Jainism: The Gospel to the Jains

The religious beliefs in India all have one thing in common: they operate in a hierarchical context.1 While religious equality and tolerance generally flourishes among the social classes in India (Islam excluded), differences in social equality and status are vigorously distinguished and defended. If religions in India are measured by a hierarchical-adherent model, Jainism would list near the bottom. Known by some scholars as the oldest world religion,2 Hinduism, the fourth largest religion in the world with more than one billion believers, seeks to teach its adherents "the wisdom and duties necessary to be released from the cycle of life-death-rebirth so that one’s true self may return to Brahman, the ultimate source of life."3

While Jainism and Hinduism (and even Buddhism) find some common ground philosophically, Jainism is its own sect -- it is not a Hindu sect, nor is it a "Buddhist heresy," meaning a deviation from Buddhism proper (it predates the Buddha). Like Buddhism, however, Jainism does not revere any god (unlike Hinduism's polytheistic practices and beliefs), but seeks Jina (or Jīva, lit. conqueror) -- a state one achieves through the conquering of one's inner enemies. This belief does not differ significantly from Hinduism, which argues that the "big problem for human beings ... is that they are ignorant of their divine nature."4 If Hindus would acknowledge their divine-ness, they believe they could rise above those circumstances in life which burden the soul. 

Jainism, as old as Hinduism but with only six million believers,5 seeks liberation from life's circumstances (as well as the life-death-rebirth cycle), in a manner similar to Hinduism, through self-effort toward divine consciousness -- the divine within each mortal. Unlike both Hinduism and Buddhism, this liberation is accomplished through three venues: right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. The first aspect of the "Path" for the Jain, right faith (or vision), begins with as many denials as affirmations.

Jains maintain a disbelief in life beyond death (in a Christian sense, yet there is "something more" for the Jain), the authority of the Veda (the name given to ˈɦɪndi holy texts), and in a personal God(s).6 Worship and/or devotion for the Jain (though it has no direct object such as a personal god), consists of practicing the Jīva's discipline -- the beginning of right faith. This principle is not to indicate, however, that Jains reject holy texts (or holy teachers). Kendall Folkert comments:
"Jina" is an honorific term, not a proper name (cf. "Buddha"); it is given by Jains to twenty-four great teachers. The message and example of these teacher-conquerors was that the human being, without supernatural aid, is capable of conquering the bondage of physical existence and achieving freedom from rebirth; and that this conquest is to be achieved only by the most rigorous renunciation of all physical comforts and social constraints.7
Not only are the writings of "the twenty-four great teachers" constructive aids for the Jain in attaining Jīva, but so are the ancient texts Tattvarthadhigama-sutra and Jaina-sutra (to say nothing of the example and teaching of Vardhamāna, the "last prophet of the Jainas"8). Though Jains can be divided into the Digambara and Svetambara denominations, loosely taken, the only paramount difference between the two is the practice of Digambara monks: they wear no clothes; whereas the Svetambara monks wear white robes. The Digambara monks wear no clothes to symbolize their detachment from all things material, while the Svetambara wear white robes to symbolize their pure, right faith. Each adherent in the respective camp believes that he is being devout and is practicing "right faith" in the effort to achieve Jīva.

In Jainism, the universe is eternal, as is the "soul."9 Gopalan explains that in order to avoid an infinite regress with regard to belief in a personal God10 (for if every existent person, so it is believed, must have a maker, then that maker would have to be explained by another -- his maker -- so forth and so on), or why there cannot be many gods, one Jaina philosopher states, "Hence 'it is not necessary to assume the existence of any first cause of the universe.'"11 Like all atheistic religions, Jainism must relegate the existence of all things as having always existed. Hence the system has no viable answer to -- nor cares to address -- the concept of origins.

