General Information


Jainism is a religious faith of India that is usually said to have originated with Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha (6th century BC). Jains, however, count Mahavira as the last of 24 founders, or Tirthamkaras, the first being Rishabha. In 1990 the number of Jains worldwide was estimated at 3,650,000, almost all of whom live in India. Jainism has been present in India since Mahavira's time without interruption, and its influence has been significant.

The major distinction within Jainism is between the Digambara and Svetambara sects, a schism that appears to date from about the 1st century AD. The major difference between them is that whereas the Svetambaras wear white clothes, the Digambaras traditionally go naked. Fundamentally, however, the views of both sects on ethics and philosophy are identical.

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The most notable feature of Jain ethics is its insistence on noninjury to all forms of life. Jain philosophy finds that every kind of thing has a soul; therefore strict observance of this precept of nonviolence (ahimsa) requires extreme caution in all activity. Jain monks frequently wear cloths over their mouths to avoid unwittingly killing anything by breathing it in, and Jain floors are kept meticulously clean to avert the danger of stepping on a living being. Jains regard the intentional taking of life, or even violent thoughts, however, as much more serious. Jain philosophy posits a gradation of beings, from those with five senses down to those with only one sense.

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Ordinary householders cannot help harming the latter, although they should strive to limit themselves in this regard by refraining from eating meat, certain fruits, or honey or from drinking wine. In addition Jain householders are expected to practice other virtues, similar to those in Hinduism. The vows taken by the Jain monks are more severe. They eventually involve elements of Asceticism: fasting, peripatetic begging, learning to endure bodily discomfort, and various internal austerities constituting a Jain variety of Yoga. Jainism is unique in allowing the very spiritually advanced to hasten their own death by certain practices (principally fasting) and under specified circumstances.

Jain philosophy is based on a fundamental distinction between living and nonliving matter. Living souls are divided into bound and liberated; the living souls are found in both mobile and immobile loci. Nonliving matter is composed of karman or very fine particles that enter a soul and produce changes in it, thus causing its bondage. This influx of karman is induced by activity and has to be burned off by experience. Karmans are of infinitely numerous varieties and account for all distinctions noted in the world. By nonattachment, however, an individual can prevent influx of further karmans and thus escape from the bonds of action. A soul, which is thought of as having the same size as its body, at liberation has lost the matter that weights it down and thus ascends to the top of the universe, where it remains forever.

Jainism recognizes no supreme deity; its ideal is the perfection attained by the 24 Tirthamkaras. Numerous temples have been built celebrating the perfected souls; a notable example is the temple at Mount Abu in Rajasthan.

Karl H. Potter

Chatterjee, A. K., A Comprehensive History of Jainism, 2 vols. (1978); Gopalan, Subramania, Outlines of Jainism (1973); Humphrey, C., ed., The Assembly of Listeners (1990); Marathe, M. P., et al., eds., Studies in Jainism (1986); Roy, A. K., A History of the Jains (1984); Stevenson, S. T., The Heart of Jainism (1915; repr. 1970); Vahar, P. C., and Shosh, K. C., eds., An Encyclopedia of Jainism (1988).


General Information


Jainism is a religion of India concentrated largely in Gujarât and Râjasthân, in parts of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and in the state of Karnâtaka (Mysore), as well as in the larger cities of the Indian peninsula. The Jains totaled about 3.7 million as the 1990s began, but they exert an influence in the predominantly Hindu community far out of proportion to their numbers; they are mainly traders, and their wealth and authority have made their comparatively small sect one of the most important of living Indian religions.


Jainism is somewhat similar to Buddhism, of which it was an important rival in India. It was founded by Vardhamana Jnatiputra or Nataputta Mahavira (599-527BC), called Jina (Spiritual Conqueror), a contemporary of Buddha. As do the Buddhists, the Jains deny the divine origin and authority of the Veda and revere certain saints, preachers of Jain doctrine from the remote past, whom they call tirthankaras ("prophets or founders of the path"). These saints are liberated souls who were once in bondage but became free, perfect, and blissful through their own efforts; they offer salvation from the ocean of phenomenal existence and the cycle of rebirths. Mahavira is believed to have been the 24th tirthankara. Like adherents to their parent sect, Brahmanism, the Jains admit in practice the institution of caste, perform a group of 16 essential rites, called samskaras, prescribed for the first three varna (castes) of Hindus, and recognize some of the minor deities of the Hindu pantheon; nevertheless, their religion, like Buddhism, is essentially atheistic.

