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An Introduction to Jainism

Dr. Meredith Sprunger

This document contains an historical overview of Jainism, Mahavira, and the relationship of Jainism to Hinduism and Buddhism. Basic scriptures are described as well as current-day sects.

Jainism: The Religion of Asceticism

Jainism, founded by Mahavira in the sixth century, has around two million adherents in India most of whom are business people who have wealth and social importance far beyond their numerical significance. Mahavira was part of a great creative period of history which produced Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Zoroaster, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Thales, Anaximander, Xenophanes, Pythagoras, and Heraclitus.

Jainism (conqueror) began as a reformed movement in Hinduism. Both Jainism and Buddhism denied the validity of the Vedas as inspired scripture and rejected the religious implications of the Indian caste system.

Mahavira was the son of a minor ruler in northeast India. Before his birth his mother is said to have had fourteen marvelous dreams and their family suddenly prospered. Mahavira married and was the father of a daughter. Despite his position and wealth, he was not happy. At the age of thirty, after the death of his parents, Mahavira bade farewell to his family and his wife and child, turned his back on wealth and luxury and went off to join the ascetics in the pursuit of salvation.

Not finding salvation among ordinary ascetics, he went off on his own path of extreme asceticism. He believed one should not injure any form of life (ahimsa) and swept the path where he walked and strained all the water he drank. To torment his body Mahavira went naked and sought the coldest spots in winter and the hottest climates in summer. He begged for his food, preferring that which was left over from the meals of others. When beaten or attacked by dogs he did not resist. Legend tells of a time when he was meditating and some people built a fire under him to see if he would resist; he did not. So as not to become attached to people or things he never stayed more than one night at the same place. He became indifferent to all things. During the thirteenth year, squatting in the sun, he achieved release (moksha) and reached Nirvana.

After he felt he had gained complete control over his body, Mahavira changed from being a solitary ascetic to a leader and teacher of monks. He taught that the world is made up of two substances, soul and matter. The cause of all misery is the connection of the vile material body with the pure eternal spirit. Salvation is liberating the soul from matter. The law of karma and reincarnation are closely linked with this drama of the flesh and the spirit.

Salvation of the soul must be accomplished by the individual himself; therefore, there should be no worship or prayer. The gods are of little consequence; they are simply beings living on a different plane from mankind who are busy working out their own salvation. Although Mahavira taught that there is no personal God and forbid worship and prayer, his followers worship him and pray to him. They believe he was sinless, omniscient, pre-existent, and incarnate--the last of a series of twenty-four saviors of men.

The scriptures of Jainism are Agana (precepts) or Siddhantas-(treatises). The language of these scriptures is one of the Prakrit vernaculars. Early commentaries were written in Sanskrit. A few documents have been translated into contemporary languages but most Jains are largely ignorant of their own scriptures. The devout Jain is ascetic, humble, inoffensive, and unvindictive.

By 80 A. D. the Jains were divided into two sects. The Svetambara or "white clad" live mainly in northern India today. They are more liberal in their interpretation of Mahavirals teaching regarding nudity and allow their monks to wear a white garment. Women are also allowed in their religion and monasteries accepting the possibility that they may find salvation.

The Digambara or "sky clad" live mainly in southern India. They adhere to the old ideals that require their monks to go about naked; however, civil authorities sometimes have required them to wear loin-cloths. The Digambara sect believe women have no chance of achieving salvation until they are reborn as men. Consequently women are prohibited from entering monasteries and temples.

Jains practice their religion in two distinct groups: common citizens and monks. Monks lead the ideal life for a Jain and have the best chance for salvation. They take five vows: non injury to life, to speak the truth, to not steal, to renounce sexual pleasure and women in general, and to renounce all attachments. Mahavira declared, "Women are the greatest temptation in the world." Generally all Jains seek to follow the first three vows as much as possible. The Jain doctrine of ahimsa was a potent influence in the lives of Mohandas Gandi and Albert Schweitzer.

Today Jainism is sometimes regarded as a minority sect of Hinduism. Jains are forbidden from entering all occupations that take life or profit from taking life. This has forced them into the commercial field. Their reputation for honesty and high moral principles has made them excellent businessmen. It is a paradox that a sect which began with the ideal of asceticism and poverty has become one of the wealthiest classes in India!

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