Origin Of Jainism

Jainism originated in India, although its time of origin cannot be determined. Jainism believes in a cyclical nature of the universe. Jains believe in a universe without beginning, end or creator, hence Jains will refer to the present cycle of the cosmos. The word Jain means a follower of the Jinas (spiritual victors). This title, or that of Tirthankara, was given to a succession of teachers who, through their own spiritual struggle, are believed to have attained Kevalajnana (infinite knowledge). Jains believe that there have been twenty-four Tirthankars. In the present cycle of the cosmos the last of these 24 Tirthankars, Vardhamana, usually called Mahavir (Great Victor) is believed to have been born in 599BC in contemporary Bihar, India. At the age of thirty Mahavir began a twelve year spiritual quest, which resulted in his attainment of Kevalajnana and the founding of the fourfold order of Sadhus (monks) and Sadhvis (nuns), Shravakas (laymen) and Shravikas (laywomen). Jainism does not believe in God as the creator of universe but as a liberated soul (Siddha) who has attained Moksha (liberation from the unending cycles of birth, death and re-birth). Every human being and every living being for that matter has the potential to attain Moksha and thus become God. One who is liberated is called Siddha.

Jainism has never compromised its core principle of non-violence. Rather it upholds non-violence as its supreme religion in the following words of Ahimsa Paramo Dharma and has strictly emphasized its practice at all levels.

Jainism is one of the oldest religions of India. We do not know exactly when it was founded. The Jainas themselves say that Jainism has existed since eternity and it had like the Jaina universe no beginning and would have no end. Most of the saints of Jainism belonged to remote ages, millions and billions of years ago. However, for practical purposes we may take Mahavir, their last great saint as a historical figure. He was a contemporary of the Buddha. Mahavir was the twenty-fourth and last of the Tirthankars of his age. The twenty-third Tirthankara was Parshvnath. He said is said to have lived two hundred and fifty years before Mahavir. The historicity of Mahavir is difficult to prove from Jaina sources alone because these were reduced to writing quite late. In fact one of the two main sects of the Jainas the Digambaras thinks that no records of the period of Mahavir have survived. The other sect the Shvetambaras assert that the oral traditions of the time of Mahavir were actually put down in the written form in the fifth century AD, i.e, a thousand years after Mahavir. Some account of the life of Mahavir can be obtained from this literature. According to the Shvetambaras, Mahavir was born at Vaishali a place about 45 km from Patina on Vhaitra, Shukla Trayodasi in 599 BC. He was a Kahatrya prince belonging to the Jnatra clan. He died in 517 BC in Pavapuri near Rajagriha. King Shrenika and his son Kunika were the rulers of Magadha during his time.

Jaina as the name of this particular sect does not occur in the Buddhist sources. The reason is that both Mahavir and the Buddha were called Jina by their respective follower, and the term Jaina would thus technically denote both the sects. However, the Niganthas according to the Buddhists were known for extreme ascetics, this is a characteristic which differentiates. The Niganthas are the same people who were known as the Jainas in later days. In fact the old Jaina literature such as the Acharanga Sutra describes their own community as that of Niganthas. However the historicity of Mahavir is not crucial to the history of Jainism. Mahavir was not the founder of Jainism in the sense that the Buddha was the founder of Buddhism. As stated earlier the Jainas Claim that their religion existed from time immemorial and Mahavir was the last great saint and reformer of that religion. The most important of these reforms was the introduction of the five vows in place of the four obtaining in the system of Parshvnath (the twenty-third Tirthankara of the Jainas).

The later history of Jainism is markers by a number of schisms. But one might say that different groups existed among the Jainas even at the time of Mahavir himself. There was an ascetic called Keshi who followed the system of Parshvnath. He had a long discussion with Gautama a disciple of Mahavir and finally accepted the latter's view and sincerely adopted the "law of the five vows". Thus Parshva's group and Mahavir's group originally separate, were united. However news schisms appeared according to the Shvetambaras even during Mahavir's lifetime. The first schism was by his own son-in law Jamili 14 years after Mahavir's enlightenment. The various schisms are known as Nihnavas. The most important schism, the eight Nihnava according to the Shvetambaras, occurred among the Jainas a few centuries after Mahavir. At that time the community broken into the two sects, the Digambaras (the skyclad) and Shvetambaras (the white-robed). It is interesting to note that the two sects describe the life of Mahavir differently. The Shvetambaras say that Mahavir lived as a prince upto the age of thirty. He had married and had a daughter, Anojja or Priyadarshana. His grand-daughter Yashovati was born after Mahavir had left home. Digambaras on the other hand believe that Mahavir never married.

"According to Jaina Philosophy, matter, which consists of atoms, is eternal, but may assume any form, such as earth, wind, and so on. All material things are ultimately produced by combination of atoms. Souls are of two Kinds: those which are subject to mundane transmigration (samsarin) and those which are liberated (mukta). The latter will be embodied more; they dwell in a state of perfection at the summit of the universe; being no more concerned with worldly affairs they have reached nirvana." The souls (Jiva) with which the whole world is filled are different from matter: but being substances they are also eternal. Subtle matter coming into contact with the soul causes its embodiment as it were a subtle body, it clings (ashrava) to the soul in all its migrations. The theory of Karma is the keystone of the Jaina system. The highest goal consists in getting rid (nirjara) of all Karma derived from past existences, and acquiring no new karma (samvara). One of the chief means of this end is the performance of asceticism (tapas). The methods by which a Jaina could get rid of the acquired karmas and attain nirvana have been prescribed. He should posses right Faith, right Knowledge the right Conduct. These are called Tri-ratna. He should also observe the following five vows:


1. Ahimsa (non-killing).
2. Sunrita (truthful speech)
3. Asteya (non-stealing)
4. Brahmacharya (celibacy), and
5. Aparigraha (non-possession).

Parshvnath had prescribed only four vows. Mahavir split Parshvnath's fourth vow which was perhaps aparigraha into two. It is said that brahmacharya was already included in aparigratha, but Mahavir made it explicit so as to remove any misunderstanding. It is clear that these vows are difficult for a layman to practice, therefore, required to observe these vows to the extent permitted by the conditions of their lives. Mahavir, and to some extent the Buddha, ignores the existence of the Vedic religion. When in their youth they left their home to become ascetics they were not protesting against any vedic or Brahmanic rule. In fact, it appears that they were doing just what was thought proper for the person of religion bent of mind in that part of the country. The Buddha after trying it abandoned the extreme form of asceticism. Thus, he was actually reacting against the practices followed by the Jains and similar other ascetics, when he founded his new faith of moderation. An important thing about Buddhism and Jainism is that there religious are not much concerned about other worldly things. Also, they have no theistic theories.

The people who are known as Jainas to-day called Nigganthas in the Shvetambar canonical works. Along with the Nigganthas there was in Magadha another sect were known as the followers of Parshva. In fact the Parents of Mahavir were themselves followers of Parshva. The Buddhists describe both the groups as the Niganthas, but the Jaina canonical works never say that the Niganthas and the followers of Parshva were the same people. There were no important differences between the two. The monks among the followers of Parshavnath could wear clothes, and they had to observe only four vows against the five which the followers of Mahavir had to observe. At the same time they were not hostile to each other; they were pursuing, as they said, the same ends. Later, the followers of Parshvnath joined Mahavir group.