Beliefs, Teachings, Wisdom, Authority

Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;


Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.

Basic Beliefs

Belief for Jains is a normal part of life – it is not something reserved for the time of prayer or the visit to the temple. It is rarely expressed or experienced as miracles, but it is the giver of inner strength and the triumph of hope over adversity. Belief is seen as the line which continues from past lives to the current life and helps us move beyond death to future lives or liberation. It is the thread that weaves the soul in its journey through the Universe.

Much of Jain belief is based on respect for enlightened souls, wherever they may live. The most sacred Jain prayer, the Navkar Mantra is a salutation to all such souls of whatever faith they may belong. It is a universal prayer. Belief fills everyday life with a sense of purpose and helps us to be contented and thankful. Belief helps us put the material world in its place and prevents it from overwhelming our lives.

A distinctive belief of Jainism is that the whole of nature is included in the cycle of liberation – men, gods, animals, insects, plants and all living beings. Consequently, life and its direction are ruled by karma – deeds, and these decide the condition of the next life. Liberation arises when all karmas are destroyed and the soul becomes pure and free.

Ethical conduct is an expression of belief – with values like service, respect, simplicity, selflessness and forgiveness its guiding lights. The word Jain derives from the root Jina which means conqueror of the inner vices. A true Jain is one who has reached the inner purity of the soul and is not tainted by greed, violence or vices of any kind.

Authoritative Scriptures

The primary sources of authority are the Agamas or scriptures. There is no one bible or main scripture but a whole series of scriptures numbering at least forty-five and some have been lost over the years. These cover a wide range of topics, from the life and times of the Tirthankaras, to the code of conduct for Monks and Nuns, the values and science of living (Acharanga Sutra), the psychology of non-violence, the science of existence (Tattvartha Sutra).

The ‘Tirthankaras’ or ford-makers are the primary source of authority for the wisdom of the tradition. The latest Tirthankara, Mahavira was born in 599 BCE. The scriptures are partly based on what he said whilst he was alive, and have partly evolved over later centuries and written by scholar monks and agreed upon by monk congregations.

The role of scriptures is important and they have evolved over the years – however the scriptures are not absolute nor are they treated as the last word. They are presented for study and reflection rather than as a precise prescription of right livelihood. They are open to analysis and interpretation. There is a vast artistic, poetical and literary tradition which expands upon the core values and practices.

The agamas were passed on orally for many centuries and probably fixed about the 5th century CE.

Authoritative Leadership

There is an order of monks and nuns who observe the highest values of purity, non-possessiveness, non-violence, chastity and non-stealing. They walk barefoot and do not carry any possessions nor are they allowed to travel by car or aeroplane. Their existence is nomadic and they depend on the lay community for their basic food and shelter. They translate the tradition to the lay community through lectures and by example and dialogue. They are present at auspicious events such as festivals and poojas and participate in some temple and other rituals.

In practice, spiritual leadership in the community is provided by monks and nuns living in India. Lay people listen to their sermons and consult them on difficult concepts and for spiritual guidance. Some lay people even adopt certain monks or nuns as their ‘gurus’ or primary mentors.

The Acharya is the highest rank among monks and nuns, and is appointed by the peer group of existing Acharyas. He would be the leader of a group of monks and nuns.

Lay Jains are supposed to live an ethical life endowed with these principles and ideals. They observe daily rituals such as Samayik and Pratikraman (meditations and prayers) and visit temples and community centres regularly. There are no middlemen in the act of worship – each soul has to make their own personal efforts to liberation and there is no hierarchy of bishops and priests. There are many festivals, the most important being Paryushan or Daslakshan where there is intense fasting, prayer and listening to lectures.

Founders and Exemplars of Faith

The Jain tradition is believed to be at least three thousand years old. Mahavira was the 24th in the line of Tirthankaras (Prophets / Ford Makers) and he was born in north-east India in 599 BCE. There is scientific and historical evidence of his existence and that of Parshva, the 23rd Tirthankara who was born 250 years before Mahavira.

Mahavira was born into the Hindu Kshatriya caste in the Indian town of Vaisali, near the Ganges River. His father was a local prince and according to legend, his mother had dreams and portents that foretold the birth of a prophet son. Mahavira was brought up as a Jain and followed ascetic practices. At the age of 30, Mahavira himself became an ascetic, left his home and family and became a wandering teacher, begging for his food. He lived on gifts for twelve years spending most of the time in meditation. Then at the age of forty three, he became enlightened and a jina, or conqueror of life and death. For the next thirty years of his life, Mahavira taught his ideas, gathered disciples who were willing to renounce all possessions, and ordained them as monks and nuns. He attained liberation (nirvana) at Pavapuri near Patna in 527BCE – Jains celebrate this liberation during the festival of Diwali every year.

A Jina is a victor over the inner vices and weaknesses, one who not only carves his own path to enlightenment, but also leaves a torchlight of wisdom for others to follow in this journey. They were great teachers and wise and enlightened souls, and stories of their lives and accomplishments abound in the scriptures, with much more known about the life of Mahavira than any other Tirthankara.

The lives of the Jinas were simple, their sacrifices immense and their compassion boundless. Their lifetime was dedicated to the pursuit of truth in all its manifestations and encouraging others to follow truthful living through a minimization of harm to other living beings. Many were often born in royal households and had access to all material comforts, but chose to give these up to pursue spiritual enlightenment. They were truly courageous and victorious, not in the sense of victory or power over others, but in the sense of providing genuine and democratic leadership and vision. They espoused the values they preached and there was no hypocrisy and significant humility.

Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most venerated leaders of the twentieth century, was strongly inspired by the Jain faith in his movement of non-violent resistance. His mentor, Shrimad Rajchandra, was a distinguished businessman, poet and philosopher who was able to translate the practical dimensions of the faith with great lucidity and insight.

Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara is the most celebrated of heroes, but there have also been several monk heroes such as Hemchandraacharya who was a great scholar and poet around the 11th century and Pandit Sukhlalji, one of the greatest Jain scholars of the twentieth century.

All the heroes lived simply and humbly, but had very strong aesthetic and intellectual wisdom. They provided vital leadership in many dimensions of life and were able to influence individuals, leaders and whole societies toward positive transformation. Pandit Sukhlalji was blind, but this disability did not in any way get in the way of his scholarship – he had opened his third eye to seek and translate ancient wisdom. Their very life was their message, showing people how to live with integrity, non-violence, simplicity, respect and selflessness. These are the lasting values of sustainable living.



Banks, M., 1992. Organising Jainism in India and England. Oxford, OUP.

Cort, J.E., 2001. Jains in the World – Ideology and Religious Values in India. n.l.: n.s.

Dundas, P., 2002. The Jains. London: Routledge.

Granoff, P., 1998. The Forest of Thieves – An anthology of medieval Jain stories.n.l.: n.s.

Jain, M., 2005. Jain Food – Compassionate and Healthy Eating. USA: n.s.

Jaini, P., 1998. The Jaina Path of Purification.New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Pal, P., 1994. Peaceful Liberators – Jain Art from India.Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Rankin, A., 2006. The Jain Path – Ancient Wisdom for the West.n.l.: O Books.

Sangave, V., 1980. Jaina Community.Bombay: n.s.

In Association with Amazon