At this juncture, Christians have the opportunity of allowing Scripture to address the notion of origins, as well as presenting the gospel as the only reasonable answer to the problem of physical existence (or bondage to personal or extra-personal evil). Epistemologically, we understand that something cannot exist from nothing. If Jains maintain that the universe has always existed, the Christian can gently challenge him on this point. Since there is only one Maker, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3), then one's maker does not have to explain his maker, and his maker his maker, so forth and so on. Since God has no maker, but is the Maker of all things, then there is no infinite regress to avoid.

Moreover, there can only be one Sovereign ruler of the universe. Were there to be more than one Sovereign, there could be no such thing as ultimate sovereignty: one god would vie for ruling the other god for ultimate control. The living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9) confesses, "I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no God" (Isa. 45:5). Furthermore, the constraint of physicality and overcoming one's "inner enemies" can only be accomplished by the power of God, through His Son Jesus Christ's accomplished work, made effective through the Holy Spirit. Christians can ask the Jain why he thinks that being physical necessitates one having inner enemies (this was not Jesus' experience). 

This conception mirrors what Christians believe about the sin nature, which can only be conquered through faith in Jesus Christ: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). The gospel of Jesus Christ offers humanity victory over sin and death: "Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4 NASB). What the Jain seeks to attain can only be accomplished through faith in God's one and only Son Jesus Christ. This corresponds to the second aspect of the Jain "Path": right knowledge.

Jain epistemology is referred to as pramānas (i.e., correct knowledge through reason).12 A valid test for correct knowledge "is considered to be knowledge which illumines itself as well as others."13 Knowledge is an essential aspect of the Jain Path: "Knowledge in general may be described as a system in which judgments of various types and on various matters have been co-ordinated, with the result that when a new piece of knowledge is received -- to start with, it is only a sensation -- it is interpreted in the light of knowledge already possessed. ..."14 This new knowledge is built upon the foundation of knowledge already acquired. Jains claim to know that "karmic bondage is a vicious circle."15

This knowledge has afforded them the advantage of finding other ways of which to rid themselves from inner, physical turmoil and achieve Jīva. What is known as "karmic particles," it is alleged, resides already in the soul, which tends to taint one’s being. Long writes, "So one dimension of Jain asceticism involves the purification and purgation of the soul, freeing it from the karmic matter that is already embedded in it, and which deforms it, obscuring its true nature as infinite knowledge and bliss, and threatening to attract more such matter through the passions its fruition can evoke."16 Note, however, the Jains' "knowledge" is subjective; it is initially only a sensation. In this manner, then, Jains advance an experiential hermeneutic. Their "knowledge" does not have to correspond with reality -- only that with which they have already "known." Christianity teaches otherwise.

Christians engaging Jains can ask two compelling questions regarding knowledge: 1) how do Jains avoid deceiving themselves? and 2) how can Jains know with any semblance of certainty that "karmic particles" dwell within each person's soul? Christian Scripture informs people that "the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9 NASB) The Christian God searches the heart and tests the mind, even to "give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds" (Jer. 17:10). If all knowledge, including all new knowledge, is predicated upon knowledge already acquired, then whence did correct knowledge originate? If perfect knowledge originated from eternity past, then how does one know with certainty that this is so since we are not eternal?

Christians have eye witnesses from over a four-thousand-year period who attest to the existence of their one, true and living God. This fact grounds the Christian's knowledge not in theory or speculation but in historical verity. The Christian's God even sent His only Son Jesus Christ as His representative into the world in order to "save" (give deliverance and the victory to) those who would trust in Him (John 1:12; 3:16-17, 26). Both Jains and Christians are seeking to overcome something. For the Jain, it is "karmic particles" which corrupts one's soul. In a biblical context, it is sin, inherited from the fall (Gen. 3), which corrupts one's soul and renders a person as separated from the life of and right relationship to God (Rom. 5:12-21; Eph. 2:1-12). The difference between these two systems is that the Christian is assured that through faith in Jesus Christ he will be saved (Eph. 1:13-14; 2:8), not perhaps may be saved. In the Jain system, there can be no assurance.

