Jainism Research Paper

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Jainism arose in India more than 2500 years ago. The great Jaina teacher Mahavira Vardhamana (c. 500 BCE) was a contemporary of the Buddha, and both taught a doctrine grounded in renunciation of worldly concerns. Starting around 300 BCE, two strands of Jainism arose: the Digambara group, found mainly in south and central India, and the Svetambara group, found mainly in western and northern India. The Digambara require total nudity for their most advanced monks and claim that women must be reborn as men to achieve liberation (kevala). The Svetambara allow their monks and nuns to remain clothed in white and allow for the possibility of women’s ascent to the highest spiritual realms. Most Jaina follow a lay life and have excelled in business, particularly in publishing, pharmaceuticals, the diamond trade, marble, and textiles. Although many Jaina self-identify with the larger Hindu tradition, census figures place the Jaina population at between 4 and 6 million.

Jainism emphasizes the teaching of nonviolence (ahimsa). According to the tradition, karmic particles adhere to the soul, obscuring its true nature. By the progressive application of five ethical vows, one is able to diminish and eventually expel the influence of karma, resulting in spiritual liberation. Twenty-four great teachers (tirthankara) are said to have attained this goal and set an example for others through their teachings; the first is known as Adinath, or Rishibha, who is said to have established agriculture, kingship, marriage, and the spiritual path. Mahavira is the most recent; his immediate predecessor was Parshvanatha (c. 800 BCE).

The earliest extant Jaina text is the Acaranga Sutra (c. 400 BCE), written in the Prakrti language and revered by the Svetambara community. It provides detailed instructions on how to practice the five great vows: nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), celibacy (brahmacarya), and nonpossession (aparigraha). Both traditions agree on the intricate Jain theory of karma and cosmology outlined by the scholar Umasvati in his Tattvartha Sutra, a Sanskrit text written in the fifth century BCE.

Umasvati’s Tattvartha Sutra proclaims that countless individual life forces (jiva) have existed since the beginning of time. They take many interchangeable forms and are found in the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air, as well as in microorganisms (nigodha), plants, and animals. At the point of death, the life force moves from one body to the next, depending on its karmic constitution. The goal of Jainism entails an elevation of consciousness about one’s karma, leading to birth in a human body, and the adoption of a nonviolent lifestyle that will ultimately free a person from all karmic entanglements. At this final stage of blessedness, one ascends to the realm of perfection (siddha-loka) wherein one dwells eternally observing the machinations of the world but never again succumbing to its allurement. All twenty-four great teachers of Jainism are said to have attained this state, along with an undetermined number of saints.

Umasvati categorized forms of life hierarchically according to the number of senses they possess. The lowest realm, Earth organisms and microorganisms, as well as plants, possess only the sense of touch. Earthworms and mollusks have as well the senses of taste and touch. Crawling insects have, in addition, a fourth sense: smell. Moths, bees, and flies add a fifth: sight. The Jaina place animals that can hear—and those that can hear and think, including reptiles, birds, and mammals—at the highest realm. As such, these life forms develop moral agency, and can make clear decisions about their behavior. Jaina cosmology imbues all aspects of the world that surrounds us with feelings and consciousness. The earth we tread upon, the water we drink, the air we inhale, the chair that supports us, the light that illumines our day—all these entities feel us through the sense of touch, though we might seldom acknowledge their presence. Humans, as living, sensate, sentient beings, have been given the special task and responsibility of growing in awareness and appreciation of these other life forms, and acting accordingly. Humans have the opportunity to cultivate ethical behavior that engenders respect toward the living, breathing, conscious beings that suffuse the universe. Consequently, the Jaina community maintains thousands of animal shelters (pinjrapole), particularly in western India.

