Home » The Fourteen-Fold Path of the Jains

The Fourteen-Fold Path of the Jains

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

<Jainism – Contents>

Degree of difficulty **** (4 stars of  max. 5)


From: Sunrise; Theosophic perspectives


Any one of you who has once felt the touch of the god within never is the same again. Never can be the same again. Your life is changed; and you can have this awakening at any moment, any moment that you will take it.

 – G. de Purucker


The Jains form a religious group in India, comprising less than one percent of the population of that country. Their history goes back to time immemorial, into prehistory, and their last great teacher, the tīrthaṅkara Mahāvīra. Mahāvīra lived about 2500 years ago, and was possibly a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. Mahāvīra was the 24th of the tīrthaṅkaras of the present cycle, and one cycle takes an innumerable amount of years to run.


The Jains elaborate in their scriptures a very detailed cosmography, which includes numerous invisible planes and globes in which live, and between which move, a great variety of hierarchies and classes of life-forms. All of these are themselves intelligent or guided by intelligences — deities and forces. The earthly minerals, plants, animals and men form only a minority among this vast cosmos of life. All these beings, from the most primitive, with only one sense faculty to the highest divine, have their specific forms, conditions of life and stages of evolution due to karmic action. In their always very systematic approach the Jains have elaborated a scientific classification of karma in 148 types.


Perhaps more remarkable even than their ideas about the living cosmos and its processes is their view on ethics — and the fact that until today the Jains strictly adhere to it in the practice of daily life. The core of their ethics is ahiṁsā – non-violence in action, speech and mind – the total abstention from doing harm tot any living being, even the smallest and least developed. As far as humans are concerned, apart from not doing physical harm, they practice tolerance towards anyone who has a different opinion – because no person can, unless he has reached omniscience, claim to have the ultimate right opinion. Relating to animals, they are strict vegetarians, and do not choose professions that might involve physical harm even to the smallest of them.


The purpose of these practices is twofold. First, suffering is limited as much as possible for all creatures and it is avoided that they are hindered on the path their souls have chosen. Second, they purify themselves from karmas that cling to the soul due to violent or otherwise unharmonious thoughts and emotions which limit clarity of mind and true vision, and in this way they develop an almost superhuman compassion for all that lives.


The final goal of the soul’s pilgrimage through astounding varieties of forms of existence, in fact all space and time units that can be conceived within the universe, is to reach the point where the consciousness is fully at one with the qualities of the soul: infinite knowledge, infinite purity and infinite freedom within this universe. The idea of the possibility to acquire an unstained clear mind and infallible intuition and insight is no doubt the ultimate dream of every scientist or other truth-seeker. If we really want to know truth about ourselves and the universe and its laws, and the purpose of our existence, of seen and unseen worlds, and our relation with all be-ing and be-ness, and, above all, if we wish to work for the well-being and betterment of the world, for all its inhabitants and for the human condition, we can not go without the practice of ethics, which is nothing else than practicing harmony with the laws of the universe.


The Jains describe the path towards purity and final emancipation and omniscience within our universe in fourteen stages or guṇasthānas. Even though it may not be possible for us to live like a Jain, taking notice of the general principles may be helpful, and is indeed in itself purifying.



The first stage they call mityadṛṣṭi, which means false worldview. Mityadṛṣṭi signifies our “normal” state of being, in which the soul is caught in, suffering from, false appearances or worldly illusions. We are bound by passions and illusions that have ever bound us from beginningless past. It is the stage in which the soul (jīva) has always been, until it will reach the first recognition of its own nature. It is the normal state in which the majority of people are, unaware of the practical possibility of a spiritual life. We may form our ideas and theories, but being unaware of the spiritual truths that lie behind the external manifestation of phenomena we will never have a real understanding of the nature of the cosmos and of life, and we are suffering the frustrations of that fundamental ignorance. This stage describes the situation of humanity at large in the present stage of evolution, which is karmic: due to past thoughts and feelings we have attracted those species of karmas that delude right views. But it also belongs to the innate capacities of the soul to break away through its vesture of karmic limitations. There comes a moment, somewhere along the pilgrim’s road of the soul, when the first flashes of true insight dawn; and this is truly a historic event in each one’s individual journey. The stage when this occurs is called samyakmithyātva, literally ‘correct-and-false insight-ness’.


