Jainism is a philosophy that shares its principal value with each and every living being everywhere in the world: the value of LIFE itself. It is a testament of love and respect for all creatures which relies on nothing mythological or mystical, but reveals a crossing over life’s ocean to the truth of a vast universe, to the reality of oneself.

Jainism teaches that every single living thing is an eternal soul which is responsible for its own actions. All souls are spiritually equal, without exception. Faith is about thinking and acting in ways that respect and honor the spiritual nature of every single life, to the very best of our human abilities – starting with me.


Jainism is a universal faith and way of life having ancient roots. Its diverse practitioners are known as Jains. A “Jain” reveres the spiritual accomplishment, and example, set by the Jinas – “Victors”, or “Conquerors” – human beings who realized eternal peace and happiness by fighting and overcoming the inner causes of anger, pride, deceit, greed, attachment and aversion. Through relentless effort, self-control, courage and compassion, a Jina is any soul who undoes the shackles that normally bind us to things other than life’s permanent essence – the focus of Jainism. Both universal and personal, Jain art and ideology speak of life’s infinite potential and the way to its realization. Jain faith speaks from a heart that sees in every single organism the same fundamental hopes for survival, safety, contentment, longevity, fulfillment, freedom and peace.


Jainism is not a protest, offshoot or sect of another creed. Jains work and thrive all over the earth including North America, Europe, Africa, East Asia, the Middle East and South Asia where the faith began, deep within the labyrinth of man’s prehistory. Jains were once known as Nirgranthas, the “undoers of attachments.” Jain tradition dates from before the spread of Indo-European culture. Among other sources of evidence, artifacts from the Indus Civilization (c. 3500-1700 BCE) preserve Jainism’s sacred expressions and likely represent a stage in its continuing advancement.

Since early times, Jain principles have successfully motivated the leaders and followers of certain other faiths to embrace and represent many of its original ideas. Through the millennia, these teachings have energized Asia and civilizations from the Middle East to the Mediterranean and beyond.

While the path to freedom comes from a distant period, the most recent Jinas to impart its message were Lord Parshva (877-777 BCE) and Lord Mahavira (599-527 BCE). They were not founders of any religion but only the last of 24 Crossing Makers, or Tirthankaras, great teachers who lived at different times in the cultural development of mankind. Their example continues to inspire one of the most intellectually prolific, philanthropic and ecological traditions in world history.

Who Is God?

God is: the pure soul attributes of infinite knowledge, infinite perception, infinite will power, and infinite happiness. Every soul possesses these inherent attributes. Eternal peace and happiness exist in ones’ own true nature. Man must strive hard to realize it.

Jains worship and meditate upon these characteristics and their presence in every soul. A soul who, in human form, realizes them is called Jina, Arihant (“destroyer of inner enemies”) and Kevalin (“omniscient”). In the natural liberated state, a pure soul is termed Siddha (“the Liberated”). Linguistically, the Jain terms for “God” are not masculine, feminine or even neutral. The soul has no gender, and by their fundamental nature no soul or souls can ever be superior or inferior to another. All are spiritually identical.

Jain scriptures say: “Though a person might conquer thousands upon thousands of valiant enemies, greater will be the victory if he subdues only himself.” (Uttaradhyayana Sutra 9:34)

But if God is not a being who wants, needs, gives, or takes, then what is the point of “God”? Revering self-perfected souls is respecting the most courageous accomplishment in the world. Honoring spiritual heroism, and contemplating its never-ending attributes, reminds me of my priorities as an eternal being. By reflecting on the traits of the pure soul – traits which do not change – I gain greater and greater control over my otherwise ever-changing material and psychological nature. God’s attributes are mine – only hidden from me, by me.

Where Did We Come From?

Jainism is a detailed and scientific description of nature. To understand who or what I am, first I need to understand the natural world in which I am. The cosmos in which I find myself is eternal: never created, never destroyed. It is made up of eternal “substances” or constituents, namely: (1) souls, (2) matter-energy, (3) time, (4) space, (5) the motion medium, and (6) the rest medium. Although we and the other universal entities have no creator, intervener, rewarder or punisher, every effect has a natural cause. Fixed laws remain the same across all time. These laws are governing our very existence, right now. Natural mechanisms describe how everything works, and “karma” is one of them. Jainism focuses on the meaning of life for a soul that is subject to such natural, inescapable mechanisms.