The Jaina tradition emphasizes in great detail the perils of karma and urges people to avoid all forms of harm. A traditional tale warns against the wanton destruction of trees, while simultaneously explaining the mechanics of karma:

— A hungry person with the most negative black lesya karma uproots and kills an entire tree to obtain a few mangoes. The person of blue karma fells the tree by chopping the trunk, again merely to gain a handful of fruits. Fraught with gray karma, a third person spares the trunk but cuts off the major limbs of the tree. The one with orangish-red karma carelessly and needlessly lops off several branches to reach the mangoes. The fifth, exhibiting white or virtuous karma, “merely picks up ripe fruit that has dropped to the foot of the tree.” (Jaini 1916, 47)

Trees were not to be regarded covetously for their fruits, but like all life forms were to be given respect and treated without inflicting harm. This ethic of care was to be extended to the entire biotic community, engendering awareness of and sensitivity to the precious nature of life.

During the period of the Islamic incursion into India, the Jaina community was often in retreat, with some of its temples taken over and converted into mosques. Some Jaina monks, however, helped exert nonviolent influence within the Islamic world. In 1591, Jinacandrasuri II (1531–1613), a leader of the Khartar Gacch of the Svetambaras, traveled to Lahore, where he greatly influenced the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. He gained protection for Jaina pilgrimage sites, as well as legal protection ensuring that Jain ceremonies would not be hindered. He even lent support to Jaina advocacy for animals, and forbade the slaughter of animals for one week each year.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), who liberated India from British colonialism through the enactment of nonviolent principles, was deeply influenced by the Jaina tradition. He eschewed all forms of violence and even titled his lengthy autobiography after the second Jaina vow: Satyagraha or My Experiments with Truth. He learned of Jainism during his childhood in Gujarat, an Indian state with a large Jaina presence, and from Raichandra, a prominent Jaina lay-teacher.

Another modern-day example of Jaina activism can be found in the work of Acharya Tulsi (1914–1997) and his successor, Acarya Mahaprajna, both leaders of the Svetambara Therpanthi movement. In June of 1945, deeply disturbed by World War II, he issued a nine-point declaration of the basic principles of nonviolence including guidelines for both individuals and governments.

The Jaina community remained almost exclusively within India until the twentieth century, when many Jaina migrated to eastern Africa, Britain, and North America. Today, this diaspora community tends to identify readily with values centered on environmental protection. The classics and religion professor Anne Vallely notes that “rather than through the idiom of self-realization or the purification of the soul, ethics are being expressed through a discourse of environmentalism and animal rights” (2000, 193). These values are expressed through such journals as Resurgence, edited by the former Jaina monk Satish Kumar, and Jain Spirit: Sharing Jain Values Globally, edited by a Jaina lay-scholar, Atul Shah. Extensive websites buttress the new global reach of the Jaina community, which continues to espouse vegetarianism and animal activism as key components of its ethical expression.

Jaina cosmology asserts that the world consists of myriad souls all seeking their own way. Through mistakes of karma, their karma becomes thick and entrenched. Through acts of benevolence, their karmic burden becomes lighter. By the adoption of a strict moral code grounded in nonviolence, the Jaina seek to shed their karmic cloak. This practice requires a clear understanding of what constitutes life, and how one can cultivate care and concern in one’s encounters with all forms of life. By careful dietary observance and restriction of acquisitiveness, the soul gradually detaches itself from the clutches of karma. This process also benefits others, in that through the abatement of one’s greed, others can live more freely. As age-old problems of human conflict and more contemporary problems of environmental mismanagement become more pressing, the abstemious lifestyle offered by the Jaina may become increasingly instructive to those seeking peace and environmental protection.


  1. Chapple, C. K. (Ed.). (2002). Jainism and ecology: Nonviolence in the web of life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School.
  2. Dundas, P. (2002). The Jains (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
  3. Jaini, J. (1916). The outlines of Jainism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Jaini, P. S. (1979). The Jaina path of purification. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Vallely, A. (2000). From liberation to ecology: Ethical discourses among orthodox and diaspora Jains. In Chapple, C. K. (Ed.). Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the web of life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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