Overview of Jainism
The primary historical figures of Jainism are the Tirthankaras. Jainism has three main variants: Digambara, Shvetambara, and Sthanakavasis. Jains believe in ahimsa, asceticism, karma, samsara, and the jiva; their primary scripture is the Siddhanta.
At six million adherents, Jainism is the smallest of the 10 major world religions. There are 6000 Jain nuns, and 2500 Jain monks -- most of the nuns are members of the Shvetambara. (Fisher) In India, Jains are over-represented in positions of economic and political power; the global diamond market is dominated by Jain-owned corporations. Jains have been a significant force in Indian culture, contributing to Indian philosophy, art, architecture, sciences and last but not least the politics of Mohandas Gandhi which led to Indian independence.
Jainism shares concepts with Hinduism and Buddhism, but is a separate religious path. As part of its stance on non-violence, Jainism goes beyond vegetarianism in that the Jain diet also excludes most root vegetables and certain other foods believed to be unnecessarily injurious. Observant Jains do not eat, drink or travel after sunset and always rise before sunrise.
Digambaras and Svetambaras
The two major sects of Jainism trace their origin to events that occurred ~200 years after the death of Mahavira. Bhadrabahu, chief of the Jain monks, foresaw a period of famine and led all who would follow him (~12,000 people), to southern India. Twelve years later, they returned to find that Svetambara sect had arisen. The followers of Bhadrabahu became known as the Digambaras.
According to Jain beliefs, the universe was never created, nor will it ever cease to exist. It is eternal but not unchangeable, because it passes through an endless series of alternations or swings. Each of these upward or downward swings is divided into four world ages (yugas). The present world age is the fourth age of one of these "swings", which is in a downward movement.
When this reaches its lowest level, even Jainism itself will be lost in its entirety. Then, in the course of the next upswing, the Jain religion will be rediscovered and reintroduced by new leaders called Tirthankaras (saintly teachers), only to be lost again at the end of the next downswing, and so on.
In each of these enormously long alternations of time there are always twenty-four Tirthankaras. In the current world age, the twenty-third Tirthankara was Parshva, an ascetic and teacher, who may have lived around 850-800 BC. The Jains regard him as a reformer who called for a return to the beliefs and practices of their original religious tradition.
The twenty-fourth and final Tirthankara of this age is known by his title, Mahavira, the Great Hero (599-527 BC). He too was a wandering ascetic teacher who attempted to recall the Jains to the rigorous practice of their ancient faith.
Jains believe that reality is made up of two eternal principles, jiva and ajiva. Jiva consists of an infinite number of identical spiritual units; ajiva (that is, non-jiva) is matter in all its forms and the conditions under which matter exists: time, space, and movement.
Both jiva and ajiva are eternal; they never came into existence for the first time and will never cease to exist. The whole world is made up of jivas trapped in ajiva; there are jivas in rocks, plants, insects, animals, human beings, spirits, et cetera.
Any contact whatsoever of the jiva with the ajiva causes the former to suffer. Thus the Jains believed that existence in this world inevitably means suffering. Neither social reform nor the reform of individuals themselves can ever stop suffering. In every human being, a jiva is trapped, and the jiva suffers because of its contact with ajiva. The only way to escape from suffering is for the jiva to completely escape from the human condition, from human existence.
Karma and transmigration keep the jiva trapped in ajiva. Achieving release from the human condition is difficult. The Jains believe that the jiva continues to suffer during all its lives or reincarnations, which are of an indefinite number. They believe that every action that a person performs, be it good or evil, opens up channels of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), through which an invisible substance, karma, filters in and adheres to the jiva within, weighing it down and determining the conditions of the next reincarnation.
The consequence of evil actions is a heavy karma, which weighs the jiva down, forcing it to enter its new life at a lower level in the scale of existence. The consequence of good deeds, on the other hand, is a light karma, which allows the jiva to rise in its next life to a higher level in the scale of existence, where there is less suffering to be endured. However, good deeds alone can never lead to release.
