Conceptual definition

Jain renunciants follow a rigorous method towards salvation, in which renunciation from worldly life, a non-violent way of life, the dissociation of Self and non-Self stuff and a purification from karmic matter towards omniscience become in time different facets of the same effort to access to a superior order of being in which the Self resumes its essential nature. At this stage, each Self is absolutely isolated. To reach this, everything that is not the Self – passions, wrong notions, matter, etc. – has to be patiently removed from the Self through continuous practices of renunciation. Renunciatory practices that enable this Self restauration are meant to block further inflows of karmic matter and to burn already adhering karmic matter. They include restraint in speech, mental and bodily activity (gupti), following given rules of behavior (samiti), reflecting on the miseries in life (anuprekṣā), practicing austerities (tapas) and behaving in a moral way (dharma), which itself includes cultivating self-control (saṃyama), abandon the world (tyāga), being detached from things (akiñcanya) and practicing chastity (brahmācarya).

Philosophical significance

In traditions such as Jainism, philosophical and religious teaching firstly aims to promote a type of behavior, a method to concretely modify an unsatisfying situation by modifying oneself. Traditions like this are foremost about transformative practices of the self. One does not only need to be aware of the core categorial distinctions – in Jainism, the distinction between Self and non-Self – one also has to realize her true nature through a set of practices, prominently renunciatory ones.

First, renunciatory practices are more precisely a type of internal sacrifice, where one has to give up current self conceptions before embracing new ones.

Second, renunciatory practices either remove one after one the many layers of self construction which are actually alien to what the self essentially is. For example, repentance and atonement are mechanisms aiming at modifying the self from a reappraisal of its past acts, removing labels deemed unfit. Or renunciatory practices displace the networks of association that exists between oneself and the surroundings. In this dynamic meditation, by modifying habits, relocates associations that prevent what is considered a proper self identification.

Historical context

In South Asia in the 6th c. BCE, considerations on the nature of the world and of human beings’ position in it were developed against a backdrop of Vedic practices of devotion revolving around a sacred fire. Two pan-Indian conceptions notably emerged from the idea that, besides entailing fruits in this life, the correct devotional practice could also secure beneficial consequences in one’s after-life. First, a conception of human life as a long circle of rebirths; second, the belief in the efficacy not only of the devotional act, but of all acts. These beliefs laid the basis of the renowned theory of karma, according to which our current situation in life is determined by our acts in previous lives. Acknowledging this conception, most South Asian traditions aimed at liberation (mokṣa) from the bounding karmic network and, each in its own way, put an emphasis on ceasing the acts that lead to further karmic footprints. This usually takes the form of ascetic practices such as meditation or abstinence, in order to renounce the clinging to transitory passions by reaching equanimity, and to perform as few acts as possible or only dispassionate egoless ones. This, in turn, implies renouncing the social and ritual life of the householder and becoming a wandering mendicant. As such, most of the South Asian traditions are, in different proportions, part of a ‘renunciatory paradigm’. In this renunciatory paradigm, Jainism is the tradition that goes the further. Jains were one of the ascetic groups called ‘śramaṇa’, ‘strivers’, to refer to the hardships of this path to liberation. Jain śramaṇas were more precisely called the ‘nirgrantha’, ‘the ones who are free from possessions’, since Jain male mendicants were singled out as the ones practicing nudity.

A peculiarity of Jainism is to essentially associate these renunciatory liberating practices with the imperative of non-violence. Besides, to cultivate this non-violence involves having an awareness of the existence of the life-forms, of other Selves, that surround us. Finally, since Selves are in essence unobstructed knowledge, perception and bliss, the last main facet of the Jain renunciatory stance consists in epistemic progress up to omniscience. Concretely, to get closer to the realization of our real nature is to follow practices that could be classified into a four-fold way:

  1. Practices of abstinence, in the line of no sexual intercourse, no food for given periods of time, non-possession up to the nudity of the Digambar monks;
  2. Practices towards self-control, like meditation or mortification of the flesh;
  3. Penances, today mainly consisting in fasts and recitation of prayers;
  4. Practices of non-violence, such as not eating meat, nor any product derived from animals, not drinking non-filtered water containing microscopic forms of life, walking with extreme caution so as to avoid killing life forms on the ground, and not using any other modes of transportation for the monastic community.

