Jainism (pronounced jayn-izm), traditionally known as Jain Dharma, is a dharmic religion with its origins in the prehistory of India, still practiced today by several million people. Jainism has as its religious ideal the perfection of man’s nature. The universe is seen as being eternal—having no beginning and no end—precluding God from being a creator. Perfection of the individual is achieved through the practice of an ascetic life, without any divine assistance. Jain monastics and lay people follow the same fivefold path of nonviolence (ahinsa, or ahimsa); truth (satya); non-stealing (asteya); chastity (brahmacharya); and non-possession or non-possessiveness (aparigraha), but to different degrees.
Jain dharma teaches that every living thing is an individual and eternal soul, which is responsible for its own actions. Jains see their faith as teaching the individual to live, think and act in ways that respect and honor the spiritual nature of every living being. Jainism was the first religion to practice ahimsa (non-violence) as a rule of life. The primary figures of Jainism are the 24 Tirthankaras (prophets), the first being Rishabhanatha (Rsabhadeva), who according to tradition lived millions of years ago, and the most recent being Mahavira (599–527 B.C.E.).
Jainism and Buddhism were both originally orders of monks outside of Brahmanism. Jainism is at least as old as Buddhism; the oldest Buddhist works mention the Jains as a rival sect, under their old name, Nigantha, and their leader Nataputta Varddhamana. The Jain canonical books mention the same kings that reigned during Buddha’s life as contemporaries of Mahavira.
The Jains are followers of Vardhamana Mahavira (599–527 B.C.E.) who systematized the doctrine of the three tirthankaras: Rsabha, Ajitanatha, and Aristanemi. Mahavira was not the founder of Jainism, but a monk who espoused the Jaina creed and became a seer and the last prophet (Tirthankara) of Jainism. His predecessor, Parsva, the second-to-last Tirthankara, is said to have died 250 years before Mahavira. According to Uttaradhyayanasutra, a disciple of Parsva met a disciple of Mahavira, and brought about a union of the old Jainism with that of Mahavira.
The Jains believe that their faith has come down to them from antiquity through a series of 24 Tirthankaras, the earliest of whom was Rishabhanatha, whom Jain legends depict as having lived millions of years ago, and the most recent, Mahavira. Therefore Mahavira is not regarded as the founder of Jainism, but as the one who gave a new orientation to Jainism and shaped the modern faith. Parsva, the twenty-third Tirthankara, was a historical personage who lived in the eighth or ninth century B.C.E.
Seals and other artifacts from the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3000–1500 B.C.E.) have been cited as evidence of the faith's early existence.
Jainists, like Buddhists, do not worship God, but revere instead the saints who are believed to have achieved complete liberation from the bondage of earthly life. There are 63 significant figures of Jain legend and story. The most important of these are the 24 Tirthankaras, perfected human beings who appeared as teachers at various times in history and represent the highest religious attainment for the Jains. The Tirthankaras, along with 12 cakravartins (“world conquerors”), nine vasudevas (counterparts of Vasudeva, the patronymic of Krishna), and nine baladevas (counterparts of Balarama, the elder half-brother of Krishna), constitute the 54 mahapurusas (“great souls”), to which were later added nine prativasudevas (enemies of the vasudevas). Other, more minor, figures include nine naradas (counterparts of the deity Narada, the messenger between gods and humans), 11 rudras (counterparts of the Vedic god Rudra, from whom Siva is said to have evolved), and 24 kamadevas (gods of love), all of which show Hindu influences. There are also four groups of gods, the bhavanavasis (gods of the house), the vyantaras (intermediaries), the jyotiskas (luminaries), and the vaimanikas (astral gods). These deities were assimilated from ancient Indian folk religion.
At a few million adherents, Jainism is among the smallest of the major world religions. Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat are likely to have the largest Jain population among Indian states. Another state of India with a relatively large Jain population among its residents is Karnataka. Outside of India, East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) has significant communities. Many Jains migrated from East Africa to the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
Jainism has a large following in the Indian region of Punjab, especially the town of Ludhiana. There were many Jains in Lahore (Punjab's historic capital) and other cities before the Partition of 1947. Many then fled to the Indian section of Punjab.