Why Are We Here?

As a living being in a vast cosmos, for all time until this moment I have experienced a fundamental problem. I don’t know, for sure, who or what I really am; how I got into this world; where I am, and where I need to be; how to get from here to there; and why the journey even matters. Man’s purpose is to strive relentlessly to find answers in the laboratory of his own life. Arriving upon the right answers leads inevitably to final, spiritual liberation.

As souls, we exist because it is in our inherent nature to exist. We do actions through our thoughts and speech, and with our bodies, and we experience their consequences and repercussions. We must learn. By learning, one begins to understand oneself and the eternal, natural laws that govern all. By understanding, the final goal of infinite freedom draws nearer and closer to the here and now.

How Do we Know About the Jain Way of Life?

Jain scriptures are based on what is called the Purva, a collection of 14 ancient texts that contained the direct teachings of the last Tirthankar, Lord Mahavira. A number of parallel scriptural traditions continue to preserve the essence of the Purva, and were composed in several erudite languages such as Prakrit, Sanskrit and the southern idiom of Tamil. The literary tradition of the Agama Sutras, for example, is a great library of parables and analyses on a wide variety of subjects.

All Jain traditions regard two thinkers’ writings with deep respect: the works of the monks Kundakunda (1st century) and Umasvati (2nd century). Owing to lifelong experiences of deep meditation and rigorous conduct, both were great interpreters and simplifiers of profound and complex ideas. Kundakunda’s writings include the Essence of the Pure Self (Samaya Sara) and the Essence of Five Universal Substances (Panchastikaya Sara). Umasvati composed the Book of the Realities, or Tattvartha Sutra, whose 10 chapters stand among history’s most influential moral classics.

Scriptural “authority” is not a force of command nor does it come from the zeal of anyone’s supposed monopoly on truth. It comes from the dictates of individual experience and the extent to which scripture’s words and teachings correspond to it. A Jain requirement on the authority of any scripture is put forth at the beginning of the Samaya Sara (verse 5): “That higher spiritual unity, differentiated from alien conditions, I will try to reveal as far as I can. Accept it if it satisfies the condition of truth or correctly discernible knowledge (pramana). But if I fail in my description, you may reject it.”

Jain literature in general covers a tremendous range of subjects too numerous to list. With exceeding care and depth Jain scholars of past centuries composed works on spiritual discipline, philosophy, physics, astronomy, music theory, business ethics, epistemology, botany, taxonomy, mathematics, linguistics, history and political science. Within each field Jainism has been a wellspring of entire schools of thought that so far have only begun to be researched in a contemporary light.

In modern times the Jain scripture tradition has remained alive as ever. Around the year 1900 a brilliant young layman named Shrimad Rajachandra wrote the deeply regarded Soul Liberation, or Atma Siddhi, illustrating the character of a pure soul and its freedom from bondage. And in 1974, scholars from all different traditions assembled to compile the Book of the Independents, or Samana Suttam, which is a single scripture conveying the most resonant verses from the past 2500 years of Jain literature.

What Do We Have To Do?

As with anything in life which leads to mastery, to practice Jainism is to struggle with it – ever more mentally, physically, carefully, diligently, and masterfully. Jains strive along a path of conduct aligned with man’s spiritual nature. Five principles, with their logical conclusions, bring about a way of life in tune with our innate properties:

1. Nonviolence (Ahinsa) – the awareness that all organisms – large and small, simple and complex – cherish and cling to their own lives just as we do ours. Understanding this equality neither makes man a beast nor vice versa. All souls should be allowed to create and experience their spiritual and karmic destinies without violent intervention. Ahinsa simply means living and acting accordingly by striving to avoid harming oneself or any other life, directly or indirectly. It is forgiving and humbly requesting forgiveness (kshamapana) from others for any pain or damage we may have caused – knowingly or unknowingly.

2. Truth (Satya) – believing and searching for the full and complete truth regardless of personal interests or feelings; saying only what is both true and honorable.

3. Non-stealing (Asteya) – respecting others’ right to have things, and never taking what is not expressly given by the owner.

