by Anil Mundra

Conceptual definition

Most generally, identity is what any thing is. In South Asian philosophy of religion, a most pressing question has always been the question of personal identity: what a person really is. This is usually phrased as the problem of the nature of the self (ātman) in Sanskritic contexts; but these discussions very often involve the more general issues of ontological identification, especially in Jain and Buddhist discussions. What makes something the thing that it is, in contradistinction to other things? Does it possess a stable nature (svabhāva) that defines it? If it does, what is the connection between tokens of a type (sāmānya) of things with the same nature? How to understand a thing’s persistence through time, particularly if it is observed to change—is it the self-same thing after the change, or has the original thing passed out of existence to be replaced by something else?

Philosophical significance

These are questions that have vexed philosophers of various stripes. Many have doubted whether there can be any rigorous concept of identity generalizable across the various contexts in which it is customarily called upon, and whether it is even possible to stipulate the concept without either circularity or incoherence. Part of the problem is that there are at least two basic acceptations of the term: most contemporary metaphysicians prioritize what they call “numerical identity” or “self-sameness”—a thing’s simply being itself—over what is currently the more colloquial sense that classifies an individual in a class with others of its own kind on the basis of some quality, such that an individual can be said to “have” an identity, or even have various identities. This disjunction between what we can call “numerical identity” and “qualitative identity” coheres with an Aristotelian metaphysic that tends to cleave self-subsisting substance from the attributes that it possesses. Some South Asian philosophers, however, resist this presumption of the priority of substance to quality.

Historical context

The earliest Vedic Upanishads are famous for their inquiries into the self and their various grand pronouncements about who and what we really are. They often tend to identify oneself with one’s consciousness, not unlike some early modern Western philosophers, although they do not always equate consciousness with intellection and emotion. The Sāṃkhya philosophy is a radical instance of identifying the person (puruṣa) with consciousness as distinguished from all mental functions and even ego, which are placed along with material objects on the side of heterogeneous nature. The Jain philosophical tradition agrees that consciousness is an essential characteristic of the soul; but this may not exhaust the Jain view of the self.

One of the standard criteria of personal identity is the presupposition, shared amongst all Indian philosophers, that anything deserving to be called one’s true identity must be in some way permanent. Something flitting in and out of existence can hardly be said to count as oneself. But according to scholastic Buddhist metaphysics, everything is in constant flux from moment to moment  and there is nothing at all having a stable nature.

The Jains, as is their wont, countenance both the permanence and impermanence of identity without acquiescing in either one-sided view scouted above. The most authoritative Jain doctrinal handbook—the Sanskrit That Which Is (Tattvārthasūtra) of Umāsvāti/Umāsvāmi—defines an entity as that which is subject to origination, perdurance, and dissolution, thus giving equal place to the stability emphasized by Brahminical philosophers and the momentariness of Buddhists. As Jain philosophers of non-one-sidedness say, indeed, it is just this conjunction of contraries like permanence and impermanence that singles out any thing as the particular thing it is, persisting in its identity through its various states of empirical change.

One of the ways Jain philosophy accomplishes this ostensibly oxymoronic ontology is through a particular view of substance as precisely that which persists amidst change, as well as that in which change is seen to occur—that is, it is both the substrate of change as well as the substratum of attributes, both the basis of numerical identity and of qualitative identity. Moreover, according to Siddhasena’s classic Essay on the Dialectic of Proper Thinking (Sanmatitarkaprakaraṇa), substance and the qualities that it possesses are equally real and inseparable. Haribhadra’s Victory-Flag of Non-One-Sidedness (Anekāntajayapatākā) furthermore suggests that both are equally necessary for the constitution of a thing’s identity. The basic, intuitive thesis of this work is that any real thing is what it is, and is not what it is not—a statement of the meaning of identity if ever there were one. What is at stake in this ostensibly trivial proposition is a certain view of the determinacy of identity: that to be is to exist as something—articulated in terms of attributes determined along various dimensions of predication—and not to exist as something else. To be self-identical, on this analysis, is to possess a certain configuration of qualitative identities.

The distinction between self and other is fundamental for Jain ontology; and it bears also on the more sociological issues involved in the qualitative identities that are most commonly at stake in the discourses of religious studies, namely, religious identities. A non-one-sided view of individuals is partially definitive of what it is to be Jain and not other than Jain. One-sided approaches tend to overemphasize certain kinds of praxis, such as purely gnoseological epiphanies, at the expense of more gradualistic negotiations between body and mind. Part of the way that Jains assert and maintain their religious identity is by philosophizing about identity itself.

Significant references/uses

Cort takes the kernel of Jain ontology to be the relationship of self and other—that is, soul and what is adventitious to it—but also means for this opposition to extend to the social identities of Jains in relation to non-Jains. Johnson has explicated how contestation over Jain views of the soul challenge and maintain the asceticism that is part of Jain social identity, and has suggested that the metaphysics of non-one-sidedness can serve as a bulwark against radical views threatening to obviate the physical rituals that make Jains who they are.

Related terms


ātman, jīva, puruṣa, svabhāva, śūnyatā, anekāntavāda, kṣaṇikavāda


Personal identity, qualitative identity, self, soul, momentariness, substance, attribute


Barbato, Melanie. Jain Approaches to Plurality: Identity As Dialogue. Leiden ; Boston: Rodopi Bv Editions, 2017.

Cort, John E. “Introduction.” In Open Boundaries: Jain Communities and Cultures in Indian History, edited by John E. Cort, 1–14. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1998.

Ganeri, Jonardon. Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective on the Reach and Resources of Public and Practical Reason in Shaping Individual Identities. New York: Continuum, 2012.

Johnson, W. J. Harmless Souls: Karmic Bondage and Religious Change in Early Jainism with Special Reference to Umāsvāti and Kundakunda. 1st ed. Lala Sunder Lal Jain Research Series, vol. 9. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1995.

Kapstein, Matthew T. Reason’s Traces: Identity and Interpretation in Indian & Tibetan Buddhist Thought. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.

Matilal, B. K. “A Note on the Jaina Concept of Substance.” Sambodhi 5, no. 2–3 (1976): 3–12.