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published: 3/17/04
updated: 12/28/13

Jain Beliefs




What does Jainism believe?

Jain beliefs have their historical roots in Hinduism, but there are many distinctive differences between the two Indian religions.

Jain Cosmology

Jains believe that the universe and everything in it is eternal. Nothing that exists now was ever created, nor will it be destroyed. The universe consists of three realms: the heavens, the earthly realm and the hells.

There are seven levels of heaven in Jain cosmology. The top level, "the Realm of the Jinas" is reserved for liberated souls. The next level down is the realm of the gods.

The earthly realm, or jambudnoa ("Continent of the Rose-Apple Tree") is divided into seven regions by six mountain ranges. Deliverance and religious merit is possible in three of these regions: India in the south, airavat in the north, and mahavideha in the middle.

The eight hells become progressively colder as they go down.





Gods in Jainism

The Jain understanding of an uncreated and eternal universe leaves little room for an Almighty Creator God. Jains do, however, believe in a "perfect universal presence," as well as multiple deities who dwell in the heavens. As mentioned above, the realm of the gods consists of higher and lower gods. The lower act very human, and often rule as despots. Humans may call on these deities for assistance. One of the most important deities is Ambika, the Mother Goddess of Jainism. She is the patron deity of material prosperity, childbirth and protection of women.

Being eternal themselves, humans can also attain "perfect beingness," or divinity.

Jivas

Along with the detailed description of the cosmos seen above, Jains have also categorized all the living beings (jivas) that can be found in the earthly realm. This is important because the fundamental Jain principle of ahimsa (nonviolence) extends to all jivas.

In Jain thinking, a jiva is a soul attached to a body. Since a soul is of flexible size, the same soul can fit inside an ant's body as a human's. According to the Jain scriptures, there are 8.4 million species of jivas. They fall into two main categories: immobile single-sensed and mobile and multi-sensed. And within these categories are subcategories, as follows:

A. Immobile and single-sensed

1. Earth-bodied (clay, sand, metal)
2. Water-bodied (dew, fog, ice, rain, ocean)
3. Fire-bodied (flames, hot ash, lightening)
4. Air-bodied (wind and cyclones)
5. Plant-bodied (trees, seeds, roots)
    a. One-souled (trees, branches, seeds)
    b. Multi-souled (root vegetables)

B. Mobile and multi-sensed

1. Two-sensed: touch and taste (shells, worms, microbes)
2. Three-sensed: touch, taste and smell (lice, ants, moths)
3. Four-sensed: touch, taste, smell, sight (scorpions, crickets, spiders, flies)
4. Five-sensed: touch, taste, small, sight and hearing (humans and animals)
    a. Infernal (in one of the hells)
    b. Non-human
    c. Celestial (in one of the heavens)
    d. Human

Human Nature

In Jainism, the soul is uncreated, eternal and has infinite power and knowledge. It therefore has the inherent potential of divinity (that is, perfectly omnipotent, omniscient and free; not a god). By ridding oneself of the karma that obstructs the soul, one can achieve this liberation (moksa).

While souls are the same in all forms, from clay to ant to elephant to human, the human form affords the only opportunity to achieve liberation.

Life's Purpose

For Jains, the purpose of life is to attain moksa, or release, from the cycle of rebirth. There are five levels on the path of human development:

  1. Sadhus (monks) and sadhvis (nuns)
  2. Upadhyayas (teachers of the Jain scriptures)
  3. Acharyas (spiritual leaders)
  4. Siddhas (liberated souls)
  5. Arihantas (liberated souls who have attained salvation; both Ordinary and Tirthankar)

Ordinary laypersons are householders. When householders decide to undertake the renounced life, they first must live with monks or nuns for a time. If, after learning more about religion and observing the renounced life, they still wish to undertake it, they take the five vows and become a sadhu or a sadhvi. In addition to keeping these vows carefully, Jain monks and nuns observe other special practices that set them apart.

Sadhus who have acquired special knowledge of Jain scriptures and philosophy, and teach the scriptures to others, are known as Upadhyayas.

Acharyas are special spiritual leaders. They have mastered the Jain scriptures, as well as several languages and a knowledge of various religions. Their lives exemplify spiritual excellence and they are able to lead a monastic community.

An Arihanta ("destroyer of enemies") is a person who has conquered all of his or her inner passions. They have shed all destructive karma and have become omniscient, omnipotent and completely without desires. Arihantas become Siddhas at death. Until then, they teach and help others. There are two categories of Arihantas, Ordinary and Tirthankara. Tirthankaras

Siddhas are liberated souls. They have escaped the cycle of rebirth, rid themselves of all karma, and are experiencing ultimate bliss in the highest level of heaven. Each Siddha is unique, but they are all equal and formless. Because they are completely detached from the world, they are unable to help others.

Karma

In Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is the natural moral law of the universe in which every good and bad action has a corresponding effect on the doer. This karma accounts for why some are richer, prettier or luckier than others and why otherwise similar people are at different spiritual levels. It is also the determining factor of the form into which one is reborn. "Good karma" results in a higher spiritual state and more favorable physical state, while "bad karma" has negative physical and spiritual results.

Jainism teaches that there are two different kinds of karma, ghati ("destructive") and aghati ("non-destructive"). The former affects the soul and the latter affects the body. Within each category are several kinds of karma, each of which has particular results and a way of being shed. One can only attain liberation when he or she has shed all karma.

Bad actions related to physical life accumulate aghati karma, which result in negative consequences for physical life (in the present life and/or the next). There are four kinds of aghati karma:

  1. Happiness-determining (vedniya)
  2. Body-determining (nam)
  3. Status-determining (gotra)
  4. Longevity-determining (ayushya)

For example, being proud of one's status will accumulate gotra karma, and cause one to be born with lower status in the next life. But admiring the ugly as well as the beautiful will shed nam karma and result in a more beautiful appearance. Compassion and helpfulness towards others sheds vedniya karma and results in greater happiness. Killing someone earns ayushya karma, which results in a shorter lifespan.

Death and Afterlife

Depending on one's karma and level of spiritual development, death may mean being reborn in another physical appearance in the earthly realm, suffering punishment in one of eight hells or joining other liberated souls in the highest level of heaven.

Unlike hell imagery in most other systems, the eight hells of Jainism become progressively colder as they go down. Suffering in these hells is not eternal. Once a soul has been severely punished, he or she is reborn into another form.

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