The Development of Jainism

Jainism is a religion and philosophy of India that, along with Hinduism and Buddhism, is one of the three most ancient religions still in existence in that country. It dates to 3,000 B.C.E. The three religionshave common beliefs; for instance, all share the idea of karma, where the actions of an individual in successive lives affects and determines a future life. Each also has a historical literary heritage and a tradition of asceticism. Many Jains and Hindus worship images, and there are even places outside India where Hindus and Jains have joined to build a single temple and share worship space.

The name Jainism comes from the Sanskrit meaning “to conquer.” Conquer in this context means conquering inner feelings of hate, greed, and selfishness. For Jains, the objective in life is to renounce materialistic needs in order to achieve bliss or moksha.

In Jainism, twenty-four significant perfected historical figures act as teachers in the search for perfection. These teachers operate in cycles of history. Jains look at time as eternal and formless, so the teachers, called Tirthankaras, appear from time to time to preach the Jain religious way. Each of the Tirthankaras has attained absolute freedom because they have broken away from the cycle of rebirths. Another sixty-four gods and goddesses, great souls, luminaries, and others are involved in the teaching as well.

Jainism’s influence on Indian philosophy, logic, art, architecture, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, and astrology has, in many ways, been greater than Hinduism and Buddhism, which have far more adherents. However, unlike those two, Jainism hasn’t spread as far; the bulk of the adherents are in India, although there are a few small communities in the United States.

The Tirthanakas offer human beings a means to cross the ocean of samsara — the cycle of existence. Chief among these Tirthanakas was the Jain leader Mahavira (599–527 B.C.E.) An ascetic, Mahavira was esteemed among his followers as one whose life and example could release them from the wheel of rebirth. If the animal drives of the body could be left behind and the higher intellectual and spiritual potentialities of human beings were unlocked, a path of release was possible for the soul in this life.

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Rituals and Customs of Jainism

The lifecycle rites of the Jains differ slightly from those of the Hindus. One significant difference is that Jains object to some postfuneral rites that the Hindus observe concerning the transition ofthe deceased’s soul from one existence to the next.

Weddings

There are similarities with the Hindu tradition in marriage, but a Jain wedding ceremony is far from a quick trip to a registry office. It actually begins seven days before the wedding, with the prewedding ritual involving invoking the heavenly goddesses. Another ceremony is held seven days after the wedding; its purpose is to thank and dismiss the deities. In the days before the marriage, the skin of the bride and groom is regularly massaged with perfumed oil, turmeric, and other substances to beautify them for the occasion.

The wedding ceremony is performed under a mandap or canopy. The four main posts that hold it up must be erected at an auspicious time of day. Since the mandap is usually rather large, the construction is done at the bride’s home and often moved to a hired place for the ceremony. In the United States, it is possible to rent a mandap and have it professionally erected and taken down.

An elaborate series of rituals takes place, including the washing of the groom’s feet by the bride’s parents prior to the beginning of the actual service. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the priest congratulates the couple on their marriage and gives a final blessing. Their parents send the couple to the temple then to the bride’s home.

Festivals

Jains celebrate their religious holidays by fasting, worshiping, reciting sacred texts, holding religious discourses, giving alms, taking certain vows, and other such acts of piety. Annual holidays are observed based on the lunar calendar. The most important celebrations are the birth of Mahavira in Caitra (March/April), his death in Kartik (October/November), and the holiday period Paryushana, which is held for eight or ten days in the months of Shravana and Bhadrapada (August and September). During Paryushana confessions are offered, visits are made for the purpose of asking and extending forgiveness, and fasting is held.

Festivals are also celebrated on pilgrimages, which can last for several days. There are many Jain holy places, temples, and shrines. Not surprisingly, many of the pilgrimages and festivals revolve around significant events in the lives of the Tirthankaras.

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The Amazing Mahavira

His real name was Nataputta Vardhamana, but he was better known to his followers as Mahavira or “Great Hero.” He is traditionally identified as the founder of Jainism. As stated, Mahavira and the twenty-three prior to him who established Jainism are Tirthankaras, or “crossing builders,” so called because they forged a bridge between this life and Nirvana or release from this world.