Fundamental to Jainism is the doctrine of two eternal, coexisting, independent categories known as jiva (animate, living soul: the enjoyer) and ajiva (inanimate, nonliving object: the enjoyed). Jains believe, moreover, that the actions of mind, speech, and body produce subtle karma (infra-atomic particles of matter), which become the cause of bondage, and that one must eschew violence to avoid giving hurt to life. The cause of the embodiment of the soul is thought to be karmic matter; one can attain salvation (moksha) only by freeing the soul of karma through the practice of the three "jewels" of right faith, right knowledge and right conduct.

Differences in Doctrine

These principles are common to all, but differences occur in the religious obligations of the monastic orders (whose members are called yatis) and the laity (sravakas). The yatis must observe five great vows (panca-mahavrata): refusal to inflict injury (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), refusal to steal (asteya), sexual restraint (brahmacarya), and refusal to accept unnecessary gifts (aparigraha). In keeping with the doctrine of nonviolence, they carry the Jainist reverence for animal life to its most extreme lengths; the yati of the Svetambara sect, for example, wears a cloth over his mouth to prevent insects from flying into it and carries a brush to sweep the place on which he is about to sit, to remove any living creature from danger. The observation of the nonviolent practices of the yatis was a major influence on the philosophy of the Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi. The secular sravaka, in addition to his observance of religious and moral duties, must engage in theadoration of the saints and of his more pious brethren, the yatis.

The two main sects of Jainism, the Digambara (space-clad, or naked) and the Svetambara (white-clad, wearers of white cloth), have produced a vast body of secular and religious literature in the Prakrit and Sanskrit languages. The art of the Jains, consisting primarily of cave temples elaborately decorated in carved stones and of illustrated manuscripts, usually follows Buddhist models but has a richness and fertility that mark it as one of the peaks of Indian art. Some sects, particularly the Dhundia and the Lunka, which reject the worship of images, were responsible for the destruction of many works of art in the 12th century, and Muslim raids were responsible for the looting of many temples in northern India. In the 18th century another important sect of Jainism was founded; it exhibited Islamic inspiration in its iconoclasm and rejection of temple worship. Complex rituals were abandoned in favor of austere places of worship called sthanakas, from which the sect is called Sthanakavasi.

Royal W. Weiler
Rasik Vihari Joshi


Catholic Information

A form of religion intermediate between Brahminism and Buddhism, originated in India in pre-Christian times, and has maintained its heretical attitude towards Brahminism down to the present day. The name is derived from jina, conqueror, one of the epithets popularly applied to the reputed founder of the sect. Jainism bears a striking resemblance to Buddhism in its monastic system, its ethical teachings, its sacred texts, and in the story of its founder. This closeness of resemblance has led not a few scholars-such as Lassen, Weber, Wilson, Tiele, Barth-to look upon Jainism as an offshoot of Buddhism and to place its origin some centuries later than the time of Buddha. But the prevailing view today-that of Bühler, Jacobi, Hopkins, and others-is that Jainism in its origin is independent of Buddhism and, perhaps, is the more ancient of the two. The many points of similarity between the two sects are explained by the indebtedness of both to a common source, namely the teachings and practices of ascetic, monastic Brahminism. Of the reputed founder of Jainism we have but few details, and most of these are so like what we read of the beginnings of Buddhism that one is strongly led to suspect that here at least one is dealing with a variation of the Buddha-legend. According to Jainist tradition, the founder lived in the sixth century B. C., being either a contemporary or a precursor of Buddha. His family name was Jnatriputra (in Prakrit, Nattaputta), but, like Gotama, he was honoured with the laudatory names of Buddha, the enlightened, Mahavira, the great hero, and Jina, the conqueror. These last two epithets came to be his distinctive titles, while the name Buddha was associated almost exclusively with Gotama. Like Buddha, Jina was the son of a local raja who held sway over a small district in the neighbourhood of Benares. While still a young man he felt the emptiness of a life of pleasure, and gave up his home and princely station to become an ardent follower of the Brahmin ascetics. If we may trust the Jainist scriptures, he carried the principle of self-mortification to the extent that he went about naked, unsheltered from the sun, rain, and winds, and lived on the rudest vegetarian fare, practising incredible fasts. Accepting the principle of the Brahmin ascetics, that salvation is by personal effort alone, he took the logical step of rejecting as useless the Vedas and the Vedic rites. For this attitude towards the Brahmin traditions he was repudiated as a heretic. He gathered eleven disciples around him, and went about preaching his doctrine of salvation. Like Buddha he made many converts, whom he organized under a monastic rule of life. Associated with them were many who accepted his teaching in theory, but who in practice stopped short of the monastic life of extreme asceticism. These were the lay Jainists, who, like the lay Buddhists, contributed to the support of the monks.

