What Does “Ahimsa” Mean In Jainism?

“Ahimsa” is one of the five core vows and principles of Jainism, and means “non-violence.” The word is derived from Sanskrit, and sometimes spelled “ahinsa” or “avihinsa.” Ahimsa is the first vow learned and perhaps the most fundamental in the entire culture of the religion. It goes far beyond the more common religious doctrine of “don’t kill,” in part because it expands this belief to encompass all life on earth, no matter how small or unintelligent.

True understanding of ahimsa means you don’t have to ask whether or not Jains work as farmers or eat meat — they don’t. These jobs make it too easy to kill microscopic life or insects, and farmers are expected to raise livestock (which will eventually be butchered for food even if the Jain does not do the killing himself). Even Jain Vegetarians must be careful what types of foods they eat for fear of doing more damage to tiny organisms than necessary. 

Ahimsa is somewhat different from other vows we’ve discussed in past articles. For example, the principle of non-stealing is not governed by a person’s “intent” to steal. Even thinking about stealing is a transgression. Ahimsa is different, because intention does matter. 

Acharya Jinabhadra wrote in the 7th century AD: “It is intention that ultimately matters. From the real point of view, a man does not become a killer only because he has killed or because the world is crowded with souls, or remain innocent only because he has not killed physically. Even if a person does not actually kill, he becomes a killer if he has the intention to kill.”

This belief still allows doctors to cause pain because the intention is not to cause pain, but to heal. The act itself does not mean the vow has been broken. 

The five transgressions of ahimsa include, binding animals too tightly, beat animals, cutting animals, overloading animals, and neglecting to feed animals. Although all Jains must remain pacifist, a Jain king would not transgress by fighting to defend his people.

What Types Of Jobs Do Jains Take?

We recently considered the definition of the Jain vow, asteya, which means “non-stealing.” You  might be surprised to know — after reading up on this — that the Jains have a reputation for being very heavily invested in business. And they’re good at it, too! One might ask whether or not venturing into business affairs might detract from the vow against stealing, or even contradict it entirely. Well, it depends on who you ask.

According to a New South Wales report from 2016, more than half of Jains who resided there labeled themselves business professionals. Most of these jobs included management. Only a measly 2.4 percent of New South Wales residents had jobs in the labor industry. You wouldn’t find a Jain in need of a waiter pay law firm, because they rarely work in service — and probably wouldn’t get angry when taken advantage of, anyway!

Other jobs with a large percentage of workers included official/administrative, sales, and machinery operators or drivers. Less surprising was the number of Jains who worked as community or personal service workers — which would seem more in line with a traditional way of Jain thinking.

Internationally, the Jain career makeup is similar. They work as jewelers, financiers, traders, merchants, textile sales, and in the healthcare or technology industries. Because of the strong skills of the Jain following, they have been quite prosperous. But how does one bridge the gap between prosperity and non-theft? Jains also take vows of non-possession!

The answer is simple: Jains live to serve and provide for others as part of their pacifist lifestyle. Business is technically a way to provide goods or services that other people require to live their own lives, and providing those goods or services is a chaste and just thing to do. Beyond that, the prosperity achieved through business allows Jains to give back to the community. They are known for their patronage and charity. They also spend profits on artistic endeavors to enrich the culture of Jainism.

Although it might seem ironic or unsensible to the layman, it’s the very practice of non-violence that leads Jains to these career paths in the first place! This is because Jains believe even the smallest organisms should be allowed to live in peace and harmony with larger ones. How can a person hold that type of belief and go into agriculture or farming, for example? Tilling the land would kill innumerable insects and microscopic lifeforms. Farming also results in the breeding and butchering of livestock, which is about as far away from a Jain’s beliefs as you can get (they are vegetarian, if you hadn’t heard). 

Because Jains are typically well-educated and very successful in business, they also have a strong influence over other aspects of Indian society (even with their relatively small numbers; the population of Jains in India sits around 5 or 6 million out of a total Indian population nearing two billion). They are invested in politics, economic righteousness, and Indian culture in general.

