Article: Liberation

The definitive aim of the Jain religion is the final liberation of the soulmokṣa – from the cycle of birth. Jains believe that the soul is caught in the cycle of rebirth – saṃsāra – and can only attain liberation when it is free of all karma.

Also called salvation or emancipation, liberation is achieved after a long process, which can last thousands of years or longer in the cycle of time. The soul is trapped within different bodies by karma, which binds to it and weighs it down. Produced by activities, karma affects the type of body into which a soul is born, and its condition. After the death of that body, the soul takes birth in another body. This process repeats – called the cycle of birth – and ends only when a soul has no karma. When its body dies, the soul is then released from all flesh instead of being reborn. This event is reaching liberation. After emancipation, the soul exists in the siddha-śilā.

The path to liberation is found in the scriptures, which record the teachings of the Jinas. Two concepts in particular guide Jains towards liberation. The ‘three gems’ratna-traya – summarises Jain doctrine in a set of three easily recalled phrases while the ‘scale of perfection’guṇa-sthāna – lays out the route to salvation in 14 steps.

Of all the beings in the universe, only human beings can be liberated. Jains agree that only mendicants can observe the level of detachment necessary for emancipation but there are sectarian differences over whether women can be liberated.

The Jain faith has similar theories to those found in other religions that originated in India. However, the major concepts in Jainism are unique, differing in key aspects from those of Buddhism and Hinduism.

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Moving towards liberation

As one of the principal concepts in the Jain faith, liberationmokṣa – needs to be considered alongside the closely related concepts of the soul, karma and rebirth.

The soul or selfjīva – in Jainism can be thought of consciousness or sentience. It is found in all living beings, and those objects that are not alive are ajīva – without consciousness. Each individual soul is embodied within one of all the various types of different living beings and is destined to be born into a new body when the present one dies. This process continues over eternity in what is called the cycle of rebirthsaṃsāra. The body to which the soul moves depends on the karma the soul has gathered in previous lifetimes. The soul reaches emancipation only when it has no karmas attached to it.

The soul is trapped in the cycle of birth by the karmas that are bound to it. Generated by the activities of mind, speech and behaviour, karmas arise from passionskaṣāyas – aroused by attachments to the world. Karma can be burnt away from the soul by asceticismtapas – such as fasting, and by spiritual practices, such as meditation. Detachment from worldly concerns helps stop new karmas being formed.

Spiritual development is not a smooth path. The interplay of karmas and the choices of living beings can result in birth as a spiritually advanced being being followed by life as a lowly being, perhaps even a hell creature. Therefore the soul usually takes numerous lives to progress spiritually to the point of having no karma. When it is competely free of karma, it becomes enlightenedkevala-jñāna. This perfect knowledge comes from the soul’s realisation of its true nature and is the necessary step before liberation.


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)

Jains believe that a soul can become omniscient while it is within a living body. When the human being dies, the soul is not immediately reborn within another body. Instead, it is instantly emancipated from the cycle of births and regains its full nature, which is perfection. This is the moment of mokṣa.

The liberated soulsiddha – flies to the very top of the occupied universeloka-ākāśa – to join the other emancipated souls.

All of the siddhas dwell together in the siddha-śilā. Also called the siddha-loka or īśat-prāgbhārā-bhūmi, it is commonly represented in Jain art as a horizontal crescent shape. There each siddha remains a separate soul and experiences absolute bliss for infinity.

Guidance of the Jinas

A Jain temple-library holds sacred books, individually wrapped and labelled. The rice on the table in front is an offering left by worshippers. Jains consider their scriptures to be holy objects, with books often the focus of religious rituals.

Jain holy texts
Image by Malaiya © CC BY-SA 3.0

The 24 Jinas are considered to have revealed the unchanging truths of the world, which include the path to salvation. The followers of the Jinas – the Jains – can find the route to liberation in the scriptures and in the examples set by the Jinas themselves.

The notion of the ‘three gems’ or ‘three jewels‘ – ratna-traya – summarises Jain doctrine, namely:

  • accepting the Jinas’ teachings
  • fully grasping Jain principles
  • living in accordance with these tenets.

The ‘fourth gem’ of austerities stresses the importance of ascetic practices in destroying karma.

The ‘scale of perfection’guṇa-sthāna – sets out the different stages of spiritual development in terms of the connected beliefs and practices. These two frameworks are key to observing the precepts of the Jain faith and progressing towards liberation.

Who can be liberated

In this detail of a manuscript painting a white-clad monk preaches to lay Jains. Taking the lotus position of meditation and advanced spirituality, the monk sits on a low seat, indicating higher status, and holds up a mouth-cloth.

Preaching monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Nearly all souls have the capacity – bhavyatva – to achieve liberation. However, some souls are abhavya and can never attain salvation.

Even those souls that are bhavya can reach emancipation only under certain conditions. Since only human beings can be liberated, even souls born as the higher gods, who are very spiritually advanced, must be born into human bodies to be emancipated. Not all human beings can reach liberation, however.

Only human beings who follow the path to salvation set out by the Jinas can be liberated. Of the followers of the Jinas, only mendicants can attain emancipation. This is because only mendicants are believed capable of maintaining the levels of detachment from worldly concerns that is required to keep karma from being produced and binding to the soul.

Lay Jains have responsibilities to their families and communities that mean they cannot practise the sufficient detachment. In Jain literature, it is true that lay people are depicted reaching emancipation but only the perfect lay Jain is able to meet the challenges involved in attaining liberation.

Sectarian differences

Digambara monk with the peacock-feather broom – piñchī – he uses to sweep an area free of minute life-forms before sitting. This helps him keep his vow of non-violence. A Digambara muni lives without clothing as part of his vow of non-possession.

Digambara monk
Image by Arian Zwegers © CC BY 2.0

The two major Jain sects have contrasting views regarding the emancipation of women.

Digambara texts state that souls cannot be liberated in their rebirth as women because they are incapable of reaching the same level of detachment as men. This revolves around the ideal of mendicant nudity. Fully fledged Digambara monksmunis – go naked, rejecting clothing as an attachment to the world and because they believe the Jinas lived naked. The women who become nunsāryikās – in the Digambara tradition are not permitted to go naked so are technically spiritually advanced lay women, not mendicants.

The Śvetāmbara sect, however, regards both men and women as having the capacity for liberation. Śvetāmbaras regard clothing for mendicants as necessary for life and do not consider wearing it a sign of attachment. Both their monks and nuns wear white clothes and are believed to be able to achieve liberation.

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.

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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Padmanabh S. Jaini
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Padmanabh S. Jaini
Collected Papers on Jaina Studies
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 2000

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Padmanabh S. Jaini
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