Sherry Fohr. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


Jain doctrine states that the religion has been periodically renewed by enlightened people, or Jinas, since a beginningless time, but scholars date Jainism as it is practiced today to Lord Mahavira, a Jina who lived in India in the sixth century B.C.E. The religion spread from Bihar in the east to the south and west of India and later to other parts of the world. Today there are 3.35 million Jains in India, with several thousand elsewhere in Asia and in Europe, Africa, and North America. Although they are a minority, Jains are an influential force in India because of their affluence. Most Jains marry and thus are laypeople, although some renounce the life of householders to become monks and nuns.

Jainism is the most nonviolent and austere religion in the world, and it is perhaps the most difficult to practice. Not only do Jains attempt never to harm humans and animals, but the strict nonviolence followed by monks and nuns proscribes harm to any being, even microscopic organisms. Austerities include long and difficult fasts, and monks and nuns pull their hair out by the roots from two to five times a year and travel throughout India barefoot. Some monks do not wear any clothing. The purpose of practicing nonviolence and austerities is to purify karma, particles that cling to the soul and prevent it from reaching an enlightened state and avoiding reincarnation. Although Jain asceticism is severe, laymen are highly successful and are among the richest people in India. Their wealth is balanced, however, by their philanthropy and by the asceticism of Jain laywomen.

As with Buddhism and Hindu renunciation, Jainism is part of India’s ascetic heritage. Like Buddhism, Jainism refused to recognize the authority of the Hindu Vedas, of Vedic sacrifices, or of Brahman priests. The Jain practice of renunciation also differed from that of Hindus, most pronouncedly by establishing a strong tradition of female renouncers.


Jain doctrines and practices today are traced to Lord Mahavira in the sixth century B.C.E., but after his death Jainism divided into sects, subsects, and smaller groups called gacchas. The two main Jain sects are Shvetambara and Digambara. The Sthanakwasi, Murtipujak, and Terapanthi subsects are divisions of the Shvetambara sect, and the Kharatara and Tapa Gacchas are subgroups of the Murtipujak subsect.

According to doctrine, in the current age there have been 24 enlightened Jinas (victors), also called Tirthankaras (fords or bridge builders). They include, in order from first to last, Rishabha (also known as Adinatha), Ajita, Sambhava, Abhinandana, Sumati, Padmaprabha, Suparshva, Chandraprabha, Suvidhi (Pushpadanta), Shitala, Shreyamsa, Vasupujya, Vimala, Ananta, Dharma, Shanti, Kunthu, Ara, Malli, Munisuvrata, Nami, Nemi, Parshva, and Mahavira (Vardhamana). Each Jina established the four-fold community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. Lord Mahavira, the 24th and last Jina, is believed to have lived from 599 B.C.E. to either 527 B.C.E. (according to the Shvetambara sect) or 510 B.C.E. (according to the Digambara sect).

The circumstances of Mahavira’s conception are said to have been unusual. According to some scriptures, instead of remaining in one womb throughout his gestation, he was transferred from the womb of Devananda, a woman of the priestly caste, to the womb of Trishala, a woman of the warrior caste. Trishala’s child was like-wise transferred to Devananda’s womb. Mahavira was born into luxury, but he renounced wealth, along with household life, in order to focus on his quest to eliminate karma, to win inner control and spiritual freedom, to reach enlightenment (moksha, or nirvana) and never be reborn, and to teach the Jain religion. Scriptures describe his tolerance of and lack of concern with the hardships he encountered from other people, demons, and animals, as well as with the hardships of the ascetic life in general, which included wandering, fasting, nakedness, and the lack of shelter and sleep.

After his enlightenment, at the age of 42, Mahavira preached to people regardless of their status in society or their gender, and he won many followers. Accounts of this part of his life describe not only the people whom Mahavira influenced but also the gods and animals that gathered to listen wherever he preached. After a long life of teaching Jainism, he died, never to be reborn. Today Jain ascetics strive for their own spiritual progress and that of others by following Lord Mahavira’s example of austerity, nonviolence, and instruction.

Originating in eastern India, Jainism spread south-ward beginning around the second century B.C.E. and westward beginning in the fourth century C.E. Most Jains now live in the northwest and southwest of India. After Mahavira’s death many sects of Jainism developed, and eventually there emerged the two main branches of Shvetambara, located mostly in the northwest, and Digambara, mostly in the southwest. Although the final split probably happened before the first century C.E., the schism evidently became fully established around the fifth century at the Council of Valabhi, during which Shvetambaras, without Digambaras present, decided on canonical scriptures. The schism was long in the making, however, and took place after a period of disagreement about scripture, doctrine, and clothing that dated to the fourth century B.C.E.

Digambaras rejected the Shvetambara canon. In fact, the only scripture accepted by both sects today is the Tattvartha Sutra. Other differences are doctrinal. One involves the state of an enlightened Jina. While Digambaras assert that an enlightened Jina did not eat, drink, or take part in common bodily processes and activities, Shvetambaras argue that an enlightened Jina continued to function like other humans until his death.

The disagreement over clothing is, however, probably the most important difference, and it also produced a disagreement about whether women, since they cannot renounce clothing, can reach enlightenment. While Shvetambaras (wearing white) believe that clothing is necessary for the spiritual path, Digambaras (wearing the sky) assert that to reach enlightenment a person must renounce all clothing. There is a large body of literature dating from 800-1700 C.E. concerning the debate, including the question of whether or not women can achieve enlightenment. Digambaras argue that women cannot attain moksha until they are first reborn as men, but Shvetambaras argue that women can do so in female bodies. Shvetambaras also believe that the 19th Jina, Mallinatha, was female, while Digambaras believe that this Jina was male. It is important to note, however, that Jains believe that it is impossible for anyone to achieve moksha in the current period, which is considered to be a degenerate age, so that all monks and nuns will have to wait in an heavenly realm for a more pure age before they can be reincarnated in human form again and achieve moksha.

The Shvetambara and Digambara sects further divided into subsects. The Shvetambara branch divided into the Sthanakwasi, Murtipujak, and Terapanthi subsects, and the Digambara into the Bisapanthi, Terapanthi, and Taranpanthi. Murtipujak Jains further divided into groups called gacchas, the most important of which are the Tapa and Kharatara Gacchas. The Shvetambara divisions are more clear-cut than those of the Digambara, although there are important differences among the Digambara divisions. Bisapanthi and Terapanthi Digambaras, for example, worship statues in temples, while Taranpanthis worship scriptures. Among the Bisapanthi, women may anoint Jain images in temples, and there are no restrictions concerning green vegetables. Among the Terapanthi, women are restricted from touching images of the Jinas, and the eating of green vegetables is restricted during certain times of the month.

Among Shvetambaras, those belonging to the Sthanakwasi and Terapanthi subsects do not engage in image worship, which helps set them apart from the Murtipujak subsect. The Sthanakwasi subsect traces its origins to aniconic advocates (that is, those opposed to images) who lived around the seventeenth century C.E. and who broke from Murtipujaks. Among them was Lavaji, who established the practice of living in abandoned structures instead of in buildings constructed for traveling monks and nuns. He also emphasized the renouncer practice of wearing a cloth, ormuhapatti, over the mouth so as not to injure insects or other life forms in the air. On ritual occasions many Murtipujaks also wear such a cloth, but the Sthanakwasis, as well as the Terapanthis, wear a muhapatti most of the time.

Acharya Bikshu, who was born in Marwar Rajasthan in 1726, founded the highly organized Terapanthi subsect of the Shvetambaras. It is because of the organization of this subsect that scholars know more about Bikshu than about most other important Jains. Originally a Sthanakwasi renouncer, Bikshu eventually became disillusioned with the lax behavior of many of this fellow renouncers. He criticized them for living permanently in buildings constructed for them, for repeatedly going to the same households for food, for establishing connections with powerful lay Jains, for handling money, and for forbidding their lay followers from accepting initiations from other renouncers.

The early history of Bikshu and his followers resembles the legend of Lord Mahavira. Few laypeople were willing to give them food and shelter, and they faced extreme hardships. By the end of his life, however, Bikshu had initiated more than 100 monks and nuns, and his practice of allowing only one acharya (religious leader) and his doctrine of complete obedience to this acharya allowed the order to grow without division. Since Bikshu there have been nine other acharyas, the most important being the 9th, Acharya Tulsi, who lived from 1914 to 1997.

