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.