Rise of sections in Jainism
From the history of Jaina religion up to Mahavira it appears that sects and sub-sets had not arisen till that time. But later on we find that various schisms arose in Jaina religion as a result of which Jainism was divided into several sects and sub-sects. There were various reasons which contributed to the splitting of Jainism in small sects and sub-sects.
Increase in the extent of Jainism
In the first place it may be mentioned that during the lifetime of Mahavira the spread of Jainism was limited and it did not seem generally to have crossed the boundaries of kingdoms of Anga and Magadha, comprising modern Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal, where Mahavira mainly lived and concentrated his attention; but after the death of Mahavira, his successors and followers succeeded to a large extent in popularizing the religion throughout the length and breadth of India, so that it did not fail to enlist for a long period the support of kings as well as commoners. As the number of adherents to Jaina religion fast increased and as they were scattered practically in all parts of the country, the Ganadharas, that is, the religious leaders and the religious pontiffs must have found it very difficult to look after and organize their followers. Naturally, different conditions. customs, manners and ways of life prevailing in different parts of the country in different periods of time might have influenced in giving rise to various religious practices which might have ultimately resulted in creating factions among the followers of Jainism.
Interpretation of Jaina Canons
Secondly, the religious doctrines, principles and tenets of Jainism as they were enunciated and taught by Mahavira were not committed to writing during the lifetime of Mahavira or immediately after his death. The important fact was that the religious teachings of Mahavira were memorized by his immediate successors and they were thus handed down by one generation to another, till they were canonized at the council of Pataliputra in the early part of the 3rd century B.C. By this time much water had flown down the Ganges and what was canonized was not acceptable to all, who vigorously maintained that the canon did not contain the actual teachings of Mahavira.
Again. there was the question of interpreting what had been canonized. As time passed on, differences of opinion regarding the interpretation of many doctrines arose and those who differed established a separate school of thought and formed themselves into a sect or sub-sect.
Revolt against Jaina’s Religious Authorities
Thirdly, it may be maintained that sects and sub-sects arise as a direct result of the revolts against the actions and policy of ruling priests or religious authorities including the heads of the Church. Those who are at the helm of religious affairs are likely to swerve from their prescribed path and debase themselves or they are likely to be too strict in maintaining and preserving the religious practices in a manner they think proper, without taking into account the needs of the changing conditions. In both the cases natural indignation is bound to occur on the part of the elite and there should not be any surprise if this accumulated indignation and discontent took a turn in formulating and organizing a separate sect. For example, Martin Luther revolted against the high-handed policy of Popes and Priests in Christian religion and founded the section of Protestants in that religion. Generally, the same thing happened in Jaina religion also.
As a result of these factors the Jaina religion which was one and undivided up to the time of Tirthankara Mahavira and even up to the beginning of the Christian Era got divided first into the two major sects, viz., Digambara and Svetambara, and later on into many sub-sects in each sect. This has given rise to a number of sections and sub-sections in Jainism and the process, in one form or another, is still going on.