Some very interesting teaching goes with the concept of samyakmithyātva. This stage is so special because from then on the individual can take its path towards final attainment in his own hand. The soul itself has the innate capacity — bhavyatva – to introduce this event, and it has always been inherent in the nature of the soul, but slumbering. This break-through only occurs when the soul has grown to a point of “readiness” to be touched by the inner impulse, due to the right karmic conditions in which one has brought oneself. Bhavyatva may be awakened from its dormant state by listening to spiritual teachings, or meeting with a spiritually developed person. Even seeing the beautiful and pure image of a great spiritual teacher may evoke the noble qualities of the soul.


Another factor that has always been inherent in our soul, even when it was still dressed in the forms of the most primitive beings, is the urge or beginning cause (yathāpravṛttakaraṇa) to free itself from the chains of bondage-causing inclinations. This is the fundamental, ever pressing driving force of evolution towards liberation. The translator of one English version of the Tattvartha Sūtra (That Which Is) Nathmal Tatia writes: “Moral and spiritual consciousness only dawn for the soul when it is sufficiently conscious of, and confronted with, the force that has eternally been keeping it ensnared. To facilitate this, the soul has an innate, beginningless “autonomous capacity – yathāpravṛttakaraṇa – that is always struggling to relieve the soul of its karmic burden. This capacity is the will power which drives the soul towards liberation.” (p. 280). These two factors, the potentiality to become free and the urge to self-liberation, are the indispensable precursors to the following stage.


But let us first reflect on the nature of living beings as it is presented in the Jain teachings, and we see that at the core there is 1) a jīva or soul that is pure and omniscient by its own nature; 2) a component of great compassion and enlightenment that may at the proper moment, due to the right ‘call from below,’ project a ray of spiritual light and energy into the recipient personal consciousness, thus temporary enlightening the mind and setting it aflame to the extend that it is able to contain that ray. 3) an innate desire or driving force towards liberation; 4) a lower, passionate mind that is the slave of its illusions, which continuously draws karmic elements of a lower nature around the soul, thus blinding clear vision and counteracting the free development of the higher faculties and keeping the soul in bondage. The whole is dressed in three vestures: 1) the kārmaṇa Ñarira, or body composed of karmic matter particles, the causal body of the outer form as well as one’s personal mental and emotional tendencies; 2) the taijasa śarīra or electric body formed of fine molecules of electric matter and 3) the audārika śarīra or physical body.



Many obscuring karmas which had until this moment clung to the innately pure soul and obstructed it from shining forth forcefully, are now temporarily pushed aside due to the spiritual impulse. In such moments when the spiritual sun breaks through the clouds, many worldly interests of physical, psychological and mental character disappear to the background. One realizes that there is a true essential nature far above the illusions of everyday life. This gives great inner peace, and within that peace, a strong desire for spiritual advancement and learning. Once the soul has entered the path towards mokṣa or nirvāṇa, every event in further life becomes a teacher if seen in the light of the soul. This then may go hand in hand with actual teachings received through a further advanced person who has gained a deeper understanding of the inner life.


Through this instruction and training, purity and insight increase further, and quantities of karmas are removed like when the sun evaporates the cloud which obscures it, and great energy shines forth. The urge towards liberation that was always inherent in the soul, now becomes very strong and for the first time the pilgrim is placed face to face with his enemies: his own gross passions that have accumulated onto the soul since beginningless time, and the factors (karmas) that have always been deluding real vision. Recognizing and forcefully removing these enemies or forces, all deluding factors are temporarily suppressed and one experiences an unobstructed insight. This is the nature of the stage called samyakdṛṣṭi or correct world-view. It is the most crucial stage in the development of the soul.