What Does “Asteya” Mean In Jainism?

The five basic vows of Jainism include ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), brahmacharya (chastity), aparigraha (non-attachment), and asteya (non-stealing). In order to achieve spiritual liberation at the end of life (or multiple lives, depending on karma), these five vows must be honored and maintained constantly and without interruption. Asteya is also sometimes replaced with the word “Achourya.” Both are Sanskrit words that mean “non-stealing.”

Asteya goes far beyond the physical act of stealing. Once this vow is taken, a Jain cannot steal, intend to steal — or even think about stealing. The five vows are as much about controlling one’s deepest, darkest thoughts as they are about controlling one’s physical actions.

Asteya is a vow in Hinduism as well, and also a form of temperance or self-restraint practiced by many Indian citizens. 

The Jain text Sarvathasiddhi describes asteya: “Prompting a person to steal, or prompting him through another or approving of the theft, is the first transgression. The second is receiving stolen goods from a person, whose action has neither been prompted nor approved by the recipient. Receiving or buying goods otherwise than by lawful and just means is an irregularity or a transgression. An attempt to buy precious things very cheaply in a disordered state is the third transgression.”

One can clearly see that “theft” of any kind is counted as disobeying the vow of asteya, and there is very little room for interpretation.

The text continues: “Cheating others by the use of false weights and measures in order to obtain more from others and give less to others, is the fourth transgression. Deceiving others with artificial gold, synthetic diamonds and so on, is the fifth transgression. These five are the transgressions of the vow of non-stealing.”

These transgressions can be committed by any practicing Jain, including both monks/nuns and/or householders. Committing these transgressions will prevent spiritual liberation.

What Is The “Kalpa Sutra” In Jainism?

Not to be confused with Hindu’s textbook on erotic love called Kama Sutra, the Kalpa Sutra is a biography on numerous Tirthankaras with a primary interest in Mahavira and Parshvanatha. The text is mostly used by the Sventambara (one of the two main sects of Jainism). The oldest copies unearthed date to around the 14th century and were written in India, which is the largest hub for Jain followers (although the faithful live all over the world in smaller numbers). 

Newer copies of the text (meaning any that were transcribed after the oldest copies) began to be illustrated sometime in the 15th century. Often, they were painted to show the life history of the figures detailed within. 

The text was likely written down by Acarya Bhadrabahu, who was believed to be the last Shruta Kevalin (even though the Svetambara sect believes the last Shruta was a different man). He also wrote four other Chedda sutras and a number of commentaries on Jain scriptures.

Radha Kumud Mokerji wrote, “The oldest inscription of about 600 AD associated ‘the pair (yugma) Bhadrabahu along with Chandragupta Muni.’ Two inscriptions of about 900 AD on the Kaveri near Seringapatam describe the summit of a hill called Chandragiri as marked by the footprints of Bhadrabahu and Chandragupta munipati.”

Keep in mind that Acarya Bhadrabahu lived from approximately 367 to 298 BCE. 

Mokerji continued, “A Shravanabelagola inscription of 1129 mentions Bhadrabahu ‘Shrutakevali’, and Chandragupta who acquired such merit that he was worshipped by the forest deities. Another inscription of 1163 similarly couples and describes them. A third inscription of the year 1432 speaks of Yatindra Bhadrabahu, and his disciple Chandragupta, the fame of whose penance spread into other words.”

The Tirthankara “Parshvanatha” was sometimes called “Parshva” or “Paras,” and was the 23rd of 24. He likely lived during the 8th or 9th century BCE, or slightly later according to most historians, and was known to have revived Jainism from bankruptcy.  

