One of the mysteries of India: What is Jainism?


I am looking for information on Jainism. Any help you can give me would be great.


Jainism is an ancient religion of India that’s relatively unknown in the West. Though with only 4 million or so adherents it is considered a major world faith, alongside others with followers that number in the mere millions like Baha’i, Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism and Zoroastrianism.

This is a remarkably rigoristic and ascetic creed, not only for monks nd nuns but lay followers (“householders”). Though the beliefs are otherworldly, Jains in secular vocations are notably successful because of the thrift and discipline their faith inculcates. This culture has made singular contributions over centuries to the literature, art, and architecture of India.

Both Jainism and Buddhism emerged from Hinduism in the 6th Century B.C.E. to become distinct, separate religions. Buddhism spread across Asia and is far larger while Jainism is limited geographically to India and small populations of Indian emigrants elsewhere. The Buddha was unquestionably the founder of his religion, whereas Jains do not regard his contemporary Mahavira (“Great Hero”) in the same sense.

Instead, Mahavira is considered the successor to 23 prior jinas (spiritual “conquerors”) whose heritage extends back to the distant past. His career does, however, mark the beginning of Jainism’s recoverable history. As John Noss writes, it was Mahavira who defined a monastic movement with the “ethical strength” and “doctrinal clarity” that carried it forward. He was born into affluence around 599 B.C.E. and died (or achieved nirvana) in 527. Though married and with a daughter, around age 28 Mahavira entered strict monastic self-denial and meditation to achieve enlightenment. It is said he started with 11 students and upon his death led 14,000 monks.

Jainism’s goal is to conquer the physical and material realm to attain complete purity of the soul and accumulate good karma in order to be liberated from the body and the perpetual cycle of rebirths (a.k.a. samsara, reincarnation, transmigration of souls, metempsychosis). This involves monks’ regimen of diet, fasting, mortification of the body, self-denial, study, meditation, and obedience to the “three jewels” of right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct.

Thus Jainism carried on the Hinduism’s samsara (Buddhist concepts are somewhat different) in which one’s deeds determine status in the next life, whether as a human or another “sentient” species. But Jainism is unique in holding that karma is not the law or process that determines these future outcomes but a literal substance attached to the migrating soul.

There are two main branches in Jainism, a gradual split that solidified in the 1st Century C.E. (By coincidence, that same era produced the basic forms of Christianity and rabbinical Judaism that have existed ever since.)

Continue reading "What is Jainism?", by Richard Ostling.

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