Article: Jainism and scientific thought

The Jains have a distinctive attitude to science and knowledge. The Jain approach defines science as encompassing all forms of knowledge, including the physical sciences, the humanities and the spiritual journey. This contrasts with the deep-rooted separation in Western philosophy between spiritual and scientific approaches, which has softened in recent decades.

For Jains, the purpose of the quest for knowledge is to understand the true nature of reality and the true self. Such understanding is identified ultimately with spiritual liberationmokṣa. The pursuit of knowledge and the spiritual path are interchangeable for Jains. Thus there is no division in Jain thought between the ‘scientific’ or rational and the ‘intuitive’ or spiritual modes.

The Jain concept of science is based on the rational pursuit of knowledge, uncluttered by dogma and seeking to peel away layers of preconception. Jain science aims to challenge views of reality that are false because they are ‘one-sided’. In Jainism, ‘the individual must ultimately find the truth for himself as no priest or scripture is believed to have the answers. These principles are intended to be self-verifying so that the follower discovers truths for himself rather like a research worker in a laboratory’ (Mardia 2002: 4–5).

There is a similarity to the dominant, Western, scientific method, which values reason and aims for objectivity. However there are also radical differences, notably the blending of science and ethics in Jain philosophy, and a distinctive mode of thought that contains multiple facets of reality. The Jain approach to science can be distinguished in five principal areas:

The Jain position has repercussions for contemporary scientific research. In particular, the interconnected nature of life itself and the importance of ethics in the pursuit of knowledge are becoming clear to many researchers.

The sūtra Parasparopagraho jīvānām in the Tattvārtha-sūtra (5.21) is often considered one of the key expressions of Jain belief. It may be translated as both:

  • ‘Souls render service to one another’
  • ‘All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence’.

The first places an emphasis on the spiritual quest while the second presents a scientific and rational world view. From the perspective of Jainism, both translations mean the same.

Dharma and ethical science

The Western idea that science stands apart from ethics and is more purely intellectual when it is not influenced by morality is not found within Jain thought. In Jainism the idea of ‘scientific neutrality’ is a contradiction in terms. The pursuit of knowledge is not ‘neutral’ but a process of tuning in to dharma and living according to its principles.

Jains think in terms of dharma or underlying order in the universe. The term ‘dharma’ is also used to convey the true nature of an object or living entity. For example, the true nature of fire is to burn and the true nature of water is to produce a cooling effect. In the same way, the true nature of the jīvasoul – is to seek self-realisation. This means full self-knowledge and understanding of the true nature of reality.

In the same way as the laboratory researcher tests his or her theories and explores new possibilities, the spiritual enquirer is open to alternative perspectives and insights. Meditation on the nature of reality can therefore be seen as an aspect of scientific research, because its aim is to increase knowledge and understanding of the universe.

Dharma operates according to ethical as well as physical laws, which complement and reinforce each other. When someone practises ahiṃsānon-violence – by avoiding or minimising harm to others and showing respect for all living beings, that person is obeying the natural laws of dharma. Conversely, adharma is that which disrupts the workings of the universe and obstructs self-knowledge. Examples might include aggression against fellow humans or other species.

Therefore Jains cannot separate ethical and intellectual concerns in the search for knowledge.

Soul and karmic matter

The Jain view of karmic activity is a form of scientific analysis as much as a guide to ethical standards. In Jain belief, minute karmic particles – ‘karmons’ – are attracted to the soul and produce karmic matter. This karmic matter is attached to the soul and attracts more ‘karmons’. Karmic matter is classed as either positive or negative. The soul seeks to escape karmic matter and revert to its original pure state.

The relationship of the soul with karmic activity is encapsulated in the ‘Four Truths’ or Axioms of Jainism. These relate to the conception of karmic activity and each individual’s discovery of the truths (Mardia 2012; Noble Truths 1 and 4A).

Such an analysis of karma and the soul does not imply determinism or predestination. The individual conscience is crucial to Jain practice and intelligence gives human beings the responsibility to avoid actions which increase their karma. This also involves believers continuously questioning their values so that they avoid mithyātva – distorted world views and destructive activities.

The starting point of understanding karmic activity is the jīva, which is translated as ‘soul’ or ‘pure soul’. It can also be understood as a unit of consciousness. Literally, it means that which is alive or permanent. All living systems have in common the fact that they contain soul and so they require understanding and respect. Ajīva, in contrast, is all that is non-living or impermanent.