The consciousness now experiences an insight that it had never before, the first dawn of final enlightenment. Thus far, through good deeds and thoughts, through the awakening inner urge, through the inner capacity of the soul to send rays of enlightenment to the mind which has become recipient, and the growing insight accompanied by natural instruction, and by facing and suppressing of the soul’s ‘enemies,’ the aspirant has been approaching the gate. From now on, he can enter the gate and tread the path of spirituality that makes him an ever greater and wiser beneficial force for all living beings. And he (or she) will succeed. From now on he may truly be called a Jaina, because he has entered the path of the jinas, the conquerors. Perfection is reached, however, through the difficult stages that follow.


This stage of temporary true insight may refer to a rare and deep mystical experience. But, perhaps on a lesser scale, many of us may have experienced moments of extraordinary brightness. To our regret these moments never last very long, and after some time we are merely left with the memory, unable to recall them. We had suppressed our tendencies, but not yet conquered them though. Still we have not been overcome by our old passions: we spend a time in a stage in which the insight is no longer clear. But then we may even start to doubt whether we have not been just floating on a self-inflated cloud. This stage of memory of “something” is called s~v~dana or mixed stage, but due to so-many down-pulling karmas, our own heritage, in a moment we may be drawn down as it were, we take up our old habits and worldly desires, and may entirely forget the experience: we continue our life as before. That means, for the time being. Once the soul has been touched by this enlightened experience, one has irreversibly entered the path towards mokṣa, enlightenment and omniscience. No doubt, many of us have gone through some deep experience in a former life. Perhaps this is why one may experience a feeling of recognition when coming in contact with spiritual teachings or objects of spiritual beauty in the present life.



Someone who has experienced samyakdarśana and holds on to it, has undergone a great inner change, which reflects itself in outer attitudes and behavior. Great inner joy becomes his part, despite the tremendous difficulties that still await. First a person had identified himself with his body, with his possessions, his status, the compliments or rebukes he receives &c., and everything he met in life was judged as either pleasant or unpleasant. He had identified himself with his ego, thinking that his personal will-power is the real actor in life, thus feeling proud when something had been accomplished, or frustrated when some personal aim had failed. Thus, unknowingly, he has always been trying to work against the spiritual laws of nature, to row against the stream of the spirit. In this way the cycle of bondage was continued. Now his attention is entirely redirected and becomes wholly focused on his own nature (svabhāva). Outer things, his body, possessions, psychological conditions such as anger, fear, hatred, self-pity, pride, passions, greed are no longer of paramount interest. He becomes interested in seeing the self within, in knowing the spiritual side of nature rather than outer appearances. By this he gains a great pureness of mind and behavior, which will enable him to practice the purity in motivation and conduct and the one-pointedness that is needed to follow the path further towards its ultimate goal. For the world around him, he has become a more peaceful, tranquil, stable and patient person and naturally shows what the Bhagavad G§t~ describes as the characteristics of the wise: equal under all circumstances, cold or hold, praise or humiliation, prosperity or loss, &c. He knows now that there is an essential nature behind the veil of illusion he had thus far regarded as realities. But of these “realities” he now realizes that they are transitory. They are nothing but “modes” (paryāya) of an inherently free and omniscient living soul. This applies to all forms of life, all living beings, all of which are forms of expression of an essential core which is of a fundamental all-encompassing conscious nature.


At once one realizes the brotherhood of all beings, that all beings have a soul with the highest innate qualities, and that every living being has the innate possibility to reach its spiritual summit. This awareness of brotherhood brings forth strong feelings of compassion (anukamp~) for all beings. Brotherhood and compassion, as well as disinterest concerning worldly desires and attachments are therefore described as the character qualities of a man or woman who has experienced this first spark of enlightenment. As P.S. Jaini writes in his The Jaina path of Purification: “Whereas the compassion felt by an ordinary man is tinged with pity or with attachment to its object, anukamp~ is free of such negative aspects; it develops purely from wisdom . . . and it fills the individual with an unselfish desire to help other souls towards mokṣa.”


The spark of enlightenment has also opened the mind in such a way that one can effectively reflect on such universal questions as all human beings have, but which cannot be solved by the brain mind and a materialistic approach alone, such as ‘what is death?’; ‘what is the purpose of life?’; ‘what are the laws which govern life and the universe?’; ‘what is the inner construction of the universe and of man, composed of living forces and of intelligent beings?’ A man who has caught this glimpse of the nature of the soul, or even if he has only seriously taken notice of the possibility, will never again entirely stumble into the pitfalls of materialistic nihilism or of dogmatism — the two spooks which haunt our western sciences and many religions.