The Jain rituals for marriage and other family rites are distinct and uniquely Indian. Jain rituals are elaborate and include offerings of symbolic objects, with the Tirthankaras being praised in chant. Jains have few core symbols. One Jain symbol incorporates a wheel on the palm of the hand. The holiest one is a simple unadorned swastika or svastika.
Jainism has two main variants: Digambar (the naked) and Shvetambar (wearers of white cloths). The rule of wearing white cloths or being naked applies only to the highest monks and not to laymen or inferior monks.
It is generally believed that the two major sects of Jainism, Digambar and Shvetambar, trace their origin to events that occurred about two hundred years after the nirvana of Mahāvīr. Bhadrabahu, chief of the Jain monks, foresaw a period of famine and led about 12,000 people to southern India. Twelve years later, they returned to find that the Svetambar sect had arisen. The followers of Bhadrabahu became known as the Digambar sect. Historians have noted that there was no clear division until the 5th century, when the Valabhi council of 453 resulted in editing and compilation of scriptures of the Svetambar tradition.
The two sects generally agree on all principles of Jainism, but the Digambaras have unique religious ceremonies and a different ecclesiastical and literary history from the Shvetambar. The Digambar are differentiated by certain tenets, such as the assertion that perfect saints such as the Tirthankaras live without food, that a monk who owns property and wears clothes cannot achieve Moksa (liberation), that no woman can achieve Moksa (without being born again as a man), and that the original canon of Mahavira’s teachings is lost. Each sect claims that it maintains the original tradition of Jainism, and that the other is an offshoot dating to around 80 C.E. The Sanskrit commentaries of the Digambara go back further than those of the Shvetambar. About 84 different schools of Jainism, called gacchas, developed, differing from one another in small details of conduct; the most important was the Kharatara Gaccha
Excavations at Mathura have revealed many Kushana period Jain idols. In all of them the Tirthankaras are represented without clothes. Some of them show monks with only one piece of cloth which is wrapped around the left arm. They are identified as belonging to the Ardha-phalaka sect mentioned in some texts. The Yapaniaya sect is believed to have originated from the Ardha-phalakas. They followed Digambara practice of nudity, but held several beliefs like the Svetambaras.
According to Jain beliefs, the universe was never created, nor will it ever cease to exist. It is eternal but not unchangeable, because it passes through an endless series of cycles. Each of these upward or downward cycles is divided into six world ages (yugas). The present world age is the fifth age of one of these "cycles," which is in a downward movement. These ages are known as Aaro, as in Pehelo Aaro (first age), Beejo Aaro (second age) and so on until the Chhatho Aaro (sixth age). All these ages have fixed time durations of thousands of years.
When this cycle reaches its lowest level, even Jainism itself will be lost in its entirety. Then, in the course of the next upswing, the Jain religion will be rediscovered and reintroduced by new leaders called Tirthankaras (literally "Crossing Makers" or "Ford Finders"), only to be lost again at the end of the next downswing.
In each of these enormously long alternations of time there are always twenty-four Tirthankaras. Jains believe that Lord Rishabha was the first human to receive the philosophy in the present cycle. The twenty-third Tirthankar was Parshva, an ascetic and teacher, whose traditional dates are 877-777 B.C.E., 250 years before the passing of the last Tirthankar Lord Mahavira in 527 B.C.E. Jains regard him and all Tirthankars as a reformer who called for a return to beliefs and practices in line with the eternal universal philosophy upon which the faith is said to be based.
The twenty-fourth and final Tirthankar of this age is known by his title, Mahāvīr, the Great Hero (599-527 B.C.E.). He too was a wandering ascetic teacher who attempted to recall the Jains to the rigorous practice of their ancient faith.
Near the end of the fourth century B.C.E., a council met at Pataliputra for the purpose of fixing the Jain canon. Its final form, however, was established at the Council of Valabhi, presided over by Devardhi around 454 C.E. There are 41 Sutras, including eleven Angas, 12 Upāngas, five Chedas, five Mǖlas, and eight miscellaneous works; a number of Prakirnakas (unclassified works); 12 Niryuktis (commentaries); and the Mahābhāsya, or great commentary.
Many Jains consider the primary scripture to be the Tattvartha Sutra, or Book of Realities, written over eighteen centuries ago by the monk-scholar Umasvati (also known as Umasvami).
According to the Digambara, these texts were first written down in 57 C.E., when religious teachers were not available and the only source of information was what people could remember about the sayings of Vardhamana and the Kevlins. Their original language as Ardha-Māgadhi, but after the Christian era, Sanskrit became more popular.
