Jain Theism and Gunanuvada

Published: 04.06.2009
Updated: 30.07.2015


By outsiders and insiders alike, Jainism is considered one of India’s atheistic religions. Phrases such as “The Jains are explicitly atheistic,”[6] are commonplace. Anyone spending time with Jains and discussing their religion with them is sure to come across two things: Claims of atheism, but also many references to God. The claim to atheism and the references to God come from laypersons, monks, teachers, and preachers, and can be found in just about any book on Jainism, canonical texts included.[7] This essay seeks to explore “atheism” in a religion that in practice and in theory, in the literature, in the temple, and in the household, there is not just God, but also icons, prayer, puja, bhakti, and all manner of fervent ritualism. “Atheism” turns out to be a messy and relative term, and perhaps Jainism is better categorized as unique type of theism. Pulling from the term gunanuvada, which in this context means “worship of the qualities,” which is a central concept in Jain ritual, I present the term gunanutheism as a step in the direction of clarifying the nature of divinity in Jainism.

Basics of Jain Theism

Before any attempt to categorize Jainism as a specific type of theism or atheism, a brief explanation of the Jain concept of divinity is in order. In Jainism, the soul is called the jiva. The gunas, or qualities that each jiva naturally and intrinsically has are infinite knowledge (ananta jnana), infinite perception/faith (ananta darsana), infinite energy/capability/power (ananta virya), and infinite bliss (ananta sukha). These are known as the four divine gunas. “Jainas speak of the ‘innumerable qualities’ of the soul. Nevertheless, it can legitimately be said that the presence of those qualities…perception, knowledge, bliss, and energy - are sufficient to define the soul as a totally distinct and unique entity, an existent separate from all others.[8] Not only does the jiva have all those infinite properties, but it also has always existed from a beginning-less past, and it will continue to exist forever. The reason why you and I do not currently have all of these infinite properties is because of karma. In Jainism, jivas and karma are physical things. Actual physical karma particles bind to each jiva, and distort and obscure their properties. Through self-effort, austerities, and following Jain doctrine, a human can burn off the karma from the jiva and realize its infinite potential.

Once an individual burns off the karma and perfects the jiva, he does not instantly die or disappear or anything like that. He becomes an Arhat. An Arhat is a human who has attained infinite perception, knowledge, bliss, and energy, but still has a body. Certain Arhats are known as Tirthankaras because of the extent to which they propagate the Jain religion, and it is the Tirthankaras that have emerged as the most salient object of Jain worship. At death, the Arhat reaches Moksha: the body is lost, no new body is taken, and the four divine gunas are maintained. After death, the bodiless Arhat is now known as a Siddha. Siddhas reside, in complete perfection, at the top of the universe in a place called the Siddha-Loka. It is important to note that in Jainism, souls retain their individuality both before and after liberation. They all share in the same divinity, and there are an infinite number of individual souls sharing in the same divinity, but there is no merging into oneness as in monistic philosophies.[9] These perfected and liberated souls can be collectively called God.

Besides the Arhats and Siddhas, there are various other types of individuals who are well on their way to spiritual perfection. These would be the Acharyas (head monk), the upadhyayas (teacher monk), and all the sadhus (mendicants) in the world.

The Arhats and Siddhas are also called Jinas. Jina literally means “conqueror,” specifically, conqueror of the senses and the passions. Just to clarify, Jinas are the conquerors, and Jains are the followers of the Jinas.

Jainism has various beings of the heaven and hell realms, such as yakshas and yakshis, that are known as gods, with a lower case “g.” But it is God with an uppercase “G” that is the point of contention. If there is a capital “G” God in Jainism, it would be, collectively, the pure and fully realized Arhats and Siddhas. This may not perfectly fit traditional Western concept of God, but such a concept is not well defined, and I argue that Jains do believe in God, and that Jainism is in fact theistic both in practice and in theory.

Worship and Ritual: Jainism is Theistic in Practice.

A great example of how the concept of the Jina plays into everyday life of the Jain is in the phrase “Jai Jinendra.” Jai Jinendra is a ubiquitous Jain salutation that is sure to be heard at any Jain gathering. It literally means, “Hail to the Conqueror of the Senses.” When it is said to someone, it pays respects to that person’s Jiva as being a potential Jina, or conqueror of the senses. It is a strikingly powerful and meaning salutation compared with its functional analogues, such as “Hello, how are you doing?” Unlike Jai Jinendra, other greetings tend to engage the surface and temporal aspects of the self.