When we say “bankruptcy,” we don’t mean in the traditional sense. It isn’t possible for a Jain monk or nun to go bankrupt, which means the concept has little meaning to the most devout followers of Jainism. They have no belongings of their own, and male monks typically don’t even wear clothing! Visit website for more information on bankruptcy. Although the term has more meaning elsewhere, one might say that a Jain monk or nun with no access to historical texts, temples of worship, or fellow Jain members, would be bankrupt. 

Like most religions, Jainism has had high points and lows. Parshvanatha was simply a man who brought the religion out of one of those low points.

“Mahavira” was the 24th of 24 Tirthankaras, and sometimes he was also called “Vardhamana.” He was of royal blood, and was born early in the 6th century BCE somewhere in Bihar, India. He was known for his utter obedience to the five vows of Jainism, including ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha.

What Is The Meaning Of “Sangha” In Jainism?

“Sangha” is a word used in more than one religion, including Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. It literally means “assembly” or “community.” But where did it come from? Sangha is a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is a predominantly South Asian language, also considered the sacred language of Hinduism, and arose from the ashes of several other dying languages toward the end of the Bronze Age. 

Sanskrit is also linked to the ancient texts of Buddhism and Jainism, guaranteeing its relevance for ages to come. One might consider this analogy to fully understand its impact on the region’s culture and religions: Sanskrit is to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism as Latin is to Christianity.

Sangha in Jainism simply refers to the “community” of those practicing dharma to achieve spiritual liberation at the end of life. 

According to Champat Rai Jain, “The continuity of the sangha (community of the faithful) will be maintained right up to its very end. There will be at least one saint, one nun, one householder, and one pious female follower of the Lord Jinendra in the world. When only three moments will be left in the running kala, raja (kingship), agni (fire) and dharma (religion) will be destroyed, one after the other, in the order mentioned!”

He continues, “The last king, who will be called Kalki, will snatch away the food from the hand of the last Saint, and will be destroyed by the devas for his extreme impiety. The Saint and the Nun will perform sallekhana death, along with the householder and the pious lay lady. Fire will disappear instantly, and dharma will cease to exist in the next moment!”

In other words, Sangha will only terminate when the religion itself comes to its end.

Sometimes “Sangha” also refers to Digambara lineages. (Digambara is one of the two primary sects of Jainism). The concept of Sangha was first conceived in the 5th century by Madurai.

What Is The “Third Sex” In Jainism?

Jainism is an ancient religion; although pacifist in fundamental disposition, it still holds close some of the old-fashioned ideals that could get members into some hot water in today’s society, which is far more focused on equality/equity. For example, gender is a social construct often treated as a scientific reality (which it is not), and both men and women have traditional gender roles in Jainism. 

Because Jainism is all about achieving purity in mind, body, and spirit, members of the faith inevitably have applied differences in potential to both of these genders. Some, for example, believe that women have fewer opportunities to break through life’s obstacles and achieve the needed karma. 

Male Jain monks are expected to forego all earthly possessions — including their own clothes. Female Jain nuns are not held to this same standard because of society’s emphasis on female genitals and sexuality. The question of whether women should serve as mendicants (and be nude doing it) is an old one. 

Jains belong mostly to two sects, the Svetambaras and Digambaras. The latter does not believe that women can become ascetics because female nudity was deemed inappropriate — which is a shame, since nudity is apparently critical to the end-goal of spiritual liberation. Therefore, women can only live life as best they can, and hope to be reborn as a man to achieve the same goal as everyone else. 

However, some Jains believe that a “third sex” exists within society. This potential addition only created more questions rather than answering any about traditional gender or gender roles in Jain society. It is, however, of particular relevance when considering the possibility of a Jain being homosexual. Keep in mind that Jains can only have sex with a spouse — and they are expected to stop once the match leads to one male offspring. 

It can be difficult to bridge that gap between what Jains see as necessary where reproduction is concerned and any “third sex” sexuality that results in no children. Interestingly, the Jains came to accept that a man, for instance, might be born with male sexual organs but be female psychologically. Visit website here for more information on Jainism, gender roles, and sexuality.

