What Does Jainism Teach About Death & The Afterlife?

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Jainism is one of three ancient and prominent religions that traces its origins to India. Today, around six million people follow Jain beliefs. Though many Jains live in India, thanks to globalization, the Jain way of life has traveled to many countries in the West, such as England and America.

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Do you have a friend who follows the Jain religion? Maybe you’re interested in learning about Jainism yourself. Or perhaps you simply want a better understanding of the world. Whatever the case, this article will shed light on what happens in the Jainism afterlife.

How Do Jains View the Universe and Death?

People look at death all over the world through the lens of religion, personal beliefs, and cultural understanding. The Jain view of death and the universe does the same. Jains incorporate their scripture, culture, and traditionally held understanding about the world around us.

The universe

Jains believe that the universe exists in material form. In other words, it’s not a figment of our imaginations or an illusion that we think exists but doesn’t. Jains believe everything falls into one or two categories: living souls and nonliving objects.

Living souls are called jivas and non-living objects are called ajivas. Ajivas include everything that exists in the universe that does not have a soul, including space.

Jains consider the universe to have infinitely existed and believe it will continue to exist through all time. The universe governs itself through a set of cosmic laws and stays existent through its own energy. The idea that the universe was created is completely absent from Jainist beliefs.

Nature of the universe

According to Jainism, there are five regions or parts that make up the universe. These regions include:

  • The Supreme Abode: This is where liberated or enlightened celestial beings live forever.
  • The Upper World: This is where celestial but not liberated beings live, but not forever.
  • The Middle World: This is where humans live and where they can achieve enlightenment.
  • The Lower World: This region has seven regions within itself, known as the seven hells. Beings here get tortured but they do not stay here forever.
  • The Base: This is where the lowest forms of life live.

The soul

To better understand the Jain view of death and the universe, we should understand a bit more about the soul. Jains believe that the soul is:

  • Conscious and eternal, forever cycling through death and life until enlightenment is achieved.
  • Made of energy.
  • Without physical form and can fit itself into any form, no matter how large or small.
  • Can be embodied. 
  • Can achieve purity and enlightenment, resulting in omniscience and bliss.

Jains can think of themselves as two separate entities: the body, or container, and the soul, which fits into the container. The soul is what drives the body to act and the soul is ultimately responsible for all of its actions, good or bad. By following the Jain principles of behavior, the soul can achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Liberation can only be achieved when the soul is embodied in human form.

Death

The Jains have a fairly death positive outlook and believe death itself to be part of the rebirth cycle on the way to achieving enlightenment. In Jainism, death is not seen as a final moment where souls leave earth and enter an eternal world. Instead, death is linked to birth and the cycle of reincarnation. Death is merely the soul’s way of continuing the rebirth cycle. The form the soul takes for its next cycle depends on accumulated karma.

Preparation for death

For Jains, death is preceded by the ritual of dying. The act of dying plays an important role in preparing the soul for its next embodiment. 

The ritual of death is known as sallekhana. During this ritual, whether due to old age or the end stages of a terminal illness, the Jain will slowly withdraw from food and medicine. Withdrawal occurs slowly and in a manner that does not disturb their inner peace. They also engage in prayer and scripture reading.

The process of sallekhana isn’t always accepted and is considered taboo in some areas. However, the Jains that practice this ritual don’t view it in the same light as suicide. The ritual is to be undertaken in a calm, aware, and dispassionate manner — the exact opposite from what many Jains believe the act of suicide normally looks like. 

Jains view both obtaining as much inner peace as possible and dying peacefully as incredibly important. A peaceful death will benefit the soul and result in a better embodiment. Sallekhana isn’t an eagerness to die but demonstrates a willingness and desire to face the transition from one life to the next in a graceful and self-controlled manner.

Jains embrace death rather than fear it with this ritual of preparing for death and focusing on the transition from one life to the next. 

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What Happens in the Jain Afterlife? 

Though all religions differ in their beliefs about what happens after you die, each one tries to answer the question. For Jains, death does not immediately lead to the afterlife. Death leads to reincarnation. 

Reincarnation

Once a body dies, the soul immediately goes to its next body, also known as a container. Depending on the soul’s accumulated karma, the next body may not be human or even an animal. The birth/death reincarnation cycle continues indefinitely until a soul achieves ultimate deliverance from karma.

Deliverance is not the same as enlightenment. A soul can achieve enlightenment but will still be subject to reincarnation. Enlightened souls are free of harmful karma but still attract non-harmful karma based on their deeds. Only once all the remaining karma has no impact on the soul can deliverance occur.

Deliverance

The portion of Jain afterlife that most people in the West can relate to occurs when a soul is delivered from all karma. After a soul achieves enlightenment, they are still impacted by karma. Once they are completely free of karma, they instantly achieve deliverance from the reincarnation cycle.

When a soul reaches deliverance, it is immediately transported to the highest level of the universe — the Supreme Abode. Here, the soul lives eternally disembodied in a state of purity and bliss with other liberated souls.

Liberated souls

Liberated souls, called siddhas, are forever free from the reincarnation cycle. These souls no longer have physical bodies nor will they embody a form ever again. Through enlightenment and liberation, they have obtained infinite knowledge, infinite power, infinite vision, and infinite bliss. It's every Jain's goal.

Liberated souls are beings that are “god-like” but are not gods. They are not worshipped by Jains in the conventional Western concept of god worship. When Jains worship liberated souls, they do so to focus on an example of perfection with the goal of achieving perfection themselves.

Unlike the gods of Western traditions, liberated souls do not:

  • Create or destroy
  • Have a relationship with humans
  • Intervene in the lives of humans or in the universe
  • Make demands of humans
  • Create or enforce laws in the universe
  • Reward humans for good behavior
  • Forgive humans for wrongdoing
  • Give life or existence to humans

Humans can only use these beings as inspiration for their own journey. They will never directly interfere with the life of a human or influence them directly in any way. Worship of liberated souls is for inspiration only and will not result in any direct change in a human’s life.

The Difference Between the Jain and Hindu Afterlives

Jainism and Hinduism emerged around the same time and share many examples of rituals and faith. But the two religions are distinct and beliefs about the afterlife is one area where you can see their differences.

Soul liberation

According to Hinduism, each soul is separated from the Supreme Soul or Parmatma. The focus of liberation is to achieve the merging of souls back into the supreme soul.

In Jainism, each soul is its own individual entity and is not tied to other souls. Liberation occurs for each individual soul and there is no merging once liberation is achieved.

Existence for liberated souls

In Hinduism, liberation means the merging of souls back into the supreme soul, or Brahman. Once this occurs, it is believed that souls enter into Vishnu’s paradise for an eternity of bliss.

For Jains, liberation results in an activity-free existence experienced in tranquility and bliss.

For Jains, Death is Part of Life

For those who follow the Jain way of life, death is seen merely as a transition from one life to the next. Death can be a positive thing for Jains. It is through the cycle of death and rebirth that the ultimate achievement of liberation can one day be achieved.


Sources:
  1. Jain, Yogendra. “The Jain Art of Spiritual Dying.” Religion, Huffpost, 6 December 2017. huffpost.com.
  2. “Janism, Death, and Reincarnation.” Religions, BBC, 10 September 2009. bbc.co.uk.
  3. Shah, Umakant Premanand. “Janism.” Religion, Brittanica, 12 February 2021. britannica.com.
  4. “The Soul.” Religions, BBC, 10 September 2009. bbc.co.uk
  5. “The Universe.” Religions, BBC, 10 September 2009. bbc.co.uk.
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