Jainism is an ancient religion from India that teaches that the way to liberation and bliss is to live a life of harmlessness and renunciation. Most Jains live in India, where the latest census was found 3.2 million Jains. Jains believe that like human beings, animals and plants also contain living souls. Each of these souls, whatever species it may be in, is considered of equal value and should be treated with respect and compassion. Jain prayers aren’t like the God-focussed prayers but tend to recall the great qualities of the tirthankaras and remind the individual of their various teachings. Jains believe that a person who has right faith and right knowledge will be motivated and able to achieve right conduct. Many of them believe that a person without right faith and right knowledge cannot achieve right conduct – so it’s no use following scripture and ritual for the wrong reasons.
Jainism doesn’t have a single founder. The truth has been revealed at different times by a tirthankara, which means a teacher who appears in the world to teach the way to moksha (liberation). Other religions call such a person a “prophet”. As great omniscient teachers, Tirthankaras accomplished the highest spiritual goal of existence and then teach others how to achieve it. A Tirthankar is not an incarnation of the God. He is an ordinary soul that is born as a human and attains the states of a Tirthankar as a result of intense practices of penance, equanimity and meditation. As such, the Tirthankar is not defined as an Avatar (god-incarnate) but is the ultimate pure developed state of the soul. Each new tirthankara preaches the same basic Jain philosophy, but they give the Jain way of life subtly different forms in order to suit the age and the culture in which they teach. In what Jains call the “present age” there have been 24 tirthankaras – although there is some historical evidence for the earthly existence of the 23rd tirthankara, Parshva, who lived about 250 years before Mahavira. In his time four of the five Jain principles were non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, and not owning things. Chastity was added by the next tirthankara, Mahavira.
Mahavira is regarded as the man who gave Jainism its present-day form although this is true only in the widest sense. He is sometimes wrongly called “the founder of Jainism”. Mahavira is only this world’s most recent tirthankara (and will be the last one in this age). It may be more useful to think of him as a reformer and popularizer of an ancient way of life rather than as the founder of a faith. Mahavira was originally born as Vardhamana in northeast India in 599 BC (that’s the traditional date but some modern scholars prefer 540 BC, or even later). He was a prince, the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, who were members of the kshatriya (warrior) caste and followers of the teachings of Parshva. When he reached thirty years of age, not long after the death of both his parents, he left the royal palace to live the life of an ascetic, or a sadhana (one who renounces all worldly pleasures and comforts). He spent twelve and a half years subjecting himself to extremely long, arduous periods of fasting and meditation. Eventually his efforts bore fruit, and Vardhamana attained Kevalnyan, enlightenment, and therefore was later called Mahavira, (great hero: maha =great, vira = hero). According to tradition Mahavira is said to have established a community of 14,000 monks and 36,000 nuns before he died. One of his immediate disciples, Jambu, was the last person in this age to achieve enlightenment. Over the next centuries the Jain community grew and spread to central and western parts of India.
Jain traditions count many converts among the contemporary rulers. Even Naganajita, ruler of Gandhara is said to have been converted to the Jain faith. But a religion favoring severe asceticism and having great limitations made littler appeal to the common man. Its expansion was slow, and it did not win converts beyond the subcontinent. The Jain tradition also includes Chandragupta Maurya among its followers. During a severe famine this great Mauryan Emperor abdicated the throne, became a monk and migrated to Mysore along with other Jains under the leadership of Bhadrabahu and starved himself to death. Out of this migration arose a division in the Jain ranks. Those Jains who remained behind in the North were led by Sthulabhadra and came to be known as Svetambaras, as they were allowed to put on white garments by their leader. Those who went to the south continued to observe the strict rules and went about naked and hence were called Digambaras (sky-clad). The division, however, did not lead to any doctrinal differences. As a result of the influence of Bhadrabahu, Jainism spread in the south. We find it prospering in Bengal as far west as Mathura. Still later the Chalukyan rulers of Gujarat patronized Jainism. There have been some renowned Jain authors in that region. In Western India it spread among the mercantile community and survives there to this day. The reason of its survival in India is said to be its organization of its lay-disciples into a sangha. That of course has given it a great advantage over Buddhism but Jainism did not come across severe opposition from growing Hinduism, as its appeal was rather limited. Again in practical life it made a compromise with general social rules. Categorically speaking, it survives as a sect of Hinduism and one can hardly distinguish the Jains from Hindus.
This article was last updated on Monday, Jan 03, 2005