The way to moksha (release or liberation) is withdrawal from the world. Karma is the cause-and-effect mechanism by virtue of which all actions have inescapable consequences. Karma operates to keep the jiva chained in an unending series of lifetimes in which the jiva suffers to a greater or lesser extent. Thus the way of escape must involve an escape from karma, the destruction of all karma and the avoidance of new karma.
Then, at death, with no karma to weigh it down, the jiva will float free of all ajiva, free of the human condition, free of all future embodiments. It will rise to the top of the universe to a place or state called Siddhashila, where the jiva, identical with all other pure jivas, will experience its own true nature in eternal stillness, isolation and noninvolvement. It will be totally free. The way to burn up old karma is to withdraw from all involvement in the world as much as possible, and close the channel of the senses and the mind to prevent karmic matter from entering and adhering to the jiva.
Beliefs and practices
Jain society is as dualistic as the Jain universe. On the one hand, there are the monks, who practice severe asceticism and strive to make this life their last. On the other hand, there are the lay people, who pursue less rigorous practices, striving only to do good deeds and hoping for a better incarnation in the next life. Due to the strict ethics embedded in Jainism, the laity must choose a profession and livelihood that keeps with the faith, making the safe occupation of trade the number one occupation of choice.
In their effort to attain their highest hope, which is the permanent release of the jiva from all involvement in worldly existence, the Jains believe that no spirit or divine being can assist them in any way. Hence Jainism is a non-theistic religion. The Jains consider that gods and spirits can influence events of this world only. They cannot help the jiva to obtain release. This has to be achieved by individual through their own efforts. In fact, the gods cannot even gain their own release until they are reincarnated as people and undertake the difficult life of a Jain monk.
The ethical code of Jainism is taken very seriously. Summarized in the Five Vows, they are followed by both lay people and monastics. These are:
For lay people, chastity means confining sexual experience to the marriage relationship. For monks, it means complete celibacy. Non-injury commonly means vegetarianism, but some Jains have been known to starve themselves to death in order to avoid harming any living creature. There are even those who wear masks over their mouths and noses to avoid any possibility of breathing in tiny insects. Gandhi was deeply influenced by the Jain insistence on a peaceful, non-harming way of life which is common to the Hindu philosophy of ahimsa and made it an integral part of his own philosophy.
The Jains adopted Vedic rituals for marriage and other family rites since the Jain religion itself has neither priests nor rituals. They also adopted many of the Hindu deities as a means of explaining how world events may be influenced; they do not, however, regard such gods as ultimate in any important sense of the word. Like us, the gods are trapped in the cycle of transmigration. Jains have built temples where images of their Tirthankaras are venerated in much the same way that Hindus worship images of their gods. Jain rituals are elaborate, and include offerings of flowers, fruit and other symbolic objects, with the Tirthankaras being praised in chant using passages from the Jain scriptures.
The Jain symbol incorporates a swastika and a hand.
Every day Jains bow their heads and say their universal prayer, the Navkar-mantra. All good work and events start with this prayer of salutation and worship.
Namo Arihantanam: - I bow to the enlightened beings
Namo Siddhanam: - I bow to the liberated souls
Namo Ayariyanam: - I bow to religious leaders
Namo Uvajjayanam: - I bow to religious teachers
Namo Loe Savva Sahunam: - I bow to all ascetics of the world
Eso Panch Namukkaro:
Savva Pava Panasano:
Padhamam Havai Mangalam:
- These five salutations are capable of destroying all the sins and this is the first happiness among all forms of happiness.
In the above prayer, Jains salute the virtues of their five benevolent. They do not pray to a specific Tirthankara or monk by name. By saluting them, Jains receive the inspiration from the five benevolent for the right path of true happiness and total freedom from the misery of life. Jain prayers do not ask for any favors or material benefits from their Gods, the Tirthankaras or from monks and nuns.