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Jains claim that Jainism is an extremely ancient religion, having been founded by a sage named Rsabhadeva over 23,000 years ago (at the beginning of the third, or “happy-sad,” period of the present world cycle according to the Jain cosmological theory). A few stray references in theosophical literature seem to support that claim, placing the founding of Jainism in Atlantean times (cf. SD II:423 fn). Modern Jainism, however, derives from the teachings of Vardhamana, who is called the 24th and last of the Jain Tirthankaras (“Ford-makers”) and is dated 540-468 BCE according to scholars and theosophists (cf. Annie BESANTSeven Great Religions, p. 88), but dated 581-509 BCE according to the Digambara (“Sky-clad”) sect of Jains. Either date would make him a contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Recently, scholars have come to believe that the 23rd Tirthankara, Parsva (or Parsvanatha), who is dated by Jains 872-772 BCE, was an historical figure also. These Tirthankaras, especially Vardhamana, are also called Mahavira (“great hero”) and Jina (“conqueror” or “victor”). The name of the religion is derived from that latter term.

Parsva seems to have required four vows of his monastic followers: non-injury (ahimsa), honesty or truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), and non-acquisitiveness (aparigraha) — all vows mentioned also in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras. He seems to have required the monks to wear simple white clothing. Vardhamana added a vow of celibacy (brahmacarya) and required monks to give up clothing altogether. Jainism eventually (by the 1st cent. CE, but probably earlier) split into two sects, one called Digambaras (lit. “Sky-clad”), the other called Svetambaras (lit. “White-clad”). The former are now found mostly in the Gujarat State of India, the latter found mostly in Mysore State. Naturally, the layperson is not expected to go naked or remain celibate, but to live up to the other vows as much as he or she is able.

Jainism is usually identified by scholars as a thoroughly materialistic doctrine, though that is somewhat misleading. Jains claim that there are two types of things, life-units or souls (jivas) and non-living (ajiva) substances. The former are infinite in number, naturally omniscient, luminous, and buoyant. The latter, interestingly, include motion, rest, space, and time considered as kinds of “substance.” Matter (pudgala) is another kind of substance and its various forms — mineral, plant, animal, human, and even earth, water, fire, and wind — are all considered to be ensouled by the life-units or jivas. Thus, to Jains, everything in the world is “alive,” making Jainism a form of hylozooism. Jains also consider karma a type of matter, which flows in through the senses and covers the jiva, weighing it down and binding it to the cycle of transmigration as well as obscuring its natural brilliance (i.e., omniscience and luminosity). All actions are said to produce karma, bad actions covering the jiva with opaque karmic “dirt,” good actions covering the jiva with translucent karmic “dirt.” Obviously, then, Jains want to engage in doing good deeds (studying, fasting, moral behavior, kindness, etc.) and avoid doing bad deeds (lying, stealing, doing violence, etc.) so as to replace the opaque “dirt” with translucent “dirt,” thus enabling them to manifest more of the jiva’s natural brilliance. But, in the end, the only way to get rid of karmic “dirt” altogether is by acts of mortification — ending, when all but the last little bits of karmic “dirt” are removed, in an act of self-starvation. This act rids the soul of all its karma and it then floats to the top of the world, which is conceived in the form of a cosmic man, and remains there forever, liberated from the bondage of transmigration and completely isolated from further human contact. This is termed apavarga (“completion,” “the end”) rather than moksa, as it is in most Hindu philosophy, or nirvana, as it is in Buddhism.

Jains believe that the jiva cannot exist disembodied even for a moment (muhurta), so it must instantly get re-embodied upon the death or destruction of any one of its bodies. They also take a middle position about the size of the soul between those Indian philosophies which claim it is atomic in size (e.g., Nyaya, SANKHYA) and those which claim it is all-pervasive (e.g., ADVAITA VEDANTA). The jiva, according to Jains is elastic, expanding or contracting to exactly pervade the size of the body which it inhabits. Their defense of this is that the soul is like light, which radiates out to the exact size of whatever room it illumines.

