Article: Cycle of rebirth

The cycle of birth – saṃsāra – is one of the principal theories in Jain belief and is closely linked to the concepts of the soul and karma. Literally meaning ‘wandering around’ in Sanskrit, the term saṃsāra describes the recurring process in which a soul is born into a body, which lives and dies, and then is reborn into a different body. Jains believe that this event repeats endlessly for souls that have karmas bound to them. The aim of Jainism is liberation of the soul from this cycle, which requires the soul to be free of karma.

The Jains also call the concept the ‘river of rebirth’, which explains why the term Tīrthaṃkara is frequently used as a synonym for Jina. Meaning ‘ford-breaker’, Tīrthaṃkara emphasises that the Jinas have led the way to liberationmokṣa – and left a path for others to follow.

Rebirth can take place in one of four conditionsgatis – which relate to the karmas gathered in previous lifetimes. All activities and thoughts create karmas, which can be negative or positive. Bad karmas lead to rebirth as a creature of low spirituality and minimal senses, whereas good karmas effect birth as a god or human being. The most desirable condition is that of the human being, because liberation is impossible for any other kind of being.

The Jain cycle of rebirths is similar to the saṃsāra found in Hinduism and Buddhism, but is different in that the transmigration of the soul from one body to another is instant. There are other major differences in religious tenets that influence the various conceptions of the cycle of births.

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Endless cycle

This manuscript art shows Mahāvīra in Puṣpottara heaven before his birth as a human who will become a Jina. All Jinas are born as celestial gods before their final lives as humans. Jinas are always human as only they can reach omniscience and liberation

Mahāvīra in the Puṣpottara heaven
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The concept of continuous rebirth is one of the principal Jain beliefs. Jains hold that a soul exists within one physical body, dies and is then born into a different body in a different life, with this process repeating. This continues for eternity or until the soul is free of all karma. The liberation of the soul from the cycle of rebirth – mokṣa – is the ultimate aim of Jainism.

The cycle of births is usually considered to be aeons long for each soul, with the soul reborn many many times in different lifetimes. The traditional number of rebirths is 8,400,000. Only souls that become Jinas have few births. The 24th Jina Mahāvīra, for instance, is said to have had 27 rebirths before the last, when he became a Jina. Various numbers of rebirths are given for other Jinas. In each lifetime or birth a soul may develop spiritually or it may deteriorate spiritually, which influences future births. Spiritual progress can be tracked against the 14 stages of the ‘scale of perfection’ – guṇa-sthāna – which links conduct and beliefs to level of spirituality. Spiritual development is not a straightforward advance, as the diverse conditions of the various births and the activities in different lives all influence karma‘s interaction with the soul. The Jain game of gyanbazi, which is similar to the Western game of snakes and ladders, clearly sets out the ups and downs of the soul’s journey.

Eventually, a soul may develop spiritually enough to free itself of old karmas and avoid creating new ones. It then gains omniscience or enlightenment and, when its body dies, can become a liberated soulsiddha. Instead of being born into another life, it remains disembodied and rises to the siddha-śilā, at the apex of the universe. This place is where all the siddhas dwell together, enjoying the realisation of their true nature of perfection.


A variety of animals is shown in this painting from a manuscript as examples of five-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul is born in different types of body according to the karma it has collected from previous lives.

Five-sensed animals
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

When a soul enters a new birth, it is born into a body and life according to the karma it has gained in previous lives.

The soul can be born in one of the following conditions – gatis:

  1. a human being – manuṣya-gati
  2. a heavenly being, living in the heavensdeva-gati
  3. an infernal being, living in the hellsnāraka-gati
  4. an animal or plant – tiryag-gati.

Activities and thoughts during a lifetime create karmas, which may be positive or negative. Positive karmas arise from behaviour Jains consider meritorious, such as giving alms to mendicants and avoiding violence. Negative karmas are generated by conduct condemned in Jain scriptures, such as lying, being greedy or committing deliberate violence.

Gathering positive karmas may lead to birth as a god or human being. Having lots of negative karmas may result in birth as an animal or even an insect, plant or hellish being. This makes it difficult to follow Jain principles and gain enough positive karma to be born in a better condition in the next life. However, even a soul born as a god is trapped within the cycle of births. The best condition to be born into is that of a human, because it is the only one in which the soul can be liberated.

Indian religions and the soul

Along with other religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, Jains believe that souls:

  • are trapped in the neverending cycle of rebirth – saṃsāra
  • are reborn in different bodies according to the karma they have collected
  • can only break out of the cycle of rebirth by being born a human being, achieving enlightenment and then, leaving the body behind, reaching liberation
  • with karma attached to them can never be enlightened – the bondage of karma.

The Jain concepts of the soul and karma differ from those of the other Indian faiths, however. In Jainism souls are individual with the same innate qualities. They accrue karmas that are bound to them throughout the cycle of birth until they mature and fall away. Souls remain individual once they are perfected. In the Jain concept of saṃsāra, on the death of the body the soul moves almost immediately to the next new body. This is different from saṃsāra in Hindu and Buddhist thought.

Followers of the Buddha do not believe in a soul in the same way as Jains and Hindus. The Buddha preached anatta – the doctrine of no soul – and that the cycle of birth involves a transfer of consciousness from one body to another, influenced by karma. Nirvāṇa is the term usually used for liberation or salvation – in which followers of the Buddha realise that there is neither self nor consciousness. It describes the extinguishing of the ‘fires’ of attachment, aversion and ignorance that cause suffering. Enlightened souls thus gain release from the cycle of births when they die – mokṣa – instead of another rebirth.

There is a variety of belief among Hindu traditions, although most Hindus believe in the soul or self – ātman – and liberation. Broadly, for Hindus ignorance of the true self or soul creates desire for and enjoyment of the world, which traps the soul in the cycle of birth. Karma comes from thoughts, words and deeds, and influences future lives. Between two births, the soul goes either to hell, to be punished for bad actions, or to heaven, where it enjoys rewards for good actions. Hindu mokṣa is the perfecting of the soul and release from the cycle of rebirths, although various schools differ on whether realisation of the soul can be achieved during or after life.


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