Article: Jina

The term Jina means ‘spiritual victor’ in Sanskrit and describes a human being who has achieved omniscience and then teaches other people the path to liberationmokṣa-mārga – from the cycle of rebirth. The term is used interchangeably with Tīrthaṃkara. This is Sanskrit for ‘ford-maker’ – that is, a person who builds a ford – tīrtha – across the river of rebirth.

Jinas are neither divine beings nor avatars of gods. They are enlightened human beings who spread the unchanging principles of Jainism. Jains believe that spiritual progress, which aims towards eventual enlightenment and liberation, is the responsibility of each soul. Jinas are removed from everyday human life and do not respond to the prayers of believers. Each Jina has a yakṣa and a yakṣī, often depicted in art. As gods, these attendants are not liberated and thus can act in the affairs of human beings.

As in many matters, the two main Jain sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara hold different views on certain aspects of the Jinas. This is given most obvious expression in the artistic styles of each sect, which are quite distinct.

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The 24 Jinas

Idols of Ṛṣabha, Māhavīra and Pārśva, in the Śvetāmbara temple in Potters Bar, England. The last of the 24 Jinas, Māhavīra, is in the centre. The first Jina, Ṛṣabha, is on the left while Māhavīra's predecessor, Pārśva, is on the right.

Śvetāmbara figures of Ṛṣabha, Māhavīra and Pārśva
Image by unknown © Oshwal Association of the UK (OAUK)

According to traditional Jain cosmology, time flows in an endless cycle in the Lands of Action, where human beings live. Each cycle of time is made up of 12 periods. In each cycle 24 Jinas are born, during the periods when life is comparatively harsher in terms of knowledge, lifespan, stature, pleasure, morality and spirituality. These conditions make it harder to lead a virtuous life and advance spiritually so the Jinas offer guidance to believers, reminding them of eternal truths. However, Jinas do not appear in the worst times, perhaps partly because these are the lowest points of the time cycle.

In this era the first Jina was Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha and the last Mahāvīra. The historical existence of Mahāvīra and his predecessor, the 23rd Jina Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva is generally accepted, but there is no historical evidence for the other Jinas.





  1. Ṛṣabha
  2. Ajita
  3. Saṃbhava
  4. Abhinandana
  5. Sumati
  6. Padmaprabha
  7. Supārśva
  8. Candraprabha
  9. Puṣpadanta
  10. Śītala
  11. Śreyāṃsa
  12. Vāsupūjya
  13. Vimala
  14. Ananta
  15. Dharma
  16. Śānti
  17. Kunthu
  18. Ara
  19. Mallī
  20. Munisuvrata
  21. Nami
  22. Nemi
  23. Pārśva
  24. Mahāvīra

Life of a Jina

The lives of all the Jinas follow the same pattern, revolving around five key events:

Jains celebrate these auspicious moments – kalyāṇakas – on special occasions.

The oldest text giving details of some of the Jinas’ lives is the Śvetāmbara Kalpa-sūtra. But in the course of time both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras have produced a vast body of literature narrating in detail the lives of all Jinas, including their previous births. As the literature grew, so these tales of their lives featured an increasing number of episodes. Standard representatives of this genre are the Śvetāmbara Lives of the 63 Illustrious Great Men Triṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra – and on the Digambara side, the Mahā-purāṇa. They are both in Sanskrit. The former text was written by the 12th-century monk, Hemacandra, while the Digambara ascetics Jinasena and Guṇabhadra composed the latter in the ninth century. As counterparts to the Hindu Purāṇas, such texts act as a storehouse of various legends and define what is known as ‘Universal History‘.

Conception and birth

This detail from a manuscript painting shows Marudevī experiencing the auspicious dreams. Carrying the baby who will become Ṛṣabha the first Jina, Marudevī has 14 dreams, according to the Śvetāmbara sect, 16 according to the Digambaras.

