What is Jainism? – A Guide

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Jain’s practice and doctrine may seem extreme to Western minds, but there’s a reason behind all of their principles. As there are more than five million Jains living on the planet today, Jainism should not be overlooked by anyone interested in creeds and beliefs around the world. Let’s find out more about one of the oldest and more fascinating religions of the East.  

Origins of Jainism 

In the same way as other religions in the world, Jains claim that their doctrine has always existed and is eternal. The latest time cycle, the one we live in today, is considered to have been founded by a mythical person named Rishabhanatha, who lived for 8 million years. He was the first Tirthankara, or spiritual teacher, of which there have been 24 in total throughout history. 

Archeology has a different answer to the question of Jain’s origin. Some artifacts unearthed in the Indus Valley suggest that the first evidence of Jainism comes from the time of Parshvanatha, one of the Tirthankaras, who lived in the 8th century BCE. That is, more than 2,500 years ago. This makes Jainism one of the oldest religions in the world still active today. While some sources claim Jainism was in existence before the Vedas were composed (between 1500 and 1200 BCE), this is highly disputed. 

Main Principles of Jainism 

Jainism principles

Jain teachings rely on five ethical duties every Jain has to engage with. These are sometimes referred to as vows. In all cases, the vows are looser for Jain laypersons, while Jain monks take what they call “great vows” and tend to be considerably stricter. The five vows are as follows: 

1. Ahimsa, or non-violence:

Jains take a vow not to voluntarily harm any living being, human or non-human. Non-violence must be practiced in speech, thought, and action. 

2. Satya, or truth:

Every Jain is expected to tell the truth, always. This vow is quite straightforward. 

3. Asteya or refraining from stealing:

Jains are not supposed to take anything from another person, which is not expressly given to them by that person. Monks who have taken the “great vows” must also ask for permission to take the gifts received. 

4. Brahmacharya, or celibacy:

Chastity is demanded of every Jain, but again, it differs whether we are talking about a layperson or a monk, or a nun. The former is expected to be faithful to their life partner, while the latter have every sexual and sensual pleasure strictly prohibited. 

5. Aparigraha, or non-possessiveness:

Attachment to material possessions is frowned upon and seen as a sign of greed. Jain monks own nothing at all, not even their garments. 

Jain Cosmology 

jainism cosmology

The universe, according to Jain thought, is almost endless and consists of several realms known as lokas. Souls are eternal and live in these lokas following a circle of life, death, and rebirth. Consequently, the Jain universe has three parts: The upper world, the middle world, and the lower world. 

Time is cyclical and has periods of generation and degeneration. These two periods are half cycles and are inescapable. Nothing can indefinitely get better with time. At the same time, nothing can be bad all the time. Currently, Jain teachers think we are living through a period of sorrow and religious decline, but in the next half cycle, the universe will be reawakened to a period of incredible cultural and moral renaissance. 

Differences Between Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism 

four religions

you have been carefully reading this article, you may think it all sounds like other Indian religions. In fact, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, all share beliefs such as rebirth and the wheel of time and are rightfully called the four Dharmic religions. They all have similar moral values such as non-violence and believe spirituality is a means to reach enlightenment. 

However, Jainism differs from both Buddhism and Hinduism in its ontological premises. While in Buddhism and Hinduism the soul remains unchanged throughout its existence, Jainism believes in an ever-changing soul.  

There are infinite souls in Jain thought, and they’re all eternal, but they change constantly, even during the lifespan of the individual whose body they inhabit at one specific reincarnation. People change, and Jains do not use meditation to know themselves, but to learn the path (dharma) toward fulfillment. 

The Jain Diet – Vegetarianism  

jain vegetarianism

A corollary to the precept of non-violence towards any living being is that Jains cannot eat other animals. The more devout Jain monks and nuns practice lacto-vegetarianism, meaning they do not eat eggs but can use dairy products that have been produced without violence. Veganism is encouraged if there are concerns about animal welfare.  

There is a constant concern among Jains about how their foods have been produced, as not even tiny organisms such as insects should be harmed during their preparation. Jain laypeople avoid eating food after sunset, and monks have a strict diet that allows for only one meal a day.  

Festivals, to contrary most festivals in the world, are occasions in which Jains fast even more than regularly. In some of them, they are only allowed to drink boiled water for ten days. 

The Swastika 

The swastika Jainism symbol

A particularly controversial symbol in the west, because of its attached significations after the 20th century, is the swastika. However, one should understand first that this is a very old symbol of the universe. Its four arms symbolize the four states of existence that souls have to go through: 

  • As heavenly beings. 
  • As human beings. 
  • As demonic beings. 
  • As sub-human beings, such as plants or animals. 

The Jain Swastika represents the perpetual state of movement of nature and the souls, which do not follow a single path but instead are forever trapped in a circle of birth, death, and rebirth. Between the four arms, there are four dots, which represent the four characteristics of the eternal soul: endless knowledge, perception, happiness, and energy. 

Other Jainism Symbols 

The Ahimsa symbol

1. The Ahimsa:

It is symbolized by a hand with a wheel on its palm, and as we have seen, the word ahimsa translates to non-violence. The wheel represents the continuous pursuit of ahimsa to which every Jain must tend. 

2. The Jain flag:

It consists of five rectangular bands of five different colors, each one representing one of the five vows: 

  • White, represents the souls who have overcome all passions and achieved eternal bliss. 
  • Red, for the souls who have attained salvation through truthfulness. 
  • Yellow, for the souls who have not stolen from other beings. 
  • Green, for chastity. 
  • Dark blue, for asceticism and non-possession. 

3. The Om:

This short syllable is very powerful, and it is uttered as a mantra by millions around the world to achieve enlightenment and overcome destructive passions. 

Jain Festivals 

dasa lakshana Jainism festival

Not everything about Jainism is about celibacy and abstinence. The most important annual Jain festival is called the Paryushana or Dasa Lakshana. It takes place every year, in the month of Bhadrapada, from the 12th day of the waning moon onwards. In the Gregorian calendar, it usually falls at the beginning of September. It lasts between eight and ten days, and during this time both laypeople and monks fast and pray.  

The Jains also take this time to emphasize their five vows. Chanting and celebrating also ensue during this festival. On the last day of the festival, all attendees come together to pray and meditate. Jains take this opportunity to ask for forgiveness from anyone they may have offended, even without their knowledge. At this point, they enact the true meaning of Paryushana, which translates to “coming together.” 

Wrapping Up 

One of the oldest religions in the world, Jainism is also one of the most interesting. Not only their practices are fascinating and worth knowing, but their cosmology and thoughts about the afterlife and the endless turning of the wheels of time are quite complex. Their symbols are commonly misinterpreted in the Western world, but they stand for laudable beliefs such as non-violence, truthfulness, and rejecting material possessions. 

Sebastian Francisco Maydana

Sebastian Francisco Maydana

I'm a PhD candidate in History, with a specialization in ancient Egyptian history. My main field of interest is Egyptian art and religion, especially during the Predynastic period. I also write film reviews and narrative, and have a passion for sailing.

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