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.
It was in the period of Mahavira and Buddha, however, that certain castes in Hindu society started to protest against the dominance and authority of the Brahmin upper classes of Aryan origin—the Brahmins set themselves apart as exclusive intermediaries between mortals and the Divine Supreme. There was also protest against animal sacrifices in the rituals (karma kanda).
Jainism owes its origin to the philosophy of Jina, the conqueror. Jina was coined when Mahavira returned after twelve years of rigorous ascetic practices to win complete control over the erring and destructive mind; he started to preach the Jaina path of purification of the soul.
Many centuries before the modern concepts of democracy and individual freedom, Jainism gave the world the philosophy of anekta, the concept of different points of view. The philosophy of non-absolutism was a tool against dogmatism, which perhaps is the root cause of many human conflicts.55
The ancient Indian philosophy of ahimsa went beyond ordinary non-violence. It is the true gentleness in preventing the subtlest harm to anyone. Ahimsa has occupied special attention in Indian culture through different periods of time: There is clear call for ahimsa in the earliest scriptures, the Vedas. In the epic of the Mahabharata, there is mention of “ahimsa parmo dharma”—non-injury is the prime religion. The teaching of one universal all-pervasive divinity as propagated in the Upanishads creates an attitude of reverence, benevolence, and compassion for all animate and inanimate beings. Belief in the philosophy of karma envisages that all that we send out to others in thought, word, or deed will return to us, in this life or in future reincarnations by some cosmic process. Even so, in both the epic scriptures of Ramayana and Mahabharata, violence could not be totally avoided and the war was resorted as a last resort to uphold the righteousness and protect the innocent.
Patanjali (200 BCE) regards ahimsa as a precondition (yama) and a vow before embarking in the training of yoga. Two thousand years ago, saint Tiruvalluvar said it so simply: “All suffering recoils on the wrongdoer himself. Thus, those desiring not to suffer should refrain from causing others pain” (Tirukural, 320). Jain believers not only are vegetarian, but they also take special precautions to avoid hurting even the smallest of the creatures, such as insects and worms. No wonder, then, many felt these teachings were too difficult to be practical in everyday life. Only monks were to lead a life of extreme simplicity. Jain monks cover long distances, walking barefoot lest they may hurt any creatures underneath their feet by wearing shoes. They wear a cloth mask in front of their mouths to prevent the inadvertent swallowing of any organisms in the air. They eat the simplest food, avoiding eating any root vegetables, for example, which may contain living germs. 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 un-compromising in this regard. When Mahavira started this religion, he also introduced the order of female priests, which in itself was a revolutionary action in its time. 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. Even as the male monks in the Digambara sect were naked, the Jain nuns were not required to be without clothes. Over the course of time, all the harsh restrictions were confined to only the monks and nuns, but the laity was relieved from many constraints. Indeed, most of the lay devotees preferred becoming well placed financially, well fed, and well dressed. They were, of course, expected to observe the principle of the three jewels of Jain teaching: right knowledge, right faith, and right conduct.
There are, at present, about ten million Jains residing mainly in India. Earlier, Jainism did not spread beyond India, as there were severe travel restrictions for the Jain monks; there also was disinterest in the Jain community for propagating their faith to others. Today, Jains have invested their assets in more productive and philanthropic fields. Jain temples are world famous for their artwork, especially in marble. They avoid any activity that would involve violence, and they do not engage in trades engaged in leatherwork or any commerce involving the use of animals for profit. Many ancient concepts of Jainism compare favorably with modern ideas, such as the rights of animals, the preservation of wild life, and ecological issues.
Mahavira preached thus:
He who knows what is bad for himself knows what is bad for others, and he who knows what is bad for others knows what is bad for himself. One whose mind is at peace and who is free from passion does not desire to live at the expense of others. He who understands the nature of sin against earth, water, air, fire, plants, and animals is a true sage and understands karma.56
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)