Most Murtipujaks belong to the group Tapa Gaccha, which was created by Jagachandrasuri in the early 1200s because of the lax practices he saw in his community. Jagachandrasuri emphasized tap (austere practices) in his life, and so his group became known as the Tapa Gaccha. Prevalent in Gujarat, it has become the largest group of Jains in India. The Kharatara Gaccha is so named because of the exceptional power of its founder, Jinashvarasuri, in debating. He received the title kharatar (formidable) in 1024 from a king who hosted a debate between Jinashvarasuri and ascetics who argued that they should be able to own property and reside in temples. Needless to say, Jinashvarasuri won the argument. Today most members of the Kharatara Gaccha live in Rajasthan.

A later reformation that is very important for Tapa Gacchas today took place in the mid-1800s. At that time the majority of Tappa Gaccha renouncers were yatis, settled monks who owned property and sired heirs. Corrupt and even rich, they were associated with tantras, techniques linked to spells and magical powers, and therefore were associated with danger and sorcery. The yatis were eventually deemed lax by the Tapa Gaccha lay community and were largely expelled. There are now very few yatis.

These conflicts and divisions in Jainism are examples of the longstanding friction between sedentary and itinerant and between lax and strict renouncers. Some of the conflicts also indicate how lay and renouncer communities interact. Lay Jains need renouncers, who inspire them to follow the difficult rules of Jainism. In addition, giving to renouncers is one of the main sources of good karma (merit). If renouncers are not sincere or are lax, laypeople do not collect as much good karma from giving food and other necessities. In turn, because the laity provide food, clothing, and shelter, renouncers need them for survival.

Central Doctrines

According to Jainism, there is an infinite number of intrinsically divine souls reincarnating in many forms, depending on their karma. These souls can achieve moksha, or nirvana, through detachment from karma only at relatively short times and in small places in the vast but finite universe. Souls progress to moksha through many stages, during which their innate divine qualities are gradually uncovered so that they move from limited and contextualized knowledge to omniscience. After achieving moksha, enlightened souls are free from rebirth and constitute the divine, which is worshiped by the Jain community.

There is no creator God in Jainism. The finite universe and the infinite souls within it have always existed and will always exist. When, however, a human attains complete experiential knowledge of reality, he or she is understood to have attained a state of godhood and is worshiped accordingly. The nine tattvas (realities) that characterize the universe include souls (jivas), matter (ajiva), matter coming in contact with souls (ashrava), the binding of karma and the soul (bandha), beneficial karma (punya), harmful karma (papa), inhibiting the influx of karma (samvara), purifying the soul of karma (nirjara), and liberation (moksha, or nirvana). All souls are identical and equal, but they expand or contract to fit the body they inhabit at any given time. Their bondage to karma hides their inherently divine characteristics of perfect energy, perfect bliss, perfect perception, and perfect knowledge. Matter comes in five categories: space, change, stability, atoms, and time. Shvetambaras do not include time as a form of matter, and this categorization was probably not systematized in early Jainism.

Jain’s motivations and practices reflect the world-view that all beings are part of a cycle of reincarnation (samsara) that extends from the heavens to the hells and that also includes a realm of beings who have attained enlightenment, or liberation from further rebirth (moksha). Jain cosmology divides the world into five parts: the hells, the middle world of humans and animals, the heavens, the abode of enlightened souls, and the abode of those beings with only one sense. Until they reach moksha, souls are reincarnated repeatedly in all of these parts. It was relatively late in Jain history when this world, or universe, came to be described as the “cosmic person,” as it is known today. Needless to say, the cosmic person is enormously large.

From top to bottom, the cosmic person is measured by fourteen “ropes” that are said to be incalculably long. There is a narrow axis that runs vertically through the middle of the structure, outside of which no multisensed being may exist. It is only within a small section of this waist region that humans and animals may live, Jinas may be born, and enlightenment may be achieved. The other regions are dominated by sensual desire or are void of moral understanding. Below and above the waist there are, respectively, several infernal realms where souls suffer the fruits of bad karma and several celestial realms in which souls enjoy the fruits of good karma. Above the heavens is the realm of enlightened souls, who are free of all karma and who are worshiped collectively and individually as God. The largest section of the axis is constituted by the hells, the second largest by the heavens, and the smallest by the realms in which human birth and enlightenment take place. The largest population of souls, however, is constituted by animals and plants.

Souls may have one or more of the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. Beings with only one sense, that of touch, are not self-propelling. They include microscopic nigodas, earth-bodies, water-bodies, fire-bodies, air-bodies, and plant-bodies. Beings with two to five senses are self-propelling and are categorized as either sentient or insentient. Animals, heavenly and infernal beings, and most humans are considered sentient. The distinction is also made between those higher animals that are able to reason and those that are completely instinctive. Heavenly (gods and goddesses) and hell beings are born spontaneously, without parents, and have certain paranormal senses, such as clairvoyance.

Although these are the main classes of beings, there is further variety, especially among gods and goddesses. Some gods and goddesses live in caves or in the woods and can help or harm others, and some—planetary gods and goddesses—live just below the heavenly realms. While some gods and goddesses have sexual relationships, others do not.

The most important physical matter in Jainism, however, is karma, microscopic physical particles that float in the universe. Beings control their own suffering and happiness through their physical, mental, and verbal actions. Their actions attract tiny karmic particles that stick to the soul and trap it in samsara. Karma determines the soul’s situation and position within the cycle of reincarnation and hinders the soul’s experience of its own true nature. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all agree that actions produce their own rewards and punishments, but Jainism is the only religion of the three in which karma is held to be physical particles.

Of these religions Jainism also has the most extensive categorization of karma, which is a function of its pivotal importance in the Jain worldview. In Jainism karma determines where souls are reborn, and no soul may achieve enlightenment while still bound by karma. There are eight divisions of karmic particles that fall under two subheadings: destructive, or harmful, karmas and nondestructive, or secondary, karmas. Destructive karmas includes those that delude insight, conceal knowledge, cloud perception, and restrict energy. In short, the destructive karmas obscure the inherent qualities of the soul and therefore the soul’s experience of it-self.

Nondestructive karmas include those that determine feelings of pleasure or pain; control birth, sex, the body, the senses, color, and spiritual potential; govern longevity; and decide status and environmental factors. Karmic particles attach to individual souls by means of the passions, emotional states such as hatred, greed, lust, and anger. The passions act as both magnets that attract and the glue that holds karmic particles to the soul. The passions also determine the severity and the length of karmic results. Once karmic particles have manifested their results, they leave the soul.

Because only humans can achieve enlightenment and escape rebirth, being born as a human is considered to be a result of good karma. It is even better karma, however, to be reborn as a human at a time when and in a place where enlightenment is possible. To understand why this is so, it is necessary to understand certain details about Jain cosmology. Humans may exist only on a relatively small, horizontal terrestrial plain, which is a flat disk located at the waist of the cosmic person. Mount Meru, which is located in the middle of Jambudvip, the central continent of this disk, rises 800,000 miles. This continent, as well as surrounding ones, has seven sections that are completely separated from one another by mountain ranges. The inner continent of Jambudvip is surrounded by innumerable oceans and islands. Humans, however, may inhabit only the centermost of the surrounding islands, along with the inner part of the next island.

There are also areas designated as enjoyment-lands and karma-lands. The former are like heavenly realms, in that sustenance is readily available and there is no need to work. Asceticism is not appealing to those who inhabit the lands of enjoyment, and so enlightenment is not possible there. Those in karma-lands, however, must work, and so their lives are not always happy, which is conducive to spiritual reflection. It is only in karma-lands, which include half of Mahavideh and all of Bharat and Airavat, that enlightenment is possible and that Jinas can be incarnated. Mahavideh is particularly significant. Jinas are always present there, and because successive ages of increasing and decreasing happiness and suffering do not affect the area, liberation is always possible. Bharat, the human realm, is not as fortunate as Mahavideh, but it is a karma-land, which makes enlightenment possible.

Time is not the same everywhere in cosmic person, and this is something that affects Bharat and Airavat. Although in such realms as Mahavideh time does not change the quality of life, in Bharat and Airavat time consists of 12 sections that complete a cycle divided into ascending and descending modes. According to some sources, each mode lasts for twokalpas (aeons, an enormous amount of time, such as 2 billion years) and, according to others, for “innumerable” lengths of time. The first six sections of time, in the ascending mode, are characterized by decreasing suffering and increasing happiness. They are called suffering-suffering, suffering, suffering-happiness, happiness-suffering, happiness, and happiness-happiness. The second six sections, in the descending mode, are marked by a symmetrical increase in suffering and decrease in happiness. Each happier time lasts for a longer period, during which humans are characterized by greater morality, longer life spans, and larger bodies. Each more agonizing time lasts a shorter period, during which humans are characterized by greater immorality, shorter life spans, and smaller bodies.