A typical Digambara representation of a siddha, shown as an empty space. This underlines the idea that a siddha has no body and is a soul that has recovered its original purity. It regains this purity when it is liberated from the cycle of rebirth. In thi

Image of a siddha
Image by Hindi Granth Karyala © Public domain

Each soul is individual and unique. It is the true ‘self’ of which people seek knowledge. The ‘selves’ in which it is born, or takes bodily form in the cycle of rebirth are merely layers on the surface, obscuring what lies beneath. They are products of the karmic activity from which the soul seeks liberation.

The soul as a unit of consciousness, or pure soul, comes into existence and automatically enters the lokākāśainhabited universe. There it comes into contact with ‘karmons’, which encase it in physical material and obscure knowledge of the inner self. A useful comparison can be made with gold ore. The dross is karmic matter and the remaining 24-carat gold is the pure soul. The pure soul is jīva, whereas the ‘karmons’ are ajīva.

The pure soul has four main properties, which are known as guṇa:

The first two of these guṇas represent consciousness. Bliss includes compassion for all beings and at the same time self-awareness or spiritual self-sufficiency.

In its pure form, the soul is fully equipped with all these qualities. However, in contact with ‘karmons’ these features become hidden, corrupted or distorted.


This manuscript painting shows the siddha-śilā. Found at the top of the triple world, on the forehead of the Cosmic Man, the siddha-śilā is the home of liberated souls.

Home of liberated souls
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The fundamental Jain aim is true knowledge of reality and the self, which enables final liberation. ‘Karmons’ adhere to the soul as karmic matter and prevent true understanding.

In Jain thought, karmic activity is associated with minute particles of subtle matter. These can be referred to as ‘karmons‘ because their activities often appear similar to those of electrons and photons in physics.

The ‘karmons’ form karmic matter – aggregates – only by interacting with the soul. This karmic matter attracts new ‘karmons’ through the modification of the soul. This modification is caused by action and is generally described as ‘vibration of the soul’ – bhava-āsrava. The bond between the karmic matter and the soul is known as bandha – karmic bondage. Combined with the distorted ‘energy’ element in the soul, karmic matter creates āsrava – karmic influx – by which more ‘karmons’ are attracted. So the more karmic matter there is attached to a soul, the more it attracts.

Karmic matter

Karmic matter is divided into the two main categories of:

  • ‘light’ or ‘positive’ – puṇya
  • ‘heavy’ or ‘negative’ – pāpa.

The first type is expressed through constructive or creative activities as well as the practice of compassion. The second kind is expressed through destructive activities and thoughts, especially violence.

Paradoxically, since it is karmic matter, the accumulation of puṇya contributes to nirjarā. This nirjarā – karmic fission or decay – is the process in which the soul sheds ‘karmons’ and begins its journey towards liberation (Mardia 2012; Noble Truth 1).

The process of nirjarā is also prompted by bhavyatva, which is the soul’s inherent tendency to resist or free itself from karmic matter, including embodiment.

Cycles of time, saṃsāra and hierarchy of life

Some types of living beings are illustrated in this manuscript painting. Over the course of the cycle of birth, a soul is born into various types of body according to the karma that has become attached to it. This painting shows examples of these beings.

Examples of types of living beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

True knowledge is based on understanding some fundamental Jain notions and respecting the variety of forms the soul or jīva can take and their places in the universe. The most crucial examples are the concept of time, the cycle of birth and the hierarchy of types of bodies.

In Jainism, there is no ‘First Cause’ or creator deity. The universe, like energy itself, can neither be created nor destroyed. Time is viewed as cyclical, with each cycle or kalpa composed of two phases or half-cycles. One is progressive, the other regressive. These in turn are divided into six periods. The progressive or ascending half-cycles are known as utsarpiṇī and the descending cycles are called avasarpiṇī.

These cycles and phases last for aeons and then repeat themselves continuously as the universe renews itself. At the individual level, they are replicated in the cycle of existence known as saṃsāra. This is a repetitive cycle of birth, death and rebirth that lasts until liberation from the inhabited universe. Liberated jīvas inhabit siddha-loka, an upper or parallel universe that is ‘the place of perfect(ed) beings’. The samsaric cycle can encompass all the stages of evolution, involve transmigration between genders and from one species to another and also can involve regression as much as progress in the hierarchy of life (Noble Truth 3).

The soul – jīva – is embodied in different forms of life each time it is reborn. These life-forms can be ranked into hierarchies. One of the common Jain hierarchies is based on the number of senses a being has. An instance of a creature with the two senses of touch and taste is a worm, whereas a dog also has the three senses of smell, sight and hearing.