The Jainists seem never to have been so numerous as the Buddhists. Though they claim a membership of over a million believers, laity included, recent statistics of India show that their number is not greater than half a million. On the question of the propriety of going about naked, the Jainist monks have for ages been split into two sects. The White-Robed Sect, whose monks. are clothed in white garments, is the more numerous, flourishing chiefly in N. W. India. To this sect belong a few communities of Jainist nuns. The naked ascetics, forming the other sect, are strongest in the South of India, but even here they have largely restricted the custom of nakedness to the time of eating. As the Buddhist creed is summed up in three words, Buddha, the Law, the Order, so the Jainist creed consists of the so-called three jewels, Right Belief, Right Knowledge, Right Conduct. Right Belief embraces faith in Jina as the true teacher of salvation and the acceptance of the Jainist scriptures as his authoritative teaching. These scriptures are less extensive, less varied, than the Buddhist, and, while resembling the latter to a large degree, lay great stress on bodily mortification. The canon of the White-robed Sect consists of forty-five Agamas, or sacred texts, in the Prakrit tongue. Jacobi, who has translated some of these texts in the "Sacred Books of the East", is of the opinion that they cannot be older than 300 B. C. According to Jainist tradition, they were preceded by an ancient canon of fourteen so-called Purvas, which have totally disappeared. With the Jainist, "Right Knowledge" embraces the religious view of life together with the end of man, while "Right Conduct" is concerned with the main ethical precepts and with the ascetic, monastic system.

The Jainist, like the Buddhist and the pantheistic Brahmin, takes for granted the doctrine of Karma and its implied rebirths. He, too, views every form of earthly, bodily existence as misery. Freedom from rebirth is thus the goal after which he aspires. But, while the pantheistic Brahmin and the primitive Buddhist looked for the realization of the end in the extinction of conscious, individual existence (absorption in Brahma, Nirvana), the Jainist has always tenaciously held to the primitive traditional belief in a final abode of bliss, where the soul, liberated from the necessity of rebirth on earth, enjoys forever a spiritual, conscious existence. To attain this end, the Jainist, like the Buddhist and the pantheistic Brahmin, holds that the traditional gods can aid but little. The existence of the gods is not denied, but their worship is held to be of no avail and is thus abandoned. Salvation is to be obtained by personal effort alone. To reach the longed-for goal, it is necessary to purify the soul of all that binds it to a bodily existence, so that it shall aspire purely and solely after a spiritual life in heaven. This is accomplished by the life of severe mortification of which Jina set the example. Twelve years of ascetic life as a Jainist monk and eight rebirths are necessary to constitute the purgatorial preparation for the Jainist heaven. While the Jains are not worshippers of the Hindu gods, they erect imposing temples to Jina and other venerated teachers. The images of these Jainist saints are adorned with lights and flowers, and the faithful walk around them while reciting sacred mantras. Jainist worship is thus little more than a veneration of a few saints and heroes of the past.

On its ethical side-the sphere of Right Conduct-Jainism is largely at one with Brahminism and Buddhism. There are, however, a few differences in the application of the principle of not killing. The sacredness of all kinds of life implied in the doctrine of metempsychosis has been more scrupulously observed in practice by the Jain than by the Brahmin or the Buddhist. The Brahmin tolerates the slaughter of animals for food, to provide offerings for the sacrifice, or to show hospitality to a guest; the Buddhist does not scruple to eat meat prepared for a banquet; but the Jain reprobates meat-food without exception as involving the unlawful taking of life. For similar reasons the Jain does not content himself with straining his drinking water and with remaining at home during the rainy season, when the ground is swarming with lower forms of life, but when he goes forth, he wears a veil before his mouth, and carries a broom with which he sweeps the ground before him to avoid destruction of insect life. The Jainist ascetic allows himself to be bitten by gnats and mosquitoes rather than risk their destruction by brushing them away. Hospitals for animals have been a prominent feature of Jainist benevolence, bordering at times on absurdity. For example, in 1834 there existed in Kutch a temple hospital which supported 5000 rats. With all this scrupulous regard for animal life the Jain differs from the Buddhist in his view of the lawfulness of religious suicide. According to Jainist ethics a monk who has practised twelve years of severe asceticism, or who has found after long trial that he cannot keep his lower nature in control, may hasten his end by self-destruction.

Publication information Written by Charles F. Aiken. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


JACOBI, The Jaina Sutras, vols. XXII and XLV of the Sacred Books of the East; HOPKINS, The Religions of India (Boston, 1895); HARDY, Der Buddhismus nach älteren Paliwerken (Münster, 1890); MONIER WILLIAMS, Buddhism (London, 1889); BARTH, The Religions of India (London. 1891).

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