This is sufficient to see that Jainism is an arduous renunciatory path, in which the disciple needs methods to assist her. One such method is an incitement to cultivate a pessimistic attitude towards the world by means of twelve contemplations (Prakrit: aṇuvekkha; Sanskrit: anuprekṣā) on the miseries of life. These can be found in canonical and post canonical texts, like in the Tattvārtha-sūtra. These are incitements towards contemplation of human beings and their relation to the surrounding world, which prompt the awareness that:

(i) everything in the world is not enduring;

(ii) all beings are helpless;

(iii) when an individual is spiritually free, only she has been able to achieve it, and only she can enjoy it, no other individual can assist and share, each individual is isolated;

(iv) all relationships of an embodied Self are temporary, not real;

(v) empirical reality from life to death to life is endless and full of calamities;

(vi) the empirical universe is an abode for Selves that do not know their real nature;

(vii) embodied Selves are bound in impure, rotten and stinking bodies;

(viii) the influx of karmic matter is the main cause of miseries;

(ix) the stoppage of the influx of karmic matter is possible by means of penances;

(x) the purification of karmic matter that is already bound is possible by means of penances;

(xi) the doctrine (Prakrit: dhamma; Sanskrit: dharma) preached by the Jinas leads to spiritual freedom;

(xii) human enlightenment is rare and difficult to obtain, it is an essential duty of all humans to get it prior to their death.

Significant references/uses

First, in global philosophy of religion, traditions like Jainism focused on self centered transformative practices are important as they help to reshape the prevalent conception of divinities and the definition of religion.

Second, renunciation here mainly consists in acting in a controlled and restrained manner. This type of attention is also crucial for contemporary environmentalists, because this injunction goes in particular against the practices of mass consumption. In Jainism, even the laity must be careful and not desire beyond their needs. In this dynamic, a care for not wasting resource, as well as vegetarianism or veganism become important values. Besides, Gandhi’s style of action centered on self-control, as enjoined by the Gītā, was a source of inspiration for Indian environmentalists. It is worth pointing out that Gandhi’s stance was deeply influenced by Jainism.

Related emic terms

Saṃvara (blockage of the inflow of karmic matter), nirjarā (destruction of karmic matter), gupti (restraint speech, mental and bodily activity), samiti (rule of behavior), dharma (moral behavior), saṃyama (self-control) tapas (austerity), akiñcanya (detachment), brahmācarya (continence), anuprekṣā (reflexions on the miseries in life).

Related etic terms

Transformative practices, techniques of the self, controlled act, self-control, meditation.


ĀS = Āyāraṃgasutta. In Kumar, Muni Mahendra (tr.): Āyāro (Ācārāṅga Sūtra). Jain Canonical Text Series 1. New Delhi: Today and tomorrow’s Printers & Publishers, 1981.

Bhatt, Bhansidar. “Twelve aṇuvekkhās in early Jainism.” In: Nalini Balbir and Joachim Bautze (eds.): Festschrift Klaus Bruhn zur Vollendung des 65. Lebensjhares dargebracht vin Schülern, Freunden und Kollegen. Reinbek: Dr. Inge Wezler Verlag, 1994, pp. 171–94.

Dundas, Paul. The Jains. Routledge, 1992.

Johnson, W. J. Harmless souls: Karmic bondage and change in early Jainism with special reference to Umāsvāti and Kundakunda. In: Lala Sundar Lal Jain Research Series 9. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1995.

TS = Tattvārthasūtra of Umāsvāti. In Tatia, Nathmal (tr.): That which is. Tattvārthasūtra. A Classic Jain Manual for Understanding the True Nature of Reality. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.