The Arhats, Siddhas, Acaryas, Upadhyayas, and the Sadhus are considered the Panca- Paramesthin, or the Five Divinities, or Five Worshipful Ones. The Arhats and Siddhas are God, and the others are well on their way. Paying homage to these Five Divinities makes up the core of the Namaskara-Mantra, which is by far the most commonly practiced form of worship in Jainism. “This mantra is the first thing that a Jaina learns, always remembers, uses as an incantation, tells on the rosary, and recites on leaving bed, entering the temple, starting worship, going to bed, and when beginning any auspicious activity.[10]

Along with the Namaskara-Mantra, there is also a very intricate puja that many Jains often partake in. The rice, cloves, water, oil, and various other items all have very significant meaning. Jain temple life is very active. There are often pilgrims staying at the dharmashalas on the temple grounds. It is common to see Jains prostrate before an icon of a Tirthankara.

Jain Atheism?

I initially set out to explore Jain atheism. I quickly discovered that what I was really exploring was Jain theism, but my initial misdirection has helped clarify the current thesis. Finding a definition of atheism, and, related to that, finding a definition of God, was more difficult than it should have been. The Encyclopedia of Religion defines atheism as “the doctrine that God does not exist, that belief in the existence of God is a false belief. The word God here refers to a divine being regarded as the independent creator of the world, a being superlatively powerful, wise, and good.[11] The God of Jainism is superlatively powerful, wise, and good, He has also existed forever. Not only has every soul always existed, but the whole world has always existed. Because the world is uncreated, the God in Jainism cannot be a creator God, but it is for this reason that this definition of atheism and of God render Jainism atheistic.

Of the many different types of atheism, there are two relevant categories for this discussion: practical atheism and theoretical atheism. A theoretical atheist self-consciously and thoughtfully denies the existence of God. A practical atheist believes God exists, but lives as though God does not exist.[12] It should be added that to live as though God exists does not just imply the nebulous attribute of “being a good person.” Surely there are many theoretical atheists who are good people. To live as though God exists would essentially entail, some form of worship, a code of ethics that reflects the belief in God, and a life that is oriented towards God.

If Jainism is atheistic, what type of atheism is it? As in theoretical atheism, Jainism selfconsciously denies the existence of God. If Jains are theoretical atheists, then they are must comprise a new type of theoretical atheist who self-consciously deny the existence of God but live as though they believe in God. Following the above formulation, this means that while denying the existence of God, Jains not only tend to be good people, but also that they have some form of worship, a code of ethics that reflects the belief in God, and a life that is oriented towards God.

Jains easily meet the criteria for this new type of “Theistic Theoretical Atheism.” The main tenant of Jainism is ahimsa, or non-violence, and most Jains choose careers and lifestyles that cause minimal, or at least reduced, ahimsa. Having a relatively small following, about 4.3 million, certain generalizations can be made. Most Jains are vegetarians. Most Jains are hard working and contribute much to the society. Most Jains engage in fervent rituals, with icons, prayers, bhakti, and puja that can be seen at most temples. The point is that Jains distinctively live as though they believe that God exists. They qualify as “good people” who have a code of ethics that reflect their belief in God, and they have lives that are oriented towards their concept of God.

But, apparently, Jainism does not believe in God, so what is this “thing” that makes Jains live as though God does exist? The answer, in fact, is God. The Encyclopedia of Jainism says, “The Jains do believe in a God after their own way of thinking.”[13] Jainism is not atheistic, but theistic, and it is dissonance between the Jain concept of God and the traditional concept of God that has caused Jainism to be understood as atheistic.

Why Jainism is considered atheistic.

The terms astika and nastika are sometimes confounded with theism and atheism. The different interpretations of astika and nastika are outside the scope of this essay, but an extremely brief summery could be as follows: To Panini, nastika is not accepting life after death. According to Nyayakosa, a nastika does not accept the existence of isvara. And to Manu says that a nastika rejects the authority of the Vedas.14/[15] For the purposes of this essay, nastika can mean the rejection of the Vedas and the Vedic gods. And Jainism surely is a nastika tradition, but that does not imply atheism.