In addition to the canons and commentaries, the Svetambara and Digambara traditions have produced a large body of literature, written in several languages, in the areas of philosophy, poetry, drama, grammar, music, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, astrology, and architecture. The epics Cilappatikaram and Jivikacintamani, which are important works of early postclassical Tamil literature, were written from a Jain perspective. The Adipurana of the Jain lay poet Pampa is the earliest extant piece of mahakavya (“high poetic”) Kannada literature. Jainas were similarly influential in the Prakrit languages, Apabhramsa, Old Gujarati, and, later, Sanskrit.
Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism have a set of concepts in common, such as karma (merit), dharma (duty), yoga (ascetic discipline) and yajna (sacrifice or worship) that permit discourse among them. Jainism shares a number of its characteristics with Buddhism; both deny the existence of an intelligent first cause, worship deified saints, have celibate clergy, and think it sinful to take the life of any animal. The founders of both religions were men who made themselves perfect. There are many coincidences between the two religions; Buddha and Mahavira were contemporaries and died almost at the same time. They share the same holy lands, and both claim to have been patronized by the Maurya princes. Though some Western scholars have claimed that one is a sect or an offshoot of another, Hindu scholars have always regarded them as two distinct religions. It has been conclusively established that Vardhamana was a historical person distinct from Gautama Buddha.
Jainism does not accept the authority of the Veda. The Jain belief that all living things have souls was a protest against the Hindu tradition of making sacrifices to propitiate God. Jainism believes that there is no god who is responsible for the sorrows of life, and that the way to escape misery is through inward and outward austerity. Jainism accepts Vedic concepts of realism.
Jains believe that reality is made up of two eternal principles, jiva (living) and ajiva (non-living). Jiva consists of an infinite number of identical spiritual units; ajiva (that is, non-jiva) is matter in all its forms and the conditions under which matter exists: time, space, and movement. Jiva, the life-principle or soul, is distinct from the body and is not the product or property of the body. Both jiva and ajiva are eternal; they never came into existence for the first time and will never cease to exist. Jivas are classified by the number of sense organs they possess; plants belong to the lowest class because they possess only the sense of touch; worms possess touch and taste; vertebrates possess all five sense organs. Human beings, denizens of hell, and liberated souls possess an additional, inner sense organ, manas, by virtue of which they are able to reason (samjnin). The four elements, earth, water, air and fire, are animated by souls; particles of earth are the bodies of elementary souls called earth-lives.
Consciousness is the essence of the self (or soul), and its manifestations are perception (simple apprehension) and intelligence (conceptual knowledge). Reality is external and is perceived through the senses.
Karma is the link which ties the soul to the body, and the cause of bondage and sorrow. Jains believe that every action that a person performs, be it good or evil, opens up channels of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), through which an invisible material substance, karma, filters in and adheres to the jiva within, weighing it down and determining the conditions of the next reincarnation. Ignorance of truth and four passions of anger, greed, pride and delusion attract the flow of karmic matter which obscures the radiance of the soul.
The way to deliverance is through the three jewels of right faith (belief in real existence), right knowledge (knowledge of real nature without doubt or error) and right conduct (the practice of the five virtues). Through them, the flow of karma into the soul is stopped, and existing karma is discharged. When the last particle of karma has been exhausted, “the partnership between soul and matter is dissolved,” and the soul achieves infinite faith, knowledge, bliss and power. It then transcends the cycle of earthly existence (samsara) and goes to a place or state called Siddhashila, where the jiva, identical with all other pure jivas, experiences its own true nature in eternal stillness, isolation and noninvolvement and dwells in eternal bliss.
The Jains classify knowledge into immediate (aparokşa) and mediate (parokşa) knowledge. There are two types of mediate knowledge:
Immediate knowledge is categorized into three types:
These five types of knowledge are “right knowledge.” There are also three types of “wrong knowledge:” doubt (samshaya), mistake (viparyaya), and wrong knowledge through indifference (anadhyavasaya). Only one of these eight kinds of knowledge is active at a given moment.
Knowledge of a particular thing is also divided into two types: knowledge of a thing as it is (pramāna) and knowledge of a thing in its relation to other things (naya). Naya is the viewpoint from which a statement is made about a thing. It includes partial knowledge about the innumerable aspects of a thing, and judgment based on this partial knowledge.
