Learning Objective

  • Understand the origins and principles of Jainism

Key Points

  • Sramanas were those who practiced an ascetic, or strict and self-denying, lifestyle in pursuit of spiritual liberation. They are commonly known as monks.
  • The Sramana movement gave rise to Jainism, which is considered an independent, pre-Buddhist religion with possible roots in the Indus Valley Civilization.
  • The predominance of karma is one of the key features of Jainism. Karma is the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous lives; it determines his or her fate in future existences.



An Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence toward all living beings, and emphasizes spiritual independence and equality between all forms of life.


A person who practices severe self-discipline and abstention from worldly pleasures in order to attain a higher level of spirituality.


The principle of causality in which intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that person; this is a key concept in Jainism, as well as in Hinduism and Buddhism.


The repeating cycle of birth, life, and death (reincarnation) within Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Jainism, one of the world’s major religions, is believed to have roots in the Indus Valley Civilization, and follows aspects of the Sramana traditions of asceticism—self-denial and control in order to achieve a higher level of spirituality. Although Jainism is considered pre-Buddhist, the two religions have a link through a focus on karma—the concept that good deeds in one life will lead to a better existence in the next life. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve liberation of the soul.

Sramana Origins

Jainism is based on an ancient Indian religious philosophy called Sramana, which began as an offshoot of the Vedic religion. Several Sramana movements are known to have existed in India before the 6th century BCE. Sramana existed in parallel to, but separate from, Vedic Hinduism, which followed the teachings and rituals found in the Vedas, the most ancient texts of the Vedic religion. Sramana, meaning “seeker,” was a tradition that began around 800-600 BCE, when new philosophical groups, who believed in a more austere path to spiritual freedom, rejected the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmins (the priests of Vedic Hinduism).

Sramana promoted spiritual concepts that became popular in all major Indian religions, such as saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death, and moksha, liberation from that cycle. The Sramanas renounced married and domestic life and adopted an ascetic path (one of severe self-discipline and abstention from all indulgence) in order to achieve spiritual liberation. Sramaṇa traditions (or religious and moral practices) later gave rise to varying schools of Hinduism, as well as Yoga, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Origins of Jainism

Jainism is considered an independent, pre-Buddhist religion that began c. 700 BCE, although its origins are disputed. Some scholars claim Jainism has its roots in the Indus Valley Civilization, reflecting native spirituality prior to the Indo-Aryan migration into India.

Various seals from Indus Valley Civilizations bear resemblance to Rishabha, the first Jain as the visual representation of Vishnu. Many relics depict Jain symbols, including standing nude male figures, images with serpent-heads, and the bull symbol of Vrshabadeva. However, other scholars believe the Sramana traditions were separate and contemporaneous with Indo-Aryan religious practices of the historical Vedic religion.


An Elaborate Mirpur Jain Temple Wall. The Jain Temple in Mirpur, India, was built c. 800 CE.

Jainism Beliefs

The distinguishing features of Jain philosophy are its belief in the independent existence of soul and matter; the denial of a creative and omnipotent God, combined with a belief in an eternal universe; and a strong emphasis on non-violence, morality, and ethics. The word Jain derives from the Sanskrit word jina, meaning conqueror, and the ultimate aim of Jain life is to achieve liberation of the soul.

The predominance of karma is one of the key features of Jainism. Karma is the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous lives that determine his or her fate in future existences. A Sanskrit word, karma means action, word, or deed. Its focus is on the spiritual principle of cause and effect, with individual actions influencing individual effects. Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and deeds produce bad karma and future suffering. Karma is a concept associated with rebirth, or the idea that death is the beginning of a new existence. This idea also appears in other Asian religions, including Buddhism.

The motto of Jainism is Parasparopagraho Jivanam, meaning “the function of souls is to help one another.” This is associated with the idea of good deeds, and is incorporated into the main principles of Jainism: ahimsa, non-violence; anekantavada, non-absolutism; and aparigraha, non-possessiveness or non-attachment. Followers take five main vows that include ahimsa and aparigraha, as well as satya, not lying; asteya, not stealing; and brahmacharya, chastity. Jain monks and nuns adhere to these vows absolutely, placing Jainism squarely in the ascetic and self discipline traditions of Sramana.


Jain Monk. An image of a Jain monk meditating over religious texts.

Jainism Followers

The majority of Jains live in India, which counts between 4 and 6 million followers. Some of the largest Jain communities outside India are in the United States, which has more than 79,000 followers; Kenya, which has nearly 69,000 adherents; the United Kingdom, which counts nearly 17,000 followers; and Canada, with approximately 12,000 followers. Other countries with notable Jain populations include Tanzania, Nepal, Uganda, Burma, Malaysia, South Africa, Fiji, Australia, and Japan.

Contemporary Jainism is divided into two major schools, or sects, called Digambara and Svetambara. The Svetambara, meaning “white clad,” describes its ascetic adherents’ practice of wearing white clothes, while the monks of the “sky clad” Digambara do not wear clothing at all, a practice upon which they disagree.

The most important religious festival of Jainism is Mahavir Jayanti, which celebrates the birth of Mahavira—the 24th and last Tirthankara, or teaching god. Other important festivals include Diwali, marking the Nirvana, or liberation, of Mahavira’s soul; and the holy event of Paryushana, also known as Das Lakshana, which is a period of between eight and ten days in August or September of fasting, prayer, and meditation.


Paryushana Celebrations. Followers of Jainism celebrate Paryushana at the Jain Center of America in New York City.