First Steps To Jainism
SANCHETI ASOO LAL
BHANDARI MANAK MAL
Jainism, as the name indicates, is the
religion preached by the Jinas. The word religion means a creed or a set
of beliefs. Literally the word Jina means a conqueror, but Jinas
who prescribed the set of beliefs known as Jainism were no ordinary
conquerors. In ordinary sense the word conquerors means "victory of
territory by force". However, the Jinas were conquerors of their own
selves. They were victors over their senses, and their passions and
desires. Jinas achieved Godhood became perfect beings blessed with perfect
faith, perfect wisdom and eternal bliss. They became free from worldly
miseries and bondage for all times to come.
The way of life(and set of beliefs)
these Jinas prescribed was the same as they had practiced the path of
nonviolence, self control and penance, and thereby reached the stage of
perfection. They preached the same religion for the benefit of tormented
beings of the universe for their salvation from miseries - a panacea for
which humanity has been and is clamoring and which every religion claims
to provide in its own way.
The Jinas were also described as Jainas
in ancient literature and, therefore, the religion may have been called
Jainism. Again the followers of Jinas are known as Jains. The religion
practiced by these Jains may have been given its name as Jainism.
In the present cycle of time (we shall
know more about Jain division of time subsequently) there have been
numerous Jinas out of which 24 became Tirthankars or prophets or
enlightened beings as they created institutions for propagating right
faith, right knowledge and right conduct for salvation of humanity. The
first of these Jinas was Lord Rishabh also known as Adi Natha (the first
Lord) who started the Jain tradition in the present time cycle. The last
one of these prophets was Lord Mahaveera who lived about 2500 years ago
and who is erroneously considered the originator of Jainism.
The institutions set up by the Jain
prophets consisted of four groups that is, (i) monks, (ii) nuns, (iii)
laity (males) and (iv) laity (females). These institutions known as Tirtha
or centers of worship, are still continuing and this shows that Jainism is
a living religion flourishing throughout India. There are numerous monks
and nuns and millions of followers or Jain laity who are continuing the
institutions created in hoary past and these are following virtually the
same path as prescribed by Jinas. Jain monks and nuns still move about on
foot from Kashmir to Kerala and from Gujarat to Bengal. They carry minimum
of equipment having renounced even the clothes in some cases. Jain laity
still practice complete vegetarianism, abstaining from any type of meat or
flesh. They practice austerities and penance - fasting for days and in
some cases without water. At the same time Jain community is richly
endowed educationally and economically. They lead in the fields of
industry, business, education and politics.
The contribution of Jainism to the
Indian thought and life has been very significant. Actually vegetarianism
as a habit prevailing throughout the Indian continent, practiced by a
large majority, is an evidence of Jain influence. Indian literature,
sculpture, architecture and painting as also all other aspects of life
have been so significantly influenced by Jainism that to do justice to the
same will require a separate book. Suffice, it to say that every student
of Indian culture or a visitor to the Indian sub-continent has been
considerably impressed by the sculpture and art of Jain temples, Jain
painting and "inexhaustible stock of Jain literature".
Geographically Jainism has flourished in
India and except for Indian Jains working outside India, there are hardly
any Jains or Jain institutions in the countries outside India. All the 24
prophets or Tirthankars of Jains were born in different parts of India,
preaching and attaining salvation in this country. There has been a
catholicity and lack of dogmatic approach in Jain belief in as much as any
one, who preached and practiced the hallmarks of Jainism i.e.
non-violence, self control and penance coupled with the three jewels i.e.
right belief, right knowledge and right action, is considered and
worshipped as Jain leader of thought. Similarly, the followers of this
path irrespective of caste, color or creed can rightfully be considered
Jain. It is indeed mentioned in Jain scriptures that in other lands, in
other galaxies there are Jinas at present preaching the principles of
Jainism in all their purity and glory.
Historically it has been established, as
a result of research that Lord Mahaveera was not the founder of Jainism,
but the 24th and the last prophet of Jainism in the current epoch of time.
Actually there have been 23 prophets earlier to Lord Mahaveera who
practiced and preached the same religion. The first prophet Lord Rishabh
is mentioned frequently in Vedic Literature. The Bhagwat Puran has
described his life - penance and liberation in detail. The historicity of
22nd and 23rd prophets called Nemi and Parshva respectively has been
established by research. While Lord Nemi was contemporary to Lord Krishna
being his cousin, Parshva lived in 700 B.C. in Varanasi. Some of the
discoveries in Mohenjodaro and Harappa made recently indicate that Jainism
might have been prevalent in India in those days. However, if we again
glance at the Jain mythology, which may contain seeds of truth, such
prophets are born in every epoch of time and will continue to be born and
preach the same holy precepts from time to time. Thus as the universe is
beginningless and endless so are the Jain precepts and practices, which
have flourished in all ages and will continue to do so in future.