Beginnings

Mahavira’s birth and death dates of 599–527 B.C.E. make him a contemporary of Siddhartha Guatama, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, and the great Hebrew prophets of the sixth century B.C.E., including Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the anonymous author or authors of Isaiah 40–60. Like Buddha, Mahavira was born to parents of the Kshatriya or priestly caste and the family possessed great wealth. He married and had a daughter, but his social standing and wealth still left him unhappy and he sought a spiritual answer to that unhappiness.

For a time, Mahavira joined an order of wandering ascetics. First, however, he waited until his parents had died and the business affairs of his family had been taken over successfully by his older brother. Then he bade farewell to his family, turned his back upon his wealth and luxury, tore out his hair and beard by the handfuls, and went off to join the ascetics.

However, Mahavira concluded that their asceticism was not extreme enough. For the soul to find release from this life, the asceticism must be more extreme. Extreme asceticism was necessary but not sufficient. Mahavira eventually thought that one must practice ahimsa (noninjury). So Mahavira carved his own path to find release. This combination of ahimsa and extreme renunciation gave rise to practices that form the legend of Mahavira’s life. In an effort to stay detached from things and people, he never stayed more than one night in any place when he traveled.

Mahavira wandered naked, detached from the world, not answering questions put to him as he walked through villages. In return people turned their dogs on him. He was attacked by animals and humans. On some occasions, they drove nails into him to test the depths of his meditation and detachment.

As with many ascetics, he begged for his food. He preferred leftover food from people’s meals rather than raw food so he didn’t consume food that might cause his death. To heighten his self-torment, he sought out the coldest locations in the winter months and the most sweltering environments in the summer — always while naked.

He took his self-denial and seeking out of pain even further. If people were angry with him or just mean spirited, they would send dogs after him. Rather than resist, he allowed himself to be bitten. Following twelve years of the strictest asceticism, he achieved release (moksha), freeing himself from the bonds that tied his soul to the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

The Conqueror Develops a Following

Mahavira earned title of jina or “conqueror,” denoting a person who had heroically conquered himself and faced the harshest inconveniences of life. He was a renunciant, able to ignore the inconveniences of body longing and pain in order to achieve spiritual realization. Though he achieved moksha at age forty-two, he lived until seventy-two.

Once he had attained enlightenment, he had conquered his weaknesses, escaping the cycle of human biological and psychological needs. The story goes that he now sat in a lotus posture, was in a steady omniscient trance, and sent forth only a divine sound. Above his head at all times was a white umbrella, symbolizing that no mortal was higher or holier. His nature as a Tirthankara or spiritual leader attracted all of the Jain community around him, including monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.

A peerless ascetic, the Jain leader Mahavira lived most of his life without clothes, the most visible symbol of a renounced life. After some twelve years as an ascetic, he managed to overcome worldly desires and passions and become the “victor” or jina. Jains describe this state of mind as kevalajnana or perfect perception, knowledge, power, and bliss.

A Brahmin, Indrabhuti Gautama, came to Mahavira seeking an interpretation of a revelation of Jain teachings sent by the king of gods, Indra. All the teachings became clear to Gautama in the presence of Mahavira. Eleven Brahmins converted to become his followers. He continued teaching for thirty years. After his renunciation and detachment from the world, Mahavira attracted a very large congregation of devotees; the Svetambaras claim there were 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 laymen, and 318,000 laywomen.

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Jainism Carves Its Own Path

According to Jainism, spiritual progress is made through accomplishments in one’s own life. Jains reject the idea of a caste; in addition, like Buddhism, Jainism emphasizes that no matter what a person’sstation in life — no matter what level of the caste he occupies — that living properly provides release.

Jainism’s views on the Vedas differ from that of Hindus and should be viewed as a separate religion unto itself. At the same time, its views of karma and samsara give its doctrine more than a little in common with the Indian thought that preceded it. Jainism rejects the idea that a person achieves release from life by offering sacrifices to the gods or other forms of worship.

