Primary Elements & Essential Questions

How does Jainism reveal the primary elements and essential questions of religion in general? 


The ultimate purpose of life and activity in Jainism is to realize the free, blissful state of our true being and to achieve moksha, or salvation. We must release ourselves from the bondages of karma, purifying our souls. The central theme of Jainism is ethical practice, as a way to live out faith and achieve the Ultimate Reality. The conduct of the present life should be aimed to attain total freedom, so we do not return to the cycle of samsara- Every soul can attain liberation and perfect spiritual state by realizing its intrinsic purity. Jainism provides a definitive path of practical moral discipline, contemplation of the highest truth, and reorganization of life in light of these for attaining Ultimate Reality or truth. The principle features of faith are: religious tolerance, ethical purity, harmony between self and one’s environment, and spiritual contentment. To follow the path to moksha, we need right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. They must coexist in a person if we are to make any progress on the path of liberation.


Jain literature consists of many sacred texts, such as the Jain Agamas that highlight Lord Mahavira’s teachings to his disciples. Like other religions, Jainism also has an orally-passed collection of short stories, designed to teach lessons to its practitioners. They may be compared to parables or legends, aiming to instruct, guide, and enlighten. Jainism possesses a wide variety of short stories that have been passed down through the centuries, retold by word of mouth and transcribed by Jain disciples, monks, and nuns.

Below, please find my audio commentary on “The Story of Bahubali,” a popular Jain teaching story. I posted my audio clip onto YouTube, as WordPress would not allow me to post audio for free.



Jains believe that the universe, which has no beginning or end, passes through an infinite number of cosmic cycles, each divided into two alternate phases of ascent and descent, during these times there is a rise and fall of human civilization. In each phase, twenty-four Tirthankaras appear, who not only attain liberation for themselves but also teach the path of salvation to others.

The belief in non-violence, ahimsa, is central to the Jain tradition, and Jains try to avoid violence toward humans and toward life in any other form, including animals and plants. Jains believe that all life is closely bound up in a web of interdependence and that all aspects of life belong together and support each other. Jainism does not recognize any deity, placing full responsibility on the actions and conduct of the individual, its believers adhering to lives of self-denial. Aparigraha, non-attachment to things and people, is a central ideal to Jainism. Anekantwad, another central principle, reminds believers to avoid anger and judgementalism, remaining open-minded by remembering that any issue can be seen from many angles. One should cut one’s living requirements to a bare minimum.  Jains also believe in karma- the law of karma assumes that every deliberate action has its own consequence, often after death. They believe that life is an endless cycle of reincarnation. Only by freeing oneself of the burden of karma can he or she achieve enlightenment and be liberated from this cycle. To do this, one must follow the example of the great teachers who have achieved liberation, such as Mahavita. The path is set out in the Five Vows of non-violence, truth-telling, chastity, not stealing, and non-attachment. If one follows this path, he or she may eventually achieve enlightenment.


In Jainism, right conduct consists of renouncing all activities that set the cycle of karma in motion, proceed from anger, pride, deceit, and greed, and cause great injury to oneself and others. Jainism does not recognize a deity, placing responsibility on the actions and conduct of the individual. In order to fully commit to a life of self-denial, Jain monks and nuns take what are called the Five Great Vows: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and non-attachment. The most important of these vows is the practice of ahimsa, or non-violence, which extends beyond avoiding violence against human beings, but also includes animals, even the smallest organisms found in water or air. The vows prepare the monk or nun to follow the life of a wandering ascetic, dedicated to preaching, fasting, worship, and study. Jain monks and nuns are the most strict in their pursuit of ahmisa, or non-violence. They always carry a small brush with which they gently sweep the path when walking, so as to avoid treading on any insect. They strain their drinking water, and some wear a small mask over their faces to stop any insects from accidentally flying into their nostrils and being harmed.

