encourages us to respect other view-points as potentially different facets of the same reality. While every religion proposes its unique understanding of the ‘nature of reality’, many claim to “know” the absolute truth. This is a potential source of conflict when differing views of reality appear to contradict each other. Another possible viewpoint is that no one view is completely true, but each may be partially true.

Human history is full of countless conflicts and wars because religious fanatics have insisted that, “my faith has the absolute truth and every other claim is false”. The Jain principle of Anekantavada, on the other hand, encourages all of us to understand (rather than fight) the conflicting claims as merely the different understanding of the same reality.

Thus, the three major doctrines of Jainism are:

 Reverence for all life (Non-violence) – Ahimsa
 Respect for environment by limiting our needs and possessions – Aparigraha
 Regard for all view points as different facets of Reality – Anekantavada
These three are called Triple ‘A’s of Jainism because the Indian names of all three start with the alphabet ‘A’. (Also, Three ‘R’s of Jainism.)

6 Does this ancient religion have any relevance to the modern world?

Yes, surprisingly so. Jainism‘s, structure and practice is built upon compassion for all forms of life. Jainism is a living example to all of us that there can, and does exist a successful, ecologically responsible way of life, profusely non-violent in action, thought, and deed. We humans tend to misread our history, get carried away by pride and prejudice, and confusedly perpetrate other follies. Jainism offers a viable alternative.

Moreover, Jainism is unique in that its ancient theories of cognition, perception and about the nature of the cosmos are surprisingly accurate in the context of modern scientific thought and reasoning. Jainism has articulated the properties and qualities of animate and inanimate substances which make up the cosmos. It describes the relationship of these substances in terms of their mutual interactions, evolution and growth. This ancient religion was probably the first to describe concepts such as atoms, molecules, non-material continuums and souls.

Elements of the ancient Jain world-view include:
 the atomic make up of matter
 the existence of sub-atomic particles with dual identity as matter and energy
 the concept of bonding and dissociation of material particles
 the conditions under which particles combine and dissociate
 the dimensions of the universe comparable to those theorized by Einstein
 the classification of biological species based on the number of sense organs
 the existence of microbes, bacteria, etc.

We think of these as modern scientific theories, yet they have been taught in Jainism for thousands of years. The Jain way of life is rich with practices such as vegetarianism, yoga, meditation, periodic fasting, treating nature with reverence, etc. There is a growing realization that our planet now, more than ever, needs all its inhabitants to follow these practices. Disciplines such as ecology, psychology and medical sciences should take a fresh look at these ideas. It is possible that Jain scriptures could inspire more scientific discoveries.

Today, when suspicion and distrust are poisoning the atmosphere of international peace, when our planet is stressed with terrorism, fundamentalism, hatred, anger and fear, the world requires a workable, living philosophy to help us overcome these stresses. Jainism is such a practical, wholesome philosophy, bearing a message and practice of love and goodwill, ahimsa (non-violence), mutual respect, and peace. It stands for high and the noble values and offers a path toward personal and global peace and happiness.

7 Do Jains proselytize their religion?

No. Jains do not actively seek converts. In fact, there are no procedures, ceremonies or rituals to formally convert anyone to Jainism. On the other hand, those who truly practice for personal and universal redemption, the three principles – non-violence, minimizing wants and needs, and genuinely respecting diverse viewpoints as mere facets of absolute truth – are truly Jain and may call themselves so.

To be a Jain is to try to understand and follow the basic Jain principles and its code of conduct. Jainism shows us the path for a personal journey to an ultimate goal. This path may or may not help us achieve moksha (defined below) immediately after life but it could lead to greater equanimity, internal peace, and tranquility in this life. Jainism is a universal philosophy whose benefits can be gained by anyone willing to improve the quality of his/her life.

At the global level, Jains hope that the world would incorporate the values and the insights Jainism has to offer. Our planet and ecosystem would also be the immediate beneficiaries, leading to the possibility of a peaceful 21st century.

