Buddhism and Jainism

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Mahāvīra and Buddha were contemporaries, there are no mentions of the two teachers meeting, but there are mentions of Mahavira's disciples questioning Buddha in various Suttas. The Buddhists have always maintained that by the time Buddha and Mahavira were alive, Jainism was already an entrenched faith and culture in the region. Buddhist scriptures record philosophical dialogues between the wandering seeker Siddarttha Gotama (Buddha) and Udaka Ramaputta, and the first of several teachers that young Siddattha Gotama studied with before his enlightenment.

Buddhist scriptures attest that some of the first Buddhists were in fact Jains (Nirgranthas as they were then called, meaning "the unbonded ones") who "converted", but were encouraged by Buddha to maintain their Jain identity and practises such as giving alms to Jain monks and nuns. Buddhists recorded that Mahavira preached the "fourfold restraint" of the Nirgrantha tradition, a clear reference to the teachings of Mahavira's predecessor Lord Parshva (877-777 BCE), traditionally the 23rd Tirthankara of Jainism; who propounded the four vows of Ahinsa (Ahimsa), Satya (truth), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and Asteya (non-stealing), which may have been the template for the Five Precepts of Buddhism. Additionally, the Buddhist Anguttara Nikaya scripture quotes the independent philosopher Purana Kashyapa (the sixth century BCE founder of a now extinct order) as listing the Nirgranthas as one of the six major classifications of humanity.

Similarities and differences

The common terms in Buddhism and Jainism:

  • Shramana
  • Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana): (the definition is different in the two traditions)
  • Arahant: the term is used somewhat similarly.
  • Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma)
  • Jina
  • Acharya (chief of the orders)
  • Sutta (Sanskrit: Sutra) (scriptures)
  • Indra/Shamkra (chief of the gods)

The terms that are used with different meanings:

  • Pudgala
  • Siddha

Common symbols:

  • Pratima, foot prints
  • Stupa
  • The dharma-chakra
  • The swastika
  • The trirathna
  • The ashta-mangalas
  • Minor devas


Vegetarianism is required for both monks and laity in Jainism. In Buddhism, the monks in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam are vegetarian; however strict vegetarianism is not required. By monastic tradition, a monk should eat whatever is placed in his bowl when begging food. The exceptions to not eat given meat were if the monk knew an animal was killed especially for him or he heard the animal being killed. See: Threefold rule

But for lay people it is not so clear and many lay Buddhists have chosen vegetarianism to better practice the Dhamma and keep the precepts. In general, the precept against killing living beings in Buddhism centers around intent, whereas, the Jains take it further and avoid all possible killing. Some Jains wear masks around the mouth, thinking it will prevent the killing of microorganisms. They also refrain from eating animal products and root vegetables, thereby not even killing the plant, as they trim the greens off the root plant. Seen in this way, the Buddhists who practice vegetarianism (animal products, such as eggs, honey, dairy, root vegetables acceptable to eat) are not that extreme, when compared to the Jain diet.

A further look at the similarities

Much has been made of the similarities between Buddha and Jesus in their lives and teachings, although there are some marked differences. The similarities between Buddhism and Jainism and Buddha and Mahavira are much more pronounced.

No creator god

  • There is no creator god in Jainism.
  • There is no creator god in Buddhism.

No creation myth

  • There is no creation myth in Jainism, a first beginning is not knowable.
  • There is no creation myth in Buddhism, a first beginning is not knowable.

Previous founders

  • Mahavira was not the founder, but rather the re-discoverer of the truth according to Jainism.
  • Buddha was not the founder, but rather the re-discoverer of the truth according to Buddhism.

24 prior teachers

  • According to Jainism there are 24 known tirthankaras who discovered the truth after a time when the teachings were lost.
  • According to Buddhism (Buddhavamsa) there were 24 previous Buddhas who discovered the truth (plus 3 in prehistoric times and Gotama-Buddha for a total of 28.

Warrior caste

  • Mahavira was born into the ksatriya caste (warrior caste).
  • Buddha was born into the ksatriya caste (warrior caste).


  • Mahavira was born to a ksatriyan chief named Siddhatha.
  • Buddha was to a ksatriyan chief and Buddha's birth name was Siddhatha.


  • Mahavira married a woman named Yasoda.
  • Buddha married a woman named Yasoda.