Helena P. BLAVATSKY mentions, in Isis Unveiled (Vol. 1, p. 429), that the Jain soul actually consists of “two sublimated ethereal bodies, one of which is invariable and consists of the divine powers of the higher mind; the other variable and composed of the grosser passions of man, his sensual affections, and terrestrial attributes.” If this is so, then it is the former which is elastic and the latter which is sometimes described in Jain literature as colored. Their description of the latter is very reminiscent of descriptions (and pictorial representations) of the so-called astral and mental vehicles of humans in theosophical literature, such as Charles W. LEADBEATER’S Man: Visible and Invisible. Jains acknowledge clairvoyance as a higher form of knowledge than ordinary sense perception, so it is conceivable that their theory is based on the same perceptual powers that Leadbeater claimed.

Jainism maintains that the world undergoes cyclic stages of decline and improvement, but always stays in existence — that is, does not go into a state of rest or dissolution (pralaya), as Hindu cosmology claims. Both halves of the cycle are divided into six parts of 21,000 years each. The declining (avasarpini) cycle starts with a “happy-happy” period which is followed by “happy,” “happy-sad,” “sad-happy,” “sad,” and “sad-sad” periods. We are presently in the “sad-happy” period, according to Jain cosmology. After the last of these periods, the cycle reverses (called utsarpini) until it again reaches the “happy-happy” period, whereupon it begins the decline again. This process is said to be beginningless and endless.

Jain philosophy contains a number of arguments against the existence of a creator God, such as “The world is eternal, so it was not created”; or “We have no experience, normal or paranormal, of a creator God, so none exists”; or “To create something is to lack that thing, but a creator God would have to be a Perfect Being who could (by definition) lack nothing, so the concept of a creator God is self-contradictory.” Jainism is, therefore, often identified as atheistic, though more properly it should be called “non-theistic.” In one sense, the j…va is conceived by it as a kind of god.

The most characteristic doctrines of Jainism are its extreme form of non-violence (ahimsa) and its extreme tolerance of divergent viewpoints. The first is a corollary of its concept of karma. Injury (in thought, word, or deed) to any creature causes the inflow of opaque karmic “dirt,” so Jains try to avoid doing injury to even small insects. Their diet is strictly vegetarian; they eat no animal products and only vegetables which others (such as Hindus or Sikhs) have grown and reaped. They also, obviously, refuse military service. The second is a corollary of their theory of knowledge. Jains believe that any individual piece of knowledge is related to other pieces of knowledge so intimately that in order to be absolutely sure of any one thing, you have to know everything. But the only time the jiva is able to manifest its inherent omniscience is when it has been released from the cycle of transmigration — and then it cannot pass that knowledge on to anyone! So Jains have developed the theory called anekanta-vada, loosely translated “not just one viewpoint doctrine.” This is often illustrated by the story of the blind men and the elephant: each man touched a different part of the elephant, thinking that his impression was the way the entire elephant was. The one who touched the ear thought the elephant was a big fan, the one who touched its side thought it like a house, the one who touched the trunk thought it like a python, the one who touched the tusk thought it was a spear, the one who touched the leg thought it was a tree trunk, and the one who touched the tail thought it was a rope. From one point of view each was correct, but from another, each was mistaken. In Jain philosophy, this is expressed as the “maybe doctrine” (syadvada). Thus, maybe the elephant is like a fan and maybe it is not, etc. Jains even turn this doctrine upon Jainism — maybe it is true and maybe it is not, maybe it is both true and not (from different perspectives), and maybe the truth is inexpressible (avaktavya).

But none of this really captures the flavor of Jainism. The Jain temple complex at Mount Abu is one of the most beautiful in the world. Jains themselves are wonderful, gentle, intelligent, socially responsible people. Some have established special sanctuaries for diseased or aged animals. Many are successful merchants, bankers, and industrialists. Many members of The Theosophical Society in India are Jains, especially in Gujarat State. Nor do their arguments against the existence of a creator God make them atheists, since their concept of deity is merely different from that normally associated (especially by orthodox Christians) with a Creator. Some have even incorporated some of the Hindu deities into their religion. An especially sensitive account of Jainism in theosophical literature is by Annie Besant in Seven Great Religions based on lectures she gave in 1897 and 1901.


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