Originated in India thousands of years ago and is thought to have heavily influenced the two other main belief systems of the region at that time: Hinduism and Buddhism. The religion centres on the progress of one’s soul towards a divine consciousness through self-reformation, wisdom and self-control and pacifism towards all living creatures. There are two main sects of Jains today; the Digambara and the Svetambara. There are thought to be 10 million Jains worldwide, the majority of them in India and amongst Indian expatriate communities in North America, Asia and East Africa.
Jainism grew in India many thousands of years ago. As with Hinduism, some Jains believe that the origins are millions of years ago, although obviously it is impossible to verify the exact origins. The more realistic assessment is that the religion dates back to the second or third millennium BCE, and there are archaeological remnants found among the Indus Valley civilisations (sites such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in modern Pakistan) from around 1500 BCE that appear to mention Jain Tirthankaras.
Jains believe that there had been 24 great teachers known as ‘Tirthan-karas’ (‘those who have discovered and then shown the way to eternal salvation’) who taught people how to live in harmony with the universe and ultimately to achieve spiritual liberation through their own example. The first of these Tirthankaras was Rushabha. The 23rd was Parsva who lived from 872-772 BCE according to some sources.
The last of these teachers born in northern India in 599 BCE was Virdhamana, the son of King Siddhartha. At the age of 30, he went into seclusion as an ascetic and following twelve years of intense prayer and contemplation, claimed to reach enlightenment. It was at that point that he was given the title Mahavira (great hero). He spent the rest of his life teaching others how to fulfil the purpose of their existence and to achieve complete liberation from the shackles of modern life. He is widely accredited with establishing the present ‘Jain’ belief system. Mahavira passed away in 527 BCE at the age of 72 years leaving behind 14,000 monks and 36,000 nuns.
The 24 Tirthankaras in order are:
Rushabha, Ajitnath, Sambhavanath, Abhinandan Swami, Sumatinath, Padmaprabhu, Suparshvanath, Chandraprabhu, Pushpadanta, Sheetalnath, Shreyansanath, Vasupujya Swami, Vimalnath, Anantnath, Dharmanath, Shantinath, Kunthananth, Aranath, Mallinath, Munisuvrata Swami, Nami Nath, Neminath, Parshavnath and Mahavira.
As mentioned earlier, through various interactions in India, Jainism had an influence on Hinduism and Buddhism, and they share concepts such as the seeking of freedom from worldly life and reincarnation of the soul. Some scholars suggest that Hinduism adopted vegetarianism through strong Jain influence across India.
Jains believe that the knowledge of the true path (dharma) reaches a zenith and then wanes several times through the cycle of history, and each time the knowledge is revived through a Tirthankara just as other monotheistic faiths believe that prophets were sent by a Creator to revive faith.
Mahavira is believed to have recorded his teachings in a series of texts known as the Agamas, although the Jain texts are the major source of controversy between the sects. The Digambara sect believes that following a vast famine in 350 BCE when many monks died, the original texts were also lost, whereas the Svetambara sect (whilst acknowledging that the Purvas texts were lost) believes that the majority of the texts survived in the form that we have today.
The most often cited book of the Jains is the Tattvartha Sutra (Book of Reality) thought to date from the second millennium BCE, but only recorded in written form in the 5th century CE by Umasvati, and it is at that point that Jainism splintered into the two main sects.
The Jains have 5 great vows by which they try to live their lives:
Non-violence (Ahimsa) towards all living beings (human, animal or plant life) including a spectrum of harm from insult and injury to death;
Not getting too attached (Aparigraha) to material possessions, people or places;
Not telling lies (Satya);
Not stealing (Asteya) or taking things that are not willingly handed over;
Sexual restraint (Brahmacarya) practised as celibacy by monks and nuns, and monogamy by normal society.
They believe that all human, animal and plant life has a soul and therefore all of these life forms must be treated equally and fairly.
Jains believe that the purpose of man and creatures is to realise the soul’s true nature through the triple gems of (1) true perception, (2) true knowledge and (3) true conduct.
Unlike many other faiths, the Jains do not believe in a creator God or in spiritual beings such as angels, but do focus on the concept of reincarnation through which the soul evolves in life cycles until it reaches enlightenment when the soul is called jina (victorious). Whereas the major monotheistic faiths also believe in a spiritual journey, in the case of those faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), their followers seek the help of the Creator God to achieve spiritual liberation, whereas Jains believe that this journey is undertaken purely through their own efforts to achieve inner peace.
Moreover, the philosophy is that every soul is the architect of its own destiny. As a result of these beliefs, Jains also believe in an infinite Universe that was never created and will never end, but goes through major cycles.
The ultimate goal of self-reformation and the application of the Jain triple gems is to break free from the cycle of birth and death. In Jainism, a soul that frees itself (moksha) from the samsara cycle of life and death is called siddha (liberated soul) whereas those souls which are still attached to the wordly life are called samsarin (mundane souls). A liberated soul experiences boundless knowledge, power, perception and happiness.