4. Chastity (Brahmacharya) – “divine conduct”, controlling oneself and limiting relations to one’s spouse.

5. Non-possessiveness (Aparigraha) – doing with as few possessions as possible and striving not to feel attached to possessions, whether they are real or imagined.

One can strive for these principles on either of two different levels: (1) the full and uncompromising practice defining the monastic vows of Jain monks and nuns, which are called the “great vows”, or mahavrat, and (2) the less strict but equally attentive way of life prescribed for laymen and laywomen, called “small vows” or anuvrat. These two ways of life differ from each other only in their extent, while they share the same underlying value system and spiritual goal.

A basic aspect of nonviolence is complete vegetarianism, which every follower of Jainism practices. As embodied souls, we each have a responsibility to sustain ourselves physically. Plants are thought to have only one physical sense (touch) and are thus least sensitive to pain. While a Jain diet does involve harm to plants, it is a way of survival that causes only a bare minimum amount of violence toward sentient creatures. From a practical view, killing even plants for our basic needs is considered a necessary evil to be carried out with the utmost care and moderation.

While Ahinsa is the most important Jain ideal, physical violence done in self-defense, in the service of justice, or while protecting defenseless people, is sometimes considered necessary to survive in a dangerous world. However, any violence done for any reason still has negative effects upon the soul who commits or approves of it; therefore, Jains believe that one should avoid doing physical violence except under the greatest of threats, or when one’s duty is to protect and no other options remain.

An important Jain doctrine is Anekantavada, which means “Non-one-endedness” or “Nonsingular Conclusivity”. As in the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, Anekantavada holds that truth is vast, complex, and very difficult (though not impossible) to fully understand. “Absolute truth” exists, but one cannot grasp it from just one point of view. Any one viewpoint is partial, and cannot show or tell the whole story or full truth about a given thing or issue. Thus, what might appear true from one point of view can also appear untrue from another. The solution is to work to see things from more than just one perspective. The more different perspectives a person uses, and the more different investigations one does, the more different conclusions one gains, and the more useful and complete our understanding grows. Anekantavada is said to multiply the freedom of the mind.

What's Going On Today?

As ordained by the great Crossing Makers, Jain society has been founded equally upon four types of people: male ascetics (monks, or sadhus), female ascetics (nuns, or sadhvis), laymen (shravakas) and laywomen (shravikas). This is not a hierarchy or social device. Jains recognize the spiritual equality of genders in the same light as that of races and species. Female education has typically been as high a priority as for males. Female nuns outnumber male monks by a ratio above 2 to 1, and evidence shows this has been the case for thousands of years. Special people, “chosen ones”, or those entitled to rights that supersede those of others, do not exist. Ethics is boundless and applies to all creatures collectively and individually.

Today, there are about 10 million Jains around the world. Their population was much larger in pre-modern times. There is a growing Jain population in North America and the United Kingdom. In these regions, more than 50 Jain centers, some with temples, have been established. Jains all over the world celebrated the year of 2001 as the 2600th birth anniversary of Lord Mahavira.

How Do We Recognize It?

The official symbol of Jain philosophy, religion and tradition is accepted by all of the major sects:

In Jain tradition, the svastika is a venerated emblem. Its significance is spiritual and has nothing to do with race, pride or politics.

The emblem is a synopsis of the philosophy it represents. The polygon symbolizes the universe. An ancient Jain svastika glorifies four innate qualities of the soul: Infinite Knowledge, Perception, Bliss and Will Power. It also signifies the four worldly states: human, angelic, hell-being, and the category tiryancha (which includes animals, plants and microorganisms). Three points stand for Right World-view, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct, which together are the path to final liberation. The lone point is a liberated, pure soul (Siddha). An upright palm admonishes man to stop sinning. The wheel contains the word AHINSA, nonviolence. The Sanskrit edict beneath the polygon comes from the scripture Tattvartha Sutra 5:21, declaring, “Souls support one another.”

This write-up has been adapted from the book “Pure Freedom: The Jain Way of Self-reliance” by Amar Salgia © 2002. All rights reserved.

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Ahimsa Foundation Web site.

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Jain Spirit


A Brief History of Jainism

Lord Mahavira: A Formula for Coexistence, Peace and Harmony