In the happiest times there is so much abundance that no one need do anything, and culture need not exist for law and order to be maintained. Only in less happy times, when scarcity develops, do the common aspects of human existence become necessary. It is only during the times of suffering-happiness and happiness-suffering that Jinas are born and teach and that enlightenment is possible. In sections of time that are primarily characterized by suffering, humans are too overwhelmed by pain to realize that happiness or enlightenment is possible. In sections of time primarily characterized by happiness, humans have no understanding of suffering and therefore no incentive to strive for enlightenment. In each ascending and descending mode 24 Jinas are born, and thus 48 are born in each complete cycle. In the descending mode, at the end of the happiness-suffering age, Rishabha was the first Jina, and he lived a superhuman life span of 600,000 years. Lord Mahavira, at the end of the suffering-happiness age, was the last Jina, and his life span was less than 90 years.

There is only an extremely small number of beings with good karma who are born during the small intervals of time characterized by both happiness and suffering and who can therefore strive to attain enlightenment. Thus, Jain doctrine provides motivation for those who find themselves lucky enough to be born human during a time when enlightenment is possible. Now, according to Jain doctrine, humans are in the descending mode, in an age of suffering and nearing the age of suffering-suffering. For this reason it is not possible for anyone to become enlightened. Nevertheless, Jains are motivated not to waste their human lives, since it is believed that the pious are reborn in a heavenly realm. There they wait for the age of the next Jina, when they will be reincarnated as humans, according to Shvetambaras, or as males, according to Digambaras, to achieve enlightenment.

To embark on the path of liberation, beings need to accumulate good karma, but ultimately the path consists of purifying the soul of all karma. Not only are individuals responsible, through their karmic actions, for their fates in the round of rebirth, but each person is also responsible for his or her own liberation. Although fate is governed by karma, a person determines the amount and quality of karma through the actions he or she chooses. Furthermore, enlightenment is possible through a person’s efforts by means of the three jewels: right faith, right understanding, and right conduct. Right faith refers to the aspirant’s acceptance of the nine realities. Right understanding refers to the detailed knowledge of these nine realities that is found in many Jain scriptures and through meditative effort. Right conduct is behavior that will lead the aspirant to enlightenment. All of the three jewels are deemed necessary on the renouncer’s path.

There are 14 stages through which a soul travels while making spiritual progress, or regression, the end point of which is enlightenment at death. They are known as the 14 “stages of qualities” and are likened to the rungs of a ladder. Each higher stage moves the practitioner from various states of ignorance, passion, bad conduct, and more karma to states of omniscience, less passion, perfect conduct, and no karma. This path to perfection is sometimes called the “path of purification.”

Until omniscience is gained at the top of the ladder, a person cannot claim to know the whole truth of reality, so that every assertion must be qualified as a partial truth. The multiplicity, or many-sidedness, of truth is known as anekant. According to this doctrine, every statement about something must be accompanied by qualifying statements that limit its claim from being the whole truth to being a contextualized truth. A popular metaphor for this is to acknowledge that seeing something means seeing it from various points of view, from the top, bottom, left side, and so on. In other words,anekant refers to interpreting something from one’s own point of view, environment, and spiritual state.

A popular story that illustrates the doctrine of anekant is that of the elephant and five blind men. According to the story, a king took five blind men to a large elephant. One man touched the trunk and claimed that it was a large snake. The second touched the tail and claimed that it was a rope. The third man felt a long, sturdy leg and claimed that it was a tree trunk. The fourth man touched an ear and stated that it was a winnowing fan. The fifth touched the elephant’s side and stated that it was a wall. In disagreement with one another, they began to argue, each claiming that the others were wrong. Unenlightened beings are like the blind men, while enlightened beings are like those who can see that all the blind men stated partial truths but that the object really is an elephant.

Jain’s ideas about God are related to their ideas about enlightened beings. Like Hindus, Jains believe that all people have God within them as their soul (jiva) and that the spiritual path consists in becoming aware of this. Unlike Hindus, however, Jains believe that all enlightened souls travel to the apex of the universe, where they are worshiped as gods or together as God. Enlightened Jinas also reside there. Some Jains believe that these Jinas are completely detached from all worldly affairs and so do not bless or directly help their followers (the scriptural view) or that they help those who worship them (the devotional view).

Moral Code of Conduct

Ideas about karma are at the heart of the Jain code of right conduct, one of the three jewels. To be born human at a time when enlightenment is possible, a person must have lived highly moral past lives. When a person decides to attain enlightenment, moral actions help to eliminate karma from the soul. All karma, both good and bad, ultimately hinders the practitioner from achieving enlightenment. But moral actions are not enough to achieve the blissful state called moksha, or nirvana. Two further things are necessary. The practitioner must stop accumulating karmic particles (samvara) and must eliminate the karmic particles he or she has already collected (nirjara).

In order to stop the inflow of karmic particles, it is usually necessary to renounce the married life of a householder and to eliminate passions and violence through continual restraint and the denial of the pleasures of the senses. This is done through adherence to moral actions that are based on nonviolence. In order eliminate karmic particles that have already accumulated, the lifestyle of renunciation must be combined with internal and external austerities (tap, tapas, ortapasya). Internal austerities include such practices as meditation, study, and service, while external austerities include such bodily mortifications as fasting. Once the practitioner has halted the inflow of karmic particles and annihilated all accumulated particles, he or she attains moksha and will not be reborn again. The emancipated soul travels upward to the top of the universe and, with all of the liberated souls dwelling there, is worshiped as God.

The Jain code of moral conduct, through which practitioners endeavor to stop the collection of new karma, centers around the value of nonviolence (ahimsa) and is explicated in the five great or lesser vows. The great and lesser vows include nonviolence, truth, nonstealing, sexual restraint (brahmacharya), and nonpossession. They differ only in the strictness with which they are observed. All Shvetambara renouncers accept some version of the great vows. In the Digambara sect only the highest renouncers take the great vows, while other renouncers take the lesser vows. In both sects laypeople may choose to adopt the lesser vows, but if they do not, they still endeavor to live lives in accordance with the values expressed by them. While renouncers are extremely strict, laypeople are given more latitude. Renouncers also follow three types of restraints, or ways of being careful in their practice of the five great vows: being careful with their body, speech, and mind. This requires constant vigilance in all that is done, said, and thought. Such vigilance is not easy and may be described as a type of meditation, or awareness, in every moment.

The Jain vow of nonviolence prohibits harmful thoughts, words, and deeds and prescribes an attitude of compassion and friendship toward other beings. All Jains are vegetarians. Laypeople may act in self-defense, while renouncers may not. In addition, laypeople must choose nonviolent professions, such as business. Examples of renouncer’s more extensive practice of nonviolence include checking their clothing for insects and brushing insects away with a soft broom before sitting down or while walking at night. The vow of truth prohibits lying, but if the truth would hurt someone, both renouncers and laypeople are told to remain silent. The vow of nonstealing means both that people should not acquire anything not given to them and that they should not think or talk about acquiring it. For many laypeople this includes honest business transactions as well as honesty in general.

For Jains the vow of sexual restraint is extremely important, with many renouncers claiming that it is the most important of their vows. For renouncers sexual restraint means complete celibacy in actions, words, and thoughts, something that may be more difficult than the other vows. If other vows are broken, renouncers may do penance to reestablish themselves, but if a renouncer has sexual relations, he or she is expelled from the Jain community. Furthermore, celibacy is seen as helping to retain the inner energy needed as fuel for the difficult path to enlightenment. Even one act of sexual misconduct dissipates this power. While the sexual restraint of monks and nuns requires complete celibacy, laypeople observe the vow by remaining faithful to their spouses in thought, word, and deed. This is more important for laywomen than laymen, being the most important index of laywomen’s general piety and honor and of the honor of their families.