The characteristics of these life-forms vary according to the karmic density and types of karmic matter interacting with the soul (Noble Truth 2). Types of life-form in the inhabited universe range from micro-organisms to the most spiritually advanced human beings.

However, this concept of hierarchy cannot be reduced to an idea of human superiority or supremacy. On the contrary, humans are reminded that all life-forms have jīva in common. Therefore they have the potential for spiritual development and, ultimately, freedom from karmic entrapment. Furthermore, a higher level of spiritual intelligence confers responsibilities rather than rights, in particular the responsibility to show compassion and respect for all forms of life.

All types of intelligence have their place within dharma. The pursuit of knowledge involves learning to understand the ‘viewpoints’ and insights of humans and non-humans alike.


Jain philosophy is based on a concept of ‘many-sidedness’ – anekānta-vāda or, more usually, anekant. This is the foundation of a system of logic called syād-vāda.

The basis of anekant is the idea that truth or underlying reality has multiple aspects and can be approached from an apparently infinite variety of standpoints – nyayas. A frequently used analogy is that of the facets of a cut diamond, in which the same light is reflected from different angles. Another example is the different pathways up a mountain, which all lead to the summit. It follows that many interpretations of the truth should be respected or engaged with and that dogmatic certainty – ekant – distorts the quest for truth.

Anekant is not the same as post-modern relativism. This is broadly defined as the notion that there is no objective truth and all beliefs are more or less equally valid, with their legitimacy depending on the circumstances. Anekant holds that truth does exist but is hard for mere humans to grasp in more than a few details.

However, anekant does provide useful guidelines for living in a pluralist society. Importantly, other species, including animal and plant life, have their own entirely valid nyayas or perspectives on the truth. Anekant is thus a form of intellectual ahiṃsānon-violence – of the mind.

Interconnectedness and careful action

This manuscript painting shows perfect beings that have been liberated from the cycle of birth and some of the ways of reaching liberation. The exalted status of the liberated souls in the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is stressed by their ornate parasols.

Perfect beings and paths to liberation
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

For Jains, all life in the inhabited universe is interconnected and interdependent. From this it follows that all beings are held to have a unique purpose and the potential for enlightenment. The ancient Jain concept of ‘careful action’ takes account of this and gives equal significance to each form of life. Contemporary science is finding evidence of how deeply interrelated eco-systems are, in which even minute or overlooked elements are necessary for the whole system to continue.

Millennia before the invention of the microscope, Jain thinkers held that the earth and cosmos were teeming with ‘invisible’ life-forms, which could be complex systems playing a crucial role in sustaining life as a whole. In Mahāvīra’s words, ‘Non-violence and kindness to living beings is kindness to oneself’. Compare also Noble Truth 4B.

Modern laboratory-based science is increasingly bearing out these conclusions. The critical role of plankton in regulating the health and temperature of the oceans is an example of previous assumptions about a micro-organism turning out to be wrong. In fact, plankton occupies a powerful place in the hierarchy of life and is complex rather than elementary, as once supposed. Similarly, the cyclical view of time and the universe accords with what is now known of the expansion and contractions of stars or galaxies. This view is much more accurate than the linear view of progress.

Like Jainism, modern science asks radical questions about the way human beings behave and think, including the exploitation of other species. Īryā-samiti – careful action – is a concept that lies at the core of Jain philosophy (see Noble Truth 4C). It involves thinking of ways to minimise actions that harm or adversely affect other forms of life. This ancient insight gives a philosophical basis to contemporary understanding of the effects of human activity on the environment.

In the context of the 21st century, the concept of careful action has profound implications for human behaviour. It asks human beings to live within limits rather than continuously expand and is a reminder that knowledge has a wider social purpose. In this context the term ‘social’ covers all living systems.

The implications for scientific research are also radical. Taking this stance of careful action, human society is realigned with ‘the rest’ of nature, rather than viewed as superior to or in conflict with it. In the same way, science is reunited with an ethical framework. Its purpose becomes understanding of and working with dharma, rather than asserting human mastery of it. In this holistic world view, the rational and intuitive aspects of human thought work in partnership, rather than opposition. They are aspects of the reality for which both the laboratory researcher and the spiritual practitioner search.


‘Modern Science and the Four Noble Truths of Jains’
K. V. Mardia
Young Jains International Newsletter
volume 22: 1
February to May 2008

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The Scientific Foundations of Jainism
K. V. Mardia
edited by Dayanand Bhargava
Lala Sunder Lal Jain Research series; volume 5
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 1996

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Many-Sided Wisdom: A New Politics of the Spirit
Aidan Rankin
O Books; Winchester, Hampshire, UK and Washington DC, USA; 2010

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