Since Jainism spread all over India in ancient times, the Jainas possess a long and continuous history of their own. It is, therefore worthwhile to see the status or high position enjoyed by Jainism in relation to other religions and the important Jaina political personalities like rulers, ministers, generals, etc. in different parts of India during the ancient and medieval times.
Jainism in East India
In the political history of India in ancient times, East India figured more prominently than any other part of India. From the middle of the seventh century B.C. the kingdom of Magadha, the modern south Bihar, had assumed the position of the recognized political center of India. As Lord Mahavira happened to belong to this part of the country, we find that many kings, chiefs and masses gave their full support to Jainism.
The Saisunaga Dynasty
King Chetaka, the most eminent amongst the Lichchhavi princes and the ruler of Vaisali, the capital of Videha, was a great patron of Jainism. He gave his sister, princess Trisala, in marriage to Siddhartha, to whom Lord Mahavira was born. As king Chetaka was related to lord Mahavira and as Lichchhavis are often mentioned in the Jaina literature, it is supposed that practically all Lichchhavis were the followers of Jaina religion.
In the Saisunaga dynasty (642-413 B.C.), Bimbisara or Srenika and Ajatasatru or Kunika were the two important kings who extended their full support to the Jaina religion. Both Bimbisara and his son Ajatasatru were the near relatives of Lord Mahavira, in whose contact they frequently came, and hence the Jainas believe that they did belong to the Jaina religion for a considerable period in their life-time.
The Nanda Dynasty
The Nandas (413-322 B.C.) who were the successors of Saisunagas in Magadha, were, according to the inscriptions of king Kharavela of Kalinga, the followers of the Jaina faith because the inscriptions speak of King Nanda I who led a conquering expedition into Kalinga and carried off an idol of Adi-Jina, that is, the first Jaina Tirthankar Lord Adinatha or Rsabhanatha. Dr. Vincent Smith in his ‘Early History of India’ also mentions that the Nandas were Jainas.
The Maurya Dynasty
The Jaina tradition, which is ancient in origin and is referred to in subsequent ages down to the present day as well-known and authentic, asserts that Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (322-298 B.C.), the founder of the Maurya dynasty, turned Jaina and that he abdicated the throne, joined the Jaina migration led by Acharya Bhadrabahu to the South. became the chief disciple of Bhadrabahu, by entering the ascetic order of Jaina monks and died in a Jaina way (i.e. by observing the vow sallekhana or peaceful death) at Shravanabelagola after leading a life of Jaina ascetic for twelve years. This tradition is now accepted as true by famous historians B.L. Rice and Vincent Smith. Regarding the early faith of Emperor Ashok (273-236 B.C.) it is maintained by some historians that he professed Jainism before his conversion to Buddhism. The famous edicts of Ashok are said to reveal this fact. Further, according to Ain-i-Akbari, Emperor Ashok was responsible for introducing Jainism into Kashmir and this is confirmed by the Rajatarangini, the famous work depicting the history of Kashmir. Many other reasons are also given in support of this contention.
Emperor, Samprati, the grand son and successor of Ashok, is regarded the Jaina Ashok for his eminent patronage, and efforts in spreading Jaina religion in east India.
Like Magadha, the kingdom of Kalinga or Orissa had been a Jaina stronghold from the very beginning. It is asserted that Jainism made its way to South India through Kalinga only. Lord Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankar, visited Kalinga and preached Jainism to the people, who already belonged to the Jaina Sangha, as organized by Parsvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankar. It is worth a mention that in the second century B.C. Kalinga was the center of a powerful empire ruled over by Kharavela and that he was one of the greatest royal patrons of Jaina faith. It is further contended that even after Jainism lost the royal patronage it continued for a long time as a dominant religion and that this is testified by the famous Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang (629 A.D.) when he says that in Kalinga “among the unbelievers the most numerous are the Nirgranthas (i.e., Jainas).”
Jainism had its influence in Bengal also. Hiuen Tsang states that in Pundravardhana and Samatata, that is, in western and eastern Bengal the naked ascetics called nirgranthas are most numerous. Even now Jaina relics, inscriptions, idols, etc., are found in different parts of Bengal. Even the name ‘Vardhamana’ is given to one district in Bengal. In this connection it has been pointed out that the indigenous people of western Bengal known as ‘Saraka’ are the Hinduised remnants of the early Jaina people. Again, in some parts of Bengal Jaina idols are worshipped as the idols of Hindu deity Bhairava. In short, the influence of Jaina religion on the customs, manners and religions of Bengal is very much visible even at present.