Jainism is a religion that arose in ancient India. The followers of Jainism are called the Jains. The Jains follow the teachings of the Tirthankaras – 24 religious teachers who lived at various times in history. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, is believed to be the last of the Tirthankaras, living in the 6th century B.C.
Asceticism, non-violence and detachment from the world are some of the tenets central to Jainism. Jainism rose to be a prominent religion in ancient India. However, due to changing political circumstances and loss of political patronage, it suffered decline. Today, Jains can be found in India and in emigrant Indian communities in the West.
Mahavira was an Indian Prince who renounced the world and embraced a life of asceticism and penance. He is generally credited with the founding of Jainism. The Jains, though, believe that Mahavira was only one of the 24 Tirthankaras and believe that Jainism existed even before Mahavira.
Place in Indian History
Jainism and Buddhism are considered to be the two reactionary religious traditions, which arose in response to the increasingly ritualistic and priestly traditions of Vedic Hinduism. Jainism advocated a religion free of rituals and laid emphasis on non-violence and asceticism. Jainism had a great influence on the literature, culture and philosophy of India. Numerous works of ancient literature and art have been credited to the Jains.
Jainism stresses detachment from the world and austerity. It abhors violence of any kind against both humans and animals and emphasizes Ahimsa – non-violence. Re-incarnation and the doctrine of karma are important precepts in the religion. The Jains venerate, but do not worship, the Tirthankaras, the 24 religious leaders who are believed have attained Moksha – release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Jainism believes that all people are caught in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to accumulate good karma or credit for good deeds. Hence, great emphasis is placed on charity, non-violence and benevolence.
Jainism does not subscribe to the concept of a Personal God. At the same time it is not overtly atheistic. The Jains believe that the Universe functions under a set of laws that punish or reward one’s actions according to his karma, or deeds.
Asceticism is also considered a path of merit. Jain ascetics follow a life of austere penance and chastity. Jain monasteries also run numerous charitable and philanthropic institutions.
Major Sects and Divisions
Like all major religions, Jainism too experienced dissension, which led to the formation of different sects. The two major traditions within Jainism are the Digambaras and the Shwetambaras. The Digambaras or literally sky-clad do not wear garments as their strict concept of material detachment extends even to clothes, which they see as a distraction on the path to Moksha or enlightenment.
The Shwetambaras wear only white clothes. Over the centuries, these two main denominations underwent further division and gave rise to many sub-sects such as the Sthanakvasis, the Terapanthis, etc. Iconoclasm or the aversion to the worship of religious images also emerged as a significant stream of thought in later Jainism.