Ahimsa means “nonkilling” and is primarily associated with the Jains. The notion of ahimsa is applied toward animal life primarily, but in Jain philosophy is recognized in the case of plants as well. Mohandas Gandhi admitted that his regard for all life was inspired by the Jains’s practice of ahimsa toward all things.
Jainism redirects the focus from attention to the gods to a personal philosophy. One such philosophy is asceticism. Asceticism is the belief that one should deny and even conquer desires. The strong version of this belief is that one should deny all desires without exception. The weaker version is that one denies only the base desires of the body, like extreme lust, lasciviousness, and sensuousness of the world, such as the desire for material possessions, fame, and achievement.

According to Jainism, the more one denies pleasures and satisfactions of the body, the more one is able to achieve freedom from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. The founders of Jainism went beyond the traditional Indian moral concern for cattle to teach that all forms of life are sacred and should be loved and preserved wherever possible. This doctrine of love and nonviolence toward all things is known as ahimsa.

Jainism split into two factions in the fourth or third century B.C.E.: the Digambaras (sky clad) and the Svetambaras (white-robed). The major difference between the two was the degree of asceticism. The Digambaras believed complete nudity was necessary to signify detachment from material things. The Svetambaras held that three simple white robes were acceptable. Both groups believed that before Mahavira there had been twenty-three Tirthankaras or spiritual leaders. While they agreed that Mahavira had renounced the world at the age of thirty, they disagreed on another matter, which divided them for all times.

Legend says that Mahavira meditated for twelve years before achieving the ultimate enlightenment. He then tore out five handfuls of his own hair instead of shaving his head, because he had become impervious to pain. The Digambaras believe that the gods took his clothes away, which would make him a naked wanderer. The Svetambaras disagreed; they believed his garment had been torn away by a thorn bush thirteen months after his wanderings began.

Why is the issue of clothing so important? The Digambaras say that although the absence of clothing doesn’t signify a true monk, the presence of clothing indicates some residual shame, a deficit of character that wouldn’t be found in a true monk. They believed that only previous Tirthankaras were nude and only Digambaras could attain moksha or freedom from bondage to the world.

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The Five Vows of Jainism

In the earliest Sanskrit, the term vrata meant not just a “temporary vow,” but a dedication on a permanent basis to a single purpose. The adoption of the five mahavratas or “Great Vows” was the defining set of characteristics of monks and nuns after their ascetic initiation. The vows were to govern their behavior and provide a structure for their spiritual guidance.

The Jain custom was for an ascetic at a ceremony of initiation to read out the scriptural story of Rohini, the girl distinguished from her unwise sisters because she planted and reaped the rewards of five rice grains given to her by her father to demonstrate how the five Great Vows could be put to good use.

The traditional description of the Great Vows can be found in the second book of the Acaranga (or scriptures). Each of the five vows or renunciations is first stated then followed by realizations, which describe the further implications of the vow, ensuring that the vow will be correctly executed.

The Vow of the Noninjury of Life (Ahimsa)

Ahimsa is sometimes interpreted as “nonviolence,” especially by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who credited the Jains with influencing his own practice of nonviolence. But this way of putting the matter is inaccurate, for the term “nonviolence” in ordinary usage involves only human beings. The Sanskrit term ahimsa appeared in the Upanishads in about 500 B.C.E., when many people among the Brahmins, Buddhists, and Jains emphasized reverence for all life, rather than the sacrifice of animals.

When it comes to nonviolence, the Jains taught that it was wrong to kill any life form, and a Jain follower undertakes this vow for the rest of his life. Mahavira taught that it is “sinful” to act badly toward animals. A “wise man” should not act sinfully toward animals, nor even cause or allow others to do so.
The realizations then describes ways in which the ascetic must take care. First, he must observe how and where he walks lest he injure life forms on the way. This is especially relevant during the four-month rain retreat, for it is during the monsoon season that there is a great burgeoning of plant and insect life that might otherwise be injured by wandering ascetics.

