12 Origins and History

I. Introduction

Jainism, religion of India concentrated largely in Gujarat and Rajasthan, in parts of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and in the state of Karnataka (Mysore), as well as in the larger cities of the Indian peninsula. The Jains totaled about 3.7 million as the 1990s began, but they exert an influence in the predominantly Hindu community far out of proportion to their numbers; they are mainly traders, and their wealth and authority have made their comparatively small sect one of the most important of living Indian religions.
II. Origins

Jainism is somewhat similar to Buddhism, of which it was an important rival in India. It was founded by Vardhamana Jnatiputra or Nataputta Mahavira (599-527 BC), called Jina (Spiritual Conqueror), a contemporary of Buddha. As do the Buddhists, the Jains deny the divine origin and authority of the Veda and revere certain saints, preachers of Jain doctrine from the remote past, whom they call tirthankaras (“prophets or founders of the path”). These saints are liberated souls who were once in bondage but became free, perfect, and blissful through their own efforts; they offer salvation from the ocean of phenomenal existence and the cycle of rebirths. Mahavira is believed to have been the 24th tirthankara. Like adherents to their parent sect, Brahmanism, the Jains admit in practice the institution of caste, perform a group of 16 essential rites, called samskaras, prescribed for the first three varna(castes) of Hindus, and recognize some of the minor deities of the Hindu pantheon; nevertheless, their religion, like Buddhism, is essentially atheistic.

Fundamental to Jainism is the doctrine of two eternal, coexisting, independent categories known as jiva (animate, living soul: the enjoyer) and ajiva (inanimate, nonliving object: the enjoyed). Jains believe, moreover, that the actions of mind, speech, and body produce subtle karma (infraatomic particles of matter), which become the cause of bondage, and that one must eschew violence to avoid giving hurt to life. The cause of the embodiment of the soul is thought to be karmic matter; one can attain salvation (moksha) only by freeing the soul of karma through the practice of the three “jewels” of right faith, right knowledge and right conduct.

III. Differences in Doctrine

These principles are common to all, but differences occur in the religious obligations of the monastic orders (whose members are called yatis) and the laity (sravakas). The yatis must observe five great vows (panca-mahavrata): refusal to inflict injury (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), refusal to steal (asteya), sexual restraint (brahmacarya), and refusal to accept unnecessary gifts (aparigraha). In keeping with the doctrine of nonviolence, they carry the Jainist reverence for animal life to its most extreme lengths; the yati of the Svetambara sect, for example, wears a cloth over his mouth to prevent insects from flying into it and carries a brush to sweep the place on which he is about to sit, to remove any living creature from danger. The observation of the nonviolent practices of the yatis was a major influence on the philosophy of the Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi. The secular sravaka, in addition to his observance of religious and moral duties, must engage in the adoration of the saints and of his more pious brethren, the yatis.

The two main sects of Jainism, the Digambara (space-clad, or naked) and the Svetambara (white-clad, wearers of white cloth), have produced a vast body of secular and religious literature in the Prakrit and Sanskrit languages. The art of the Jains, consisting primarily of cave temples elaborately decorated in carved stones and of illustrated manuscripts, usually follows Buddhist models but has a richness and fertility that mark it as one of the peaks of Indian art. Some sects, particularly the Dhundia and the Lunka, which reject the worship of images, were responsible for the destruction of many works of art in the 12th century, and Muslim raids were responsible for the looting of many temples in northern India. In the 18th century another important sect of Jainism was founded; it exhibited Islamic inspiration in its iconoclasm and rejection of temple worship. Complex rituals were abandoned in favor of austere places of worship called sthanakas, from which the sect is called Sthanakavasi.


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