As a result of these beliefs, they are vegetarians and aim to live in a manner which minimises the use of natural resources so as to limit the impact upon other life forms. Rigid followers will allow head lice to survive on their head and not shave their head or take any medicine. Even bacteria is not supposed to be killed.
Jains believe in soul reincarnation through phases including hell-being, sub-human (animal, plant and insects), human and super-human, and that there are an infinite number of souls in the Universe, that like matter, pre-existed creation.
Modern Jain society has a concept of monks and nuns similar to Buddhism and Christianity, but has no priestly class. Monks and nuns live a celibate and ascetic lifestyle and take on greater vows and responsibilities than normal society.
Jains are recognised by their symbol which is the Swastika. Although this symbol was misused by the Nazis of Germany in the last century, the original Jain symbol signifies peace and well-being. The Jain Swastika appears in all temples and holy books, and during ceremonies, a swastika is created using rice.
Jains do have some idols, but these represent souls that have conquered their passions rather than deities.
Jains have several days of fasting on which they abstain from all food but can take water. During the fast, they focus on worship, contemplation and reading scriptures. Although there are specific fast days, Jains also perform voluntary fasts at any time of the year to cleanse themselves.
Their festivals include the following:
Mahavira Jayanti – a celebration of the birth of Mahavira
Paryushana – 8 days of fasting
Divali – a festival of renewal and lights also celebrated by Hindus, but significant for Jains as the day that Mahavira achieved enlightenment
Kartak Purnima – an annual pilgrimage to the key Jain sites in India
Mauna Agyaras – a single day of fasting
Kshamavaani – a day to seek forgiveness from everyone else
Jains are renowned for the value that they place on education, and are recognised in India as the most literate community. Their libraries are well respected and complement the zeal for knowledge to enrich the soul.
Buddhism is a world religion and is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who is known as the Buddha (literally the Enlightened One or Awakened One). Siddhārtha Gautama was the historical founder of Buddhism. After asceticism and meditation, he discovered the Buddhist Middle Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Early texts suggest that Gautama was not familiar with the dominant religious teachings of his time until he left on his religious quest, which is said to have been motivated by existential concern for the human condition.
Siddhartha was born in a royal Hindu Kshatriya family. The Buddha’s father was King Śuddhodana, the leader of Shakya clan, whose capital was Kapilavastu, Uttar Pradesh. Queen Maya, his mother, on her way to her father’s kingdom gave birth to her son at Lumbini, Nepal, in a garden beneath a sal tree. The infant was given the name Siddhartha (Pāli: Siddhattha), meaning “he who achieves his aim”. During the birth celebrations, the hermit seer Asita journeyed from his mountain abode and announced that the child would either become a great king (chakravartin) or a great holy man.
When he reached the age of 16, his father arranged his marriage to a cousin Yaśodharā They had a son, named Rahul. Siddhartha is then said to have spent 29 years as a prince in Kapilavastu. Although his father ensured that Siddhartha was provided with everything he could want or need, Buddhist scriptures say that the future Buddha felt that material wealth was not life’s ultimate goal.
At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, Siddhartha was said to have seen an old man. When his charioteer Channa explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he initially strove to overcome ageing, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic and hence left his princely abode for the life of a mendicant.
Gautama initially went to Rajagaha and began his ascetic life by begging for alms in the street. After King Bimbisara’s men recognised Siddhartha and the king learned of his quest, Bimisara offered Siddhartha the throne. Siddhartha rejected the offer, but promised to visit his kingdom of Magadha first, upon attaining enlightenment. He left Rajagaha and practised under two hermit teachers. After mastering the teachings of Alara Kalama (Skr. Ārāda Kālāma), he was asked by Kalama to succeed him.
Siddhartha and a group of five companions led by Kaundinya are then said to have set out to take their austerities even further. They tried to find enlightenment through deprivation of worldly goods, including food, practicing self-mortification. After nearly starving himself to death by restricting his food intake to around a leaf or nut per day, he collapsed in a river while bathing and almost drowned. Siddhartha began to reconsider his path. Then, he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season’s plowing. He attained a concentrated and focused state that was blissful and refreshing, the jhāna.
According to the early Buddhist texts, after realizing that meditative jhana was the right path to awakening, but that extreme asceticism didn’t work, Gautama discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
Gautama was famously seated under a banyan tree – now known as the Bodhi tree – in Bodh Gaya, India, when he vowed never to arise until he had found the truth. Kaundinya and four other companions, believing that he had abandoned his search and become undisciplined, left. After a reputed 49 days of meditation, he is said to have attained Enlightenment. From that time, Gautama was known to his followers as the Buddha or “Awakened One” (“Buddha” is also sometimes translated as “The Enlightened One”). He is often referred to in Buddhism as Shakyamuni Buddha, or “The Awakened One of the Shakya Clan.”