Jain metaphysics is a realistic and relativistic pluralism. Matter (pudgala) and spirit (jiva) are seen as separate and independent realities. There are innumerable material atoms, and innumerable individual souls, and each of these possesses an infinite number of characteristics of its own. Every object possesses innumerable positive and negative characteristics. The substance (dravya) of a thing possesses all its qualities and modes. The permanent and essential qualities of a substance are called attributes (guna), and the changing and accidental qualities are called modes (paryāya).
An ordinary person cannot know all the qualities of a particular thing; to do so would be to become omniscient. The nature of reality is indeterminate and infinitely complex, and human knowledge of it at any given moment is necessarily limited to only certain aspects. The infinite aspects of reality are all relative; therefore all judgments are relative, conditional and limited. It is incorrect to say that anything is absolutely true or absolutely untrue.
In the Jain community there are monks and nuns, and laymen and laywomen. All follow the same fivefold spiritual discipline; monks and nuns are differentiated from lay people only by the degree to which they embody this discipline. Monks and nuns strive to make this birth their last by practicing severe asceticism, while the lay people pursue less rigorous practices, striving to attain rational faith and do good deeds in this birth. The Five Vows of the monastics are called Great Vows (maha-vrata) and those of the laity are called Small Vows (anu-vrata). The Five Vows are:
For lay people, chastity means confining sexual experience to the marriage relationship; for monks and nuns, it means complete celibacy. Non-possessiveness for lay people means merely being content with what one has; for the monastics it means having almost no possessions at all, not even clothing, and begging for food. Non-violence involves being strictly vegetarian and studiously striving to avoid harming any living thing. The Jain diet excludes most root vegetables and certain other foods believed to be unnecessarily injurious.
The understanding and implementation of ahimsa is more radical and comprehensive than in any other religion. Observant Jains do not eat, drink or travel after sunset and always rise before sunrise. Water must not be drunk after dark, to avoid the possibility of accidentally swallowing some small insect. Some Jains wear masks over their mouths and noses to avoid any possibility of breathing in tiny insects. Jains are expected to follow the principle of non-violence in all of his or her thoughts, words and deeds. The laity must avoid professions which involve violence to the self or other living beings, such as agriculture; consequently many Jains are involved in commerce.
The Jains believe that the highest and most exalted state of beatification (Siddhatva), the permanent release of the jiva from all involvement in worldly existence, can only be achieved by individuals through their own efforts. No spirit or god can assist the jiva to obtain release.
Mohandas K. Gandhi was deeply influenced by Jain ethical principles, and made the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) an integral part of his own philosophy and a method of political action.
Jainism asserts that absolutism (especially moral absolutism) leads to fanaticism and violence, and therefore supports tolerance among beliefs, claiming that no single belief holds truth exclusively.
Every day Jains say their universal prayer of salutation and worship, the Namokar-mantra. All good work and events start with this prayer.
Namo Arihantanam: - I bow to the Arahantas, the perfected human beings, Godmen.
Namo Siddhanam: - I bow to the Siddhas, liberated bodiless souls, God.
Namo Aayariyanam: - I bow to the Acharyas, the masters and heads of congregations.
Namo Uvajjhayanam: - I bow to the Upadhyayas, the spiritual teachers.
Namo Loe Savva Sahunam: - I bow to all the spiritual practitioners in the universe, Sadhus.
Eso Pancha Namokaro: - This fivefold obeisance mantra,
Savva Pavappanasano: - Destroys all sins and obstacles,
Mangalanam cha Savvesim: - And of all auspicious repetitions,
Padhamam Havai Mangalam: - Is the first and foremost.
These five salutations are capable of destroying all the sins and this is the first happiness among all forms of happiness.
Jains do not pray to a specific Tirthankar or monk by name. This prayer salutes the virtues of the five benevolents; by saluting them, Jains receive the inspiration from them to seek the right path of true happiness and total freedom from the misery of life. Jain prayers do not ask for any favors or material benefits from gods, the Tirthankaras or from monks and nuns.
There are many Jain tirthas (pilgrimage sites) throughout India since the construction of a temple was thought to contribute to liberation from karma. Also included in the following list are significant sites in other countries.
All links retrieved November 6, 2018.
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