This third sex was named “napumsakas,” but like in other cultures, there was a stigma when first discovered. This has created more conversations about whether or not someone should be allowed to become a monk/nun. Much of the stigma eventually subsided and Jains began to approach the subject like so many others: it’s about a person’s level of control over their own feelings and urges. If a napumsakas can control their sexuality, then there was no problem at all. 

The Jain hierarchy might have come a long way since ancient times, but it still has a long way to go if Jains are to live in today’s society as equals. Male ascetics are still viewed more highly than female ascetics — and it’s anyone’s guess where napumsakas fit in.

Jain Statues, Sculptures, and Symbols

Each religion has its symbols. Each of those symbols has inherent meaning when paired with religious history or practice. These represent a form of sub-culture within society. Jainism is no different in this manner. It is one of the oldest religions on the planet, and there are many statues, sculptures, and symbols that Jain believers find very important. These are a few of the most noteworthy creations.

Sculptures of the twenty-four Tirthankaras can be found dotted around India. Jains typically worship four of these god-like entities above all the rest (although it should be remembered that they do not promote a Supreme Being like other religions). Three of these stand out more often: Parshvanath, Rishabhanatha, and Mahavira. They are most often in the sitting position. 

These idols are generally sculpted in similar or same fashion, but can be identified by a specific symbol unique to each. Perhaps most noteworthy is Parshvanath, because the head is literally crowned with a snake!

Those who venture to Shravanabelagola, Karnataka will find a massive 59-foot-tall statue of Bahubali, which was erected by Chavundaraya, who was a Ganga minister and commander. It was built all the way back in 981 CE. 

A customary means of fashioning these sculptures and statues is known as “Ashtadhatu,” which means “eight metals.” These were bronze, brass, gold, silver, stone monolith, rock, and various other “precious stones.”

Those familiar with the history of the Nazi swastika will know that the radical group actually borrowed the symbol from other groups. One look at the Jain flag will turn some stomachs, but it’s important to recognize that the swastika is not inherently a symbol of hate — and truly, Jainism is one of the most resolutely pacifist religions in existence. 

The colors of the Jain flag are orange, yellow, white, green, and black. These represent the five vows that nearly all Jains take: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha.

Does Jainism Conflict With Secular Law?

Secular law is defined in relatively simple, yet abstract, terms. Secular law governs the methods through which conflicts between particular groups of people — especially those with radically different religious beliefs, or those between religious and non-religious people — are solved. It seems a strange question, then, to ask whether or not a particular religion by itself conflicts with a concept meant to resolve, well, conflict.

But that’s the question we’ve asked, and so we’ll do our best to unpack the meaning behind it.

Several years ago, an Indian filmmaker named Shekhar Hattangadi made a movie exploring the reasons and ethical quandaries behind Jains who end their lives by purposefully abstaining from food and water over an elongated period of time. While this type of Jain end-of-life journey is somewhat uncommon in the modern world, it still happens from time to time. 

Hattangadi said the film is “about how a faith-based society deals with traditional practices that conflict with secular law.”

In essence, there are many moral questions that surround the practice of starving oneself to death in the name of religion. The act is generally taken when one decides he or she has done all that he or she is meant to do in life — that the journey is over, and it’s time to move on to the next phase of Dharma, or the journey to ultimate enlightenment through reincarnation. Critics of the practice believe that the practice is merely a manner by which the younger generation ensures its elders don’t become a burden on society when they can no longer produce or care for themselves.

One lawyer in the film asks, “Why is it that only those who are near death and terminally ill choose santhara?”

There is no easy answer to that question. But most Jains themselves believe that this end-of-life right of passage is more about spiritual purification.

Assistant Professor Ellen Gough in the Department of Religion is a Jain expert who explains that “Very early doctrine describes santhara as an ideal death. The monk who is tired of his body should lie down and gradually limit food to destroy karma so he doesn’t reincarnate.”

