A Jaina, or Jain, is a follower of the Jinas, the spiritual conquerors from whose lives and teaching the Jain religion in India is derived. They are human teachers who have attained the highest knowledge and insight, and who share with their followers the way to moksha, the release from rebirth in the worlds of ignorance and suffering. The Jinas are also known as the tirthankaras, the “builders of the ford” that leads souls across the river of rebirth, or samsara, to spiritual freedom. Jains believe that 24 tirthankaras appear in each half-cycle of time (a period that can last millions of years) to teach this way of release of the soul, jiva, from its entanglement in material existence, known as karma.
Of the 24 tirthankaras of the present half-cycle, little is known historically of any but the last two, Parsva and Mahavira, and even then legend prevails. But Parsva and Mahavira, along with the first tirthankaras Rsabha and Nemi, are objects of veneration and the equivalent of worship. Parsva lived in the 9th century BCE and Mahavira in the 6th century BCE.
Jains believe that every soul is potentially divine and can reach its true goal by following the practices of purification and discipline laid down by the tirthankaras. The emphasis is on asceticism, because it is in this way that the soul is disentangled from karma, the material nature of the universe. For Jains, the understanding of karma is different from that of Hindus and Buddhists for whom it is a moral concept of cause and effect. The tirthankaras embody and teach the way of release. The released, liberated souls, or siddhas, reside at the apex of the universe in spiritual freedom.
Jains rely on teaching but not on any divine, or other help – God or gods are recognized as part of the cosmos, but not as supreme or as “outside the cosmos or its processes. Jains, like Buddhists, do not believe in a creator god.
At the heart of the Jain way are the Great Vows, known as the Mahavratas which are taken by the ascetics: these are nonviolence (ahimsa), speaking the truth (satya), abstaining from sexual activity (brahmacharya), not taking anything that is not given (asteya), and detachment from persons, places and things (aparigraha). A sixth was added later: abstaining from eating after dark.
Laypeople take a parallel set of vows, known as anuvratas, or lesser vows, which apply the five vows to life in the world. These are that laypeople should be vegetarian and should not do work that involves the deliberate destruction of life, such as hunting or fishing. Being a farmer is acceptable because the destruction of life is unintentional. There are ix occupations that are traditionally acceptable: government work, writing, the arts, farming, crafts, and commerce.