Jainism originated in India thousands of years ago and is thought to have heavily influenced the two other main belief systems of the region at that time: Hinduism and Buddhism. The religion centres on the progress of one’s soul towards a divine consciousness through self-reformation, wisdom and self-control and pacifism towards all living creatures. There are two main sects of Jains today; the Digambara and the Svetambara. There are thought to be 10 million Jains worldwide, the majority of them in India and amongst Indian expatriate communities in North America, Asia and East Africa.
Jainism grew in India many thousands of years ago. As with Hinduism, some Jains believe that the origins are millions of years ago, although obviously it is impossible to verify the exact origins. The more realistic assessment is that the religion dates back to the second or third millennium BCE, and there are archaeological remnants found among the Indus Valley civilisations (sites such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in modern Pakistan) from around 1500 BCE that appear to mention Jain Tirthankaras.
Jains believe that there had been 24 great teachers known as ‘Tirthan-karas’ (‘those who have discovered and then shown the way to eternal salvation’) who taught people how to live in harmony with the universe and ultimately to achieve spiritual liberation through their own example. The first of these Tirthankaras was Rushabha. The 23rd was Parsva who lived from 872-772 BCE according to some sources.
The last of these teachers born in northern India in 599 BCE was Virdhamana, the son of King Siddhartha. At the age of 30, he went into seclusion as an ascetic and following twelve years of intense prayer and contemplation, claimed to reach enlightenment. It was at that point that he was given the title Mahavira (great hero). He spent the rest of his life teaching others how to fulfil the purpose of their existence and to achieve complete liberation from the shackles of modern life. He is widely accredited with establishing the present ‘Jain’ belief system. Mahavira passed away in 527 BCE at the age of 72 years leaving behind 14,000 monks and 36,000 nuns.
The 24 Tirthankaras in order are:
Rushabha, Ajitnath, Sambhavanath, Abhinandan Swami, Sumatinath, Padmaprabhu, Suparshvanath, Chandraprabhu, Pushpadanta, Sheetalnath, Shreyansanath, Vasupujya Swami, Vimalnath, Anantnath, Dharmanath, Shantinath, Kunthananth, Aranath, Mallinath, Munisuvrata Swami, Nami Nath, Neminath, Parshavnath and Mahavira.
As mentioned earlier, through various interactions in India, Jainism had an influence on Hinduism and Buddhism, and they share concepts such as the seeking of freedom from worldly life and reincarnation of the soul. Some scholars suggest that Hinduism adopted vegetarianism through strong Jain influence across India.
Jains believe that the knowledge of the true path (dharma) reaches a zenith and then wanes several times through the cycle of history, and each time the knowledge is revived through a Tirthankara just as other monotheistic faiths believe that prophets were sent by a Creator to revive faith.
Mahavira is believed to have recorded his teachings in a series of texts known as the Agamas, although the Jain texts are the major source of controversy between the sects. The Digambara sect believes that following a vast famine in 350 BCE when many monks died, the original texts were also lost, whereas the Svetambara sect (whilst acknowledging that the Purvas texts were lost) believes that the majority of the texts survived in the form that we have today.
The most often cited book of the Jains is the Tattvartha Sutra (Book of Reality) thought to date from the second millennium BCE, but only recorded in written form in the 5th century CE by Umasvati, and it is at that point that Jainism splintered into the two main sects.
The Jains have 5 great vows by which they try to live their lives:
- Non-violence (Ahimsa) towards all living beings (human, animal or plant life) including a spectrum of harm from insult and injury to death;
- Not getting too attached (Aparigraha) to material possessions, people or places;
- Not telling lies (Satya);
- Not stealing (Asteya) or taking things that are not willingly handed over;
- Sexual restraint (Brahmacarya) practised as celibacy by monks and nuns, and monogamy by normal society.
They believe that all human, animal and plant life has a soul and therefore all of these life forms must be treated equally and fairly.
Jains believe that the purpose of man and creatures is to realise the soul’s true nature through the triple gems of (1) true perception, (2) true knowledge and (3) true conduct.
Unlike many other faiths, the Jains do not believe in a creator God or in spiritual beings such as angels, but do focus on the concept of reincarnation through which the soul evolves in life cycles until it reaches enlightenment when the soul is called jina (victorious). Whereas the major monotheistic faiths also believe in a spiritual journey, in the case of those faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), their followers seek the help of the Creator God to achieve spiritual liberation, whereas Jains believe that this journey is undertaken purely through their own efforts to achieve inner peace.
Moreover, the philosophy is that every soul is the architect of its own destiny. As a result of these beliefs, Jains also believe in an infinite Universe that was never created and will never end, but goes through major cycles.
The ultimate goal of self-reformation and the application of the Jain triple gems is to break free from the cycle of birth and death. In Jainism, a soul that frees itself (moksha) from the samsara cycle of life and death is called siddha (liberated soul) whereas those souls which are still attached to the wordly life are called samsarin (mundane souls). A liberated soul experiences boundless knowledge, power, perception and happiness.
As a result of these beliefs, they are vegetarians and aim to live in a manner which minimises the use of natural resources so as to limit the impact upon other life forms. Rigid followers will allow head lice to survive on their head and not shave their head or take any medicine. Even bacteria is not supposed to be killed.
Jains believe in soul reincarnation through phases including hell-being, sub-human (animal, plant and insects), human and super-human, and that there are an infinite number of souls in the Universe, that like matter, pre-existed creation.
Modern Jain society has a concept of monks and nuns similar to Buddhism and Christianity, but has no priestly class. Monks and nuns live a celibate and ascetic lifestyle and take on greater vows and responsibilities than normal society.
Jains are recognised by their symbol which is the Swastika. Although this symbol was misused by the Nazis of Germany in the last century, the original Jain symbol signifies peace and well-being. The Jain Swastika appears in all temples and holy books, and during ceremonies, a swastika is created using rice.
Jains do have some idols, but these represent souls that have conquered their passions rather than deities.
Jains have several days of fasting on which they abstain from all food but can take water. During the fast, they focus on worship, contemplation and reading scriptures. Although there are specific fast days, Jains also perform voluntary fasts at any time of the year to cleanse themselves.
Their festivals include the following:
- Mahavira Jayanti – a celebration of the birth of Mahavira
- Paryushana – 8 days of fasting
- Divali – a festival of renewal and lights also celebrated by Hindus, but significant for Jains as the day that Mahavira achieved enlightenment
- Kartak Purnima – an annual pilgrimage to the key Jain sites in India
- Mauna Agyaras – a single day of fasting
- Kshamavaani – a day to seek forgiveness from everyone else
Jains are renowned for the value that they place on education, and are recognised in India as the most literate community. Their libraries are well respected and complement the zeal for knowledge to enrich the soul.
- The Eliade Guide to World Religions, Mircea Eliade & Ioan Couliano, Harper Collins, USA 1991.
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, Harper Collins, London 1993.
- The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong, Atlantic Books, London 2006, p.240-244.