P.S. Jaini makes a most interesting statement when he writes about compassion which “develops purely from wisdom” and “fills the individual with an unselfish desire to help other souls towards mokṣa. If this urge to bring all tormented beings out of saṁsāra is particularly strong and is cultivated, it may generate those auspicious karmas that later confer the status of tīrthaṅkara upon certain omniscients [italics mine]. When present to a more moderate degree, anukamp~ [compassion] brings an end to exploitive and destructive behavior, for even the lowest animal is now seen as intrinsically worthwhile and thus inviolable.” (p.150) The above statement shows that Jainism does not only teach the path towards self-realization and detachment as the final aim. It allows the possibility, urged by great compassion, to postpone one’s own liberation and turn one’s face towards all sentient beings who are struggling their way upward towards final accomplishment, and stretch out a helping hand by reviving the knowledge of eternal truth.


Perhaps not all Jains have been sufficiently aware of this idea. It would however, in my opinion, seem strange if the core teaching of compassion and utter detachment of selfishness would suddenly appear unreal and be abandoned when the universal insight is required. No doubt the highest compassion and unselfishness would compel the soul on the threshold of liberation to turn back for the sake of all beings, rather than spend eternity in lofty bliss and omniscience, but only for oneself. This would bring the Jain teaching very close to the Buddhist and theosophical distinction between Pratyeka Buddhas – Buddhas for themselves alone – and Buddhas of Compassion, who accomplish all that can be accomplished by a human being and abandon the reward of a very long period of bliss and peace to help the world.



The higher guṇasthānas describe the processes of overcoming and eliminating all restrictions, and the actions that must be undertaken to perform this. Depending on one’s situation in society and one’s determination, the Jain may choose the path of the layman or woman first, or at once the more strenuous path of the mendicant. The conditions for both are described in the fifth and sixth stages.


Now that one has really chosen to approach Truth and to take away every obstruction that hinders the full shining forth of what one is in one’s essence, one needs to actively cultivate ethics in the purest form possible. A great help to keep one’s determination alive even during difficult times, is to take vows, before a teacher and before one’s inner self. The serious pilgrim towards truth is very much aware of the courage it takes to make such a vow, and of the consequences of failure to keep it.


The core of all Jain ethics is ahiṁsā, non-violence, the avoidance of giving injury, physically, mentally, or in words. The main difference between the lay and mendicant paths is the strictness with which ahiṁsā is practiced. Every Jain will always avoid killing, or being indirectly responsible for killing, of the forms in which souls are incarnated, whether human or animal, and as much as possible even plant and mineral lives. Of course they disagree with animal sacrifices such as practiced by certain religious groups, or misuse of animals in scientific laboratories. If modern science had grown within a Jain culture, no investigation would ever have taken place doing harm to animals or whatever living being, and they would have studied life directly, instead of analyzing corpses from which the conscious essence has flown. Indeed the world would have looked entirely different, without slaughtering, without wars, without man-induced extinction of species, and without any form of environmental deterioration. The Jains proof that such a way of life is possible.


The most important lay vows are called anuvrata –  “atom vows”: 1) non-violence; 2) truth, not lying, however subtly, under any condition, which involves great care in speaking at all times, and perhaps not speaking when this could result in harm to any creature; 3) non-stealing, or not taking anything that is not given; 4) no sexual misconduct, that means sex outside the marriage relation, and excessive indulgence in sexual pleasures with one’s partner; 5) non-possession and non-attachment. Possessions, then, are material objects as well as internal possessions, passions and sentiments.