One child

  • Mahavira had one child (a daughter).
  • Buddha had one child (a son).

Height of 6 feet

  • It is reported that Mahavira was 6 feet tall (1.83m)
  • It is reported that Buddha was 6 feet tall (1.83m)

Enlightenment under a tree

  • Mahavira renounced the world at age 20 attained enlightenment under a tree at 28 and lived to 72 years.
  • Buddha renounced the world at age 29 attained enlightenment under a tree at 35 and lived to 80 years.


  • Mahavira practiced asceticism toward enlightenment.
  • Buddha practiced asceticism toward / prior to enlightenment.

One Meal a Day

  • Buddhist monks and nuns (especially Theravada) eat their food before 12 noon, many doing only one meal a day for lunch (no other meals for the day).
  • Jain monks and nuns eat their food before 12 noon, many doing only one meal a day for lunch (no other meals for the day).

Dharma Shramana

  • Jainism is in the Dharma category of religions that practice Shramana, which includes forms of renunciation and mental purification.
  • Buddhism is in the Dharma category of religions that practice Shramana, which includes forms of renunciation and mental purification.


  • The color yellow is associated with Mahavira
  • The color yellow is associated with Buddha (he wore yellow robes) and yellow is a common color in Buddhist temples

Rejection of caste

  • Jainism rejects caste distinctions based on birth.
  • Buddhism rejects caste distinctions based on birth.

5 precepts

  • There are 5 great vows or precepts in Jainism.
  • There are 5 primary precepts in Buddhism.

First Precept of Ahimsa

  • The first precept in Jainism is Ahimsa (non-violence), which extends to all living beings.
  • The first precept in Buddhism is to not kill, which extends to all living beings.

Second precept

  • A second precept in Jainism is Satya (truthfulness).
  • A second precept in Buddhism is truthfulness.

Third precept

  • A third precept in Jainism is Asteya (not stealing).
  • A third precept in Buddhism is not stealing.

Fourth precept

  • A fourth precept in Jainism is Brahmacharya (celibacy for monks and nuns no sexual misconduct for lay people).
  • A fourth precept in Buddhism is to refrain from sexual misconduct (celibacy for monks and nuns).

Fifth precept

  • A fifth precept in Jainism in is Aparigraha non-materialism, non-attachment to material things.
  • A fifth precept in Buddhism is refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness. (The only precept of the 5 which is somewhat different, but not completely different since the Buddhist version is also calling for no attachment.)

Fourfold assembly

  • Mahavira instituted a fourfold assembly of monks, nuns, lay men, and lay women.
  • Buddha instituted a fourfold assembly of monks, nuns, lay men, and lay women.

Nirvana (Nibbana)

  • Jainism teaches that one must undergo pure conduct, practice meditation and attain enlightenment, release from rebirth.
  • Buddhism teaches that one must undergo pure conduct, practice meditation and attain enlightenment, release from rebirth.

The other shore

  • In Jainism the tirthankaras are known as ford-makers, who have crossed the river of samsara and rebirth.
  • In Buddhism the simile of crossing the ocean to the other shore is frequently used to describe enlightenment, nibbana.

Middle Way

The Buddha is of course famous for his Middle Way, breaking away from the ascetics by bathing and taking some food prior to enlightenment. But how much of a break-away from asceticism was it? By today's standards the practice of the Buddha would most certainly be still considered asceticism. As he sat for enlightenment the Buddha remarked:

"Though my skin, my nerves and my bones shall waste away and my life blood go dry, I will not leave this seat until I have attained the highest wisdom, called supreme enlightenment, that leads to everlasting happiness." (Majjhima Nikaya 70)

Such was the Buddha's persistence and determination to attain enlightenment. The Buddha took food for nourishment and strength from Sujata and then according to some traditions or legends sat in meditation for several days before attaining enlightenment. Although not in the Suttas, in the Commentaries there is the report that the Buddha ate this meal and did not eat for 49 days (J.i.68f.; DhA.i.71), which would be considered asceticism at least by today's standards if not by the ascetic standard of ancient India. Even if it was a large meal, this 49 days is still a considerable amount of time to fast between the meal and enlightenment.

Buddhist teachings list 13 ascetic practices conducive for jhanas as well as other teachings praising certain ascetic practices.