Keep in mind that Jains do not believe in suicide. All worth noting is that the Rajhastani High Court made a 2015 ruling describing some instances of santhara as suicide. The ruling suggested the state end the practice entirely, and treat these cases as criminal. 

Hattangati said, “The Supreme Court will distinguish between a legitimate religious practice and a custom that persecutes the elderly.”

One can see now why the question or whether or not Jain lifestyles conflict with Secular law is often asked. The state says one thing, while Jain practice sometimes orders another. 

Arguably, someone affected by this practice through the death of a loved one could file a lawsuit for wrongful death — especially if someone was persuaded into fasting to death by other family members or those within the Jain community. More info here. Most Jains, however, believe that self-defense from physical attack is unjustified. Defending oneself (or attacking others) through legal means might simply be a slippery slope to others.

What Do Jain Meditation And Ritualistic Worship Mean?

Much of the Jain daily grind involves prayer and meditation in order to fit into the vast paradigm of nature. They adopt rules to prevent them from doing harm to other natural creations, no matter how small. Each action a Jain takes showcases the utter devotion to this cause — from the foods they eat, to the jobs they avoid. What does meditation mean for a Jain? What rituals are involved in Jain worship?

First, meditation is generally considered mandatory to a Jain, much like five daily prayers are considered mandatory to those of Islamic faith. Jains don’t meditate in order to gain insight, self-realization, or anything else that might be easily attributed to “similar” Indian religions like Buddhism or Hinduism. Instead, Jains meditate to prevent karmic attachment that might prevent them from end-of-life liberation. 

Padmanabh Jaini said these periods of meditation were usually brief, and the goal is equanimity. The ritual generally occurs three times daily by those who follow the practice (not all do). Many choose to perform this action inside a Jain temple instead of home. They might also include volunteer or charity work as part of the routine. 

Jains worship a number of deities, but they don’t believe in a Supreme Being above all the rest. In fact, they might not be considered deities at all, depending on who you ask. Most of those worshipped are Tirthankaras present in the Jain texts, or those who achieved spiritual liberation at the end of their lives here on Earth. 

One strange ritual (that the Indian Supreme Court has ruled criminal) is the practice of slowly starving oneself with the intention of eventually dying. Called sallekhana, it is not often performed anymore. 

Another ritual involves mantras, one of which is the “five homage.” This mantra (or prayer) has been performed since the beginning of the Jain faith. Notably, it is the oldest in the world!

Are Jains Medically Allowed Vaccination?

We say it over and over: The core tenet of Jainism is pacifism. The belief system is all about living in harmony with every living being on the planet and doing as little harm to other life as possible, from the smallest microorganism to the biggest. And Jain “law” has plenty to say on modern healthcare, most of which is perfectly okay. On occasion, a Jain follower might have to rely on his or her own judgement, or ask for advice from a Jain leader. 

But what do these beliefs say about vaccinating — especially against coronavirus, which has already led to the deaths of over two million people (and counting). One might be justified in thinking that because vaccinating against a deadly disease helps prevent the deaths of other people. But others might also be justified in thinking that a “virus” could also constitute life in one form or another, and that immunizing against such a form of life could lead to its destruction.

Which is right, and which is wrong?

First things first: The vast majority of scientists and biologists do not classify viruses as living entities. That means that the belief that vaccination could lead to the eradication of a particular virus probably doesn’t make a difference in Jainism. You can’t hurt them or live in harmony with them if they aren’t even alive!

However, not everyone agrees with the sentiment that viruses are not alive. They put themselves together from organic matter, which Jains try to spare. Jains still allow certain forms of cooking, soap, and antibiotics even though these activities kill millions of microorganisms. They are allowed because at the end of the day, human survival is important too.

That’s why Jains don’t ban vaccination even though they follow a path of lifelong non-violence. Those Jains who feel like the choice to vaccinate is a difficult one should seek council from their religious leaders.