Jainism is essentially an Indian religion and it is still a living faith in some parts of the country. The number of its followers is just over two million. Its contribution to the Indian heritage is more significant than might be expected for its numerical strength. As an institutionalized religion, it has held its ground all along.
It has sometimes enjoyed royal patronage, and it has produced worthy monks and laymen of whom any society could be proud. The Jaina contributions to Indian art and architecture, to the preservation and enrichment of Indian literature, and to the cultivation of languages, both Aryan and Dravidian, are praiseworthy. Lastly, the religious instincts inculcated by Jainism have left an abiding impression on many aspects of Indian life.
The origins of Jainism go back to prehistoric times. They are to be sought in the fertile valley of the Ganga where there throve in the past, even before the advent of the Aryarif with their priestly religion, a society of recluses who laid much stress on individual exertion, on the practice of a code of morality, and on devotion to austerities, sometimes of a severe type, as a means of attaining the religious summum botium.
These recluses held a number of primitive views; such as a pessimistic outlook on life, a belief in man’s potentiality to become god through his own exertions, the doctrine of the transmigration of the spirit, an animistic belief in the presence of souls or life in all things, and in karma, then conceived of as material, and its supreme force over the lives of all beings.
All these ideas were later merged into the general stream of Indian thought. With the growth of Brahmanism the practices and preaching of these recluses were often antagonistic to those of the priestly Vedic religion.
These two categories of religious leaders, sramanas and brahmanas, caught the attention of foreign travellers; Asoka mentions both in his inscriptions; they are frequently referred to in early Jaina and Buddhist works; and Patanjali mention’s the natural conflict between their interests.
In the sixth century B.C. we know the names of a number of sramana teachers such as Makkhali Gosala, Purana Kassapa, etc.; and at least two of them, Mahavira and Buddha, have won recognition in the religious history of India as leaders of faiths living to this day. In all likelihood even Kapila, of Sankhya fame, showed positive sramanic tendencies in his doctrines.
According to Jainism there have flourished in this age twenty-four Tirthankaras, or leaders of their religion. The first of them was Rishabha, the twenty-second Nemi or Neminatha, the twenty-third Parsva, and the last Mahavira. Rishabha figures as a great saint of antiquity; and, in later Hindu literature, he is noted for his queer practices and credited with propagating heretic doctrines which are common to Jainism.
He is said to have laid the foundations for orderly human society. Neminatha is associated in Jainism with Krishna of the Yadava clan, whom the Hindus adopted as an avatara of Vishnu. These and other Tirthankaras are prehistoric in character.
It is now accepted on all hands that Parsvanatha, who according to Jaina tradition flourished two centuries before Mahavira, was a historical person. His followers lived in the time of Mahavira, with whose disciples they held discussions. The parents of Mahavira followed the creed of Parsva.
Mahavira was a senior contemporary of Buddha. He was born at Kundagrama near Vaisali to the north of Patna in Bihar. He belonged to the Naya (Jnata) clan; and he is called Nataputta in the Pali canon.
His father was Siddhartha, a ruler of that area. His mother, TriSala alias Priyakarinl, hailed from the royal family of the tribe of the Lichchhavis. Tradition is not unanimous about Mahavira marriage. He left home at the age of thirty and started practising penances in search of knowledge.
Unlike Buddha, he had no need to wander in search of a teacher, because he belonged already to the well- established religious order of his predecessor, Parsvanatha. While wandering as an ascetic he endured a number of hardships.
After twelve years of rigorous penance and meditation he attained enlightenment: the knowledge he is said to have attained was free from the limitations of time and space. He preached what he lived. His was a career of supreme detachment, and he was called Nirgrantha, one without any ties, whether internal or external.
All living beings want to live, and therefore he conceded to every being the right to live: thus the sanctity of life in all its forms constituted the basis of his moral values. Everyone is responsible for his own karmas; and when karmas are annihilated there is an end to transmigration, followed by the attainment of supreme spiritual bliss, the age Mahavira lived in was marked by great philosophical speculation, in which a number of eminent teachers participated, both brahmanas and Sramanas.
The seeds of the atma doctrine of the Upanishads and the further flowering of religious systems like Ajivikism, Jainism, and Buddhism are to be assigned to this period. Mahavira had family connections with the ruling dynasties of eastern India. He preached ahimsa or universal love; and his metaphysics was based on common-sense realism and intellectual reconciliation.
His followers consisted of monks, nuns, householders and their women-folk; and a well-knit Sangha, or socio- religious organization, was formed in his own times. He travelled for thirty years preaching his doctrines, only halting for any length of time at one place during the rainy season.
He died at the age of 72, traditionally in 527 B.C., at Pava in Bihar. This occasion was celebrated with a lamp-festival by the two ruling families of the region, the Mallakis and the Lichchhavis; and the present- day Dipavali, one of the most widespread and popular of Hindu festivals, is said in Jaina tradition to be a continuation of this.
Unlike Buddhism, which soon spread far and wide, with numerous monasteries in India and elsewhere, the Jaina Church has shown quite a modest yet steady progress. After Mahavira eminent teachers such as Gautama, Jambu, and others led the Church, which received patronage from such kings as Srenika Bimbisara of Magadha, Chandragupta Maurya, India’s first great emperor, Kharavela, the Orissan conqueror, and others.