Jainism is a religion in India. Jains get their name because they follow the teachings and example of the jina, which means victor. For them, the victor is MAHAVIRA (sixth century B.C.E.). He discovered the way to conquer the forces that keep people bound to continuous rebirth, known in Sanskrit as SAMSARA.

Jains claim that their religion is millions of years old. For them, Mahavira is the 24th in a line of tirthankaras or ford-makers. These are people who have made fords across the stream of samsara. At least in its present form Jainism grew from a broad movement in northeast India in the sixth century B.C.E. At that time sramanas—men and to a lesser extent women—gave up ordinary family life. They also rejected the SACRIFICES described in the sacred books known as the VEDA. Instead, they wandered, begged for food, and devoted themselves to teachings and practices that promised spiritual liberation. The most famous religion to grow out of this movement is BUDDHISM. Jainism is another.

Buddhism is practiced all over the world, but Jainism remains confi ned to India. In the centuries after Mahavira, it spread along trade routes to southern and western India. These are its two strongholds today. In the first century C.E. the community split. The cause was a dispute over what those who wander must give up. One group insisted that they must give up clothes entirely. Their community is called Digambara, “sky-clad.” Another group insisted that it is enough if the wanderers wear only a simple white cloth. Their community is called Svetambara, “white-clad.” Digambara Jains are particularly strong in the south Indian state of Karnataka. Svetambara Jains tend to live in the west Indian state of Gujarat.

Digambaras and Svetambaras have different sacred books, but they share the same basic beliefs. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Jains believe that people are continually reborn. This rebirth results from action (Sanskrit, KARMA). Unlike Hindus and Buddhists, however, Jains say that a particularly fine kind of matter is involved in this process. Whenever the human life-force, the jiva, acts, this fine matter sticks to it and weighs it down. The goal of Jain practice is to cleanse the jiva of karmic matter. When the jiva is clean, it rises to the highest point in the universe. There it remains undisturbed forever.

The Jain community has two unequal levels. MONKS AND NUNS adopt a lifestyle based on wandering and begging. Laymen and laywomen maintain households and work. On both levels women are generally in an inferior position.

MONKS AND NUNS are said to be closer to ultimate liberation. A cardinal rule that governs their behaviour is noninjury (Sanskrit, AHIMSA). Svetambara monks and nuns wear cloths over their mouths, sweep the paths where they walk, and strain their water to avoid harming little living beings. The most advanced Jains go even further: In old age they enter liberation by refraining from eating and drinking until they die.

Laymen and laywomen follow ahimsa, but to a lesser extent. As a result, all Jains are strict vegetarians. Jains have also established several animal sanctuaries. In addition, laymen and laywomen give food and drink to monks and nuns—gifts that help them make spiritual progress. They also visit temples. There they WORSHIP before images of the tirthankaras. Jain temples include some of the most famous religious monuments in India: the lush marble temples at Mount Abu and some of the richly decorated temples at Khajuraho.

At the end of the 20th century there were only about four million Jains in the world. But in championing ahimsa and vegetarianism, Jainism has had a profound impact on Indian society. For example, it strongly influenced the leader of the Indian independence movement, Mohandas GANDHI.


  • John E. Cort, Jains in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001);
  • Paul Dundas, The Jains (New York: Routledge, 1992);
  • P. S. Jaini, The Jaina Path of Purifi cation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979);
  • Michael Tobias, Life Force: The World of Jainism (Fremont, Calif.: Jain Publishing, 1991).


The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC. General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC