Mahavira is said to have taught five principles to live by in order to rid oneself of karma and escape the wheel of rebirth:
- nonviolence (ahimsa)
- truthfulness (satya)
- taking only that which is freely given; i.e. not stealing (asteya)
- non-possessiveness (aparigraha)
- chastity (brahmacharya)
The most fundamental value of Jainism is nonviolence, or ahimsa. This word is usually found on the Jain symbol of the open palm (which means "stop"). Ahimsa is the first of the vows taken by both Jain householders and monks. Ahimsa means harming no living being as well as protecting all living beings from harm.
While several religions practice nonviolence and peace as a fundamental principle, Jainism is unique in extending this principle to all jivas (living beings). For Jains, living beings include not only humans and animals, but everything one finds on earth. Ahimsa must therefore be extended not only to humans and animals, but also soil, sand, oceans, fires, insects, microbes and plants.
For this reason, most Jains are not just vegetarians but "fruitarians" - they eat only fruit, nuts and milk. These foods are acceptable because they are only the by-products of the living beings and not the living beings themselves. To pull up a carrot or chop a potato would be to do violence to a living being (actually several living beings, as root vegetables are seen as multi-organic and therefore multi-souled).
This unique concept of nonviolence also explains why some Jain monks and nuns wear masks over their mouths and noses or carry whisks with which they brush chairs before sitting. To inhale or squash even a microbe would constitute violence to a living thing, resulting in unwanted karma.