Jainism Glossary Terms


An acharya is teacher or spiritual guide, one learned in the religious tradition and its texts.


Adinath is the first of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras. He is said to have established the various institutions that form the basis of all civilized life: marriage, agriculture, the arts, and weaponry. After ruling for thousands of years, he divided his kingdom among his sons and departed to take up an ascetic way of life. He attained full illumination (kaivalya), then spent the rest of his life teaching others how to leave the cycle of birth and death.


Ahimsa means non-violence and is a central ethical precept for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. For the Jain tradition ahimsa is especially important. It includes keeping a strict a strict vegetarian diet and avoiding occupations such as farming that may involve the unwitting destruction of life. Jain monks and nuns carry a variety of brooms, taking special care not to heedlessly crush tiny insects as they sit or walk. Some will even wear a white cloth mouth-covering to avoid inhaling microscopic organisms. Close contact with the Jain community in his native Gujarat influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s views of non-violence.


The Jain term anekantavada, which literally means “no-one-perspective-ism,” refers to an appreciation for the fact that a variety of apparently contradictory views may all hold validity. Because the Jain position is able to resolve the apparent inconsistencies between other views, however, it is considered to come closer to fully grasping the one underlying truth, satya.


In the Jain tradition, aparigraha means renunciation, literally non-acquisition or non-grasping. It means to avoiding all acquisitive attachments, even to people, since such possessive clutching inevitably leads to greed, jealousy, selfishness, and violence, thereby binding the soul to the cycle of birth and death.

Bhagavan Mahavira

Mahavira is the religious seer whose teachings of compassion and renunciation have formed the basis of the Jain tradition. Mahavira, regarded as the last of the 24 Tirthankaras of the present age, is said to have been born in the 6th century BCE in modern-day Bihar. After 12 years of ascetic practice, he attained full illumination (kaivalya). Mahavira spent the rest of his life teaching; he underwent bodily death and final liberation at the age of 72.

Bhagavan Mahavira

Mahavira is the religious seer whose teachings of compassion and renunciation have formed the basis of the Jain tradition. Mahavira, regarded as the last of the 24 Tirthankaras of the present age, is said to have been born in the 6th century BCE in modern-day Bihar. After 12 years of ascetic practice, he attained full illumination (kaivalya). Mahavira spent the rest of his life teaching; he underwent bodily death and final liberation at the age of 72.


A bhajan is a popular devotional song, usually in one of India’s vernacular languages, sung individually or in the company of other devotees.


In the Hindu and Jain traditions, brahmacharya means the celibacy and self control undertaken by a student of sacred knowledge.

Chitrabhanu, Gurudev

Chitrabhanu (b. 1922) renounced home life at age 19 to become a Jain monk. His life as a mendicant followed traditional norms until 1970, when he returned to lay life so that he could fly to Geneva to participate in the second Spiritual Summit Conference of the Temple of Understanding. He has lived in the United States and played a leading role in the American Jain community since 1971.

Das Lakshan

Das Lakshan, the “Festival of the Ten Religious Qualities,” is a ten-day Digambara Jain observance which starts at the close of the monsoon season (September), immediately after the Shvetambara Paryushana Parva. On each day, one of the ten chapters of the Tattvartha Sutra is read and a sermon is given on one of the ten virtues described in the scripture. forbearance, gentleness, uprightness, purity, truth, restraint, austerity, renunciation, non-possessiveness, and chastity. Like Paryushana Parva, Das Lakshan is a time for fasting, worshipping, and seeking pardon for any injuries one may have inflicted on another living being during the year.


Deva or dev is a common term for god or celestial being. It is used variously by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists to refer to the multitude of divine or celestial beings. Sometimes it is also used as an honorific, such as “Gurudev,” which would mean revered teacher.


Dharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings of conscience. For the Buddhist tradition, the Dharma (or Dhamma in Pali) refers especially to the teachings of the Buddha. This body of teachings constitutes one element of the “Three Jewels” in which Buddhists take refuge: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (the community). For Hindus, dharma means righteous conduct, religious obligation, or religious duty—either the eternal obligations (sanatana dharma) incumbent upon all humankind, or the obligations specific to one’s caste and stage of life (varnashrama dharma).


The Digambara tradition is one of the two major branches of Jain monasticism, the other being Shvetambara. Each has its own community of lay followers. The two monastic groups began to emerge as early as the 4th century BCE, although the split was not finalized until many centuries later. Unlike their Shvetambara, “clothed in white,” counterparts, Digambara monks were “sky-clad,” renouncing even clothing and remaining completely nude.


Divali (also called Dipavali or Diwali) is the autumn festival of lights in the Hindu and Jain traditions. In the Hindu tradition, the festival is in honor of the Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Good Fortune, who is invited to be present. In the Jain tradition, the lights are kindled to commemorate the illumination of the Tirthankara Mahavira.

Gandhi, Virchand Raghavji

Virchand Raghavji Gandhi (1864-1901) represented the Jain tradition at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. He proved to be a very eloquent spokesman for his tradition at the Parliament and on a subsequent lecture tour to major U.S. cities. V.R. Gandhi returned to India in 1895 and came once again to lecture in the U.S. in 1896.

International Mahavir Jain Mission

The International Mahavir Jain Mission is an organization founded by Acharya Sushil Kumar in 1975 to facilitate communication among Jain centers around the world. It has its headquarters at Siddhachalam, the Jain retreat center in Blairstown, New Jersey.