Observing the vow of nonpossession also differs between renouncers and laypeople. For renouncers the vow not only signifies the absence of all possessions not needed for ascetic practice but also implies a sense of equanimity or detachment concerning possessions. In addition, there is a crucial difference between Shvetambara and Digambara interpretations of the vow. Shvetambaras believe that clothing is a necessary possession, but Digambaras believe that clothing should be renounced. Thus, while Shvetambara monks and nuns wear white clothing, full Digambara monks wear no clothing, and Digambara nuns wear white clothing. Laypeople who are in business are generally prosperous, and they demonstrate the value of nonpossession by donating large amounts of money to build temples, to provide shelters for wandering monks and nuns, and to support the many Jain charitable organizations in India.

Renouncers perform six rituals throughout the day. These are meditative awareness and equanimity at every moment; veneration of the 24 Jinas; veneration of the personal guru; repentance and karmic purification for any wrong thought, word, or deed; standing meditation, during which attention is directed away from the body and toward the immaterial soul; and the abandonment of transgressions, refraining from certain foods, and the performance of austerities through fasting. The rituals vary from sect to sect, and some are practiced by Jain laypeople as well, especially by women. These rituals help to stop karma from attaching itself to the soul and help to purify the soul of karma already attached.

By conforming to the five great and lesser vows, all religious Jains endeavor to stop bad karma from attaching to the soul. Renouncers, however, attempt to eliminate all karma, while laypeople try to accumulate as much good karma as possible. This distinction between the aims of laypeople and renouncers is less important in the current age of suffering, in which enlightenment is not possible.

Although few laypeople actually accept the five lesser vows, they may still attempt to follow them. Meritorious conduct such as charity, worship (puja), the singing of hymns, and celebration of another person’s religious acts all collect good karma, and avoiding violence and fasting protect laypeople from, and purify, bad karma. Such religiosity enables laypeople to maintain prosperous rebirths and also eventually to produce circumstances favorable for renunciation and the achievement of enlightenment.

Jain women are usually more religious than men. Women tend to follow food regulations more strictly and consistently, they educate their children about Jainism, they frequently visit renouncers and listen to their sermons, and most complete at least one significant fast. The principal karma-related practice for laywomen is fasting. The fasts, which are public undertakings, are celebrated with pride in Jain communities. They are performed for various reasons related to the purification of bad karma and the accumulation of good karma. Fasts are also performed in order to benefit the family, to acquire good husbands for themselves or their daughters, to demonstrate piety and faithfulness to their husbands and families, and to obtain notice within Jain communities for their religiosity. Although the most difficult of the fasts lasts for a month, there are a great variety of other fasts. These include fasting every other day, for a week, or for three days, as well as limiting the types of foods ingested. It is believed that only highly virtuous women can complete the more difficult fasts, and so these fasts demonstrate such women’s honor and piety. Furthermore, because women are responsible for maintaining Jainism in the home, the fasts also indicate the honor and piety of their families.

For Jain men charity rather than fasting is the principal karma-related practice. Laymen give money for education, libraries, hospitals, animal shelters, temples, temporary shelters for renouncers, Jain images, and pilgrimages. As with fasting, charity is a highly public undertaking. There are public auctions to raise money for Jain causes, with the donor’s names frequently displayed on what they have helped to create and maintain. Giving is important not just for accumulating good karma but also for establishing a good reputation and good business and marriage contacts within the Jain community.

Another common way of achieving merit is through celebration of the religious actions of others. Fasts and donations are celebrated by processions and feasts, through which religious actions are displayed and lauded. Initiation into an order of renouncers is also celebrated with great pomp. Members of the entire Jain community can thereby encourage piety and accumulate good karma that will continue their well-being and help them to renounce in a future life.

Sacred Books

Jain sacred literature is expressed in forms that are both classical and vernacular and includes narratives, treatises, and poetry. It is both written and oral and may be polemic and sectarian. The literature is studied, memorized, narrated, and worshiped. To say that there is a Jain canon in the Western sense of the term is somewhat misleading, but there are scriptures that are considered authoritative and sacred and that are commonly known. Through oral tradition, memorization, and worship, Jain sacred texts are part of a living and changing tradition.

Certain Jain texts are believed to have originated from the divine sound of the enlightened Lord Mahavira. While Shvetambaras believe that the sound emanated in languages suitable for different peoples and beings, Digambaras believe that it was one great, uniform sound. In either case, Lord Mahavira’s immediate disciples compiled the sound, which became systematized Jain scripture.

Both Shvetambaras and Digambaras assert that the earliest Jain compositions consisted of 14 oral texts, called the Purvas. Both sects also assert that the Purvas have been lost, although some of the information contained in them is believed to have been incorporated in the Digambara texts Shatakanda Agama and Kashayaprabhrita and in the Shvetambara text Prajnapana Upanga, also called the Bhagavati Sutra. Evidence from other texts describing this literature suggests that they contained information about karma theory, cosmology, astronomy, astrology, and the acquiring of supernatural powers, as well as philosophical polemics.

The core scriptures of the Shvetambara tradition are numerous, consisting of 45 texts organized into five groups. The first 12 texts, called Angas (“Limbs”), include information about monastic rules, dangers on the ascetic path, limited heretical views, knowledge theory and logic, the nature of karma, and cosmology, along with narratives about devout Jains of the past. (Unlike Shvetambaras, Digambaras believe that all true Angas have been lost.) The second group, called Upanga (“Supplementary Limbs”), contains mostly narratives but also includes information about the soul, gods, and hell beings; how to attain liberation; and ontology, time cycles, doctrines, and cosmology. The third group of texts is the Chedasutras (“Delineating Scriptures”), which contain information about monastic hierarchy, monastic rules, and penance for breaking monastic rules. The fourth group is the Mulasutras (“Root Scriptures”), which monks and nuns first study after initiation. These texts include information about doctrine, conduct, rituals, caste, and caring for monastic possessions, as well as narratives. The fifth group of scriptures, Prakirnaka (“Miscellaneous”), contains a variety of subjects, from ritual death and astrology to lauding the Jinas.

Both Digambaras and Shvetambaras also produced the Anuyogas. The Digambaras especially hold the Anuyogas in high regard. They contain information about cosmology, doctrine, conduct, karma, and logic and philosophy, as well as praise for the Jinas and popular narrative literature. Among the most important Anuyogas, for Digambaras, are the Puranas (narratives) and the authoritative works of Kundakunda and, for Shvetambaras, the Trishashtishalakapurushacharitra (narratives).

The worship, or honoring, of sacred texts is common in Jainism. For example, when a renouncer finishes copying a text by hand, this is celebrated within the Jain community. If a renouncer successfully memorizes scriptures, he or she receives additional respect and veneration. During the Paryushan festival of the Shvetambaras, renouncers recite the Kalpa Sutra, while during the Dashalakshanaparvan festival of the Digambaras, members of the community recite the Tattvartha Sutra.

Jains generally do not know what is contained in all of the scriptures. Instead, many renouncers and most laypeople receive their knowledge of Jain history, doctrine, and practice from their mothers and from renouncers. Indeed, without the efforts of mothers and renouncers, the Jain tradition would soon die out. To inspire them to practice Jainism, mothers tell the narratives to their children, and renouncers tell them to large audiences and individuals. Young Jains also perform popular narratives in plays. It is this narrative tradition, not the erudite and complicated works themselves, that is significant in the daily life of Jains. Narratives often illustrate issues within the context of Jain history, and it is in this way that followers learn how to understand the workings of Jainism in their own lives. The majority of the narratives can be considered canonical, and they are included in the sacred texts. Most Jains, however, are not concerned about the texts from which the narratives come but rather in the oral retelling, which frequently includes details absent from the written versions.

Thus, narratives based on sacred texts are the preferred mode of explanation in Jainism, and for this reason the oral, not the written, word may be said to be more important. This means that much of Jain sacred literature cannot be separated from the people and their practices and also means that its content grows. As stories that recount exceptional contemporary Jains are composed, told, and retold, new narratives continue to be added to the Jain repertoire.

Sacred Symbols

The svastika is an ancient and sacred symbol for both Jains and Hindus. Most Westerners associate the symbol with the Nazis, but this is an abhorrent association for Jains, who are committed to nonviolence.

The svastika is a powerful symbol of auspiciousness in India, and the word itself means “well-being.” In Jainism the symbol represents existence in samsara, the cycle of reincarnation, and the way to moksha (enlightenment), and it is incorporated into worship, appears on homes and temples, and is used in meditation. The four arms represent the four realms—human, animal and plant, heavenly, and hellish—into which souls may reincarnate. Three horizontal dots above represent the three jewels of right faith, right understanding, and right conduct that lead an aspirant to enlightenment. Above these are a crescent that represents the abode of enlightened souls at the top of the universe and another dot that represents the enlightened souls themselves.