8 What is Karma and Reincarnation?

The Jain theory of karma and reincarnation offers a highly logical explanation to the immense inequalities we suffer on earth. For example, why is it that one person can be born healthy, to wealthy and loving parents, and with a high ability to succeed in life; whereas another may be born with a crippled body or to unloving parents?

If the soul comes into existence only at conception or birth, and ceases to exists after death, why would there be such inequity? Why would the supposedly kind and loving Creator play such a cruel joke on the now-born?

Jains explain this inequity through their Karma theory. Accordingly, our soul is eternal and free but our actions (karma) – from present and past births – dictate our happiness or misery. When bonded with karma, the soul becomes impure. At death, the impure soul (i.e. soul + karmic particles = micro-body) leaves, and the cadaver (macro-body) is left behind. The soul with its bonded karmic particles reincarnates, and goes through cycles of birth and death. At birth, the soul is thus burdened with the karmic particles from previous lives and enjoys or suffers the consequences of its burden*. The conditions of our present life are therefore a direct consequence of our actions in our previous lives, and our actions in this life will in turn influence our future incarnations.

There is no arbitrariness, no randomness, and no injustice in the inequalities, but only cause and effect. We are reaping now what we have ourselves sown in the past. Our essential self, the soul, continues to suffer from life to life, until freed from its karmic bondage.

To the extent that all religious doctrines are words of the wise for the betterment of the society, the Jain doctrine of karma is a powerful and effective social document. Living beings can never be without activities – verbal, mental, and physical. The activities have consequences – good, bad, or indifferent. In the case of humans, these consequences affect the society in which they live. A simple, peaceful life, full of love, kindness, and respect for other living beings could have a positive social influence resulting in the formation of a similarly kind and caring society. On the other hand, a doctrine, which preaches that we have the right to kill, and destroy other living beings (even other human beings in the name of religion), may promote (however indirectly) arrogance, cruelty, violence, ecological disaster, and eventually, the destruction of our planet. Even the cruelty of humans towards other humans will never end as long as we continue to believe that we have the right to kill or hurt other living beings.

The doctrine of karma emphasizes the cause and effect principle of “as ye sow, therefore shall ye reap”. Logical analysis and scientific reductionism makes the doctrine effective and intellectually acceptable to the modern thinker. Its dynamism preaches that an individual’s destiny is in his/her own hands. It is up to the individual to understand the true source of happiness and to go actively after it. A well-trodden path is already shown by the Tirthankaras (Ancient Jain Masters). All we need is the courage and commitment to undertake the journey.
The fact that Jainism has not found it necessary to establish a hierarchy to police and enforce the observance of its ‘code of conduct’ enables us to judge the effectiveness of this doctrine. The Jain code is left entirely to the logical freethinking conscience of its followers. Jainism is a philosophy that advocates ultimate freedom of the soul and has seen it fit to leave the human spirit free to act on its own (without interference or intimidation from religious authorities).

9 Is Karma something like destiny?

Since the karmic particles determine the ‘fate’ of an individual, does this mean that our destiny is pre-determined at birth? Not so! Karmic matter bonds with our soul because of our emotionally driven actions. By learning to control our emotions and actions, we can actually minimize the inflow of karmic particles, and even shed (or burn off) those already associated with our soul. We can thus change our destiny for better or worse by controlling our actions, and make progress towards our ultimate goal of Liberation. We are the masters of our destiny, and can shape our future!

The Jain Theory of Karma promotes ethical social behavior and makes the individual fully responsible for creating her/his own destiny. The familiar adage: “As ye sow, therefore shall ye reap” is fully realized in this dynamic theory.

10 What is Liberation of Soul (Moksha)?

Pure soul has four infinities –infinite perception, infinite knowledge, infinite power, and infinite bliss. When bonded with karmic particles, these infinities are suppressed and the soul gets trapped in the cycle of birth and death.

We humans possess a reasoning mind and the capacity to think rationally. Through careful analysis of the causes and effects of karmic bonding, we can rationally deduce that our bonding is the effect of our actions –the cause. Most of our actions are governed by our emotions. Therefore, by controlling our emotions, we can purify our soul. Freedom from karmic bonding and liberating our soul is thus in our hands. This freedom, this liberation, this regaining of four infinities – viz. infinite knowledge, perception, vigor, and happiness – is Moksha!

