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The Jain religion of India




Like all Indian religions, Jainism upholds the universal law of Karma. According to this law, every action - thought, word or deed - produces an effect, which in turn serves as the cause of another action, and so on. This chain of cause and effect is known as `Karmic Bondage’ or simply, Karma. Jainism upholds the existence of an infinite number of animate and inanimate substances (Jivas or Souls), and Ajivas or non-souls, representing the mind / matter dichotomy, each of which possesses an infinite number of individual characteristics of its own. Moreover, all substances exist independently of our perceptions or awareness of them.


Samsara (Rebirth)

Because the number of souls inhabiting the universe is infinite, most of them will be compelled to transmigrate eternally in samsara, the world of birth, death and rebirth. And this world is itself subject to a process of growth and decline. It is part of a universe; which without beginning and without end, passes through an infinite number of cosmic cycles, each divided into phases of ascent and descent during which civilization rises and falls.



The soul, once entered upon a bodily existence, remains trapped in a chain of successive rebirths (samsara) until it has reached perfection or the enlightenment that allows it release, or moksha.



The name Jainism derives from the Sanskrit verb ji, “to conquer.” It refers to the ascetic battle that it is believed Jain renunciants (monks and nuns), must fight against the bodily senses and passions to gain omniscience and purity of soul or enlightenment. The most illustrious of those few individuals who have achieved enlightenment are called Jina “Conqueror”, and the tradition's monastic and lay adherents are called Jain “Follower of the Conquerors”, or Jaina. This term came to replace a more ancient designation, Nirgrantha (“Bondless”), originally applied to renunciants only.

Jainism is a religion that teaches a path to spiritual purity and enlightenment through a disciplined mode of life founded upon the principle of Ahimsa (“non-injury”), which is the fundamental ethical virtue of the Jains. In Jainism, ahimsa is the standard by which all actions are judged. For a Jain lay person observing the small vows (the anuvrata), the practice of ahimsa requires that he not kill any animal life, but for an ascetic (a strict adherent) observing the great vows (the mahavrata), ahimsa entails the greatest care to prevent him from knowingly or unknowingly being the cause of injury to any living substance.

To the Jain, living matter (jiva) includes not only human beings and animals, but insects, plants, and atoms as well, and the same law governs the entire cosmos. Thus the interruption of another jiva's spiritual progress increases one's own karma and delays one's liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Many common Jainist practices, such as not eating or drinking after dark or the wearing of cloth mouth covers (mukhavastrika) by monks, are based on the principle of ahimsa. In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi, the famous spiritual and political leader, developed his theory of passive resistance as a means of bringing about political change based on the principle of ahimsa.

Jainism originated in about 400-500 B.C. in the Ganges basin of eastern India, which was the scene of intense religious speculation and activity at that time. Buddhism also appeared in this region, as did other belief systems that renounced the world and opposed the ritualistic Arian/Hindu Brahmanic religious schools; that apparently had usurped indigenous religious beliefs and melded them with Arian beliefs to form a new religious system. The prestige of these new schools derived from their claim of purity, and their ability to perform the traditional rituals and sacrifices properly, and to interpret the meanings of resultant omens and occurrences. {The nature of the conquest of northern India by the Arians is not well understood, the same holds for social and civic machinations of this early post-conquest period}.

These new religious perspectives of India’s original people, promoted asceticism, the abandonment of ritual, domestic and social action, and the attainment of gnosis (knowledge and illumination), in an attempt to win, through one's own efforts, freedom from repeated rebirth. Though the Hindus and Buddhists never required so strict an observance of ahimsa as the Jains, vegetarianism and tolerance toward all forms of life became widespread in India. Ahimsa is also one of the first disciplines learned by the student of yoga and is required to be mastered in the preparatory stage (yama), the first of the eight stages that lead to perfect concentration.



A Tirthankaras in Jainism, is a savior who has succeeded in crossing over life's stream of rebirths and has made a path for others to follow.
Each cosmic age produces 24 Tirthankaras; the first are giants, but, as the age proceeds, they decrease in stature and appear after shorter intervals of time. Of the 24 Tirthankaras of the present age, each of whom is represented by a symbolic color and emblem, only Parshvanatha and Mahavira are considered actual historical figures. The Tirthankaras are not worshiped as gods but rather honored as exemplars.

