Jainism is one of the
oldest religions of India. We do not know exactly when it was founded. The
Jains themselves say that Jainism has existed since eternity and it had
like the Jain universe no beginning and would have no end. Most of the
saints of Jainism belonged to remote ages, millions and billions of years
ago. However, for practical purposes we may take Mahavira, their last
great saint, as a historical figure. He was a contemporary of the Buddha.
Mahavira was the twenty-fourth and last of the Tirthankara (ford-makers)
of this age. The twenty-third Tirthankara was Parshvanatha. He is said to
have lived two hundred and fifty years before Mahavira. The historicity of
Mahavira is difficult to prove from Jain sources alone because these were
reduced to writing quite late. In fact one of the two main sects of the
Jains, the Digambaras think that no records of the period of Mahavira have
survived. The other sect, the Svetambaras assert that the oral traditions
of the time of Mahavira were actually put down in the written form in the
fifth century AD, i.e., a thousand years after Mahavira. Some account of
the life of Mahavira, can be obtained from this literature. According to
the Svetambaras, Mahavira was born in Vaishali a place about 45 km. from
Patna on Chaitra, Shukla Trayodasi in 599 BC. He was Kshatriya prince
belonging to Jnatra clan. He died in 527 BC in Pavapuri near Rajagriha.
King Shrenika and his son Kunika were the rulers of Magadh during his
The historicity of Mahavira is sought to be proved by comparing these
facts with those obtained form the Buddhist sources. The Pali Buddhist
texts on the life and sayings of the Buddha are claimed to have been
compiled shortly after his death. They mention quite often a Nataputta who
belonged to the sect of the Niganthas (free from bonds.) According to
these sources Nataputta died in Pava thirty years before death of the
Buddha. The rulers of Magadh during the Buddha's time were Bimbisara and
his son Ajatashatru.
It is asserted that the person mentioned as Nataputta in the Buddhist
texts was the same as Mahavira, the Jnatraputra of the Jains. The name of
the place where he died is the same in both the sets of sources. Shrenika
and Kunika, the two kings mentioned in the Jain sources were Bimbisara and
Ajatashatru mentioned in the Buddhist (as well as in the Hindu Purana)
texts. In fact the full name Shrenika Bimbisara is mentioned in the (Jain)
Ajatashatru's son according to the Buddhist sources was Udayabhadda.
According to the Jain sources Kunika's son was Udayin. Since the names of
the sons also are similar Kunika is identified with Afatashatru.
Jain, as the name of this particular sect does not occur in the Buddhist
sources. The reason is that both Mahavira and the Buddha were called Jina
by their respective followers, and the term Jain would thus technically
denote both the sects. However, the Niganthas according to the Buddhists
were known for extreme asceticism. This is a characteristic, which
differentiates the Buddhists and the Jains. There is little doubt,
therefore, that the Niganthas are the same people who were known as the
Jains in later days. In fact the old Jain literature such as the Acharanga
Sutra and the Kalpa Sutra describe their own community as that of
However, the historicity of Mahavira is not crucial to the history of
Jainism. Mahavira was not the founder of Jainism in the sense that the
Buddha was the founder of Buddhism. As stated earlier the Jains claim that
their religion had existed from time immemorial, and Mahavira was the last
great saint and reformer of the religion. The most important of these
reforms was the introduction of five vows in place of the four obtaining
in the system of Parshva ( the twenty-third Tirthankara of the Jains).
The later history of Jainism is marked by a number of schisms. But one
might say that different groups existed among the Jains even at the time
of Mahavira himself. There was an ascetic called Keshi who followed the
system of Parshvanatha.2 He had a long discussion with Gautama, a disciple
of Mahavira, and finally accepted the latter's views and sincerely adopted
the "Law of the five vows".3 Thus Parshva's group and Mahavira's group,
originally separate, were united. However, new schisms appeared according
to the Svetambaras, even during Mahavira's lifetime. The first schism was
by his own son-in-law Jamali 14 years after Mahavira's enlightenment. The
various schisms are known as nihnavas.
The most important schism, the eighth nihnava according to the Svetambaras,
occurred among the Jains a few centuries after Mahavira. At that time the
community broke into the two sects, the Digambaras (the sky-clad) and
Svetambaras (the white-robed). It is interesting to note that the two
sects describe the life of Mahavira differently. The Svetambaras say that
Mahavira lived as a prince up to the age of thirty. He had married and had
a daughter, Anojja or Priyadarshana. His granddaughter Yashovati was born
after Mahavira had left home. Digambaras on the other hand believe that
Mahavira never married.
Before we come to the difference among the sects, we may consider the
basic religious philosophy of the Jains. These are practically the same
for both the sects and have remained almost unchanged from very early
"According to Jain philosophy, matter, which consists of atoms, is
eternal, but may assume any form, such as earth, wind, and so on. All
material things are ultimately produced by combination of atoms. Souls are
of two kinds: those, which are subject to mundane transmigration (samsarin),
and those, which are liberated (mukta). The latter will be embodied no
more they dwell in a state of perfection at the summit of the universe;
being no more concerned with worldly affairs they have reached Nirvana."