The Peaceful Liberators (the 24 Jain Spiritual teachers – Tirthankaras) are thought by Jains to have experienced Moksha by ridding their souls of karmic particles, and thereby freeing themselves from the cycle of birth and death. Only then can the soul reach its infinite potential

11 Do Jains Believe in God?

Yes and no! The answer actually depends upon our understanding of the term “God“. Jains do not accept God as a ‘creator or a judge, or the controller of the universe’. (G = Generator, O = Organizer, D = Destroyer of Universe).

In Jainism, God is the supreme manifestation of the Pure Soul. Every soul has the potential of reaching a liberated state where soul is pure, free from the cycles of birth and death and has regained its natural qualities of four infinities. Twenty-four Jain Tirthankaras have left us a set of step-by-step instructions explaining how they themselves were able to achieve liberation. To a Jain, there is no god other than those souls that have regained the four infinities of perception, knowledge, energy, and bliss. Jains look upon them for inspiration, and worship such souls as gods.

12 Who Created the Universe?

According to Jainism, the universe is eternal. It has always existed in the past and will always exist in the future. It is governed by its own laws. It is made up of its six eternal elements namely: souls, matter, time, space, motion, and rest. These may interact with each other, and may change their forms, but being eternal; they are neither created nor destroyed. Something that exists, from the beginning-less beginning to the end-less end, requires no creator.

Jainism does recognize the occurrence of creation, preservation and destruction as experienced in our daily lives. However, such manifestations are due to the manifold interactions among the above-mentioned six eternal substances, which may change their forms but are never destroyed.

The Jain term for matter is ’pudgal’. ’Pud’ means to combine to create (creating molecules from atomic particles), and ’gal’ means destruction (separating molecules from one another, or back to the state of atomic components.). During the passage of time, the semi-permanent state between creation and destruction is the state of preservation. In Jain view, the occurrence of this threefold process, whether on a macrocosmic or microcosmic (atomic) scale, is all due to the laws of the universe.

13 How do you pray and worship?

Through their prayers and meditation, Jains seek inspiration and guidance to progress towards self-liberation. Who else but the Peaceful Liberators (Tirthankaras), and practicing monks can provide such inspiration? Jains have built beautiful temples, and have installed the statues of the Peaceful Liberators, but therein, they seek inspiration and guidance for liberation, rather than mercy and forgiveness.

The most sacred Jain prayer:
Namokar Mantra

(I bow and seek inspiration from the perfected souls.)
(I bow and seek inspiration from those souls who, having liberated themselves, have shown us the path to moksha)
(I bow and seek inspiration from the heads of the religious orders)
(I bow and seek inspiration from the teachers of the scriptures)
(I bow and seek inspiration from all the ascetic monks and nuns in the world.)
(Salutations to these five types of great souls will help diminish my inauspicious karma. These salutations are most auspicious – so auspicious as to bring everyone happiness and bliss.)

‘Namokar Mantra’ simply seeks inspiration and pays respects, not to any particular individual, or creator, but to the five groups of spiritual leaders, viz.:

 Liberated teachers who have shown us the path to liberation (arihants),
 all liberated souls (siddhas)
 the heads of religious orders (acharyas)
 the teachers of the scriptures (upaddhayas)
 all the monks and nuns on this earth (sadhus)

The last few lines simply affirm that paying homage to these five groups of people inspires us to continue on the spiritual path and achieve enlightenment. Note that this ancient Jain prayer is ecumenical and non-denominational in nature. It recognizes and pays homage to all liberated souls and spiritual leaders regardless of their “religious” compartmentalization created by man.

Although praying is an individual act, Jains sometimes worship collectively. It is an expression of joy of being in the presence of the liberated souls and involves singing, dancing, and music.

