Jainism arose at the same time as Buddhism in the 6th century BC but never spread beyond India, where it is still a living religion. Jains are the followers of 'Jinas' or the conquerors of all desires and attachments who have freed their souls. Jains believe there were 24 such great Jinas, the last Jina being the founder of Jainism, Vardhamana, given the title of 'Mahavira' or Great Warrior.
Jinas are also known as Tithankaras or ford-builders across the ocean of suffering. Mahavira was born at Vaishali (modern Bihar) to an aristocratic warrior family. After the death of his parents, at the age of 30 he was drawn to a spiritual life, renounced the world and withdrew to practise meditation and austerities, even discarding his clothing. After 12 years he achieved kevalajnana or omniscience, while meditating under a tree. He then became a spiritual teacher for 30 years, dying in his 70s at Pava in Bihar in either 527 BC or 468 BC.
Image: Gouache painting showing a Jain priest offering a young woman some holy beads.
Soon after his death, the order he founded split into two sects, the Digambaras or Skyclad, and Shwetambaras or Whiteclad. Central to the schism were issues such as the necessity for nudity, theological concepts and understanding of the Jain canon (constituted by the Twelve Limbs or Angas). The Digambaras are concentrated in the Mysore region of the south and the Shwetambaras are mostly in Gujarat in the west.
The Jain doctrine believes in the strict observance of five vows or mahavratas, Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and Brahmacharya (chastity). Monks and nuns take up the vows in the strictest form but householders take it up in a more relaxed form or anuvrata. Self-control and self-effacement and self-denial are imperative to the creed.
The path of liberation for the Jains is by the Triratna or three jewels: right perception, right knowledge and right conduct. To Jains every living thing has a soul. Vegetarianism is essential, viewed as a tool to practice non-violence and harmonious cooperation. In its profound sense the Jain philosophy studies the dualism between matter and spirit and the relationship of the soul to the universe. In the Jain view, reality consists of the living and non-living substances: souls are living or jiva, the non-living or ajiva are matter, motion, rest, space, and time. Contact between the two results in karmic entrapment. The soul in its essence is pure but is corrupted by karma or action.
In brief, Jainism teaches purging of the jiva from karma, attainment of the pristine soul, freed from the bondage of rebirth through proper spiritual practice. An important constituent of Jain philosophy is anekantavada or Doctrine of Multiple Concepts: since reality is multifaceted, different standpoints can hold true.