Significance of Jainism

Significance of Jainism

From the social history of India it is evident that Tirthankara Mahavira, in order to solve the pressing problems of the time, made several important salient contributions from a social point of view. It has been recorded that Tirthankara Mahavira, after the attainment of omniscience at the age of forty two, toured different parts of India for a continuous period of thirty years, met people from various urban, rural and tribal societies, and preached the principles and rules of conduct as laid down by Jainism. The personality and preachings of Tirthankara Mahavira created a tremendous impact on the minds of all sections of people and especially on the down-trodden sections of the population. He not only revealed to them the path of liberation, i.e., the path to attain the eternal happiness, which was the main object of the people, but also showed the actual means through which all people, irrespective of any distinction of class or status, can achieve this objective. His sincerity of purpose, way of approach, method of explanation, divine speech and distinctive philosophical and ethical doctrines appealed to the people to such an extent that with a firm conviction of mind and great determination people began to adopt Jaina religion as lay followers or as ascetics.

In this way Tirthankara Mahavira ushered in a new era of hope and aspirations for the common people and succeeded in considerably other arrangements for the perpetuation of his social order. Obviously new concepts and ideas revolutionized the entire course of life of the people. The significance of Tirthankara Mahavira lies in successfully effecting a social change and in making institutional and other arrangements for the perpetuation of his social order. Obviously, the Jaina Acharyas, thinkers and preceptors continued to advocate this new social policy. Thus the Jainas made remarkable contributions in the social field, and the significance of Jainism. from a social point of view, lies in these contributions which are briefly outlined here.


The most significant contribution of Jainism in the social field was the establishment of social equality among the four varanas. i.e.. classes, prevalent in the society. Tirthankara Mahavira succeeded in organizing his large number of followers into a compact social order quite distinct from that of the Brahmanic social order of his time.

The Vedic society was composed of four classes, viz., Brahman, Rajanya (i.e. Ksatriya), Vaisya and Sudra. They were said to have come from the mouth, the arms, the thighs, and the feet of the Creator, Brahman. The particular limbs ascribed as the origins of these divisions and the order in which they were mentioned indicated their status in the society of the time. The fact that the four classes were described as of divine origin could be taken as sufficient indication that they were of long duration and also very well defined. Not only the four classes were distinct and separate, but they were also later on affected by the spirit of rivalry among themselves. Even in the early Rgvedic times the Brahmanical profession had begun to set up claims of superiority or grandness for itself and accordingly we find that different rules were prescribed for different classes. Obviously the prerogatives of the sacerdotal class created cleavages in the society. The Ksatriyas were assigned a position next to Brahmans and Vaisyas and Sudras were comparatively neglected. Thus the society at that time was completely class-ridden in the sense that unusual importance was given to the Brahmin class to the detriment of other classes and that nobody was allowed to change his class which he had got on the basis of his birth in that class.

Against these glaring practices based on the acceptance of social inequality and on the wide observance of social discrimination, Tirthankara Mahavira and later on Jaina Acharyas forged their opposition. Tirthankara Mahavira recognized the division of society into four classes but based them on the nature of activities carried out by the people and not on the basis of their birth. He gave full freedom to one and all, including women and the Sudras, to observe common religious practices prescribed for all and admitted them into his religious order. In this way Tirthankara Mahavira threw open the doors of Jainism to all and gave an equal opportunity to everybody, irrespective, of his, class or birth, to practice religion according to his capacity. Those who followed religion as householders (male and female) were known as sravakas and sravikas and those who observed the religion fully by leaving their houses and becoming ascetics (male and female) were called as sadhus and sadhvis.

In this way the society as envisaged by Tirthankara Mahavira and other Jaina Acharyas, was a society where classes were not hereditary like water-tight compartments and where complete freedom was granted to the people to change to the class of their own aptitude. All classes were considered as different ways of life and utmost importance was attached to individual character and mode of behavior. There was no room for anybody to feel that he was neglected or degraded as he was free enough to follow any profession he liked and he could observe all religious rites and practices with others.