We have touched upon the catholicity and
broadmindedness in approach as evident in Jain thought. Similarly, other
significant attributes of Jainism are its harmonious and peaceful approach
to life and optimistic and healthy outlook about the future of humanity
and the principle of non-absolutism.
Non-violence is the foundation stone of
Jain religion. It teaches the principle of live and let live and believes
that life is too sacred to be injured even in the minutest form. It is
prohibited to destroy even the grass and trees and there are injunctions
against wasteful use of water and other resources. Thus the environment
and ecology of which one hears so much now-a-days, is automatically
preserved under the aegis of Jain practices.
The principle of non-absolutism tries to
find out the unity out of diverse points of view and admits that there is
an element of truth in all religions which are but different approaches to
the problems of humanity from different points of view. These help to
resolve unnecessary controversies so much so that it is considered the
principle of intellectual non-violence.
Though Jainism has been called spiritual
mathematics there is essential simplicity and naturalness in its basic
approach. The golden rule "treat thy neighbor as thou would like to be
treated", is extended to the entire creation and taken to its logical
conclusion in the principle of non-violence. Actually this golden rule is
the genesis of the principle of non-violence which in turn requires self
control and to practice self-control one has to practice penance. These
are the hallmarks of the entire Jain philosophy.
Indian sub-continent has been the birth
place of number of schools of thought like Jainism, Buddhism, Vedantism,
Sankhya, Nyaya, Memansa, etc., all broadly known as the Indian tradition.
These can be divided into two distinct groups known as the Vedic tradition
and Shramanic tradition. These traditions have run parallel over ages and
naturally so influenced each other that the dividing line has become very
indistinguishable. The Vedic tradition is still continuing as the religion
of the majority of the people in India. This group includes Sankhya Vedant
etc. In Shramanic tradition, we find Jainism, Buddhism, Ajivika, etc.
Somehow out of these later only Jainism survives in India as a living
religion, Buddhism and others having been almost completely obliterated
from India though Buddhism flourishes in the other parts of the world.
The Vedic school of thought accepts one
supreme God as the creator of the world and preaches devotion to it and
other lesser gods through rituals like sacrifice, etc., as one of the
paths of liberation of man. In day to day life Vedic tradition divided the
span of life in four parts meant for study, raising of family, religious
pursuits and complete renunciation. It has also divided humanity into four
classes, i.e., warriors (Kshtriyas), the religious ones (Brahmins),
professionals (Vaishyas), and the menials (Sudras),
importance being given to Brahmins so much so that the tradition was
called the Brahmin tradition.
In Jainism and other shramanic schools,
generally God is not accepted as creator of the world. Similarly, emphasis
is laid on one�s action and not devotion for one�s liberation from
miseries of the world. They also considered the division of life span and
distinction between different classes of humanity as artificial. Jainism
clearly propounded that man should not be condemned because of his birth
in a group, but his actions should rightly determine his status in the
society. Similarly it was preached that life is too transitory and
uncertain and one need not wait for old age to devote oneself to religious
Like all philosophies Jain philosophy
answers the fundamental questions about the universe, its creation, man�s
origin, his duties and his destiny. It also deals with the question of
Godhood at length and shows how an individual soul can achieve Godhood by
practicing the three fold path of right faith, right knowledge and right
conduct and by practicing non-violence, self control and penance.
It must be denied emphatically that
Jainism preaches atheism. On the contrary Jainism believes in the
potential power of every soul to attain Godhood.
Incidentally the same path if followed,
leads to happiness of an individual and of the society in this world.
Jainism says that there is no essential conflict between man and man, man
and society and man and the state. Actually they are inter-dependent, not
only is there inter-dependence between man and man but also there is
inter-dependence between humanity and the animal world as well as nature.
It will be clear that Jain thought
proves the world to be a beautiful place to live in and man has a higher
aim in life. There is no pessimism, but an optimistic approach that with
appropriate efforts human destiny could achieve not only super-natural
powers but also Godhood.
Before closing this chapter a few words
about historical evolution of Jain culture since Pashva and Mahaveera will
be appropriate. While Parshva prescribed less rigid path permitting
colored clothes for the monks Mahaveera made the conduct more strict and
prescribed nudity for male monks as also white clothes to a limited
extent. This with other minor distinctions led to the division of Jain
Church into two main branches, i.e., sky-clad (Digamber) and white-clad (Swetamber).
These two sects were further divided and sub-divided into idol worshipper,
non-idol worshipper and so on. However, in essential beliefs Jain church
as well as Jain laity remains singularly united even after 2500 years
since Mahaveera. In metaphysical, ethical and theological details there is
complete unanimity amongst all the Jains. There may be minor differences
in emphasis on details or in rituals to be followed by one sect and
discarded by the others. These only emphasize the essential soundness of
the set of beliefs prescribed by the great prophets from time immemorial.