Again, the only way to gain the victory (jīva) over sin is through faith in Jesus Christ: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3:36 ESV). In this present state, the Christian is assured that he has -- he possesses now -- eternal life. He does not have to wait and see how things will pan out in the end. He is assured freedom from sin, death, hell and the grave because of what has been accomplished for him by his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This promise belongs to all -- Jain, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim -- who will by grace trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, which results in a life exemplified by repentance and a new worldview. The Jain, at this point, might see a similarity in the Christian "Path" by the Christians' view of repentance, which prima facie corresponds to the third element of Jainism: right conduct.

Non-violence is a staple value in Jainism (as well as Hinduism and Buddhism). Belief in peaceful actions and reactions with other souls and right conduct go hand-in-hand in Jainism. "The most predominant characteristic of Jainism," writes Gopalan, "is its insistence on the strict observance of the principle of non-violence."17 The coordination between the mind and the body in this regard is absolutely essential for this aspect of the Jain Path. This belief is strictly held to the point of its "minutest detail."18

For example, Gopalan explains that "in regard to the killing of the one-sensed living organisms found in the vegetables, the ascetic is allowed no concession."19 Jains often ridicule Buddhists for eating meat they find on the ground -- meat which they had not themselves killed, yet were consuming nonetheless. All living organisms are valued in the Jain religion. To destroy a living being is not right conduct. In the arena of conduct, Jains adhere to five vows: one set of five for the layperson20 and another set of five for monks and nuns.21

Followers and disciples of Christ Jesus can use this Jain principle of non-violence to their advantage by emphasizing Jesus' claims to non-violent social action. In the Beatitudes, Jesus explains to crowds of people, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. ... Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. ... Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account" (Matt. 5:5, 9, 11). Such messages can comfort those of non-violent persuasion. Consistently and gently, however, the believer can inform the Jain that just as he perceives "karmic particles" of his soul to be his enemy, so Christ Jesus has enemies, and these enemies are those who will not submit to His authority as rightful King and Sovereign Lord who created all things (John 1:1-3; Phil. 2:11-12; Col. 1:15-18).

Once the believer has rightly informed the Jain that Jesus reserves the right to be obeyed by all, and that obedience ("right conduct") stems from right faith and right knowledge, he could better understand how to achieve his goal not from his own merits or strength, but from those of another, perfect and righteous Master who has already conquered those elements which war against the soul. Right conduct comes from right knowledge which comes from right faith. The goal of right conduct for the Jain is ultimate deliverance. Radhakrishnan comments: "If deliverance is to be achieved, the lower matter is to be subdued by the higher spirit. When the soul is free from the weight which keeps it down, it rises up to the top of the universe where the liberated dwell. The radical conversion of the inner man is the way to freedom."22 Again, the similarities between the Jains' belief in being released from corruption by way of conversion of the inner man and the Christian doctrine of regeneration and final salvation are astounding. Christians can use these similarities to their advantage in sharing the gospel with Jains.

In Christian teaching, an individual is incapable of perfect conduct due to the effects of the fall (Gen. 3). The apostle Paul is emphatic, "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). There is a two-fold problem with all human beings: 1) they cannot do enough good deeds in order to satisfy God’s wrath against their rebellion (Rom. 4:16); and 2) they cannot perfectly accomplish the good in order to satisfy God's wrath against their rebellion (Rom. 8:7). Sixteenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius writes: "In this [fallen] state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and [attenuatum] weakened; but it is also [captivatum] imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace."23

But not only does man lack the righteous capacity for doing or being good, but even his motives are corrupt. Again, Arminius explains that the mind of man is "destitute of the saving knowledge of God," and due to the perverseness of the affections and of the heart, he "hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God."24 In mankind's desperate plight at being rescued from his fallen predicament, the one and only solution is found in the work and righteous merit of Christ Jesus.

