Do Jains Believe in God?

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Do Jains Believe in God?
By Jonathan Dickstein, PhD, Associate Professor, Arihanta Institute

A question loses its value when any of its parts are unclear. For example, if I ask, “Are you Christian,” the listener is justified in asking for clarification about what I mean by “being Christian.” Am I asking if they were born into a Christian family? Am I asking if they regularly attend church? Am I asking if they celebrate certain holidays and perform certain rituals? Am I asking if they believe in a specifically Christian notion of God? Am I asking about a combination of these questions, and possibly others? The question isn’t useful unless what is being asked is clear to both people.


“Do Jains believe in God?” requires some explanation as to what is meant by “God.” The question is not “Do Jains believe in gods?”, as the traditional Jain cosmography includes an upper region (ūrdhvaloka) inhabited by celestial beings (devas) and a lower region (adholoka) inhabited by infernal beings (nārakins). Jainism also accepts the existence of “nature spirits” (yakṣas) abiding and intervening in the middle world (madhyaloka) where human beings reside. In practice, many Jains engage in forms of devotion and worship to celestial beings, nature spirits, the twenty-four “fordmakers” (tīrthaṅkaras), and other extraordinary beings. So, whether Jains believe in nonhuman extraordinary beings is a separate issue. 


Our question inquires into the existence of a capital “G” god in Jainism, a singular supreme being with an origin and nature and prowess uniquely different from all other beings, even other gods. The question summons a God well-known to Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) as well as many religious traditions included under the umbrella category “Hinduism.” This God commonly carries attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, transcendence, eternality, immutability, and omnificence (i.e., creatorship), among others. The term often used for “God” in ancient Indian literature is īśvara. Īśvara derives from the Sanskrit verbal root īś, which means “to own,” “to master,” “to rule,” or “to govern.” Early in its usage, the word carried both mundane and theistic valances, yet over time īśvara—and even more emphatically, parameśvara (“Supreme God”)—referred almost exclusively to a singular supreme God, even if described differently by various religions and sects. 


While Jainism admits the existence of a spiritual principle in the form of the soul (jīva), as well as the existence of omniscient liberated souls (siddhas) and the exceptional tīrthaṅkaras, it does not accept the existence of a singular supreme īśvara with the aforementioned qualities. Jainism also does not accept a singular fundamental reality unifying all souls and/or matter—such as to be found in Advaita Vedānta—whose reference terms paramātman or brahman have at times been described poetically as “God” or, in their individual manifestations, as “the God within.”


Jainism holds that the world is eternal and beginningless and as such it makes little sense to posit its creation by means of a cosmic author. Some Hindu traditions similarly accept that the world has existed since beginningless time, but maintain that God is the one who has engineered the “stuff” of the world. In short, creation is not cosmos, and while God may not have produced the matter and souls of the world ex nihilo, They have organized the cosmos and sustain its operation as a kind of pseudo-creator. And since this type of God has initiated the order of the world, They have created and henceforth guarantee the proper functioning of karma. By contrast, Jainism denies the existence of a world-organizing being as well as any being who has initiated or ensures the workings of karma. Karma is a law of (meta)physics permanently woven into the fabric of the world, a cosmo-mechanical process requiring no guarantor for its operation. There is no God to be propitiated or worshiped to intervene in one’s karma “account.” Jains do not deny that gods and goddesses may bestow material rewards upon their devotees—nor deny that devotion can assist in the generation of “good” karma—but these extraordinary beings are not capable of altering the workings of karma and nor are they unique in origin, nature, or prowess. 


Summarizing the position of Ācārya Vijay Ānandsūri (Ātmārāmjī), John Cort writes: “God for the Jains, in fact, is the totality of all the jinas and other perfected souls (siddhas), that is, all of the souls that have attained enlightenment and liberation, and reside at the top of the universe eternally in the four infinitudes of infinite knowledge, infinite perception, infinite bliss, and infinite power.” This interpretation of “God” gives God a “corporate identity” representing the assembly of liberated jīvas that are qualitatively identical even if quantitatively distinct. However, under this interpretation “God” does not carry a subjective meaning—that is, God as a subject—but rather signifies the category of the most esteemed beings in Jainism. While this is a legitimate interpretation of “God” as a locus of devotion, this framing does not appear to answer the theological question about Jain’s alleged “atheism”, its denial of singular supreme being.


It is true that some of the common attributes of “God” inhere in the jīva. The Jain soul is transcendent, eternal, immutable, and has the potential for omniscience. However, the presence of these attributes in the soul do not establish the jīva—or the liberated jīva, or the collection of jīvas, or an abstract notion of jīva-hood—as “God” in any supreme agential or authorial sense. In sum, while some Jains may resist the claim that Jainism is “atheistic”—perhaps owing to the term’s pejorative connection with materialist traditions such as Cārvāka—the religion’s denial of a singular supreme being validates this claim, at least insofar as “theism” refers to the existence of a supreme “God” and not “gods.” 




Jonathan Dickstein, Assistant Professor at Arihanta Institute, completed his PhD in Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He specializes  in South Asian Religions, Animals and Religion, and Comparative Ethics. His current work focuses on Jainism and contemporary ecological issues, extending into Critical Animal Studies, Food Studies, and Diaspora Studies. 


Professor Dickstein's course Jain Approaches to Animal Sentience is available now in the self-paced, online course catalogue. 


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