In the sixth century BC Buddhism had just been founded. The Vedic religion was almost getting extinct and Hinduism as we know it today was at a nebulous stage. Jainism at that time was not only a mature and living religion but also one claiming a hoary antiquity. All its tenets had fully developed by that time and these tenets have remained almost unchanged all these 2500 years. Jainism is thus the oldest living religion of India.
But age alone is not what gives importance to Jainism. This religion is important because it has greatly influenced practically all-religious thinking of India. If, as is thought by many, the spirit of Indian religious life was 'life and world negating' it might be said that it was mainly due to the influence of Jainism and similar other religions of that time on Indian thought. It also shows the triumph of the Jain spirit over the 'life and world affirming' attitude of the Vedic people who failed to divert the main stream of Indian religious thinking from pessimism to an optimistic and joyous path. The aversion to the killing of animals, the belief that all ascetics are holy people (and conversely that a person in order to be holy should be an ascetic), the theory of the transmigration of the soul, and that 'getting born in this world is itself a punishment' all these are parts of Hindu thinking. They seem to have been adopted without much change from Jainism and similar other religions which existed in India in the sixth century BC. (The evidence of the existence of such religions, though scanty, is available from the Buddhist and Jain texts.
Yet, the Jains constitute a small proportion of the Indian people. They probably number a little over three million in a population of nearly 700 million. How did such a small community exercise so much influence? The answer probably lies in the fact that the original religions of the Indian people at least from the Indus Valley times were similar in many respects to Jainism. These religions got somewhat modified by the impact of the Vedic cult, but ultimately the ancient religions of India, of which Jainism was one, prevailed Jainism has thus not so much influenced as provided a guide-post to Hinduism to get back to its original course.
Since Jainism itself has not much changed or developed in the course of these 2,500 years, it has in a sense no history. In fact, the last change in Jainism was introduced by Mahavira himself when he proposed an additional vow to the original four vows of Parshva the immediately- preceding Tirthankara. The Jains themselves recognized this absence of change by hesitating to write any history of their religion after Mahavira. Indeed, when the Digambaras write any history (or mythology) of their religion they stop with Mahavira. The Svetambaras have no doubt at least two works, which continue the history even after Mahavira, but these too stop after a few centuries.
This is, therefore, a history of the Jain people and not so much a history of their religion.
In the history of the Jains the most important figure is Mahavira. He was a contemporary of the Buddha. This we know from the Buddhist works only, for the Jain works never mention the Buddha. Mahavira lived for 72 years of which for the last 30 years he was a teacher. The Jain works give some details for the first 42 years of Mahavir's life, but tell us little about his life as a teacher. (In the case of Buddha also the Buddhist works give few details of his life after he became a teacher).
Jainism did not get much royal support in the first few centuries after Mahavira. Indeed, the Jain's themselves claim only one royal patron in these centuries. He was Samprati, grandson of Ashoka, and ruler of Ujayini. Epigraphic evidence, however, shows that Ashoka himself was a protector of the Jains and had appointed officers to look after their welfare, though he may not have been a patron. Again from epigraphic evidence we know that in the 1st century BC king Kharavela of Orissa and his queen were patrons of Jainism. (The Jain works mention Ashoka only in passing, and Kharavela is not known to them at all). People engaged in commerce and trades were drawn towards Jainism from at least the early centuries of the Christian era. This we know from the extensive remains of the sculptures gifted by them in the Kankalitila in Mathura.
We do not know how the Jains broke into two groups, the Digambaras and the Svetambaras. Perhaps there was no actual schism, the two groups just drifted apart due to geographical reasons, the Jains of Gujarat and the neighboring areas emerging as the Svetambaras sometime in the 5th century AD.
By perhaps the 4th century AD Jainism had spread to South India. Southwest Karnataka from the very beginning became its center. Though the Jains were found more or less all over the South, in this part of Karnataka and specially in the Tulu speaking areas, Jainism was a force to reckon with for many centuries. They received patronage from the rulers of many dynasties, and occupied important administrative and military posts under them. In fact some of the Western Ganga rulers themselves became Jains. There were many learned Jains in the court of the kings of Karnataka. They wrote books on logic and philosophy and some of them produced important works on mathematics and medicine also.
In the matter of Architecture and Statuary, the Jains produced remarkable pieces of art in a number of places in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
In the 12th century Gujarat the rulers appreciated the learning of the great Jain polymath Hemachandra by making him their confidant. The Gujarat Jains continued the tradition of learning. In the 16th century, Abdul Fazl counted Hira Vijaya Suri as one of the 21 most learned persons of the Mughal Empire, and Akbar himself invited him to his court. The Jains maintained their fame in visual arts. They constructed beautiful temples in Shatrunjaya, Girnar, Ranakpur, Abu, Deogarh, Khajuraho, and other places in northern India. The contribution of the Jains in the cultural heritage of India has been high.
The Jain religious philosophy has not changed much in all these years. The only development one can think of is that they have elaborated their logical system known as the Syadvada. The original enunciation of this doctrine given in the canonical literature is not very clear. The later logicians have developed it into a complete system. The important point to notice, however, is that no Jain author has tried to refute this doctrine or to advance a rival system. There is no controversy in Jainism comparable to the one that has been going on for centuries on the interpretation of the Hindu Vedanta-Sutra. It is not that there have been no differences at all among the Jains in the matter of their religion. There have been many groups and sub-groups within the community. But when one comes to analyze the differences among them it is found that these relate to trifling matters of ritual, or to details of the mythological stories. Even the great division between the Digambaras and the Svetambaras are in relation to such petty details.
As the Jain temples and monasteries grew rich with fresh endowments, the persons in charge of these establishments became powerful. New groups arose within the community to protest against such domination. One such Protestant group arose among the Digambaras in the Agra region in the 17th century. They were known as the Terapanthis. Among the Svetambaras also there rose a new group in the 15th century that believed that image worship was not mentioned in the canon.
These controversies have not affected the essentials of the Jain religion. Never the less, they have made the Jains think about their religion and have kept Jainism alive.