Early and Modern Leaders

The most important historical leader in Jainism was Lord Mahavira, who lived in the sixth century B.C.E. and who determined the shape and practice of Jainism as it is known today. Other important historical leaders included those who established major divisions within Jainism. Among these was Lonka (Lonka Shah), who lived in Gujarat in the fifteenth century C.E. and to whom both the Sthanakwasi and Terapanthi subsects within Shvetambara Jainism are traced. Scholars have never determined exactly who Lonka was or what he advocated, but there is evidence to indicate some of his ideas and his place in Shvetambara society. According to Sthanakwasi legends, Lonka was a magnate and calligrapher who had political connections with the Muslim government and who eventually became a renouncer. Both legends and scholarship agree that he and his followers were aniconic—that is, that they viewed image worship as a corruption of Jainism. Some scholars, however, believe that Lonka probably was not rich and not a full renouncer. Others trace his aniconic ideas to his connections with the similarly minded Muslims, while some point out that this connection is not necessary to explain the origins of his stance, since such ideas can be seen in several early Jain texts. His followers in the Lonka Gaccha eventually returned to image worship, possibly influenced by a need to maintain business connections with image-worshiping Jains, and although the group still exists, it has only a small number of adherents. Nonetheless, Lonka was important in the development of the aniconic Sthanakwasi and Terapanthi subsects.

Acharya Tulsi, a twentieth-century Terapanthi, was pivotal for many reasons. He initiated more monks and nuns than any other acharya and in 1949, two years after the violence that accompanied the partition of India and Pakistan, founded the anuvrat movement. This movement encourages laypeople, both Jains and those in other religions, to adopt a version of the lesser vows (anuvratas) in order to create a more just, unified, and peaceful society. Acharya Tulsi also created the institution of lesser renouncers—samanis (female) and samans (male)—who are allowed to travel by vehicles in order to minister to Jains living abroad, including those in Europe and North America. In addition, the first Jain university was created through his efforts. Acharya Tulsi’s work to improve the position of women in society was especially important in Rajasthan, where they are still routinely beaten and mistreated by their husbands and in-laws and where they must adhere to parda restrictions that limit them to the home and keep them veiled much of the time. He also supported widows, who are particularly vulnerable, and the few women who did not renounce but did not want to marry, a radical step for Jains, who are expected to do one or the other.

Major Theologians and Authors

Jainism has a rich scholastic and literary tradition. It is so important that Jain libraries, which collect and preserve these works, are among the best in India. One of the most important writers was Umasvati (c. 300 C.E.), the author of the Tattvartha Sutra, which is the only scripture accepted by both Shvetambaras and Digambaras. The Tattvartha Sutra is a philosophical explanation of such key Jain principles as karma, cosmology, spiritual progress, and ethics.

Haribhadra (either sixth or eighth century C.E.) and Hemachandra (1089-1172) were two influential Shvetambara monk-scholars. While Shvetambaras claim that Haribhadra wrote 1,400 texts, scholars attribute only about one hundred 100 to him, although they remain some of the best Indian literature. In fact, scholars have identified two Haribhadras. One, who lived in the eighth century, was converted by the nun Yakini to Jainism, and the other, who lived earlier, perhaps in the sixth century, had nephews who reportedly were killed by Buddhists when they were discovered spying. In any event, Haribhadra marked the beginning of an independent Shvetambara literary culture, with works concerning practice, ritual, scriptures, narrative, and logic. Another monk-scholar, Hemachandra, who is more concretely identifiable, also was important in Shvetambara Jainism. Born in Gujarat, he was still young when he was given to a group of monks headed by Devachandra. Hemachandra eventually proved to be intellectually superior in religious learning and so became Devachandra’s successor, helped to organize Shvetambara Jainism, especially in western India, and composed such comprehensive literature as The Lives of the Jain Elders, Universal History, andTreatise on Behavior.

Jinasena and Virasena, who both lived in the ninth century C.E., are important to Digambaras. Both developed epic and narrative literature that included versions of stories also present in Hinduism, such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as purely Jain stories. Kundakunda is another important figure for Digambaras. He was a monk who probably lived around the eighth century or earlier, although little else is known about his life. His writings, on the other hand, are highly accessible and influential. Digambaras credit him with 16 treatises, although scholars believe that some of these were written by others. Kundakunda is known for the mystical orientation of his works toward the personal experience of the soul. In his view the soul is the only entity that is ultimately real, and all practice should be oriented toward it. Everything else is worldly and thus only partially real. These are the two levels of truth, ultimate and worldly. Duality, as between notions of good and bad or right and wrong, is significant only from the worldly point of view, so that any “good” acts that produce auspicious karma and influence the circumstances for rebirth have nothing to do with the soul. The soul is already enlightened and ultimately free of karma, but it is karma that obscures the person’s realization or experience of this. Ascetic practices are valuable only in that they purify karma and lead to the experience of the soul. Kundakunda’s most significant works include those that claim to describe the internal essence of religion:The Essence of Scripture, The Essence of Doctrine, and The Essence of Restraint.

Organizational Structure

The Jain community, which each Jina is held to have established or renewed, is divided into four groups: monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. Within the community Jains tend to be highly conscious of hierarchy and status, which are based mostly on gender, age, level of asceticism, piety, and prosperity.

In Jainism men are considered higher than women, but these hierarchies exist separately in lay and renouncer communities and in certain ascetic divisions of the Digambara sect. All renouncers, regardless of their gender, are above all laypeople. Thus, while laywomen are lower than laymen, laymen are lower than nuns, and nuns are lower than monks. Although nuns are theoretically lower than monks, this means little in many communities, however, since there are so few monks. Both Shvetambaras and Digambaras call the heads of their renouncer communities acharyas, and all but one in Jain history have been male. The only exception is Acharya Chandana (born in 1937), who became the head of an innovative and controversial group in the Sthanakwasi subsect in Bihar. This group makes service to the poor a part of renouncer practice and allows renouncers to travel in vehicles, neither of which is standard practice for monks and nuns. In the Terapanthi subsect there is only one acharya at a time, but in other sects and subsects there are multipleacharyas in charge of separate groups.

Jain hierarchies are also based on seniority, but while lay communities base seniority on age, renouncers base it on the number of years since initiation. Among laypeople, therefore, it is virtually impossible for a younger person to have seniority over an older relative of the same gender, but it is possible for a younger renouncer to have seniority over an older renouncer of the same gender. An acharya is typically the most senior male member of a group of renouncers, but this does not mean that he is the oldest.

Because of differing levels of austerities, the Digambara hierarchy of ascetics is even more complicated. Digambara ascetics consist of the following types, listed in order from the lowest in the hierarchy (based on gender and the difficulty of their austerities) to the highest: brahmacarinis (female), brahmacarins (male), kshullikas (female), kshullaks (male), ailaks (male), aryikas (female), and munis (male). Although all Shvetambara monks and nuns take the five great vows and so are considered full-fledged monks and nuns, in the Digambara sect only munis take the great vows. All of the other Digambara ascetics take the five lesser vows. The versions of the lesser vows taken by these Digambara ascetics are still extremely strict, but because they are lesser vows, these ascetics are officially only advanced laypeople. Thus, officially there are no Digambara nuns. In practice, however, all kshullaks, kshullikas, ailaks, and aryikas are considered to be relatively close to munis, and so these ascetics are considered higher than other laypeople, and the female aryikas are usually counted among the Digambara renouncer community.

Laypeople are ordered according to their piety (women) and monetary success (men). Women who are very religious and have completed more difficult fasts are higher than those who are not as religious and have not fasted. For poor and middle-class Jains, women largely determine familie’s places in Jain society. Those lay Jains who have been successful in business or are members of a successful family, however, have higher status than do poor or middle-class Jains, even though the latter may be more religious. The female relatives of the successful therefore have less pressure to show their piety, although many may still be highly pious. Both piety and wealth are displayed publicly, and so both are a matter of public knowledge.