The confusion of the terms astika and nastika pales in comparison to the confusion and relativity of the terms theism and atheism, which is made apparent by the commonly cited examples of Socrates being accused of atheism for not believing in the official Athenian gods, and of early Christians being considered atheists by the Romans because of a lack of idol worship.[16]

It is likely that Jainism is considered atheistic because of a problem with terminology, but redefining such terms is outside the scope of this essay. Jainism is considered atheistic primarily because there is no belief in a creator God. Most current definitions of God place much emphasis on creativity. The Jains believe that the universe has always existed, and thus there is no possibility of a creator god. Another reason that contributes to Jainism’s atheistic reputation is a lack of belief in isvara, or a personal god. Given the ritualism so prevalent in Jainism, it might be surprising to know that the God of Jainism cannot intervene, and is completely unresponsive and indifferent to worship, prayer, and human affairs. The noninterventionist attribute of the Jain concept of God is another reason why Jains may be considered atheists.

Devotion to a non-intervening God.

It is of the utmost importance to understand that in Jainism, God is not worshiped in hopes to attain boons or have wishes granted, or even to have assistance on the path towards liberation. Jains are well aware of the non-interventionism of their God. In God, Jains see the qualities they want to foster within themselves. The Tirthankaras, arhats, siddhas, acharyas, upadhyayas, and sadhus are role models and sources of inspiration and guidance. Devotion towards the Jinas turns the mind away from the wants of the body, and turns the mind towards divine gunas of God. The following quotes from a canonical text do well do illustrate this point:

“…the meditating yogi, who identifies himself with the omniscient, finds himself to be an omniscient.”
“By meditating about the detached, one himself becomes detached and gets free from the karmic bondage.”
“He, who constantly indulges in a certain sentiment, comes to be identified with that particular sentiment, just as a crystal that assumes the color in juxtaposition of which it is placed.”[17]

This is a very sophisticated concept, but almost all Jains seem to understand it. When Jains are reciting a mantra to a murti of Mahavira, they are not worshiping the murti, and they are not worshiping Mahavira, but they are worshiping the gunas of Mahavira’s Jiva, in hopes to attain the same gunas in their own Jivas. Jains do not call themselves idol-worshipers, “but profess to be ideal-worshipers.”[18]

This concept of “worship of the gunas” is known as gunanuvada. “Guna” meaning quality, and “anuvada” meaning repetition/translation. In the context of this term, anuvada means the repetition/translation of a specific quality or set of qualities in oneself. Gunanuvada can be understood as being the worship of qualities in hopes to foster them in the self. Most Jains are not familiar with this term, and no one could give me an exact reference to where I could find the actual term gunanuvada in the literature, but it perfectly describes the mechanism in Jain worship.[19]

While I could not find term gunanuvada, literature does contain countless examples of the concept.

“By God, Jainism understands a liberated soul…in this sense God is an example to inspire and to guide”

-K.P. Singha, as quoted by Sharma[20]

“To realize my own (pure) nature I eulogize the perfect one…”

-Acharya Amitagati’s Yogasara-Prabhrta [21]

“Jina-worship promises no reward whatsoever save the turning of one’s mind toward the goal of moksa”

-Jaini, The Jaina Path of Purification[22]

“I bow to the Lord who is the leader of the path of liberation, the destroyer of the mountains of karmas and the knower of the whole reality, so that I may realize those qualities.”

-Opening verse of the Tattvartha Sutra[23]

Definitions of God in Jainism

Giving a succinct definition of God in Jainism is no easy task. Here are a variety of attempts from an array of sources:
“God is, in short, the coalescence of this spiritual principle emancipated from the bondages of matter in all its purity, perfection, freedom, and blessedness.”

-Encyclopedia of Jainism, p. 2425

“The Jaina idea of God is that of a pure soul possessed of infinite faith, knowledge, bliss, and
-Compendium of Jainism, p. 64

“Pure Soul is the supreme divine being. They are in reality one and the same, and the final goal of any particular soul is the attainment of infinite knowledge (ananta jnana), infinite faith (ananta darshana), infinite bliss (ananta sukha), and infinite power (ananta virya).
-The Concept of Divinity in Jainism[24]

A Jain saw me reading the above book and told me that no lay Jains would read a book like that. I thought about what he said, and realized that 99.9% of members of any religion would not read a dense scholarly book on the concept of divinity of their religion. The following quotes from pamphlets that the common Jain would be more likely to read:

“Mundane being (soul) - attachment/aversion = Supreme Soul (God)
Mundane being (soul) - indulgence in sensory objects (passions) = Supreme Soul (God)”

-“The Science of Godhood”[25]

“All liberated souls are known as God.”

