Jains believe that the only way to save one's own soul is to protect every other soul, and so the most central Jain teaching, and the heart of Jain ethics, is that of ahimsa (non-violence).
Ahimsa is often translated simply as non-violence, but its implications are far wider; it is more than not doing violence, it is more than an attitude, it is a whole way of life. And for modern Jains the concept also includes the positive elements of working for justice, peace, liberation, and freedom, if doing so does not involve violence.
Mahatma Gandhi was a famous advocate of Ahimsa, as it informed his policy of passive resistance, satyagraha (combining the Sanskrit terms for 'truth' and 'holding firmly') - which he adopted towards the occupying British forces during the period leading up to Indian independence. Some Jains have criticised this as being a subtle form of violence.
Literally translated, Ahimsa means to be without harm; to be utterly harmless, not only to oneself and others, but to all forms of life, from the largest mammals to the smallest bacteria.
Jains believe that life (which equals soul) is sacred regardless of faith, caste, race, or even species.

Refraining from violence

One should refrain from violence to any living creature. Violence includes:

  • physical violence
  • mental violence
  • verbal violence

Violence can be committed in several ways, all of which should be avoided:

  • committing it yourself
  • asking others to commit violence
  • encouraging others to commit violence
  • assenting to or condoning violence

Violence involves violent intention as well as physical harm

This is controversial among Jains and both the points below are disputed. Accidental physical harm may not count as violence if there was no violent intention, but lack of compassion or care may be a sufficiently violent intention.

Ahimsa touches every area of life, so Jains:

  • are vegetarian
  • don't use cloth whose production hurts animals or humans
  • take care to preserve life in everything they do

Jains are also not allowed to do jobs that cause harm, for example:

  • those involving furnaces or fires
  • those in which trees are cut
  • those involving fermentation
  • trading in meat products, honey or eggs
  • trading in silk, leather etc
  • selling pesticides
  • selling weapons
  • digging
  • circus work involving animals
  • zoo work

Ahimsa is positive as well as negative, so it's good to:

  • forgive
  • promote tolerance
  • be compassionate
  • give to charity
  • work for peace
  • protect the environment
  • work for kindness to animals
  • do one's daily work in a just and honest way.

'Ahimsa paramo dharmah' (Non-violence is the supreme religion)

Jains believe that violence in thought and speech is as bad as physical violence, so they try to control things like anger, greed, pride and jealousy.

Jains also believe that getting others to do harm, or allowing others to do harm, is as bad as doing harm yourself.

Most Jains believe that ahimsa doesn't just mean not doing harm - it also means working positively to promote tolerance, forgiveness and compassion, and to help those who are less fortunate. So ordinary Jains give regularly to charity.

Monks and nuns follow the doctrine of ahimsa in every part of their life with great strictness:

  • monks walk in the street and sweep the ground with the utmost care so as to avoid accidentally crushing crawling insects
  • monks wear muslin cloths over their mouths to make sure they don't swallow and thus harm any flies
  • monks are not allowed to use violence in self-defence even if this results in their own death.

Lay Jains try to follow the doctrine in every part of their life, but not so strictly - since full ahimsa is not compatible with everyday life. Some harm is inevitably done, for instance, in the following activities:

  • preparing food
  • cleaning buildings
  • walking
  • driving
  • self-defence against attack

The golden rule for lay Jains is to avoid doing any harm intentionally; harm which is unavoidably done in the course of employment, normal domestic life, or in self-defence is accepted, although should be avoided if possible.

Some forms of employment seem to be incompatible with Jainism - Jains can't work as butchers, fishermen, brewers, wine-merchants, arms-dealers, mill-owners and so on.

Lay Jains should be vegetarians: as their scripture forbids them to intentionally injure any form of life above the class of one-sensed beings, they can only eat vegetables. Nor will Jains serve meat to guests, or permit any ill-treatment of animals.

Jains believe that all living creatures depend on each other. One text says "All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence." Mahavira said: "One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them".


Jains condemned any form of animal sacrifice as part of religious rituals. Animals must not be kept in captivity, starved, or treated cruelly.

Jains believe that all living creatures depend on each other