Because Jains belong to fewer castes and because they maintain high standards of purity, caste means less among Jains than among Hindus. Although some Jains come from farming backgrounds, most are of the merchant caste. While Hindus who are higher in the caste system maintain their purity and status by being vegetarians, all Jains are vegetarians. Thus, while Jains may be envied or resented for their business success, they are respected in the larger Hindu society for their high standards of nonviolence and purity. These standards tend to keep Jains from mixing with Hindus who do not hold the same standards. Jains therefore most often marry within the community, but they also sometimes marry Vaishnavas (Vishnu worshipers), who are generally vegetarians.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Broadly speaking, a Jain holy place is wherever a Jain renouncer temporarily resides or where a religious act is taking place, but image-worshiping Jains, such as Digambaras and the Murtipujak subsect of Shvetambaras, also have important temples. Prominent image worship probably began in the third century B.C.E., and ancient Jain temples remain some of the most beautiful in India. For laymen especially, one primary merit-making activity continues to be the donation of money to construct temples and to fund the images within them.

Most places of pilgrimage are considered holy because of their connection with an enlightened being’s life or because of miracles that took place there. For Shvetambaras, Kshitriyakund is held to have been the birthplace of Lord Mahavira, while Digambaras believe that he was born at Vaishali. Rijubaluka is associated with the 12 years of austerities before he reached enlightenment, Pavapuri with his enlightenment, and Pava with his physical death and passing from this world. All of these pilgrimage sites are in Bihar. Also important to Jinas are the hills of Parasnath (also called Shikarji) in Bihar, where 20 Jinas attained moksha (enlightenment), and Girnar in Gujarat, where the Jina Nemi achieved moksha.

One of the most impressive Digambara images and pilgrimage sites was constructed around the tenth century C.E. at Shravana Begola in Karnataka. It is a 57-foot image of Bahubali, a son of the first Jina, Rishabhadev. Although he fought his brother over who would be the universal ruler of their time, during the combat Bahubali realized his folly and withdrew to practice austerities. The enormous stature depicts him performing the austerity of standing for a long period of time, so long that vines grew up his body. Every 10 to 15 years hundreds of thousands of pilgrims attend a spectacular head-anointing ritual. Even before the image was constructed, the area was associated with the auspicious passings of Digambara monks who fasted to death there, and Jains also assert that it was connected with the original migration of Jains to the south and with their leader Bhadrabahu.

Some of the most beautiful Shvetambara temples were constructed from white marble, with intricate carvings of pious images. For this reason the temples on Mount Abu in Rajasthan are popular with both Jains and tourists. There also are important pilgrimage sites at Ranakpur in Rajasthan. The construction of the temples on Mount Abu and in Ranakpur dates from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries C.E.. In Gujarat the impressive temples at Palitana are a place of pilgrimage for Shvetambaras. It is said that the Jina Rishabhadev visited the site 22 times.

What is Sacred?

The Jain conception of God centers around inherently perfect and divine souls, all of which have perfect energy, bliss, perception, and knowledge. Every soul is sacred, and so all life is sacred, from liberated beings to microscopic nigodas. Those who have attained enlightenment, or who are on the path to doing so, are considered more sacred in that they are part of, or will be part of, the Jain concept of God. The sacredness of enlightened beings and of those making progress toward enlightenment is expressed in the Namaskar Mantra, which is sacred in and of itself and which is chanted by Jains of every sect and subsect.

All Jinas, the great men and women in Jain history, and renouncers are considered sacred. The great men and women in Jain history, both lay and renouncer, are described in the extensive narrative tradition. Their names are frequently recited in rituals in order to invoke auspiciousness and also so that those reciting may develop their qualities, such as religiosity, nonviolence, and chastity. The names of the Jinas and of the Satis, or virtuous women, are especially used in this way. The names of the Satis are Sita, Kunti, Damayanti, and Draupadi, who are known in Hinduism as well, and Chandanabala, Rajimati, Brahmi, Sundari, Subhadra, Pushpachula, Prabhavati, Shiva, Shalavati, Sulasa, Chellna, Anjana, Madanarekha, Mrigavati, Mainasundari, and Padmavati, who are unique to Jainism. The Jina’s mothers (jinamatas) are sometimes also categorized with the Satis, but usually they are considered separately. (The names of the 24 Jinas are given above under HISTORY.)

While non-image-worshiping Jains focus much of their veneration on renouncers, there are many sacred sites that are of particular importance to image-worshiping Jains. Women especially worship daily in local temples in front of sacred images of the Jinas and of various lesser gods and goddesses. Strictly speaking, the gods and goddesses are not liberated and are therefore inferior to liberated souls and renouncers, but they may help with worldly affairs.

Holidays and Festivals

Perhaps the most important “holiday” for Jains is chaturmas, a retreat that last for four months. It takes place during the rainy season, at a time when insects are thriving. During this period all Jain renouncers must remain in one location, lest in traveling they trample the insects. Laypeople provide food and shelter for renouncers during chaturmas and attend lectures and storytellings or receive teachings from them. In addition, there are a variety of celebrations, and even those who do not participate in Jain activities during the rest of the year often take part in chaturmas. Otherwise, unless they are in ill health or are undertaking a scholarly endeavor, renouncers are not allowed to stay in one place.

Both Shvetambaras and Digambaras celebrate Mahavira Jayanti, the birth of Lord Mahavira, at the same time during March-April. Otherwise Shvetambaras and Digambaras follow largely separate calendars of festivals. At the end of the rainy season retreat, Shvetambaras celebrate Paryushan, during which renouncers recite the Kalpa Sutra, while Digambaras celebrate Dashalakshanaparvan and recite part of the Tattvartha Sutra. Both Paryushan and Dashalakshanaparvan last for several days and are marked by fasting. On the final day Jains repent for any violence done to other beings, and laypeople send letters to friends and associates asking for pardons for any transgressions.

Like Hindus, Jains celebrate the Festival of Lights (Diwali) in October, during which Lakshmi is worshiped as the goddess of well-being. Other festivals include the Shvetambara Jnanapanchami (knowledge fifth) in October-November and the Digambara Shrutapanchami (scripture fifth) in May-June. Both festivals involve learning and scriptures. Akshayatriya (undying third) is a Shvetambara and Digambara celebration of the initiation of the first Jina, Rishabhadev, and his first acceptance of alms.

Mode of Dress

While Jain laypeople follow local customs concerning dress, renouncer’s clothing is more restricted. They may wear only prescribed white clothing, and their possessions are limited to what is necessary to help them practice nonviolence. The dress of full Shvetambara and Digambara renouncers differs. Shvetambara renouncers wear white. While most Digambara ascetics wear white, Digambara munis do not wear any clothing. Other accoutrements associated with a renouncer include a soft broom and a mouth guard (muhapatti). The former is used to brush insects out of the way before sitting down, turning over during sleep, and sometimes when walking. The muhapatti, used in the Sthanakwasi and Terapanthi subsects, protects insects and one-sensed air-bodies from being injured or killed through inhalation and exhalation.

Dietary Practices

All religious Jains are vegetarians, and renouncers must acquire their food from vegetarian households. The ritual collection of food by renouncers is one of the most significant religious practices in Jainism. “Begging,” however, is not an appropriate word for this activity, for laypeople consider it an honor and a merit-making activity to provide for renouncers.

To eat meat of any kind means to violate the preeminent vow of nonviolence. Jains are also prohibited from eating foods, including honey, alcohol, eggplant, root vegetables, and some fruits, in which life forms may exist. Water must be boiled and strained so that no microscopic or tiny organisms are inadvertently ingested. Evening meals are eaten before sunset so that flying insects are not attracted to and die in the cooking fires.

There are minor dietary variations between sects and subsects. Among Digambaras, for example, Bisapanthis may eat green vegetables, while Terapanthis restrict the eating of green vegetables at certain times.


All Jains who grow up in religious homes know the Namaskar Mantra, a simple mantra or prayer: “I bow to the Arihants [enlightened beings who still have bodies]. / I bow to the Siddhas [enlightened beings who have left their bodies]. / I bow to the Acharyas [heads of Jain orders]. / I bow to the religious teachers. / I bow to all renouncers.”

Another common form of auspicious prayer involves recitation of the names of the Jinas and Satis, which encourages the growth of these people’s religious qualities within those who chant their names. Not only are their names recited, but also hymns about their lives are sung. Although hymns are sung by laymen and renouncers, they are more important in the lives of laywomen, who continue to compose, record, and pass them on.