14 Is Jainism an off-shoot of Hinduism?
Hinduism, being dominant in India, is sometimes defined as a culture or a way of life, and sometimes as a religion. In cultural sense, Jains and Hindus are alike, for over the millennia, there has been so much give and take, of ideas and rituals, between the two. Hence, the misconception that Jainism is an off-shoot of Hinduism. However, in spite of their cultural similarities, the two are fundamentally different religions. For example, unlike Jainism, Hinduism believes in God as a Generator, Organizer, and Destroyer trinity in the form of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesha. Similarly, whereas the Jain theory of karma makes an individual fully responsible for his/her destiny, some forms of Hinduism preach that prayers and animal sacrifices could work to win favors from God and thus could absolve an individual of his karmic bondage.

Furthermore, recent archeological and historical research suggests that the Jain philosophy of purifying soul through meditation and self-control – the so called Shramanic philosophy – has existed in India for at least 8,500 years, long before the arrival of Aryans and subsequent development of the Vedic philosophy of Hindus.

Thus, even with the long history of give and take between the two religions, the two streams of thought are quite different and it is inaccurate to believe that one religion is just an off-shoot of another.

15 How can I find out more about Jainism?

Jain scriptures are among the worlds oldest. The teachings of earlier Tirthankaras were systematically organized by Mahavira (599–527 BCE) – the last of the twenty four Peaceful Liberators – and eventually were put in writing, in 12 volumes, at the end of the fourth century BCE. These twelve texts are called Agamas (literally, ‘The Words of the Tirthankaras’).

Agamas and various translations and commentaries on them, (including some in English) are now available. However, studying Agamas is not an easy task for the novice.

There are a number of recent books and booklets for those who are new to Jainism. Many are now available in universities and good public libraries, among them:

Jainism and the New Spirituality, by Vastupal Parikh, Peace Publications, Toronto, Canada, (2002). www.Peacepublications.com
The Jains, by Paul Dundas, Routledge 2nd ed. 2002
The Jain Path of Purification, by P.S. Jaini, Uni. of California Press, Berkley (1978)
The Peaceful Liberators – Jain Art from India, P. Pal, Los Angeles Museum of Art, 5905 Wiltshire Blvd. Los Angeles, CA, 90036 (1994)
Religion and Culture of the Jains, by J.P. Jain, Bharatiya Jnanpith, New Delhi, India (1983)
Furthermore, a treasure of information is available on the internet.

16. In the Words of Mahavir ( Twenty-fourth Tirthankara, ca. 600 B.C.E.)
1 All Souls are identical. None is superior or inferior.
2 A true conqueror is one who conquers his own self, for it is even a greater victory than conquering thousands of enemies on the battlefield.
3 Deceit, greed, anger, and ego; combat these internal enemies.
4 Be merciful to all living beings; we are bidden to be fair and equal with all.
5 All beings hate pain: therefore, one should not hurt them. Let not anyone violate life; but be as assiduous in cherishing the life of another as one’s own, for Ahimsa is the highest religion.
6 Restrain yourself, and you will always be free from sorrow.
7 Happy are we, happy live we, who call nothing our own.
8 Being dispassionate towards the objects of the world, one should treat all creatures in the universe as he himself would like to be treated.
9 Passionate behavior incurs the sin of causing injury, whether or not physical injury occurs; but there will be no bondage to one who is impassionate and careful, even if injury results by his conduct.

Written by:
Dr. Vastupal Parikh.
2908-8 Lisa Street
Brampton, ONT, Canada L6T 4S6
E-mail: vastup@hotmail.com
©The material based on the book Jainism and the New Spirituality by Professor Vastupal Parikh and published by Peace Publications, Toronto, Canada. For more information please visit: www.Peacepublications.com .

Author: Dr. Vastupal Parikh who very kindly allowed EVANA to publish this text

Date: 2006-06-19

Other EVANA-articles about this topic:
I am God. And the Devil too! (en)

New Book: Paving the Way for Peace (en)


seedling in soil
German Agriculture Minister Aigner and FAO head Graziano da Silva urge international community to develop principles for responsible investments
photo GerdAltmann_pixelio.de
Wild wolves and brown bears killed over £20 Rudolph pâté

For correspondents: