The history of the Jaina tradition is amply borne out both by literary and archaeological evidences. This traditional history of Jainism from the earliest times to the age of the last Tirthankara Mahavira (6th Century B.C.) can be consistently traced from the facts maintained by Jaina religion. In this regard, Jainism primarily assumes that the universe, with all its constituents or components, is without a beginning or an end, being everlasting and eternal and that the wheel of time incessantly revolves like a pendulum in half circles from the descending to the ascending stage and again back from the ascending stage to the descending stage. Thus, for practical purposes, a unit of the cosmic time is called kalpa, which is divided into two parts viz. the avasarpini (i.e. descending) and the utsarpini (i.e. ascending), each with six-division known as kalas i.e., periods or ages. It means that at the end of the sixth sub-division of the avasarpini(i.e. descending half circle) part the revolution reverses and the utsarpini (i.e. ascending half circle) part commences where the steps are reversed like the pendulum of a clock and that this process goes on ad infinitum. Hence the utsarpini part marks a period of gradual evolution and the avasarpini part that of gradual decline in human stature, span of life, bodily strength and happiness and even in the length of each kala or age itself (i.e., the first age being the longest and the sixth age being the shortest). Moreover, the life in the first age, the second age and the third age is known as the life of bhogabhumi (i.e., natural, happy, enjoyment-based life without any law or society); while life in the remaining three ages viz., the fourth age, the fifth age and the sixth age, is called the life of karmabhumi (i.e., life based on individual and collective efforts).
In accordance with this wheel of time, the avasarpini (the descending half circle) part is continuing at present and we are now living in this part’s fifth age which commenced a few years (3 years and 3 1/2 months) after Tirthankara Mahavira’s nirvana in 527 B.C. As per Jaina scriptures, the first age of the present avasarpini part was of enormous, incalculable length and it had the conditions of bhogabhumi when human begins lived in the most primitive stage which was entirely dependent on nature. In the second age, therefore, the condition began to show some signs of gradual decline, but still they were of a happy bhogabhumi stage and in the third age, the process of degeneration continued further in spite of the prevailing bhogabhumi stage. But towards the end of the third age, man began gradually to wake up to his environments, to feel the effects of deteriorating conditions and to have desire, for the first time, for the necessity of seeking guidance. Hence to satisfy this need, the fourth age produced, one after the other, fourteen law-givers or preliminary guides of human beings known as the Kulakaras or Manus. In the fourth age, the conditions greatly deteriorated since nature was not benevolent as before and conflicts among men had begun to appear and the Kulakaras, in succession, as the earliest leader of men, tried to improve the conditions in their own simple ways. In the succession of fourteen Kulakaras or Manus the 14th manu by name Nabhiraya and his wife Marudevi gave birth to Rsabha or Adinatha who later on became the first Tirthankara or Expounder of Jaina religion. This Lord Rsabha is considered as the harbinger of human civilization because he inaugurated the karmabhumi (the age of action); founded the social institutions of marriage, family, law, justice, state etc. taught mankind the cultivation of land, different arts and crafts, reading, writing and arithmetic; built villages, towns and cities; and in short, pioneered the different kinds of activities with a view to provide a new kind of social order meant for increasing the welfare of human-beings. Lord Rsabha had two daughters and one hundred sons. After guiding human beings for a considerable period of time, Lord Rsabha abdicated his temporal powers in favor of his eldest son, Bharata, who in course of time, became the Chakravarti i.e., Paramount sovereign of this country; led a life of complete renunciation, got Kevala-jnana, i.e., supreme knowledge, preached the religion of ahimsa, became the first prophet of salvation and in the end attained nirvana, i.e., liberation at Mount Kailasa.
After Lord Rsabha, the first Tirthankara, there was a succession of 23 other Tirthankaras, who came one after the other at intervals varying in duration. In this way, the Jaina tradition of 24 Tirthankaras was established in the course of historical times beginning from the first Tirthankara Lord Rsabha and ending with 24th Tirthankara Lord Mahavira.
Thus it is now an accepted fact that Mahavira (599-527 B.C.) was the last Tirthankara or prophet of Jaina religion and that he preached the religion which was promulgated in the 8th century B.C. by his predecessor Parsvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara. The historicity of Tirthankara Parsvanatha (877-777 B.C.) has been established. Parsvanatha, the son of king Viavasena and queen Vamadevi of the kingdom of Kasi, led the life of an ascetic, practiced severe penance, obtained omniscience, became a Tirthankara propagated Jaina religion and attained nirvana or salvation at Sammed Shikhar, i.e., Parsvanatha as a historical personage and a preacher of Jaina religion.
The predecessor of Parsvanatha was Nemi-natha or Aristanemi, the 22nd Tirthankara whose historicity like that of Parsvanatha, can be easily established. Nemi-natha, according to the Jaina tradition, was the cousin of the Lord Krsna of the Mahabharata fame as Samudravijaya, the father of Nemi-natha and Vasudeva, the father of Krsna, were brothers. Nemi-natha was a unique personality due to his great compassion towards animals. This is clearly revealed by a significant incident in his life. While Nemi-natha was proceeding at the head of his wedding procession to the house of his bride, Princess Rajulakumari, the daughter of king Ugrasena of Gujarat, he heard the moans and groans of animals kept in an enclosure for some meat eaters and instantly decided not to marry at all as his marriage would involve a slaughter of so many innocent animals. Immediately Nemi- natha renounced his royal title and became an ascetic. Learning this renunciation of Nemi-natha, the betrothed princess Rajulakumari or Rajamati also became a nun and entered the ascetic order. Nemi-natha after achieving omniscience preached religion for a long time and finally attained nirvana on the Mount Girnar in Junagadh district of Gujarat. Since this great war Mahabharata is a historical event and Krsna is an historical personage, his cousin brother Nemi-natha too occupies a place in this historical picture. There is also an inscriptional evidence to prove the historicity of Nemi-natha. Dr. Fuherer also declared on the basis of Mathura Jaina antiquities that Nemi-natha was a historical personage (vide Epigraphia Indica, I, 389 and II, 208-210). Further, we find Neminatha’s images of the Indo-Scythian period bearing inscriptions corroborate the historicity of 22nd Tirthankara Neminatha.
Among the remaining 21 Tirthankaras of the Jaina tradition, there are several references from different sources to the first Tirthankara Rsabhanatha or Adinatha. Thus the tradition of twenty-four Tirthankaras is firmly established among the Jainas and what is really remarkable is that this finds confirmation from non-Jaina sources, especially Buddhist and Hindu sources.