Jainism is an ancient Indian religion, which takes as its central tenet the wellbeing of the universe and all living beings within it. The aim of Jainism is to achieve liberation of the soul, which Jains believe can be achieved through a life devoted to non-violence and the rejection of possessions.
Jains do not believe in any spiritual beings. It is a religion based on the principle of self-reliance, neither created by, nor relying on, the assistance of any gods.
A tirthankara is a guide to the dharma, or righteous path. The first tirthankara was Rishabhanatha. According to Jain texts, he is credited with teaching the first professions––swordsmanship (solely for defence); writing; agriculture; knowledge; trade; and crafts.
Followers of Jainism are divided into two principle sects: these are Digambara and Śvētāmbara. Although both sects agree on the basics of Jainism, the distinction appears to be partly concerned with matters of attire. Digambara broadly translates as ‘sky-clad’ whereas Śvētāmbara translates as ‘white-clad’. Digambara monks are not allowed any possessions, and this includes any clothes.
Jainism is based on three guiding principles. These roughly translate as correct perception (samyak darshana), correct knowledge (samyak jnana), and correct conduct (samyak charitra).
Correct perception holds with avoiding preconceptions, in order to see clearly. Correct knowledge means having a full understanding of the Jain scriptures. Correct conduct involves living a life of non-violence, avoiding doing harm to living things, freeing oneself from possessions, and keeping open-minded.
Four deadly sins
Jainism recognises four kashaya, which it recommends should be eschewed. These are anger, pride, deceitfulness, and greed.
Underpinning Jainism are five central vows, or mahavratas. These are non-violence (ahimsa); non-attachment (aparigraha); not lying (satya); not stealing (asteya); and sexual restraint (brahmacharya), with celibacy the ideal.
The Jain belief in non-violence extends beyond harming humans, but includes animals, plants, even micro-organisms; holding that all life is sacred.
Six eternal substances
In Jain cosmology, the Universe is composed of six eternal substances (dravya). These are living entities, including souls (jīva); and then five non-living entities, which are subdivided into matter (pudgala), motion (dharma), rest (adharma), space (ākāsa), and time (kāla).
Tattva are the fundamental truths, which constitute reality. These are the soul; the non-soul; the influx of matter into the soul; the mixing of the soul and karmas; the obstruction of matter into the soul; the gradual dissociation of karmic matter from the soul; and liberation.
Liberation (mokṣha) is considered to be the attainment of an entirely different state for the soul, free from any karmic influences.
To support the mahavratas, Jainism is characterised by several distinct practices, these include vegetarianism; fasting; prayers; meditation; festivals; rituals; pilgrimages; and monasticism.
The Jain diet is entirely vegetarian. The principle of non-violence prohibits the eating of meat and fish, but Jains extend this to include eggs, onions, potatoes, aubergines and garlic.
Ninth largest organised religion
Figures vary hugely, but by estimated number of followers, Jainism ranks as the ninth most followed organised religion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Baha’ism, and Confucianism.
According to the Jain text, Tattvarthsutra, the ten forms of Dharma include forgiveness; humility; straightforwardness; truthfulness; purity; self-restraint; penance; renunciation; non-possessiveness; and celibacy.
Jains trace their history through a succession of 24 spiritual teachers, or tirthankaras. Tirthankaras are individuals who have achieved the state of liberation and then guide others on how to achieve the same state.
Each tirthankara teaches the basic tenets of Jain philosophy, but subtly adapt the teachings to be relevant to the age in which they live.
The tirthankara who is credited with giving Jainism its present-day form is Mahavira.
The Gommateshwara statue, located in the Indian state of Karnataka, commemorates a much-revered figure among Jains, and stands 57-feet tall, making it one of the largest free-standing statues in the world.
It is estimated that there are 25,000 followers of Jainism in Great Britain, with Leicester being the centre of Jainism in the UK.
As a rough estimate, it is thought that there are currently around 7 million followers of Jainism worldwide, with the largest community still based in India.
Find out more
- Visit our Religions and Philosophies pages
- Centre of Jaina Studies at SOAS
- Read about the first publication of an important historical text on Jainism
- Check out BBC Radio 4’s programme on Jainism with SOAS’s Dr Peter Flügel