The Jain is looking for "the soul [to be] free from the weight which keeps it down," but seeks to accomplish this by a strict moral code. The problem, however, is that what keeps one from accomplishing freedom is his own corrupt nature. Human beings need something stronger -- something (or Someone) outside themselves -- in order to overcome their corruption. Strict moral codes only expose mankind’s corruption and ineptness at conquering one's sin. In Christ Jesus, we have someone who has not only conquered (Jīva) all corruption, but also grants this victory to the one who will trust in Him, thus avoiding the theory of the cycle of life-death-rebirth (which Scripture explicitly rejects, cf. Heb. 9:27). 

For believers and followers of Jesus Christ, over all such things "we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom. 8:37). The Christian's "rebirth" happens in this (and only this) life (John 1:12-13; 3:1-8; 2 Cor. 5:17; Titus 3:5), for our Savior, our Jīva, has pioneered the Path for us. We fix our spiritual eyes upon Jesus, "the founder and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2). One's right faith, right knowledge and right conduct must find its epicenter in Jesus Christ, who is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6) -- the one and only way to God the Father, the Creator of all things.


1 Hierarchical cultures pay special tribute to certain classes in a society. In the United States, egalitarianism is celebrated -- the concept that all persons are equal and are to be treated equally. This is not the case in places like India. Patty Lane states, "While every culture has its own protocol for certain occasions, hierarchical cultures rigidly adhere to their complex social structures." See Patty Lane, A Beginner's Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multi-Cultural World (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2002), 73.

2 John Dickson, A Spectator's Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008), 27. Dickson notes that while Judaism is popularly identified as the world's oldest religion, beginning with Moses in the mid to late 1200s BC, Hinduism's religion began around 1500 BC. However, if Abraham is the father of the faith (cf. Rom. 4:16), then Judaism's religion could predate Hinduism by at least another 500 years.

3 Ibid., 25.

4 Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions: The Essential Guide to Their History, Their Doctrine, and Our Response (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 173.

5 Patheos.com <http://www.patheos.com/Library/Lenses/Side-By-Side.html?path1=x371&path2=x1357&path3=>. 

6 Subramania Gopalan, Outlines of Jainism (New York: Halsted Press, 1973), 37.

7 Kendall W. Folkert, Scripture and Community: Collected Essays on the Jains, ed. John E. Cort (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993), 1.

8 Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1923), 286.

9 Jeffery D. Long, Jainism: An Introduction (New York: I. B. Tauris & Co., Ltd., 2009), 83.

10 Hindus believe that each person possesses a "spark" from the eternal "Flame" which is Brahman. Buddhists argue that such notions of a God or a soul are purely speculative. John Dickson writes that Siddhartha Buddha insists that "the Brahmans (Hindu priests), with their rituals and speculative philosophy, were as ignorant about the truth as anyone else." (59) Buddha did not reject the possibility of an all-powerful God, but thought that such speculative beliefs about "God" and the "soul" were irrelevant to the Buddhist's "Path." In this sense, Jainism is closer to Buddhist philosophy than it is to Hinduism, for it too rejects the notion of a personal God as being in any way helpful to the individual escaping the vicious cycle of reincarnation.

11 Gopalan, 40.

12 Ibid., 47.

13 Ibid., 49.

14 Ibid., 63.

15 Long, 94.

16 Ibid., 95.

17 Gopalan, 160.

18 Ibid., 161.

19 Ibid.

20 These include: "1. Nonviolence (ahimsa): to refrain from directly and deliberately taking the life of any animal or human being. 2. Truthfulness (satya): to tell the truth and to engage in honest business practices. 3. Non-stealing (asteua): not to steal. 4. Sexual chastity (brahmacarya): to refrain from committing marital infidelity and to avoid pre-marital sexual activity. 5. Non-attachment (aparigraha): to avoid being possessive and materialistic." See Long, 101.

21 These include: "1. Strict nonviolence in thought, word, and deed, avoiding even accidental injury to any living being. 2. Absolute truthfulness. 3. Non-stealing (literally 'not taking what is not given'). 4. Absolute celibacy. 5. Non-possession: not owning any possessions whatsoever." See Long, 102.

22 Radhakrishnan, 325.

23 James Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, The London Edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:192.

24 Ibid., 192-93.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.