"I do not say householder, that all asceticism should be practiced; nor do I say of all asceticism that it should not be practiced" (Anguttara Nikaya 10.94).

"The person who wears a robe made of rags, who is lean, with veins showing all over the body, and who meditates alone in the forest him do I call a holy man" (Dhammapada 395).


In Jainism plants are considered to have life force and spirit. In later Buddhist teachings a clear line was drawn where the Buddhist cosmology included humans, animals, devas and other celestial beings, but not plants. However, there is some indication that this may have been a later development and that the early Buddhists regarded plants as somewhat a borderline case between sentient and insentient. The Buddhist Vinaya prohibits monks and nuns from doing any kind of violence against plants (Pac.10, 11). According to both Jainism and Buddhism, plants are one-facultied (kaayindriya, jiivitindriya); a form of rudimentary life. There is scientific research that is showing some possible evidence of neurobiology and possible sentience in plants.

Which came first?

Jainism is clearly older than Buddhism if we just go by the archeological and historical records. Both religions claim that their founders, Mahavira and Buddha rediscovered the teachings after they had died out from a previous era. The Buddhist scriptures clearly refer to Jainism as if it is an already entrenched religion. And there is reference made to a previous Jain teacher born at least a couple of centuries before Buddha. Both religions maintained an oral tradition and did not have their teachings put to writing for hundreds of years. The Buddhist Tipitaka was put to writing around 100 BCE. However, the Jain sutras did not get put to writing until the 6th century CE (Mahesh Jain, 2004) which is about 600 years after the Buddhist scriptures. The scriptures also have numerous parallels, including some of the same stories and same formats. There is even a numerical section of the Jain sutras similar to the numerical lists found in the Buddhist Anguttara Nikaya. Considering this, it can be argued that the Jain writers copied some material or at least the format off the Buddhist scriptures.

Alara Kalama and Udakka Ramaputa

Prior to the Buddha's enlightenment he studied under some other teachers and was an ascetic. Under Alara Kalama he reached the sphere of nothingness, commonly known today as 7th jhana. And then under Udakka Ramaputta he attained the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, known today as 8th jhana. The formula presentation of the jhanas in the Suttas is that one must go through all the jhanas in stages, which means that Alara Kalama and Udakka Ramaputa and other ascetics were able to get to all of the rupa (form) jhanas and most of the highest arupa (formless) jhana meditative states. Since they were shramanas and ascetics, it is very possible Alara Kalama and Udakka Ramaputa were Jains.

"Thus Āḷāra Kālāma, my teacher, placed me, his pupil, on an equal footing with himself and awarded me the highest honour. But it occurred to me: ‘This Dhamma does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna, but only to reappearance in the base of nothingness. Not being satisfied with that Dhamma, disappointed with it, I left.’ https://suttacentral.net/en/mn26/23-

The Buddha's first experience of jhanas came when he was a child:

"I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?’ Then, following on that memory, came the realization: ‘That is indeed the path to enlightenment.’ ... https://suttacentral.net/en/mn36/39

Note that he attained first jhana and the higher ones later in succession. And also note, the Buddha states that it is the "path to enlightenment" which would mean that Jains practicing this type of meditation are also on the path to enlightenment.


In the Buddhist scriptures there are references to the Buddha or one of his disciples meeting and debating with Jains. In virtually every instance the Buddha or one of his disciples wins the debate and the Jain converts to Buddhism. A less than favorable light is also portrayed to the founder of Jainism, Mahavira. When we compare the vast amount of similarities between the Buddha and Mahavira and Buddhism and Jainism, it is possible that the differences were even less in early Buddhism. A more drastic change may have occurred when Buddhism placed less emphasis on ahimsa as can be seen in Buddhist writings that tend to justify and allow meat eating, for example. It is possible that the early Buddhists were more insistent on vegetarianism as additionally evidenced by King Ashoka who wanted to gradually phase out the killing of animals for food. King Ashoka ruled and lived before the Pali Canon was put to writing.

There are marked differences in the definitions of kamma and nibbana (karma and nirvana) and the Buddha was practicing asceticism prior to enlightenment. In light of these facts it is possible that both Mahavira and Buddha were practicing some form of Jainism/Shramana/asceticism and the Buddha got it right (and was the actual new enlightened one to teach the masses, not Mahavira) in regard to nibbana and kamma but both were insistent on ahimsa and many other teachings.