The souls (Jiva) with which the whole world is filled are different from
matter; But being substances they are also eternal. Subtle matter coming
into contact with the soul causes its embodiment; being then transformed
into eight kinds of karma and thus forming as it were a subtle body, it
clings (ashrava) to the soul in all its migrations. The theory of karma is
the keystone of the Jain system. The highest goal consists in getting rid
(nirjara) of all karma derived from past existences, and acquiring no new
karma (samvara). One of the chief means of this end is the performance of
asceticism (topas). The Jain system differs from Buddhism in emphasizing
asceticism to a greater extent, even to the point of religious suicide:
and in the total evidence of taking life of any kind, such avoidance being
described as the highest duty."4
The methods by which a Jain could get rid of the acquired karma and attain
Nirvana have been prescribed. He should posses right faith, right
knowledge and right conduct. These are called tri-ratna. He should also
observe the following five vows:
1) Ahinsa (non-killing).
2) Sunrita (truthful speech).
3) Asteya (non-stealing).
4) Brahmacharya (celibacy), and
5) Aparigraha (non-possession).
As mentioned earlier Parshvanatha had prescribed only four vows. Mahavira
splits Parshvanatha's fourth vow, which was perhaps Aparigraha into two.
It is said that Brahmacharya was already included in Aparigraha, but
Mahavira made it explicit so as to remove any misunderstanding.
It is clear that these vows are difficult for a layman to practice. Laymen
were, therefore, required to observe these vows to the extent permitted by
the conditions of their lives.
It will be noticed at once that the Jain point of view of human life and
its end are completely different from the Vedic ideals. There is no
mention of transmigration of soul or of the theory of karma or Nirvana in
the Rigveda. The Vedic view of life is joyful. The Vedas prescribe the
performance of Yaga, where animals were sacrificed. These were done to
please the gods and also for taking the sacrificer to paradise after his
death. The paradise itself was a delightful place where there was no
death. Vedic heaven was full of light and all desires were fulfilled
there.5 Drinking of Soma (perhaps as an intoxicant) was a method of
gaining all desirable objects on the earth.6 There is no thought in the
Vedas of ascetic life while on earth.7 The Vedas envisage a priestly class
who would correctly recite the Vedic hymns at the time of the sacrifices.
The Jains on the other hand neither have any hymns nor have they any
priestly class of their own. Indeed it is specifically mentioned that
their great saints, the Tirthankara, were Kshatriyas i.e., not Brahmans.
Similarly, meditation (yoga), the atomic theory of matter (Vaisheshika),
the non- perishing of matter (Sankhya) etc., would take the Jain thinking
nearer of those systems of Indian philosophy which are not based on the
Vedas. It is also interesting to note that Kapil, Kanda, etc., the
founders of these non-Vedic systems were known as Tairthikas. There were
eighteen or more Tairthikas according to the encyclopedists. The
similarity of this name with Tairthikas is striking. (Strangely enough,
the Buddhists also called those who held heretical views, Tairthikas.)
Mahavira, and to some extent the Buddha, ignores the existence of the
Vedic religion. When in their youth they left their homes to become
ascetics they are not protesting against any Vedic or Brahmin rule. In
fact, it appears that they were doing just what was thought proper for a
person of religious bent of mind in that part of the country. The Buddha
after trying it abandoned the extreme form of asceticism. Thus, he was
actually reacting against the practices followed by the Jains and similar
other ascetics, when he founded his new faith of moderation.
An important thing about Buddhism and Jainism is that there religions are
not much concerned about-worldly things. Also, they have no theistic
theories. Present day Hinduism, on the other hand, is much pre-occupied
with these things. Signs of emergence among a section of the people of
such thoughts become apparent in the post-Vedic literature such as
Upanishads. These show that a new post-Vedic religion was emerging. The
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the earliest of the Upanishads. It was
perhaps compiled within a hundred years of the time when the Buddha and
Mahavira lived. Some of the dialogues in this Upanishad took place in
Videha (modern Mithila) which is not very far from Magadh where these two
great teachers preached. Thus both in time and in space, the two ages, the
Upanishad and the Buddhist-Jainis, are not far from each other. Yet, one
feels that they belong to two different worlds together. We may as an
example take the questions the king Janak of Videha asked Vajnavalkya in
the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
Janak Vaideha said: "When the sun has set, O Yajnyavalkya and the moon has
set, and the fire is gone out, and the sound hushed, what is then the
light of man".
Yajnavalkya said: "The Self indeed is his light; for having the Self alone
as his light, man sits, moves about, does his work, and returns."
Janak Vaideha said: "Who is that Self?"
Yajanvalkya replied: "He who is within the heart, surrounded by the pranas
(senses), the person of light, consisting of knowledge....."8
It is quite clear that the questions as well as the answers are other-
worldly. They do not relate to any human activity.
As a contrast we may cite the question which king Ajatashatru of Magadh
asked six of the non-Vedic teachers preaching at that time in his kingdom.
One of the teachers was Mahavira (Nigantha Naraputta) himself.
The question King Ajatashatru9 of Magadh asked, was, "The fruits of
various worldly trades and professions are obvious, but is it possible to
show any appreciable benefit to be derived from asceticism? Sanditthikam
samanna-phalam?" Each of the six teachers gave a different answer. These
answers need not concern us at the moment. The point, however, to notice
is that the question is quite mundane and very natural for a king, but it
is in a different plane altogether from the one king Janak of Videha has