Thus Tirthankara Mahavira’s conception of Varna system produced social impact of great significance. The principle of social equality among the classes was finally established and the social mobility among the classes was considerably increased as the criterion of birth for the membership of a class was straightway removed. This had a very wholesome effect on the conditions of the Sudras which were very deplorable in the sense that the Sudras were deprived of education, denied all rights, subjected to inhuman treatment, and assigned the lowest position in society. Formerly the Sudras were completely disregarded in religious matters and several binding restrictions were placed on their movements and ways of living. Obviously, Tirthankara Mahavira’s teachings proved a great solace to the Sudras. This resulted in the rise of social status of the down-trodden people, and similarly there was a distinct change in the social attitude towards the non-Aryans and the common masses. Slowly there arose a strong opposition to the continuation of the practice of slavery in any form.


Along with the establishment of social equality the teachings of Tirthankara Mahavira and the Jaina Acharyas affected to a very great extent the privileged position enjoyed by the Brahmans belonging to the priestly profession. From the Vedic times such Brahman priests enjoyed high social status, political facilities, economic concessions, educational opportunities, and religious privileges to the exclusion of other classes. In view of this monopolistic condition the Brahman priests used to hold the positions of prominence in society, and freely made use of that position for the exploitation of the masses in different fields and especially in religious matters which were of highest importance to the people.

In these circumstances Tirthankar Mahavira launched an open and forceful attack on the priestly class and on their ingenious practices used for the excessive exploitation of the common masses. At the same time Tirthankara Mahavira made his religion easily accessible to the common masses, gave equal opportunities in the practice of religion to one and all irrespective of their class affiliations, and held out a sure promise to achieve salvation, the highest goal of their life, by observing the rules of conduct laid down by the religion and not by merely getting the different kinds of sacrifices performed by the priests. This practical and ethical approach to religion vigorously and effectively enunciated by Tirthankara Mahavira made people independent of the priestly domination, created a feeling of self-reliance and appealed to the common masses. Thus Tirthankara Mahavira’s opposition was to the priestly class of Brahmans and to the several tactics employed by them, for the exploitation of the common masses, by managing to keep the masses virtually ignorant and entirely dependent on the favors of the priests. This strong opposition considerably reduced the influence and domination wielded by the priestly class over the other people.

But it is significant that the opposition of Tirthankara Mahavira was confined to the priestly class of the Brahmans and not to the Brahman varna as such. In fact, Tirthankara Mahavira always appreciated the intellectual capacities of the Brahmans, initiated many learned Brahmans to Jaina religion, admitted several scholars from among the Brahmans to his ascetic order and even appointed Indrabhuti Gautama, the most learned Brahman teacher, as his first Ganadhara, i.e., the apostle or the chief disciple. In this connection it may be mentioned that Tirthankara Mahavira delivered his first upadesa, i.e., sermon, after 66 days of attainment of omniscience, and that too only when he got the collaboration of the most talented Brahman teacher, viz., Indrabhuti Gautama, for the proper interpretation of his preachings to the people. In this way Tirthankara Mahavira always showed regard to the learning and education of the Brahmans, but invariably led a strong and consistent attack against the priestly domination of the Brahmans.


Another contribution of a distinctive nature made by Tirthankara Mahavira and Jaina Acharyas in the social field was in the direction of raising the status of women. In the latter part of the Vedic period women had practically been reduced to the status of Sudras. Like the Sudras, women were debarred from the right of initiation and investment with the sacred thread. They were considered to have no business with the sacred religious texts. In many passages we find that women was considered as inauspicious and people were asked to avoid seeing women, Sudras, dead bodies, etc. Thus women had practically no place in the religious life of the society and as such they were neglected and degraded by the people.

Since the days of Rsabha the low position of women was definitely changed by Tirthankara Mahavira in many ways. He removed various restrictions imposed on women especially in the practice of religion. In fact Tirthankara Mahavira did not make any distinction between the males and the females in the observance of religion. The rules of conduct prescribed for the males and females were exactly the same. Both the sexes were given equal opportunities in different matters of religion like the study of sacred texts, observance of necessary duties, practice of vratas, i.e. vows, entrance into the ascetic order, practice of penance, making spiritual progress, etc. In the religious order of Tirthankara Mahavira the male householders were called sravakas and the female householders were termed sravikas, and both were quite free to observe their common religious duties and to prepare themselves for adopting ascetic life in due course. Similarly, complete freedom was given to women, like men, to enter the ascetic order. The female sex was not barred to the practice of asceticism. Tirthankara Mahavira always showed this attitude of equality towards women and admitted them freely into his ascetic order, no matter whether the candidates for admission were royal consorts, members of the aristocracy, and those belonging to the common run of society. Naturally many ladies availed themselves of this opportunity of achieving their salvation in due course by entering into the ascetic order. That is why in Tirthankara Mahavira’s religious organization there were two orders of ascetics, like those of householders, namely, sadhus, i.e. male ascetics and sadhvis, i.e. female ascetics. It is stated that in Tirthankara Mahavira’s fourfold religious order there were about 14000 sadhus, 36000 sadhus, 1,00,000 Sravaks and 3,00,000 Sravikas. This shows that the female members outnumbered the male members in both the categories of householders and ascetics. It is a clear indication that the females were very eager to take full advantage of the opportunity offered to them by Tirthankara Mahavira. In fact, many females from royal families and close relatives of Tirthankara Mahavira joined his ascetic order along with the other ordinary members. For example, Chandana and Jydesta, the two younger sisters of queen Trisaladevi, the mother of Mahavira, and Yasasvati, the wife of their maternal uncle entered the ascetic order of Tirthankara Mahavira; and eventually Chandana assumed the position of the head of the sadhvis, i.e. the female ascetics. In this way Tirthankara Mahavira effected emancipation of women by giving them similar opportunities like men to achieve their highest objective in life, viz. liberation. Females made best of these opportunities and many of them distinguished themselves as teachers and preachers.


Further the religious independence given to women had its repercussions in other fields also. Equality of opportunity was accorded to women in several social spheres of action. In education they were given equal treatment with the males. The utmost importance of imparting education to females, along with males, was realized even in the ancient past by Rsabhadeva, the first Tirthankara, who had advised his two young daughters, Brahmi and Sundari. That “only when you would adorn yourself with education your life would be fruitful because just as a learned man is held in high esteem by educated persons, a learned lady also occupies the highest position in the female world.” According to Jaina tradition women are expected to know 64 arts which include dancing, painting, music, aesthetics, medicine, domestic science etc. As a result of this high type of education received by women, we find, in Jaina tradition, that many women used to enter the teaching profession and to remain unmarried throughout their life, in order to carry on their spiritual experiments unhampered. It is recorded in Jaina tradition that Jayanti, a daughter of king Sahasranika of Kausambi, remained unmarried out of her love for religion and philosophy. When Mahavira first visited Kausambi, she discussed with him several abstruse metaphysical questions and eventually became a nun. Similarly, in later periods of history also Jaina women not only kept up the pace of female education but at ties made original contributions to literature. For example, along with men Jaina women also added to Kannada literature. The greatest name among them was Kanti, who along with the great poet Abhinava Pampa, was one of the gems that adorned the court of Hoyasala king Balla I (A.D. 1100-1106) in Karnatak. She was a redoubtable orator and poet who completed the unfinished poems of Abhivana Pampa in the open court of that ruler. Similarly, Jaina lady Avvaiyara. ‘the Venerable Matron’, was one of the most admired amongst the poets in Tamil language.