Marudevī has the auspicious dreams
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

  • The mother of a Jina-to-be experiences a sequence of auspicious dreams at conception or during pregnancy.
  • The child who will become a Jina is born into the kṣatriya caste.
  • They are born with tremendously strong bodies, enabling them to survive the extreme physical and mental austerities needed to get rid of the karma from previous lives.


  • The child is a prince, brought up in luxury and enjoying the pleasures of the world.
  • The gods remind the young man of his great destiny as a Jina, prompting him to give up the ease of his worldly life and become a monk.


This manuscript painting shows the 24th Jina Mahāīra enduring some of the trials – upasarga – each Jina goes through to test his spiritual resolve. He takes the kāyotsarga meditation posture though animals attack and two men push spikes into his ears.

Mahāvīra is tested
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London


  • Towards the end of his life, the Jina practises special meditationsdhyāna – that end the activity of his body, speech and soul.
  • His soul is emancipated from the cycle of rebirth and instantly rises to the siddha-śilā, where all liberated souls delight in neverending bliss
  • Once the Jina’s soul is in the siddha-śilā as a paramātman, it remains separated from the other liberated souls.


This manuscript painting shows Prince Nemi’s renunciation in two parts. First he visits his fiancée Princess Rājīmatī and then he flees the scene, upset by the distress of the animals about to be killed for his wedding feast

Nemi’s renunciation
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The main source of information about the lives of the Jinas is the first part of the Kalpa-sūtra, called the ‘Lives of the Jinas’ – Jina-caritra. This Śvetāmbara text is attributed to Bhadrabāhu although the date of composition is unknown. The ‘Lives of the Jinas’ consists of biographies of four of the 24 Jinas who are important figures of worship. They are, in order:

The lives of the remaining 20 Jinas are sketched much more briefly and are closer to outlines of key events than to narratives.

Other Śvetāmbara canonical sources for the lives of the Jinas are:

Differences between Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras

The two main Jain sects of the Digambaras and the Śvetāmbaras differ in their beliefs about Jinas. These are relatively minor and partly relate to disagreements over whether women can gain liberation and whether monks should be nude.

When the Jinas are represented in Mūrti-pūjaka art, the differences between the sects become visually clear although the figures always adopt one of two meditation poses. There are also small differences in the emblem of each Jina between the two sects.

Different beliefs about Jinas



The mother of a Jina-to-be has 16 auspicious dreams.

The mother of a Jina-to-be has 14 auspicious dreams.

All the Jinas are conceived and born of kṣatriya women.

The soul of Mahāvīra was conceived in the womb of a brahmin woman, Devānandā, and was then transferred by the gods to a kṣatriya woman, Triśalā, who bore and gave birth to him. This episode of the ’embryo transfer’ is unique to Mahāvīra.

Jinas are always male.

The 19th Jina Mallī was female.

Mahāvīra turned to ascetic life without having known family life.

Mahāvīra was married and fathered a daughter before turning to ascetic life.

All Jinas practise nudity after they become ascetics.

Only Mahāvīra and Ṛṣabha went nude after renunciation.

Images of the Jinas

This statue of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, is in the lotus position of meditation. Typically of Digambara idols, he is naked and has closed or downcast eyes, with no headdress or jewels. Mahāvīra is identified from his lion emblem, flanked by svastikas.

Idol of Mahāvīra
Image by Dayodaya © CC BY-SA 3.0

Images of the Jinas produced among the Digambara Mūrti-pūjaks are always naked, very plainly sculpted and have closed eyes. They do not wear any jewellery, although they may have have a kind of tilaka on the forehead and an endless knot on the chest.

This artistic Mūrti-pūjak tradition contrasts with Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak statues of the Jinas, which have open eyes and loincloths, and are often painted and set in ornately sculpted altars and temples. This is because the Jina is thought of as a spiritual king and is frequently depicted with ornaments and pictured seated on a throne. Otherwise he wears only a loincloth or perhaps the simple white robe of a monk.


Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

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