According to Buddhism, at the time of his awakening he realized complete insight into the cause of suffering, and the steps necessary to eliminate it. These discoveries became known as the “Four Noble Truths”, which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching. Through mastery of these truths, a state of supreme liberation, or Nirvana, is believed to be possible for any being. The Buddha described Nirvāna as the perfect peace of a mind that’s free from ignorance, greed, hatred and other afflictive states, or “defilements” (kilesas). Nirvana is also regarded as the “end of the world”, in that no personal identity or boundaries of the mind remain. In such a state, a being is said to possess the Ten Characteristics, belonging to every Buddha.
After his awakening, the Buddha met two merchants, named Tapussa and Bhallika, who became his first lay disciples. The Buddha intended to visit Asita, and his former teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, to explain his findings, but they had already died. He then travelled to the Deer Park near Vārānasī (Benares) in northern India, where he set in motion what Buddhists call the Wheel of Dharma by delivering his first sermon to the five companions with whom he had sought enlightenment. Together with him, they formed the first Sangha: the company of Buddhist monks. All five become Arahants, and within the first two months, with the conversion of Yasa and fifty four of his friends, the number of such Arahants is said to have grown to 60. The conversion of three brothers named Kassapa followed, with their reputed 200, 300 and 500 disciples, respectively. This swelled the Sangha to more than 1000.
For the remaining years of his life, the Buddha is said to have travelled in the Gangetic Plain, in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and southern Nepal, teaching a diverse range of people: from nobles to outcaste street sweepers, murderers such as Angulimala, and cannibals such as Alavaka. From the outset, Buddhism was equally open to all races and classes, and had no caste structure. The Sangha traveled through the subcontinent, expounding the Dharma. This continued throughout the year, except during the four months of the Vassana rainy season when ascetics of all religions rarely travelled. One reason was that it was more difficult to do so without causing harm to animal life. At this time of year, the Sangha would retreat to monasteries, public parks or forests, where people would come to them.
The first Vassana was spent at Varanasi when the Sangha was formed. After this, the Buddha kept a promise to travel to Rajagaha, capital of Magadha, to visit King Bimbisara. During this visit, Sariputta and Maudgalyayana were converted by Assaji, one of the first five disciples, after which they were to become the Buddha’s two foremost followers. The Buddha spent the next three seasons at Veluvana Bamboo Grove monastery in Rajagaha, capital of
Upon hearing of his son’s awakening, King Suddhodana sent, over a period of time, ten delegations to ask him to return to Kapilavastu. On the first nine occasions, the delegates failed to deliver the message, and instead joined the Sangha to become Arahants. The tenth delegation, led by Kaludayi, a childhood friend of Gautama’s (who also became an Arahant), however, delivered the message.
Two years after his awakening, the Buddha agreed to return, and made a two-month journey by foot to Kapilavastu, teaching the Dharma as he went. Buddhist texts say that King Suddhodana invited the Sangha into the palace for a meal, followed by a Dharma talk. After this he is said to have become a Sotapanna. During the visit, many members of the royal family joined the Sangha. The Buddha’s cousins Ananda and Anuruddha became two of his five chief disciples. At the age of seven, his son Rahul also joined, and became one of his ten chief disciples. His half-brother Nanda also joined and became an Arahant.
Of the Buddha’s disciples , Sariputta , Maudgalyayana , Mahakasyapa, Ananda and Anuruddha are believed to have been the five closest to him. His ten foremost disciples were reputedly completed by the quintet of Upali, Subhoti, Rahula, Mahakaccana and Punna. In the fifth Vassana, the Buddha was staying at Mahavana near Vesali when he heard news of the impending death of his father. He is said to have gone to King Suddhodana and taught the Dharma, after which his father became an Arahant.
The king’s death and cremation was to inspire the creation of an order of nuns. Buddhist texts record that the Buddha was reluctant to ordain women. His foster mother Maha Pajapati, for example, approached him, asking to join the Sangha, but he refused. Maha Pajapati, however, was so intent on the path of awakening that she led a group of royal Sakyan and Koliyan ladies, which followed the Sangha on a long journey to Rajagaha. In time, after Ananda championed their cause, the Buddha is said to have reconsidered and, five years after the formation of the Sangha, agreed to the ordination of women as nuns. He reasoned that males and females had an equal capacity for awakening. But he gave women additional rules (Vinaya) to follow.
Buddha found patronage in the ruler of Magadha, emperor Bimbisara. The emperor accepted Buddhism as personal faith and allowed the establishment of many Buddhist “Viharas.” This eventually led to the renaming of the entire region as Bihar.
The Maurya empire reached its peak at the time of Emperor Asoka, who himself converted to Buddhism after the Battle of Kalinga. This heralded a long period of stability under the Buddhist emperor. The power of the empire was vast – ambassadors were sent to other countries to propagate Buddhism. The Buddha did not appoint any successor and asked his followers to work for personal salvation. The teachings of the Buddha existed only in oral traditions. The Sangha held a number of Buddhist councils in order to reach consensus on matters of Buddhist doctrine and practice. Buddha attained Parinirvana in the abandoned jungles of Kuśināra, modern Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh.