First Steps To Jainism



Jainism, as the name indicates, is the religion preached by the Jinas. The word religion means a creed or a set of beliefs. Literally the word Jina means a conqueror, but Jinas who prescribed the set of beliefs known as Jainism were no ordinary conquerors. In ordinary sense the word conquerors means “victory of territory by force”. However, the Jinas were conquerors of their own selves. They were victors over their senses, and their passions and desires. Jinas achieved Godhood became perfect beings blessed with perfect faith, perfect wisdom and eternal bliss. They became free from worldly miseries and bondage for all times to come.

The way of life(and set of beliefs) these Jinas prescribed was the same as they had practiced the path of nonviolence, self control and penance, and thereby reached the stage of perfection. They preached the same religion for the benefit of tormented beings of the universe for their salvation from miseries – a panacea for which humanity has been and is clamoring and which every religion claims to provide in its own way.

The Jinas were also described as Jainas in ancient literature and, therefore, the religion may have been called Jainism. Again the followers of Jinas are known as Jains. The religion practiced by these Jains may have been given its name as Jainism.

In the present cycle of time (we shall know more about Jain division of time subsequently) there have been numerous Jinas out of which 24 became Tirthankars or prophets or enlightened beings as they created institutions for propagating right faith, right knowledge and right conduct for salvation of humanity. The first of these Jinas was Lord Rishabh also known as Adi Natha (the first Lord) who started the Jain tradition in the present time cycle. The last one of these prophets was Lord Mahaveera who lived about 2500 years ago and who is erroneously considered the originator of Jainism.

The institutions set up by the Jain prophets consisted of four groups that is, (i) monks, (ii) nuns, (iii) laity (males) and (iv) laity (females). These institutions known as Tirtha or centers of worship, are still continuing and this shows that Jainism is a living religion flourishing throughout India. There are numerous monks and nuns and millions of followers or Jain laity who are continuing the institutions created in hoary past and these are following virtually the same path as prescribed by Jinas. Jain monks and nuns still move about on foot from Kashmir to Kerala and from Gujarat to Bengal. They carry minimum of equipment having renounced even the clothes in some cases. Jain laity still practice complete vegetarianism, abstaining from any type of meat or flesh. They practice austerities and penance – fasting for days and in some cases without water. At the same time Jain community is richly endowed educationally and economically. They lead in the fields of industry, business, education and politics.

The contribution of Jainism to the Indian thought and life has been very significant. Actually vegetarianism as a habit prevailing throughout the Indian continent, practiced by a large majority, is an evidence of Jain influence. Indian literature, sculpture, architecture and painting as also all other aspects of life have been so significantly influenced by Jainism that to do justice to the same will require a separate book. Suffice, it to say that every student of Indian culture or a visitor to the Indian sub-continent has been considerably impressed by the sculpture and art of Jain temples, Jain painting and “inexhaustible stock of Jain literature”.

Geographically Jainism has flourished in India and except for Indian Jains working outside India, there are hardly any Jains or Jain institutions in the countries outside India. All the 24 prophets or Tirthankars of Jains were born in different parts of India, preaching and attaining salvation in this country. There has been a catholicity and lack of dogmatic approach in Jain belief in as much as any one, who preached and practiced the hallmarks of Jainism i.e. non-violence, self control and penance coupled with the three jewels i.e. right belief, right knowledge and right action, is considered and worshipped as Jain leader of thought. Similarly, the followers of this path irrespective of caste, color or creed can rightfully be considered Jain. It is indeed mentioned in Jain scriptures that in other lands, in other galaxies there are Jinas at present preaching the principles of Jainism in all their purity and glory.

Historically it has been established, as a result of research that Lord Mahaveera was not the founder of Jainism, but the 24th and the last prophet of Jainism in the current epoch of time. Actually there have been 23 prophets earlier to Lord Mahaveera who practiced and preached the same religion. The first prophet Lord Rishabh is mentioned frequently in Vedic Literature. The Bhagwat Puran has described his life – penance and liberation in detail. The historicity of 22nd and 23rd prophets called Nemi and Parshva respectively has been established by research. While Lord Nemi was contemporary to Lord Krishna being his cousin, Parshva lived in 700 B.C. in Varanasi. Some of the discoveries in Mohenjodaro and Harappa made recently indicate that Jainism might have been prevalent in India in those days. However, if we again glance at the Jain mythology, which may contain seeds of truth, such prophets are born in every epoch of time and will continue to be born and preach the same holy precepts from time to time. Thus as the universe is beginningless and endless so are the Jain precepts and practices, which have flourished in all ages and will continue to do so in future.

We have touched upon the catholicity and broadmindedness in approach as evident in Jain thought. Similarly, other significant attributes of Jainism are its harmonious and peaceful approach to life and optimistic and healthy outlook about the future of humanity and the principle of non-absolutism.

Non-violence is the foundation stone of Jain religion. It teaches the principle of live and let live and believes that life is too sacred to be injured even in the minutest form. It is prohibited to destroy even the grass and trees and there are injunctions against wasteful use of water and other resources. Thus the environment and ecology of which one hears so much now-a-days, is automatically preserved under the aegis of Jain practices.

The principle of non-absolutism tries to find out the unity out of diverse points of view and admits that there is an element of truth in all religions which are but different approaches to the problems of humanity from different points of view. These help to resolve unnecessary controversies so much so that it is considered the principle of intellectual non-violence.

Though Jainism has been called spiritual mathematics there is essential simplicity and naturalness in its basic approach. The golden rule “treat thy neighbor as thou would like to be treated”, is extended to the entire creation and taken to its logical conclusion in the principle of non-violence. Actually this golden rule is the genesis of the principle of non-violence which in turn requires self control and to practice self-control one has to practice penance. These are the hallmarks of the entire Jain philosophy.

Indian sub-continent has been the birth place of number of schools of thought like Jainism, Buddhism, Vedantism, Sankhya, Nyaya, Memansa, etc., all broadly known as the Indian tradition. These can be divided into two distinct groups known as the Vedic tradition and Shramanic tradition. These traditions have run parallel over ages and naturally so influenced each other that the dividing line has become very indistinguishable. The Vedic tradition is still continuing as the religion of the majority of the people in India. This group includes Sankhya Vedant etc. In Shramanic tradition, we find Jainism, Buddhism, Ajivika, etc. Somehow out of these later only Jainism survives in India as a living religion, Buddhism and others having been almost completely obliterated from India though Buddhism flourishes in the other parts of the world.

The Vedic school of thought accepts one supreme God as the creator of the world and preaches devotion to it and other lesser gods through rituals like sacrifice, etc., as one of the paths of liberation of man. In day to day life Vedic tradition divided the span of life in four parts meant for study, raising of family, religious pursuits and complete renunciation. It has also divided humanity into four classes, i.e., warriors (Kshtriyas), the religious ones (Brahmins), professionals (Vaishyas), and the menials (Sudras), importance being given to Brahmins so much so that the tradition was called the Brahmin tradition.

In Jainism and other shramanic schools, generally God is not accepted as creator of the world. Similarly, emphasis is laid on one’s action and not devotion for one’s liberation from miseries of the world. They also considered the division of life span and distinction between different classes of humanity as artificial. Jainism clearly propounded that man should not be condemned because of his birth in a group, but his actions should rightly determine his status in the society. Similarly it was preached that life is too transitory and uncertain and one need not wait for old age to devote oneself to religious pursuits.

Like all philosophies Jain philosophy answers the fundamental questions about the universe, its creation, man’s origin, his duties and his destiny. It also deals with the question of Godhood at length and shows how an individual soul can achieve Godhood by practicing the three fold path of right faith, right knowledge and right conduct and by practicing non-violence, self control and penance.

It must be denied emphatically that Jainism preaches atheism. On the contrary Jainism believes in the potential power of every soul to attain Godhood.

Incidentally the same path if followed, leads to happiness of an individual and of the society in this world. Jainism says that there is no essential conflict between man and man, man and society and man and the state. Actually they are inter-dependent, not only is there inter-dependence between man and man but also there is inter-dependence between humanity and the animal world as well as nature.

It will be clear that Jain thought proves the world to be a beautiful place to live in and man has a higher aim in life. There is no pessimism, but an optimistic approach that with appropriate efforts human destiny could achieve not only super-natural powers but also Godhood.

Before closing this chapter a few words about historical evolution of Jain culture since Pashva and Mahaveera will be appropriate. While Parshva prescribed less rigid path permitting colored clothes for the monks Mahaveera made the conduct more strict and prescribed nudity for male monks as also white clothes to a limited extent. This with other minor distinctions led to the division of Jain Church into two main branches, i.e., sky-clad (Digamber) and white-clad (Swetamber). These two sects were further divided and sub-divided into idol worshipper, non-idol worshipper and so on. However, in essential beliefs Jain church as well as Jain laity remains singularly united even after 2500 years since Mahaveera. In metaphysical, ethical and theological details there is complete unanimity amongst all the Jains. There may be minor differences in emphasis on details or in rituals to be followed by one sect and discarded by the others. These only emphasize the essential soundness of the set of beliefs prescribed by the great prophets from time immemorial.