What if every living thing in the universe had a soul? Not just humans, but also cows and pigs, ants and mosquitoes, trees and flowers, corn and tomatoes, fungi and microscopic bacteria. According to the ancient Indian faith of Jainism (pronounced as it looks — "Jane-ism"), not only does every living thing have a soul, but all souls are equally valuable and equally deserving of respect and compassion.
In its strictest form, Jainism is practiced by ascetic monks and nuns in India, some of whom renounce all worldly possessions (including clothing in one tradition), cover their mouths with a white cloth to avoid causing unnecessary harm with their breath and saliva, and carry a soft brush or feather duster while walking to gently sweep away any tiny souls (in insects) in their path.
But for millions of Jains in India (estimated at 4.5 million) and worldwide (another 250,000), their faith is fully intertwined with modern life. The core teachings of Jainism — nonviolence, non-possessiveness and multiplicity of viewpoints — are not only viewed as the best way to achieve the ultimate liberation of the soul (moksh), but also the right way to treat others and to care for the environment.
The United States is home to an estimated 150,000 Jains, a tiny fraction of the American religious landscape, but enough to support vibrant Jain communities nationwide including dozens of ornate Jain temples.
An 'Eternal' Religion Without a God
Jainism is believed to be the oldest religion to emerge from the Indian subcontinent, predating Hinduism and Buddhism, with which it shares a belief in reincarnation, karma and the soul's quest for enlightenment (keval gyan) and liberation (nirvan without the "a"). But unlike Hinduism and Buddhism, there are no divine beings in Jainism, neither a single creator God nor a powerful pantheon of gods.
Jains believe that their religion, like the universe itself, is eternal and without beginning or end. The soul (jiva) is also eternal and individual, not part of a larger universal "divine" as in the Hindu concept of Brahman.
"In Jainism, our 'gods' are the Tirthankars, which are different from the traditional idea of a god, because they're not superhuman," explains Harshita Jain, a student at Rutgers University and director of education for Young Jains of America. (Note: Jain is a common last name among Jains, as is Shah. Since we're quoting two people in this story with the last name Jain, we'll use their first names to avoid confusion.)
The Tirthankars were 24 individuals who achieved enlightenment and liberation by completely cleansing their souls of karma. The most recent and last Tirthankar was Lord Mahavir, who lived and taught in the sixth century B.C.E. The Tirthankars are "god-like" in the sense that their souls achieved infinite knowledge and happiness, but they don't answer prayers or exercise other divine powers.
Lord Mahavir's teachings were passed down orally and recorded in the Agams, a collection of Jain scriptures. There are no Jain priests or clergy, but Jain monks and nuns serve as the living interpreters of Jainism, dedicating their lives to studying the Agams, meditating on Lord Mahavir's teachings and preaching the path to liberation.
"There is no single 'God' in Jainism, but each and every soul can become a 'god' — a perfected being free of all karma — if it follows the right path," says Savita Jain, chair of public relations and media with JAINA, a volunteer organization serving Jain communities across North America.
This same potential to be liberated from the cycle of birth and death and become a god is the reason that all souls are viewed as equal in Jainism, and therefore why nonviolence is practiced toward all living beings.
The Three A's and the Five Vows
Lord Mahavir was born a wealthy prince, but renounced his royal trappings and became a wandering ascetic, fasting and meditating for 12 years until he found the one true path to enlightenment. Along the way, Lord Mahavir taught others how to achieve the same.
The core precepts of Jainism are known as the "Three A's":
- Ahimsa or "nonviolence" is the foundational principle of Jainism. It means nonviolence and compassion toward all living beings in thought, word and action.
- Anekantavada or "non-one-sidedness" is the acceptance of "all positive views," says Savita. Anekantavada is best illustrated by the well-known Jain parable of the six blind men who find an elephant. They each touch a different part of the elephant, concluding that it's a tree branch (trunk), a fan (ear), a rope (tail), etc. The only way to know the full truth is combine their individual "truths" and learn from one another's perspectives.
- Aparigraha or "non-possessiveness" emphasizes detachment from worldly goods and desires. In modern life that means "not consuming or accumulating more than our needs," says Savita.
Jains are also encouraged to take five vows or vrats that teach self-control and restraint. While the super-strict versions of the five vows are only kept by Jain monks and nuns, most Jains do their best to keep "lesser vows" known as anuvrats. The five vows are:
- Ahimsa or nonviolence
- Satya or truthfulness
- Asteya or "non-stealing," which applies to fair dealings in business
- Brahmacharya or celibacy (broadly speaking, refraining from all sensual indulgences); Jain monks and nuns are celibate, while other Jains avoid "heightened passions" stirred by lust and desire, and abstain from sex before marriage
- Aparigraha or non-possessiveness
All Jains are either vegetarian or vegan in order to inflict the least amount of violence on living things, but even some vegetables are forbidden. For example, all root vegetables are outlawed, including staples of Indian cuisine like potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic and ginger. These vegetables are said to possess an "infinite number of souls," and therefore consuming them leads to an incredible amount of violence.
Eating after sunset is also a no-no, because bugs are attracted to lights when it's dark outside and might fall into the food. And leftovers are forbidden because yesterday's food has collected too many microbes, even in the refrigerator.
"Jains are supposed to completely avoid eating fish, eggs, mushrooms, alcohol, honey and butter," says Harshita. "With regards to the root vegetables, that's a personal decision. We don't judge each other, because everyone follows the dietary restrictions the best that they can."
Jains are also to avoid killing any insects (even mosquitoes and cockroaches) as doing so would violate the principle of ahimsa.. To prevent that, Jains take extra precautions, like making sure there's no standing water for mosquitoes to breed.
Prayer and meditation are an important part of daily life in Jain households. Most Jains dedicate a special room or corner of their home for saying their daily prayers, which traditionally require 48 minutes of silent reflection and meditation. The function of Jain prayers isn't to ask favors from a divine source, but to reflect on your actions, ask forgiveness for hurting others (knowingly or unknowingly) and recommit to the five vows.
Special prayer and worship ceremonies are held at Jain temples, which differ by each particular sect of Jainism. In the Shwetambar tradition, for example, visitors to the temple might perform a traditional eight-fold puja, in which the individual makes eight symbolic offerings to idols of the Tirthankars.
Jain Holidays and Celebrations
Jains follow a lunar calendar, and there are several important and widely celebrated holidays or "holy days" in the original sense of the word. In late summer, the two major sects of Jainism each observe long periods of fasting and self-reflection called Paryushan (in the Shwetambar tradition) and Das Lakshan (in the Digambar tradition). Each holiday is over a week long, and most Jains will take off from work or school to fast or otherwise detach themselves from worldly concerns.
Not everyone is capable of fasting for days on end, but that's OK, says Ruchi Vora, a student at Oregon State University and director of public relations for Young Jains of America.
"What's important is practicing self-restraint," says Vora. "Fasting is hard on my health, so what I try to do is limit my screen time by detaching from social media and my phone. It's my way of finding inner peace."
Diwali or Deepavali, celebrated as the Festival of Lights by Hindus, is also observed by Jains and Sikhs in India. For Jains, Diwali holds special significance as the day that Lord Mahavir attained liberation. On Diwali, Jains light lamps and candles in their homes to symbolize their dedication to keeping the flame of Lord Mahavir's teachings alive.