Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world, originating in India at least 2,500 years ago. The spiritual goal of Jainism is to break free from the never-ending cycle of rebirth and achieve an all-knowing state called moksha. This can be achieved by leading a nonviolent life, or ahimsa, with the least possible negative impact on other forms of life.
The traditions of Jainism have been widely carried over by a succession of 24 tirthankaras, or teachers, notably Vardhamana Mahavira, the last of the tirthankaras and probably a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. Mahavira and Buddha both emphasized the importance of self-discipline, meditation, and the ascetic life as the key to salvation. Their teachings often contrasted with those of the Vedic priests of the day who emphasized ritualistic practices and their own role as intermediaries between mankind and the gods.
Today, a fraction of the Indian population (0.4%) identify as Jain, making it the smallest of the six major religious groups in the country after Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. Indians on the whole know very little about this ancient religion and its practices, according to a Pew Research Center report from June 2021 based on a survey of nearly 30,000 Indians. Here are six facts about the Jains in India, taken from the report.
The Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to take a closer look at the Jain population in India. It is based on the June 2021 report “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation,” the most comprehensive and in-depth exploration of Indian public opinion to date. For this report, we conducted 29,999 face-to-face interviews in 17 languages with adults aged 18 and over living in 26 Indian states and three Union Territories. The sample included interviews with 22,975 Hindus, 3,336 Muslims, 1,782 Sikhs, 1,011 Christians, 719 Buddhists and 109 Jains. Another 67 respondents belong to other religions or have no religious affiliation. Interviews for this nationally representative survey were conducted from November 17, 2019 to March 23, 2020.
Respondents were selected using a probability sampling design that would allow a robust analysis of all major religious groups in India, as well as all major regional areas. Six groups were targeted for oversampling as part of the survey design: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and those living in the Northeast region. The data has been weighted to account for the different probabilities of selection among respondents and to align with the demographic benchmarks of the Indian adult population from the 2011 census.
Here are the questions used for this report, along with the answers and its methodology.
The Jains are concentrated in western India, largely in Maharashtra. Despite the historical origins of Jainism in the eastern region of India, few Jains remain in the east. It is believed that changes in the regional concentration of Jains began around 300 BCE, when Jains began to migrate west, possibly in search of more favorable kingdoms. Today, 4% of the population of Mumbai – the capital of Maharashtra and the commercial and business center of India – identify as Jain.
Jains are better educated and wealthier than Indians in general, and few identify themselves as lower castes. About a third (34%) of Jain adults have at least a college degree, compared to 9% of the general public, according to the 2011 Indian census. In addition, the vast majority of Jains fall in the top wealth quintiles of India. India, according to the Indian National Survey on Family and Health.
Wealth and education in India are inextricably linked to caste. Jains are the only religious group in India where a majority report belonging to a higher general category caste. Most Indians (68%) are members of lower castes (listed castes, listed tribes or other backward classes), against 20% of Jains who identify with these communities.
Almost all Jains are vegetarians, according to advice for pursuing ahimsa (do not harm other lives). About nine in ten Indian Jains (92%) identify as vegetarians, and two-thirds of Jains (67%) go further by abstaining from root vegetables like garlic and onion. Eating root vegetables is considered a form of violence in Jain teachings because consuming the root of a plant destroys the plant in its entirety. These eating practices extend outside the home; more than eight in ten Jain vegetarians also say they would not eat at a non-vegetarian friend or neighbor’s house (84%) or at a restaurant serving non-vegetarian options (91%).
Jains feel they have a lot in common with Indian Hindus. Despite the theological differences between Jain and Hindu teachings – for example, Hinduism teaches that the universe was created, but Jainism does not – the two religions share many similarities in their teachings and practices. For example, both religions teach karma, and about three-quarters of Jains (75%) and Hindus (77%) say they believe in karma. (Karma is often understood as the idea that humans will eventually reap the benefits of their good deeds and pay the price for their bad deeds, often in their next lifetime, although survey respondents were not given a definition. )
Additionally, when asked if Jains and Hindus in India have a lot in common or are very different, about two-thirds of Jains (66%) say the two communities have a lot in common.
However, this feeling is not entirely mutual. Only 19% of Hindus see much in common with Jains. Perhaps one of the reasons for this mismatch is that Jains tend to know more about Hindus – who make up 81% of the Indian population – than the other way around. Three in ten Jains say they know “a lot” about the Hindu religion and its practices, while only 3% of Hindus say they know a lot about Jainism.
Like many Indians, Jains tend to prefer to live separately from other religious groups and castes. While almost all Jains (92%) say they would be ready to accept a Hindu neighbor, far fewer say they would be ready to accept a Muslim (38%), a Christian (46%), a Sikh (55 %) or a Buddhist (58%) in the region where they live. Additionally, a large majority of Indian Jains say it is important to prevent women (82%) and men (81%) from marrying other religious groups. And although they make up only a small portion of the national population, nearly three-quarters of Jains report that all or most of their close friends are also Jains (72%).
These attitudes are not uncommon in India – the majority of Hindus also oppose religious mixed marriages – and may be partly related to the particular demographic makeup of Jains. For example, while a majority of Jains identify themselves as members of the upper general category castes, Buddhists in India overwhelmingly identify as Dalits, or members of lower listed castes. In fact, Jains are much more likely than other Indians to say that they would not accept a member of a listed caste as a neighbor (41% vs. 21% nationally). Additionally, a large majority of Jains say it is important to prevent women (79%) and men (74%) in their community from marrying other castes.
Food preferences may also play a role in Jain attitudes towards other groups; unlike the Jains, most Muslims and Christians in India, for example, say they are not vegetarians.
Politically, the Jains lean towards the party in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Seven in ten Jains say they feel closest to the BJP, while only 8% say they feel closest to the Indian National Congress (INC), the main opposition party. In fact, Jains are more likely than other religious communities in India, including Hindus, to feel political affinities with the BJP: less than half of Hindus (44%) say they feel closest to the BJP, a party which some claim promotes a Hindu nationalist agenda.
The Jains’ political preference for the BJP may be partly linked to their views on religion and national identity, which in some ways reflect Hindu nationalist sentiments closer to their fellow Hindus than other minority communities in India. A significant proportion of Jains (44%) say that being a Hindu is very important to be truly Indian, as do the majority of Hindus (64%). Among other religious groups, far fewer share this view, of which only 21% are Sikhs. A small majority of Jains (54%) also associate the authentic Indian identity with the Hindi language, one of dozens of languages spoken in India. Among Hindus, these feelings are closely associated with support for BJP.
Kelsey Jo Starr is a religion-focused research analyst at the Pew Research Center.