While lay Jains do not take the Five Great Vows, they do take lesser vows that are similar: renouncing violence, vowing not to lie or to steal, embracing chaste sexual behavior, and avoiding attachment to material things. All Jains are strictly vegetarian, in line with the vow of nonviolence, and must not do work that involves the destruction of life. Lay Jains may marry, but they must uphold the highest standards of behavior.

All Jains follow the path of the Three Jewels: right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. Sometimes there is said to be a fourth jewel: right penance, as atonement for sins is important to the tradition. Meditation is important, too, and Jain daily rituals include 48-minute sessions of meditation, in which the aim is to be at one with the universe and to forgive and be forgiven for all wrongdoings. Other Jain virtues include: service to others, attention to religious study, politeness, humility, and disengagement from passion.


Jains may worship in a temple or at a domestic shrine at home. The temples and shrines are dedicated to the twenty-four Tirthankaras, each of which is represented by a statue.The worshipers perform puja (worship) to the image every day, preferably in the early morning, or do the same in a home shrine. The adoration and contemplation of images of these Tirthankaras is thought to bring about inner spiritual transformation. Worship begins with the reciting of this mantra:

I bow to the Jinas!

I bow to the souls that have obtained release!

I bow to the leaders of the Jain orders!

I bow to the preceptors!

I bow to all the Jain monks in the world! 

Then the worshippers form a design with grains of rice, and showers the statue with water or offers a symbolic bath. An offering of eight symbolic substances is made, with each representing a particular virtue. Many elaborate ceremonies are held on important occasions, when the statue may be decorated with flowers or other offerings. The bathing of their images, the waving of lamps in front of them to the music of devotional hymns, and the celebration of the five auspicious occasions of their lives (conception, birth, renunciation, enlightenment, and nirvana) are parts of the popular ceremonies for the laity; but in the absence of the statue, there is no real worship in these kinds of acts.


Jains worshipping the statue of a Tirthankara, outstretching their palms in prayer and offering

The simplest form of worship, also found in Hinduism, is called darshan, and involves making eye contact with the image of a tirthankara, often while reciting a sacred mantra. The fundamental prayer of Jainism is the Navkar, or Mamaskar, Mantra. By reciting this mantra, nam0 namahar, the worshipper honors the souls of the liberated and gains inspiration from them in his or her own quest for enlightenment.


The Navkar Mantra


While Jains practice aparigraha, or non-attachment to things and people, they still maintain a shared experience of community. Jains typically belong to one of two factions: Digambara and Shvetambara, the chief difference between them being in the degree of asceticism they thought necessary. The sects practice the same forms and disciplines of worship, dedicated to helping each other along their paths towards enlightenment. The ideal of aparigraha also impacts Jains’ view of the world community as well. Contemporary Jains point out that their principle of limiting consumption offers a way out of the global poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation that results from unequal distribution of resources. Thus, Jains possess a shared attitude towards addressing and meeting the needs of our global community.


Jain temples are seen as replicas of assembly halls where the liberated Tirthankaras continue their teachings. They are dedicated to the twenty-four Tirthankaras, each of which is represented by a statue. The statues are identical, to indicate spiritual perfection, but each Tirthankara has a particular symbol- the one for Mahavira, for example, is a lion. The seated image of a particular Tirthankara almost always dominates a Jain temple. The adoration and contemplation of images of these Tirthankaras is thought to bring about inner spiritual transformation.



Jain Temple

There are many Jain holy sites in India connected with the lives of the Tirthankaras. The most important sites are often places where different Tirthankaras achieved enlightenment. One of the most famous sites of pilgrimage for Jains is Shatrunjaya in Gujarat . The sacred hill of Shatrunjaya is an ancient site  for Jains and has the largest concentration of Jain temples anywhere in the world- Legend states that the first Jain Tirthankara, Rishabhadeva, and his chief disciple attained moksha, or salvation, on Shatrunjaya. 863 temples crown the hill,  as the site represents a huge engineering feat as the marble used in construction was brought from Rajasthan and then taken block by block uphill


Shatrunjaya hill temple located in Gujarat

The  veneration of sacred scriptures are a primary religious focus of the Jains. Significant sermons, texts, commentaries, and stories were transmitted orally long before being converted to writing. The oldest surviving examples date from the 10th-11th century, but many say they were copied from earlier texts that were decaying. The earliest Jain illuminated manuscripts are inscribed and painted on prepared palm-leaves and bound with cords passing through holes in the folios. The folios are encased in wooden covers that are often decorated with religious or historical themes. Book covers continued to be made in later centuries.