Jain meditation

Today the most widely practiced method of Jain meditation involves sitting or standing completely still for 48 minutes, letting go of all passions and negative mental attitudes, thereby attaining a sense of equanimity (samayika). Another technique is prekshadhyana, or “insight meditation,” in which the meditator engages the mind to fully attend to the subtle and changing phenomena of consciousness.

Jain monk

(also: sadhvi; muni) Jain monks (sadhus) and nuns (sadhvis) are also called munis, literally the "silent" holy ones. Traditionally, they are supposed to move from village to village, accepting only wht food someone offers them along the way. They go by foot, for travel by vehicles is seen to be much more damaging to the multitude of tiny life-forms. During the four months of the monsoon season, the monks and nuns settle down in various villages in order to avoid harming the many organisms that emerge in the rain. It is especially during this time that they perform various services, such as teaching, for the lay community.

Jain temple

Each Jain temple is regarded as a replica of the assembly hall miraculously created by the gods for Mahavira upon his enlightenment. Hence, in entering a temple, a Jain has the sense of approaching the spot where a living Tirthankara sits in omniscient consciousness. Ideally, a temple is constructed of marble, both to maintain a cool interior and to symbolize the eternal nature of Truth. The interior will vary depending upon the sect. In Digambara and Murtipujak Shvetambara temples, images of the twenty-four Tirthankaras will typically be set in small chambers around the central sanctum. Sthanakvasi temples, on the other hand, have no images at all.

Jaina Association of North America

The Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA) is an umbrella organization encompassing the approximately 60 Jain centers in the United States and Canada. Since its first meeting in 1981, JAINA has held conventions every two years in various cities. Its publication Jain Digest chronicles the activities of North America’s Jain communities.


The term Jain or Jaina refers to the tradition of the Jinas, the “victorious ones” who have won spiritual liberation, and to those who follow it. The Jain tradition as we know it dates back some 2500 years to the life of the teacher Mahavira, said to be the most recent of 24 Jinas. It includes both monastic renunciants and laity, and has long been noted for its adherence to principles of non-violence. Today, there are approximately 3,000,000 Jains living in India, 25,000 in England and Europe, 21,000 in Africa (especially Kenya), and 20,000 in North America.


Jina means “victor,” one who has won spiritual liberation. The Jain teacher Mahavira, like the enlightened ones before him, was given the honorific title of Jina since, through his spiritual victory, he had conquered ignorance to realize the luminous, perfect soul. Those who follow the path of the Jinas are called Jains.


Jiva means the life-force, the vital breath, or the soul. According to various Jain and Hindu traditions, every sentient being possesses a soul or jiva which is caught up in an ongoing cycle of birth and death, shedding the body time and again. The ultimate goal is to leave this cycle of rebirth behind through the liberation of the soul from all that obscures its true, perfect nature.


Karma means action and the consequences of action, both in the world and for oneself. It is important in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions where rebirth is presupposed and karma shapes one’s ongoing life. Every action leaves an imprint. In the Jain tradition, karma is understood to accumulate in quasi-material form, clouding and obscuring the luminous nature of the soul. The goal of some forms of Buddhism is seen as removing the effects of karma so that the cycle of birth and death, samsara, can be left. For Buddhists, karma can be both good and bad, and is sometimes referred to as good and bad merit.


In the Jain tradition, kevalajnana or kaivalya is the supreme, omniscient knowledge of the self and the universe. A person who has attained such enlightenment, called a kevalin, can comprehend the past, present, and future states of all objects, not only knowing their deeds and desires, but also their various forms upon successive rebirths. Tirthankaras have attained kevalajnana and have become teachers of this path of realization.

Kumar, Sushil

Sushil Kumar (1926–1994) was born in a small village in India, became a Jain monk at age 15, and came to the United States in 1974 at the age of 48. He founded Siddhachalam, the first Jain religious retreat center in the United States, in 1983. He was recognized as an acharya, a spiritual teacher, in the Jain tradition and was often referred to by his followers with the honorific: Sushil Kumarji. Despite resistance from more conservative members of the Jain community, Kumar traveled widely to participate in conferences concerned with world peace and animal rights.

Mahavira Jayanti

Mahavira Jayanti is the Birthday of Mahavira, the religious seer of the 6th century BCE, whose teachings of compassion and renunciation have formed the basis of the Jain tradition. In India, this day, which falls in either April or May, is a national holiday. Jains mark the occasion by bathing the image of Mahavira and performing dance-dramas on the fourteen dreams of Mahavira’s mother before he was born.


In the Jain tradition, the adoption of the Mahavratas, or “great vows,” is central to becoming a monk or nun. The vows include: ahimsa (nonviolence); satya (truth); asteya (not stealing); brahmacharya (chastity) and aparigraha (non-possession). The vow to observe these five ethical precepts is also common to renunciants in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.


A mantra is a sequence of spiritually-potent sounds or syllables used for meditation, prayer, or to accompany ritual enactments. Mantras are important in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions. The repeated oral or mental recitation of a mantra is said to concentrate the awareness of the practitioner, thereby disclosing the roots of consciousness or awakening the power of a divine reality. Mantras also play a central role in ritual and magical practices. In the Buddhist tradition, a mantra may contain within it the sacred power and cosmic energies of a Buddha or bodhisattva. The mantra literally “protects the mind” from negative mental states by invoking these divine energies within oneself.
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