Jainism started with Mahavira (599–527 BCE), who was an elder contemporary of Buddha. Jains, however, believe that he was the last of the twenty-four Tirthankaras (liberated souls). His immediate predecessor, Parsvanatha, is also a historical figure who lived in the eighth century BCE. It is said that the first Tirthankara was Rushabhadeva, who probably lived around 8500 years ago. The naked standing figures (kayotsarga) of the Sindhu-Saraswati civilization are considered to be the representations of Rushabhadeva.52 He had a son Bharata, after whom the name Bharat was expediently adopted for ancient India.53
The roots of the Jain philosophy thus go toward the distant past to the prehistoric era of the Indian subcontinent, when meditation, an ascetic way of living, and vegetarianism seemingly first found their place in human history. These philosophical concepts became established as the ancient Indian ideology of the oral tradition, which in course of time would feed all the emerging spiritual philosophies, including Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Later, it became known in part as Sramana ideology. Sraman in Sanskrit means monk.54
The possibility of the common origin of all these religions is thus very strong. The teachings are similar in many respects. The basic concepts of Hinduism—namely karma, punar-janam (reincarnation), and moksha (salvation)—are also seen in Jainism, Buddhism, and later in Sikhism. These concepts are unique to the religions of Indian origin and are therefore a strong binding factor for this group of religions.
Albeit Jainism started with Mahavira in 5th century BCE, its roots were probably established much earlier. It is believed that in the distant ancient period, the estimated period of which remains unknown, a new tradition of human life became founded in the puniya bhoomi (pure land) of Bharat (Indian subcontinent). This became known later as the Sramana ideology. Sraman in Sanskrit means ‘monk’.
This new system was based on the concepts of meditation, an ascetic way of living, and vegetarianism- these philosophies seemingly first found their place in human history. The Sramana ideology would later feed, in different ways, all the religions-Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism-that were founded in India. Jainism also introduced the concept of ‘anekta’-different points of view. In today’s world, which is full of conflicts arising out of dogmatic attitudes, such open-arm views of the Dharma philosophies of the Indian origin may serve as a great antidote. Inspired by ancient Sramana ideology, Jainism adopted “renunciation” rather extremely. The Jain monks and even the laity hold extended fasts for many days in order to purify their souls. Even though Buddha shifted his stance in favor of a moderate middle path, the position taken by Mahavira was uncompromising in this regard. Strict adherence to the principle of renunciation, however, divided the Jain society into two divisions: the Digambaras—the sky-clad—in which the monks would be totally naked, and the Svetambaras, in which the monks wore white robes. These extreme attitudes would soon become socially unpractical; only the monks observed the codes fully.
NOTE: Jainism used the local dialect Prakrit (Ardha-magdi)