-ABC’s of Jainism[26]

…atma (soul; self) itself is Paramatma (Supreme soul or being-God)

-I Myself am Bhagwan[27]

Taking all of these in to consideration, the Jain God can be defined as the perfected jivas. Acharya Amitagati’s Yogasara-Prabhrta is helpful in adding that, “The use of the singular number for the deity is only a collective expression for the plurality of liberated souls.”[28]

God vs. Godhood

If in Jainism there was no Siddha-Loka, so then the infinite number of perfected Jivas did not actually exist, then there would be a better case for Jainism being atheistic. Perhaps then the claim would be that Jains believe in Godhood, but not in God. Some Jains actually do say they believe in Godhood, but not God. My response is that believing only in Godhood implies that there is no being that exists that actually has the full characteristics of Godhood. In Jainism, there are an infinite number of beings that have attained Godhood, and thus they are God. Jainism, then, believes in both God and Godhood.

Attributes of the Jain God

Divine attributes are properties that are often claimed to be essential and/or unique to God. Very common divine attributes are the omni-properties: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. It is often said that God should be a personal God who created the world and rules over it. Various religions proclaim different divine attributes. There is no ultimate list that compiles all of the possible divine attributes, and there is no minimal number of divine attributes, or one necessary attribute, that a religion’s deity must have for that deity to be considered god or God, or for that religion to be considered atheistic or theistic.

I asked many Jains if they believe in God, and the answer is usually “no.” But when I press them on the issue, asking “Well then what is being worshiped in the temple?” the reply is usually along the lines of, “Well, Jains don’t believe in a creator God.” My response is that the creative attribute is not a necessary attribute of God.

Divine attributes of God in Jainism:

Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Omnibenevolence: It has been stated numerous times in this essay that the perfected Jiva has infinite knowledge and perception, so the point of the Jain God having omniscience does not require additional attention. It has also been stated that the Jiva has infinite power, but also that it does not intervene in the world. The important connection here is that the perfected Jiva has infinite bliss, thus it has no need for any action. A Jiva could act, it has the power to act, but it has no need or desire to act.[29] Any action would represent a need or a want, and a liberated Jiva has no needs or wants. Further more, any Jiva that did have a desire to act would necessarily not be a perfected Jiva, thus it would not have infinite power.

Omnibenevolence is also a tricky one. The argument against the Jain God being omnibenevolent is strong, because even though the Jain God is all powerful, He does not intervene to prevent suffering and evil, but theodicy is an issue for all religions that espouse an all powerful and all good God. But of all such religions, theodicy is the least contentious in Jainism because of the position that infinite bliss rules out any motive for action even though the power for action is there.

Personal: Jains deny the existence of Isvara, a personal God, but they often worship God through an individual person, such as Mahavira. In this way the attribute of a personal God enters into Jain worship. Hemachandra says: “Omniscient, with desires and other faults conquered, honored by the triple world, and explaining the true meaning: He is God, Arhat, the Supreme Lord.”[30] Here, “Supreme Lord” was translated from “paramesvara,” which is the combination of the words “parama” and “isvara.”[31] So here is an example of isvara being used in the scriptures.

    • Eternal: Each Jiva has been bound by Karma since beginning-less time, and once liberated, each Jiva will remain liberated forever in the Siddha-Loka.

    • Transcendent: The liberated Jivas are literally above us, at the top of the Universe in the Siddha- Loka, where they cannot intervene in the world.
    • Eminent: The potential for God is inside each human.[32]

    • Oneness: This can go either way. Each soul does maintain its separateness, but it could be said that the Jain God is comprised of an infinite number of separate entities that all share in the same divine qualities. Just as the monistic schools say that there are infinite manifestations of Brahman. But as said before, none of these individual divine qualities make or break the case for theism.

Application of Gunanuvada

The concept of gunanuvada was mentioned before as a central mechanism in Jain worship. But gunanuvada is not specific to Jainism. The worship of qualities with the intent to foster them in the self is common in many secular activities. When I was younger, I wanted to be really good at basketball. Not only would I practice all day, but every night as I fell asleep, and every morning when I woke up, I would gaze at large wall posters of my favorite basketball players in hopes of fostering in myself their qualities. They would inspire me, and increase my resolution to practice more. That is a type of secular gunanuvada.