A Jain must either marry or renounce. This is an extremely important decision, for there is no socially sanctioned way to end a marriage, except through one or both partner’s renunciation, and no socially sanctioned way to become a householder once a person has been initiated as a renouncer. Although the vast majority of Jains marry, many also choose to be initiated as monks and nuns. As in Lord Mahavira’s renunciation, during diksha (initiation) the postulant leaves behind attachments to the world in order to engage in practices conducive to moksha, or nirvana. In the Shvetambara sect a postulant as young as six may be initiated, but in the Digambara sect an initiate must be an adult. Initiations are expensive celebrations and also opportunities for merit making.

For every Jain sect there are two initiation ceremonies, one that is publicly celebrated by laypeople and another that is more private, performed in the presence of renouncers. Between these two ceremonies there is usually a probation period of about a month, although it is as long as two years in the Terapanthi sect. During this period postulants fast and study the basic scriptures in order to test their resolve and to learn about Jain philosophy and the ascetic life. In Jainism, unlike Hinduism, renunciation is a suitable alternative to marriage for women. And unlike Hinduism, Jainism always celebrates renunciation, as well as marriage, as an auspicious event.

Although marriage and renunciation initiate different ways of life, there are a number of characteristics shared by the two rituals. Both are public and extravagant celebrations. Before they take place, there are numerous parties at which sweets are offered to large numbers of relatives. Both celebrations include processions accompanied by musical bands, and most of the community attends. The night before the ceremonies women sit up singing. In the morning the bride or initiate bathes and is then dressed in a wedding sari and gold jewelry. Wedding henna is applied to her hands and feet, and a saffron mark known as the tikka is placed on her forehead. Photos are taken, for collection in an album, and sometimes the event is also captured on videotape. There is usually much weeping during the ceremonies, in which the girl either leaves her family home to join her husband and in-laws or leaves her home to stay with nuns.

The conclusion of initiation ceremonies underscores the divergent nature of the two life choices. Before the private ceremony takes place, the postulant’s clothes are changed to the simple white garb of a renouncer. The initiate then gives a speech in which she explains why she wants to renounce, pays her respects to the renouncer who is initiating her, is given a new name, and accepts the five great vows.

Jains treat initiations as pilgrimage events and travel to witness and celebrate them. The most important pilgrimages for many lay Jains, however, are those undertaken to meet with respected and well-known renouncers. Indeed, for non-image-worshiping Jains, such as the Terapanthi and Sthanakwasi, this is even more important. Terapanthis, for example, frequently travel to the place where the current leader or head nun is staying in order to take food and other donations and to receive blessings. In addition, many Jains view accompanying monks and nuns on their travels as a type of pilgrimage.

Jains also make pilgrimages to famous temples, shrines, and statues. One of the most significant Shvetambara pilgrimage sites is Mount Shatrunjaya, in the village of Palitana in Gujarat. There pilgrims climb 3,600 steps up the mountainside to reach the zenith, which is covered with religious images. This pilgrimage is popular with Jain laypeople, and Murtipujak monks and nuns can be seen combining austerity and devotion by repeatedly ascending and descending the steps while limiting their food and drink. The town of Shravana Belgola in Karnataka is the site of an important Digambara pilgrimage site. A special pilgrimage to the town takes place every few years when the 57-foot statue of Bahubali is anointed.

Monks and nuns must, and laypeople may, choose to undertake the six Jain obligatory actions: establishing equanimity, praising the Jinas, honoring one’s teachers, repenting, standing motionless, and abandoning certain foods and drink. The ritual of Pratikramana is particularly indicative of the Jain emphasis on nonviolence. During this ritual of repentance and purification, Jains confess and ask forgiveness for any harm they have caused others and purify the karma they have accrued through such harmful acts. The rite is performed twice a day by renouncers, often by laywomen, and perhaps once a year by laymen.

Singing is a common part of lay rituals and worship. It is largely a female activity, although renouncers, and to a lesser extent laymen, also participate in singing as a devotional and inspirational activity. Singing circles are an important religious and social activity for lay-women, who sometimes infrequently leave their homes otherwise. Women collect religious songs from their natal homes and communities in order to pass them on to their in-laws after they marry. Women create, memorize, change, and exchange such songs. They are included in women’s own ever changing collections and repertoires and are also available in published books and on cassette tapes.

Rites of Passage

The most distinctive Jain rite of passage is initiation, as explained above under RITUALS. In other rites of passage, such as birth, marriage, and death, Jains usually follow local Hindu customs.

Fasting to death (sallekhana), however, is a practice that is distinctly Jain, although it is undertaken by few today. When Jain renouncers find themselves too old or incapacitated to follow their vows, they may choose to fast until they die. This is not considered suicide, which is an act of violence, but instead a controlled death. The practitioner renounces food and meditates, attempting to withdrawal his or her senses from the out-side world in order to die in a meditative and completely nonviolent state.


Jain scriptures are full of stories of scholars and renouncers who debated, preached, and converted people—and also gods, demons, and animals—in India. Unlike Buddhism, however, the growth of Jainism to other countries has been inhibited by ascetic’s rules against traveling in vehicles. The only group that actively promotes Jain practices in India and else-where today is the Terapanthi subsect. They are able to do so because they have created a new form of renunciation, the institution of lesser renouncers (samanis and samans), to fit modern times. Although these renouncers follow most ascetic rules, they are allowed to travel in vehicles. Lesser Terapanthi nuns, and some monks, actively promote Jainism by traveling, lecturing, and ministering to Jains and others outside India, including those in the United States as well as European countries.

Religious Tolerance

Although there have been religious persecutions on the continent, many Asians today follow practices and beliefs of more than one religion. Hindus, for example, revere Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic, as a saint and go to Dharmashala to receive blessings from the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist. Jains also have respect for such religious leaders and today live cordially with members of other religions in India. This was not always the case, however, especially in southern India, where Jains were persecuted by Hindus in the latter part of the first millennium C.E.

In contemporary times, with the reinterpretation of the doctrine of anekant (multiplicity of truth) to accommodate ecumenical movements, Jainism has headed in an even more tolerant direction. In the past this doctrine was used by scholars and debaters to establish the superiority of Jain teachings to the more partial truths of other religions. Now, however, especially among those living in the West, the more tolerant and relativistic side of Jainism is emphasized. Perhaps today’s attitude is closer to that of Haribhadra’s. Although he argued for the superiority of Jainism, he also advocated respect for the people of all religions.

In the same way Jains today argue that their religion already encompassed many concepts, such as microscopic organisms and environmentalism, before they were discovered by science. By demonstrating how broad their ideas are, Jains glorify their religion, a principal means of accumulating good karma, and they also assert that Jainism encompasses many points of view and perspectives, making it closest to the enlightened state of omniscient knowledge that was attained by Lord Mahavira. At the same time, Jains emphasize a more tolerant side of anekant, as did Haribhadra, and hold that, with the qualification that they should be nonviolent, the beliefs and practices of any religion may be respected.

Social Justice

Unlike monks, Jain laymen must earn money to support their families. Their professions are limited by the adherence to nonviolence, however, and it is for this reason that men tend to go into business. The Jain community is, therefore, affluent, and laypeople frequently give money to support their religion and other beneficial causes. Laypeople not only gain good karma from this, but they also purify bad karma.

Lay Jain activities involve supporting and running institutions dedicated to helping humans and animals. These include creating educational opportunities, providing for the poor, and working for peaceful solutions to political problems. Jain libraries contain not only Jain works but works from other religions as well. Jain hospitals provide medical care, and shelters provide care for animals. All such causes are time-honored recipients of charity, and as Jainism has expanded to the West, environmental causes have come to be included.

Most Jains are active in the promotion of learning, religious or otherwise. With the decrease in child marriages in India, Jain children, particularly girls, have time to pursue education. As in India generally, in the past education was less available to Jain girls and women than to men, but Jains have made more progress in this area than Hindus have. Even the Tapa Gaccha, a division of Murtipujak Shvetambaras and the most populous Jain group, in which nuns formerly did not have educational opportunities, has opened religious education to its nuns. Today there are many educated Jain laypeople and renouncers, including some who have earned doctorates and published books.