Jain manuscript cover from the 19th century

While manuscript illustrations are certainly the best-known Jain paintings to audiences outside India, there is also an extensive Jain tradition of larger paintings, from album-size to monumental paintings on cloth. The most spectacular of these are the cosmological paintings depicting the structure of the Jain universe.


Jain cosmological mandala from Gujarat, Western India in the19th century. Made on cloth

Sources of Jain teaching include early scriptures called the Siddhanta and Anuyoga. The core Jain teaching of non-violence has had a powerful effect on Indian culture and was highlighted by the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi. The Jain Agamas is known as the sacred text of Jainism, a compilation of Lord Mahavira’s teachings. The original texts were organized by Gandharas and Srut-kevalis and were written in the Prakrit language.

What is the human condition?

Jains believe that as humans, we live in an endless cycle of reincarnation. Only by freeing ourselves of the burden of karma, can we achieve enlightenment and be liberated from this cycle. To do this we must follow the example of great teachers who have achieved liberation and follow the Five Vows of non-violence, truth-telling, chastity, non stealing, and non attachment. Beliefs in karma, ahimsa, aparigraha, and anekantwad help practicioners follow a life-style of self-denial in order to progress towards moksha, or salvation, and be released from constant rebirth.

What is spiritual fulfillment?

Spiritual fulfillment comes from adhering to one’s religious duties. The gradual process by which the soul learns to extricate itself from the lower self and its attachments to the material world involves purifying one’s ethical life until nothing remains but the purity of the jiva- one’s higher consciousness, or soul. In the soul’s true state, it is omniscient, self-contained, and blissful. To bring forth the highest and best parts of one’s spiritual beings will bring he or she spiritual fulfillment, which comes through adhering to Jain beliefs, teachings, and practices.

What is our destiny?

According to Jainism, we are imperfect beings. However, in the midst of a world of sin, Jains give great room for hope. The jiva- the individual’s higher consciousness, or soul- can save itself by discovering its own perfect, unchanging nature and thus transcend the miseries of earthly life. This process may require many incarnations. Like Hindus, Jains believe that we fulfill our destinies  when we finally free ourselves from samsara. Moksha is our destiny.

What is the nature of the world?

Jains believe that the world we perceive truly exists. It contains two classes of thing: jivas – living souls, and ajivas – non-living objects, which include everything else. Nothing in our universe is created or destroyed; it simply changes form. They hold that the universe has always existed; it will never be destroyed, as it is regulated by cosmic laws and is continually renewed in a never-ending cycle. Jains do not believe that the world was created by any kind of god.

What is Ultimate Reality and how is it revealed?

Unlike other traditional systems, Jains do not define reality as eternal or as momentary, but rather, maintain that the nature of reality is complex, defining all that exists as that which is characterized by a permanent operation of origination, destruction, and permanence. A soul, for instance, can change into a new form, while still abandoning its old form, keeping its eternal state, and maintaining consciousness. In other words, the soul is eternal, and for Jains, this pure self is one in all and is identical with the highest reality of the Universe. The soul consists of pure spirituality and  experience and as such, the absolute, concrete Truth. We are the Ultimate Reality, and worldly experiences are unimportant to it. For, the whole universe is a great cosmic mechanism that recurs in an infinite cycle of ages. Jains conduct themselves in harmony with this order of the world.

Photo citations:

Jains Worshipping. Photograph.

Navkar Mantra. Photograph.

Jain Temple. Photograph.

Shatrunjaya Temple. Photograph.

Jain Manuscript Cover. Photograph.

Jain Mandala. Photograph.






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