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What is Jainism?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 23, 2024
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Jainism is an ascetic religion that originated in India around the 6th century BC. Members of this religion believe in non-violence toward all living things, and strive to live harmless lives that use up a little as possible of the world's resources. The ultimate goal of Jains, as followers of Jainism are called, is to liberate the soul from all karma, thus achieving deliverance. There are fewer than five million followers of Jainism in the world, mostly living in India.

Jains believe that nearly everything has a jiva, which is usually translated as "soul," that is in some stage of reincarnation, trapped in a cycle of birth and rebirth. Jains believe that it is possible to escape this cycle and achieve moksha, or release, by following three central ideas, known as the three jewels. These three ideas are right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct. Right belief refers seeing clearly and avoiding preconceptions; right knowledge means understanding the real universe according to Jain scriptures; right conduct refers to freeing oneself from attachments, following Jain ethics, and avoiding harming living things.

People who follow this religion attempt to harm no living thing. They avoid stepping on or breathing in insects, often even covering their nose and mouth with a cloth to avoid accidentally inhaling anything living. Jains are strict vegetarians and will not eat any root vegetables, as when the root is pulled up, the whole plant dies. These are only some of the ways Jains try to show respect for all forms of life while seeking moksha.

Jains do not believe in God, a creator, or any form of supreme being. They believe the universe has no beginning or end, and no creator. People who achieve moksha, or release from the rebirth cycle, while living are called jinas, meaning "those who overcome." People who have achieved this level may be considered gods, or divine beings who have reached perfection.

Karma is also a factor in Jainism, with bad actions or thoughts attracting karma, which Jains view as a physical substance. Some karma is believed to affect the outcome of rebirths. For a soul to attain liberation, all karma must be burned away, and all passion must be eliminated so that no more can attach itself. Only then will the soul ascend to a state of bliss.

Jainism emphasizes a lack of dependence on material possessions, and many Jains believe that they should have as few material possessions as possible. One order of Jain monks, the Digambaras, or "sky-clad," does not wear clothes at all, as they have renounced all possessions. All Jain monks or nuns have to take five vows: non-violence, truth-telling, not stealing, chastity, and renouncing material possessions.

One major figure in Jainism is an Indian man from the 6th century BC named Mahavira. Mahavira was a contemporary of Buddha and is mentioned in some Buddhist scriptures. Jainism shares some, although not all, beliefs with Hinduism and Buddhism.

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Discussion Comments

By Abhishek Jain — On Aug 17, 2010

According to Jainism there have been countless time-cycles in the past.

During each half time cycles (trillions and trillions of years long), there are 24 Tirthankaras. Therefore, the religion has been preached by Tirthankaras during each half cycle.

Every Tirthankar (Propagator) becomes a role-model teacher for those seeking spiritual guidance. Although Parshvanath and Mahavira were truly historical figures who spread Jainism to large extent, the names of Rushabhdev and Neminath (The foremost Tirthankaras) are mentioned in the Vedic canonical books.

This makes Jainism as old as the Vedic religion, if not older.

Mahavira, is the last Tirthankar, and to Jains, this is know to be as his time-cycle (Yug).

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