Historically there have been mixed attitudes in Jainism toward nature. On the one hand, the ultimate goal of asceticism is to escape rebirth in the world in order to reside with other liberated souls at the top of the universe. On the other hand, Jainism has institutionalized nonviolence toward all forms of life, which include embodied souls that are intrinsically divine even though their divinity may be hidden by karma. For Jains souls are embodied in what the West terms “nature,” including earth, water, air, and plants. Thus, many Jains try to live nonviolently toward these life forms, and Jain ascetics are required to do so. Although the ascetic ideology tends to emphasize escape from this world, lay ideology does not. Further, because most ascetics cannot travel by vehicles, virtually all Jains in the West are lay-people. For this reason the ascetic ideal of escaping the world is less strong among Western Jains. Instead of looking toward escape, they have begun to create an ecological Jainism that, as an extension of nonviolence, aims to preserve the environment.

Jains believe in purification through suffering and are concerned with all souls, not just those presently inhabiting human bodies. For these reasons activity in promoting social justice has been limited, particularly in the past. Jains have traditionally focused on noninterfering types of nonviolence. Not only should Jains not interfere with another soul’s happiness, but they also should not interfere with another soul’s purification of karma through suffering. Alleviating the suffering of others, in the Jain view, does not eliminate suffering but only postpones it. For example, food and some medical care are provided to animals in shelters, but no matter how much they suffer, the animals are not euthanatized. Instead, they are made as comfortable as possible until they recover or die. At the same time, Jains are concerned with animal products used in consumer goods and with animal testing done for consumer products and in medical laboratories.

Social Aspects

When they reach their teens and early 20s, Jains in India must decide between two different lives: marriage or renunciation. If a person does not marry, he or she must renounce, and vice versa. For most Indians marriage is the only option, and this is what the majority of Jains choose. Now that fewer child marriages take place, however, increasing numbers of Jain women are choosing to renounce. In addition, a man may remarry if his wife leaves him or dies, but a wife under the same circumstances should not remarry. Further, the only legitimate means of divorce for traditional Jains is to leave a spouse through renunciation.

Families in India tend to be extended, in which young women and girls leave their own families to live with their in-laws. Thus, children often grow up with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins around them. Jain family structure in India differs from region to region, however. Hierarchy in the family is based on seniority and gender, with the oldest and male members having the most authority, respect, and power. It is not surprising then that male children are valued more highly than female children. As in other Indian traditions, a Jain wife does not gain significant respect from her in-laws until she has given birth to her first son.

Controversial Issues

Abortion, which is considered violence to a soul in the form of the unborn child, is forbidden in Jainism. In addition, human rebirth is an extremely rare occurrence, let alone in a time when Jain teachings are available. Human rebirth is therefore precious, and Jains are exhorted not to waste human life but to live with the ultimate goal of liberation in mind. If a pregnancy threatens the mother, however, abortion may be considered.

As in many other Indian traditions, divorce in Jainism is forbidden for women, although it does occasionally takes place, and it is frowned upon for men. If, however, a married person decides that he or she wants to become a renouncer, the marriage is dissolved. Although the practice has begun to change, traditionally a woman could marry only once and was to be faithful to her husband in body, speech, and mind. She was never to touch, speak to, or think of another man. Even if her husband was abusive, she was to submit to him, serve him, and not complain. If her husband died, left her, or decided to renounce, she was not allowed to remarry but had to tolerate the harsh life of a woman without a husband. In the past, however, men, especially kings, could marry more than one woman at a time. Today men may remarry if a wife dies or decides to renounce.

Women have greater rights among the Jains of southern India, where widows may remarry, and in Gujarat, where women have more authority. In Rajasthan, however, wives are frequently abused by their husbands and in-laws, despite the Jain proscription against violence. It is also more difficult to be a widow in Rajasthan. The situation there was alleviated in the twentieth century by Acharya Tulsi, who improved women’s rights in the Terapanthi subsect.

Regardless of her situation, a Jain women is, or strives to be, a sati (virtuous women). Whereas in Hinduism the term describes both faithful wives and wives who die with their husbands on the funeral pyre, in Jainism the term describes faithful wives and female renouncers. Although there is some evidence to indicate that a few Jains participated in wife immolation in the past, this is no longer the case. Both types of satis, wives and nuns, accumulate power through their chastity and tolerance of hardship. For wives this means fidelity and obedience to husbands, and for nuns its means complete celibacy and the endurance of austerities.

The power that is accumulated through celibacy and austerities and that fuels spiritual progress is so important that it is preferable to end one’s life rather than to lose this power. Although suicide is forbidden in Jainism, there are two circumstances in which deliberate death is allowed and appropriate, which separates Jainism from most religious traditions. The first is fasting until death (sallekhana), which Jains may undertake in order to control the circumstances of their dying. The second applies mostly to nuns. By dissipating the internal energy stored within, one instance of sexual activity, voluntary or involuntary, ruins a monk’s or nun’s spiritual progress. Because celibacy is so important in the lives of monks and nuns, it is considered suitable for a nun threatened with rape to prevent the act by killing herself.

Although in many ways Jainism is highly egalitarian, most Jains look to monks as the highest authority and do not respect the traditions of laywomen. Jain lay-women, however, are more religious than laymen and are extraordinarily important in the religion. It is women who mostly frequent temples, perform rituals and fasts, sing hymns, and consult with renouncers, while men normally go to temples less often, attend or participate only in important rituals, and give religious donations. Women are in charge of their children’s religious education and are therefore crucial for the continued existence of the Jain religion. In addition, today there are four times more Jain nuns than monks. Considering the larger Indian and Hindu culture, in which Hindu female renouncers are rare, this is highly unusual.

Cultural Impact

There are no Jain images dating from before the common era. Although images of the Jinas are perhaps the most significant form of Jain visual art, scholars have tended to neglect them because of their uniformity across time and the sects. This uniformity, however, points to the sameness of all souls in Jainism, which is realized upon liberation and is therefore important to show in art. Even Shvetambara images of the Jina Mallinatha, who was female, adhere to the same male form, with a smooth and tubular, rather than muscular, limbs and torso to indicate dispassion in physical form and with wide open eyes to symbolize omniscience. Images of different Jinas are usually distinguishable from one another only by various emblems at the bases. Exceptions to this are images of Lord Parshva, who usually appears with cobra hoods emerging from behind, sheltering his head and body.

The once subtle Jain arts of drama and dance are now extinct, although local plays continue to be performed during devotions and celebrations. The more developed and subtler forms may have disappeared as a result of Jainism’s emphasis on austerity, which shunned such sensual enjoyments as beauty and entertainment for detachment and equanimity. Some arts may also have been lost with Jainism’s loss of support from and persecution by rulers. Furthermore, drama and dance have strong ties to devotional worship. Although worship is present in Jainism, it is not as prevalent as in Hinduism, in which theater and dance have continued to thrive. When Jain drama and dance existed, they were similar to the Hindu performing arts, while ingeniously incorporating aspects more suitable to the ascetic Jain tradition, such as an emphasis on spiritual heroism and calm equanimity.

Although the visual and performing arts are limited in Jainism, Jain literature is particularly significant. Jains have long commissioned the copying of their texts and have established libraries to protect collections of literature. Some collections were once so protected that Europeans found themselves barred from entering. Jainism has some of the most voluminous story literature of any tradition, including short didactic narratives and long epics. There are even Jain versions of such popular Hindu epics as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The epic Chivakachintomani, composed by Tiruttakkatevar, has been particularly influential in Tamil Nadu, so much so that some Hindu compositions, such as Kampar’s famous Ramayanam, were created to compete with it and imitated its style.

The beautiful poetics and subtle literary devices used in the Chivakachintomani make it a masterpiece, even in English translation. The main characters are the king Chachchantan, his queen Vichayai, his minister Kattiyankaran, and his son Chivakan. Chachchantan was a good king, but he was so in love with his queen that he decided to give his minister power to rule while he retired to enjoy sensual pleasures with her. Kattiyankaran was not satisfied ruling another man’s kingdom, however, and plotted to kill Chachchantan so that he could claim the kingdom for himself. The king heard of the plan and devised a way for his pregnant wife to escape. When Kattiyankaran attacked, King Chachchantan was killed, but Queen Vichayai was able to escape to give birth to a son. Because of her dire circumstances she was forced give up the son, and she renounced to become a nun. The merchant Kantukatan found and raised her son, Chivakan, as his own. When the boy matured, his teacher told him of his true heritage and urged him to wait a year before taking back his father’s kingdom. Before it was time to attack, Chivakan married eight women, and when he attacked Kattiyankaran, he was successful. Chivakan eventually followed his biological and foster mothers to renounce the world, and he did so at the glorious feet of Lord Mahavira.