Kurt Vonnegut had been the Honorary President of the American Humanist Association. When he died last year, there was a certain ubiquitous picture of him that seemed to make it into many obituaries and articles about his life. I associate that picture; Vonnegut’s big glossy eyes and soft smile, with humanistic values. Looking at that picture fosters within me humanistic values; it makes me view human life the way he viewed human life; both with awe, and with a grain of salt. That is a type of atheist gunanuvada. If gunanuvada does have its locus in Jainism, than Jainism should be very proud of it.[33] As atheism is gaining popularity in the current era, gunanuvada has the potential to give modern atheists meaningful rituals toward philosophers, novelists, or any personage: living, historical, or fictional.

In Christianity, even though most worship is towards a God who has the ability to intervene, there is still an aspect of gunanuvada. The ever so popular plastic bracelets that say, “WWJD,” “What Would Jesus Do?” are actually a form of gunanuvada. The bracelets remind the wearer to be like Jesus in everyday actions, thus fostering the qualities of Jesus in themselves.

Gunanuvada in Jainism

Gunanuvada in Jainism is distinct from gunanuvada in the secular, atheistic, and religious applications exampled above. In Jainism, the qualities that are being worshiped with the intent to foster them in the self are actually divine attributes. In the example of the basketball gunanuvada, the qualities being worshiped might be physical prowess or accurate throwing of the ball. In the Humanist gunanuvada, the qualities might be full appreciation for all human beings, an appropriate attitude towards life, and faith in reason. Even though Jesus is considered God in Christianity, the WWJD gunanuvada does not focus on Jesus’ divine attributes, but on his human attributes. The wearer of the WWJD bracelet is not trying to foster the omni-properties, but just increased morality. In Jain gunanuvada, the qualities are infinite knowledge, perception, bliss, and power. When the qualities being worshiped in gunanuvada are divine attributes, I call this gunanutheism, and while it may be unsatisfactory, it fits better than atheism as a possible classification of Jain divinity.

Other possible classifications

Both Humanism and Jainism place much value on the potential of humans. A main difference is that Jainism gives humans the potential to be God. In the Article “Hindu Titanism,” Nicholas Gier quotes Heinrich Zimmer, calling this the “heresy of Titanism,” and it is characterized by the “preemption of divine prerogatives and confusion of human and divine attributes.”[34] Gier discusses but does not define the term spiritual Titanism. He defines titanism as “a radical humanism that does not recognize that there are limits to what humans can become and what they should do.”[35] Any religion that takes part in the Titanism discussed by Gier and Zimmer, that is, the attainment of divine attributes by humans, can be considered a type of spiritual Titanism. The spiritual progress of the Arhat and Siddha from human to God is an exemplary form of spiritual Titanism. But spiritual Titanism is not an exclusive categorization, it just descriptive. Jainism can be both spiritually titanic and theistic, atheistic, or anything in between.

L.R. Joshi, in “A New Interpretation of Indian Atheism,” describes a number of Indian religions, including Jainism, as being semi-theistic. He defines semi-theism as a seemingly atheistic doctrine “which shows clear tendencies towards theism.”[36] Semi-theism is a very useful term, and while it may, as Joshi argues, perfectly describe what Buddhism has become, the classification does not work as well in Jainism. The term semi-theism implies some sort of partial, or incomplete theism. This stems from Joshi’s definition of theism: “Theism stands for the doctrine of a personal God (Isvara), who is the ultimate principle of the universe, the primordial guardian of moral values, and lastly, the highest object of our religious worship.”[37] Joshi uses semi-theism for a religion that has some but not all of the listed aspects. Joshi is implying that there are some essential attributes necessary for a religion to be considered theistic. I had argued earlier that this is not the case. But within the generally accepted definition of theism and of God, Jainism does fit well within the realm of Joshi’s semi-theism.

Another possible classification is as uttar-vada.[38] In Hinduism, avatars are God or gods that descend to the level of human. This is known as avatar-vada. In Jainism, the humans rise to the level of God, and can be known as uttar-vada. Uttar meaning “ascend.”

Deism is the belief that God exists but does not intervene in the world beyond what is necessary to create it. The obvious issue here is that the God of Jainism is not a creator God. But both deism and Jain theism believe in a non-interventionist God.

Nontheists do not affirm or negate the existence of God. They are likely to understand God as a symbol of human values and aspirations. Similarly, the Jain God is a symbol of human values and aspirations, but the important difference is that in Jainism God actually exists in the Siddha-Loka.


All of these different classifications of religions bring something to the table of Jain theism, but it is gunanutheism, the worship of divine attributes to foster them in the self, that most accurately describes Jainism.


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