The sixth stage is that of the mendicant. The principle of non-violence is carried out towards its absolute, and includes the tiniest and most primitive life-forms, even the elements: the mendicant must not dig the earth, walk on grass, or extinguish a fire, &c. Thus he develops an attitude of absolute harmlessness towards living beings and the natural environment, and takes only what is given. He has become a perfect friend of all beings and a perfect environmentalist. To continue his quest he will do everything to better the qualities of his character, and reflect mentally on the various aspects of universal philosophy. This is formulated by Jain ethics and philosophy respectively in the form of ten dharmas or observances, and twelve anuprekṣa (mental reflections or meditations). The ten dharmas are, as summarized in the Tattvārthadhigama Sūtra (IX, 6): perfect forgiveness, humility; honesty, purity, truthfulness, self-restraint, austerity; renunciation, non-attachment and chastity.


The meditations or mental reflections are of a philosophical nature, and lead to insight in the nature of the universe and its basic laws, and of life, the human condition, and the path of spiritual evolution and liberation of suffering and ignorance. Suggestive subjects to reflect on, as given in the Tattvārthadhigama Sūtra (IX 7:) are, among others: everything is subject to change and therefore transitory; it is without purpose to try to avoid what is inevitable, because the seed sown in the past must have its fruition according to its natural character; the soul moves through endless cycles of embodiment and that true happiness can only be obtained by release from this cyclicity; I am alone the doer of my actions and the enjoyer or sufferer of the fruits of them; the inflow of karmas, the result of passions &c., is the cause of my mundane existence; the inflow can be stopped; it is possible to purify the soul of its obstructing and deluding karmas, due to conscious effort and the practice of ethics; the universe (contrary to contemporary western ideas about a big bang and possible big crush) has no absolute beginning or end, was never created and operates according to its own laws without divine intervention; the sacred teachings are absolutely true, the core of all ethics is ahiṁsā, and the path leads to the ultimate goal of eternal peace and omniscience.


All these observances and reflections are meant to lead to complete renunciation of all forms of egotistic thinking.


Now the next stage is when one cultivates the higher meditations. The meditations and awakening of states of higher awareness bring the aspirant ever closer to his goal, but many of the remaining karmas still have to be suppressed and indeed eliminated. The higher meditations and processes are too much of an esoteric nature than to be described on paper. It would make little sense, it seems, to try to explain subtleties that grosser minds can impossibly grasp. The Jains reject tantric meditations, because they involve harm being done to other beings and sometimes sexual passion and the taking of alcohol and drugs. Moreover they reject any practice that leads to powers or selfish accomplishments. Jain meditation is only directed towards wisdom and purity.


In the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh stages the so-called conduct-deluding karmas, such as anger, pride, deceit, greed, grief, fear, sexuality and some others are either suppressed or destroyed, including the most subtle ones. One can imagine that, when one furthers on the path, one has to face every single delusion and weakness to which one has given admittance in past lives, and every single one has to be conquered. It must indeed be a dreadful experience to come face to face with all harm one has done to the world through time. And what, if driven by Compassion we wish to destroy all evil causes in the world, and thus evoke all this as enemies against us in the form of the most dreadful monstrosities? Everything must be conquered — and we have the power, as long as we do not forget that the ultimate purity, wisdom and force for the good of all beings is innate in the soul. Up to the eleventh stage one climbs on one of two “ladders”: the one of suppression or the one of elimination. As long as the karmas are only suppressed the aspirant will reach the eleventh stage, but the passions will resurface and may draw him back to a lower stage. But eventually he will have enough energy to eliminate the karmas and pass over the eleventh stage, and enter the twelfth, the stage of arhat.


The last conduct deluding, knowledge and perception-obscuring and energy-restricting karmas are now eliminated and the obstructions to endless bliss and energy are no more. The aspirant reaches the thirteenth stage spontaneously: he possesses omniscience (kevalajñāna) during incarnation.


The fourteenth and last stage is the stage reached by an arhat just before leaving his physical vehicle. All vibrations of the soul that attract karmas and cause bondage have now ceased. After having left the physical body for the last time, he enters mokṣa, the disembodied state of eternal bliss and omniscience.


Some, very rarely — in harmony with the law of cycles, and in consequence of their karma, remain as omniscient and liberated teachers for the good of mankind and all living beings. This karma is above all that of universal compassion, and charity towards all who strive upward. They are the tīrthaṅkaras.


<Jainism – Contents>