Rishabhanatha (Sanskrit “Lord Bull”)

The first of the 24 Tirthankaras (“Ford-makers,” i.e., saviors) of Jainism. His name comes from the series of 14 auspicious dreams that his mother had, in which a bull (rishabha) appeared, before his birth. He is also known as Adinatha (“Lord of the Beginning”) and is portrayed by Jain legend as having lived many millions of years ago.
Rishabhanatha is one of the most honored of the Jain Tirthankaras, having been the first to preach the Jain faith in this age. Legend also credits him with teaching men the 72 accomplishments (including writing and arithmetic) and women the 64 crafts (including pottery, carpentry, and weaving).

Jains believe that he had 100 sons, each of whom was 500-bow-shots tall. The most famous of his sons was Bharata, the first chakravartin, or universal ruler. Rishabhanatha instituted marriage, the giving of alms, and the observance of funeral rites.
According to legend he was born in the city of Ayodhya, where the Hindu god Rama was born. Rishabhanatha attained moksha (release from earthly existence) on Mount Kailas in the Himalayas, the home of the Hindu god Shiva. In paintings of the Shvetambara (“White-robed”) sect, he is always gold in color: in paintings of the Digambara (naked) sect, he is yellow. His symbol is the bull.


The first Jain figure for whom there is reasonable historical evidence is Parshvanatha (or Parshva), a renunciant teacher who may have lived in the 7th century B.C. and founded a community based upon the abandonment of worldly concerns. Jain tradition regards him as the 23rd Tirthankara. The legends surrounding Parshvanatha emphasize his association with serpents. His mother is said to have seen a black serpent crawling by her side before his birth, and in sculpture and painting, he is always identified by a canopy of snake hoods over his head.
According to accounts in the Jain scripture the Kalpa-sutra, Parshvanatha once saved a serpent that had been trapped in a log in an ascetic's fire. The snake, later reborn as Dharana, the lord of the underworld kingdom of nagas (snakes), sheltered Parshvanatha from a storm sent by a demon.



The 24th and last Tirthankara of this age was Vardhamana, who is known by the epithet Mahavira (“Great Hero”) and is believed to have been the last teacher of “right” knowledge, faith, and practice. One text claims that Mahavira's parents followed the teachings of Parshvanatha, but there is no evidence that Mahavira himself formally entered any religious order founded by that teacher.

Parshvanatha established the “fourfold restraint,” the four vows taken by his followers (not to take life, steal, lie, or own property) that, with Mahavira's addition of the vow of celibacy, became the five “great vows” (mahavratas) of Jain ascetics. While Parshvanatha allowed monks to wear an upper and lower garment, Mahavira gave up on clothing altogether. According to tradition; the two views were reconciled by a disciple of each of the Tirthankaras, with the followers of Parshvanatha accepting Mahavira's reforms.

Although traditionally dated to 599–527 BCE, Mahavira must be regarded as a close contemporary of the Buddha (traditionally believed to have lived in 563–483 B.C. but who probably flourished about a century later). The legendary accounts of Mahavira's life preserved by the Jain scriptures provides the basis for his biography and enable some conclusions to be formulated about the nature of the early community he founded.

Mahavira, like the Buddha, was the son of a chieftain of the Kshatriya (warrior) class. At age 30 he renounced his princely status to take up the ascetic life. Although he was accompanied for a time, by the eventual founder of the Ajivika sect, Goshala Maskariputra. Mahavira spent twelve years following a path of solitary and intense asceticism. He then converted 11 disciples (called ganadharas), all of whom were originally Brahmans. Two of these disciples, Indrabhuti Gautama and Sudharman, both of whom survived Mahavira, are regarded as the founders of the historical Jain monastic community, and a third, Jambu, is believed to be the last person of the current age to gain enlightenment. Mahavira is believed to have died at Pavapuri, near modern Patna.

The community appears to have grown quickly. According to Jain tradition, it numbered 14,000 monks and 36,000 nuns at the time of Mahavira's death. From the beginning the community was subject to schisms over technicalities of doctrine, however, these were easily resolved. The only schism to have a lasting effect concerned a dispute over proper monastic practice, with the Shvetambara (“White-robed”) sect arguing that monks and nuns should wear white robes and the Digambaras (“Sky-clad,” i.e., naked) claiming that a true monk (but not a nun) should be naked. This controversy gave rise to a further dispute as to whether or not a soul can attain liberation from a female body (a possibility the Digambaras deny).

This sectarian division, still existent today, probably took time to assume formal shape. Its exact origins remain unclear, in part because the stories describing the origins of the schism were designed to justify each sect's authority and denigrate the other. These accounts were written centuries after the fact and are valueless as genuine historical testimony. The consolidation of the Shvetambara-Digambara division was probably the result of a series of councils held to codify and preserve the Jain scriptures, which had existed as oral tradition long after Mahavira's death. Of the councils recorded in Jain history, the last one, held at Valabhi in Saurashtra (in modern Gujarat) in either 453 or 456 A.D. without Digambara participation, codified the Shvetambara canon that is still in use. The Digambara monastic community denounced the codification, and the schism between the two communities became irrevocable.

During this period, Jainism spread westward to Ujjain, where it apparently enjoyed royal patronage. Later, in the 1st century B.C. according to tradition, a monk named Kalakacarya apparently overthrew King Gardabhilla of Ujjain and orchestrated his replacement with the Shahi kings (who were probably of Scythian or Persian origin). During the reign of the Gupta dynasty (320–c. 600 A.D.), a time of Hindu self-assertion, the bulk of the Jain community migrated to central and western India, becoming stronger there than it had been in its original home in the Ganges basin.


The tenets of Jainism

Jain vrata: in Jainism, are the vows (vratas) that govern the activities of both monks and laymen. The mahavratas, or five “great vows,” are undertaken for life only by ascetics and include vows of non-injury, abstention from lying and stealing, chastity, and renunciation of all possessions.

The laity, however, is not expected to observe these vows strictly. A layperson who has passed through the preliminary stages of spiritual discipline (gunasthana) may promise to observe 12 vows for a stated period of time and may renew the pledge at the completion of that time.
The first five vows, anuvratas, or partial vows (anu, “tiny,” as contrasted with maha, “big”), are more moderate versions of the mahavratas: abstinence from gross violence, gross falsehood, and gross stealing; contentment with one's own wife; and limitation of one's possessions. The remaining vows are the three gunavratas and the four shiksha-vratas, which are intended to encourage observance of the anuvratas.

Although the lists of these commands differ, they generally include ceasing movement or restricting the area of one's movements; abstaining from inflicting harmful punishment; renouncing or limiting the use of objects of enjoyment and comfort; practicing equanimity; fasting in the fashion of a monk and observing diet control; giving offerings, gifts, and services to monks and others; and voluntarily dying by self-starvation (sallekhana) when the observance of vows becomes physically impossible.


Gunasthana (Sanskrit “level of virtue”)

Gunasthana in Jainism is any of the 14 stages of spiritual development through which a soul passes on its way to moksha (spiritual liberation). The progression is seen as one of decreasing sinfulness and increasing purity, which frees the individual from the bonds of karma (merit and demerit) and the cycle of rebirths.

The initial stages of development are: (1) mithyatva, the state of following “falseness”; (2) sasvadana, “having a taste for the truth”; (3) mishra, “mixed” right and wrong attitudes of mind; (4) avirata-samyaktva, “correctness [of insight] while not yet having ceased [from worldly involvement]”; (5) desha-virati, “partial cessation” from worldly involvement; (6) pramatta-virati, “cessation with some relapses”; (7) apramatta-virati, “cessation without relapse.”

In the next seven stages the aspirant enters the holy life: (8) apurva-karana, “the pursuit of that which has not been experienced”; (9) anivritti-karana, “the pursuit of nonreturn [to the cycle of rebirths]”; (10) sukshma-samparaya, “transition to a state of subtlety”; (11) kshina-mohata, “the state in which delusion has been dispelled”; (12) antarayopashanti, “annihilation of all obstruction [to liberation].” If a man according to the Digambara sect, or a man or woman according to the Shvetambara sect, dies while in the 12th stage, his soul passes quickly through the next two stages and he achieves moksha, or final release, without having to be reborn.

The 13th stage, sayogakaivalya, can be described as “emancipation or spiritual release while still embodied.” The aspirant who reaches this stage preaches, forms a community of monks, and becomes a Tirthankara (Ford-maker, i.e., savior). The final stage, ayogakaivalya, is one of “emancipation while [the soul is] no longer embodied.” Now a siddha (perfectly liberated being), the soul leaves its body to reside at the top of the universe, forever freed from the chain of rebirths.






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