The ascetic must also get hold of his own mind and speech, for these may be agents of violence. Further directions concern how an ascetic is to put down his alms bowl and how he must inspect all food and drink to ensure there are no life forms in it.

The noninjury of other life forms is perhaps best known among all Jain traits. Jains are vegetarians and will not own leather goods, since these require the killing of animals. They go to such extremes with vegetarianism that they will not even eat from pans in which meat has been cooked. They follow Mahavira’s example of sweeping a path before them to avoid stepping on insects. Jains routinely shun occupations that might bring harm or death to another living thing. For this reason, they even avoid agricultural professions.

The following passage from the Akaranga Sutra, I.1 serves to illustrate the Jain respect for all life.

Earth is afflicted and wretched, it is hard to teach, it has no discrimination. Unenlightened men, who suffer from the effect of past deeds, cause great pain in a world full of pain already, for in earth souls are individually embodied. If, thinking to gain praise, honor, or respect … or to achieve a good rebirth … or to win salvation, or to escape pain, a man sins against earth or causes or permits others to do so, … he will not gain joy or wisdom …. Injury to the earth is like striking, cutting, maiming, or killing a blind man…. Knowing this, man should not sin against earth or cause or permit others to do so. He who understands the nature of sin against earth is called a true sage who understands karma.

The Akaranga Sutra goes on to say there are many living souls in water, plants, and even the wind, and man should not sin against these.

The Vow Not to Speak Untruth

Jains are widely respected for their truthfulness; the second Great Vow says an ascetic must abstain from lying. The realization here is that he must be deliberate in his speech and not given to anger, greed, fear, or mirth.

Philosophically, the Jains are relativists — they allow that there are truths in the doctrines of other philosophies. There is a well-known story of a blind man and an elephant that is said to illustrate this point. In this tale, several blind men are asked to describe an elephant. Each touches a different part of the elephant’s body, and thus each describes it in a different way. To one man, the elephant is like a stone wall because he has touched the side. Another thinks the elephant is like a fan since he has touched its wide ear. Each man truthfully described what he felt, but since each had touched a different part, their descriptions varied. Truth here is relative to their perspectives and positions. Human knowledge, then, is likely to be misleading. Speaking what one knows to be false breaks the vow of the Jains.

The Vow Not to Steal

The third of the great vows says that an ascetic should not take what has not been given. Jain monks are forbidden from taking anything that doesn’t belong to them. Like their observance of the second vow, this one aids and abets their reputation for honesty.

The Vow to Renounce Sexual Pleasures

This Great Vow states that an ascetic must renounce all sexual activity. Since asceticism has always viewed the pleasures of the flesh as evil, and since sex is one of the greatest pleasures of the flesh, it must be forsaken.

The vow to renounce sexual pleasures denounced any contact, mental or physical, with women or eating or drinking anything likely to stimulate the sexual drive. Mahavira did not only renounce sexual pleasures, he renounced women for good. The renunciation of all external pleasures and things owed to the fact that “Women are the greatest temptation in the world.”

The Vow to Renounce all Attachments

The fifth Great Vow counsels the renunciation of any attachment to objects of the senses. This refers to possessions in general. To all the things that bind human beings to this life, the love for other persons and things are among the strongest bonds. Thus, Mahavira left behind his family and possessions and habitually didn’t remain in one place for more than a day, lest he form attachments to people and things.

No Eating After Dark

A sixth vow was later added. The first appearance of this sixth vow describes it as a supplement to the Great Vows. In reality, it is but a subdivision of the first Great Vow of nonviolence. The reason for prohibiting eating at night is that ascetics cannot go out and seek alms at night, since this activity would involve trampling upon small life forms. In addition, cooking of food by the laity would attract insects that would be drawn into the flames. According to popular belief, the proper digestion of food can only take place in sunlight.

The Importance of the Great Vows

Do all Jains renounce all five vows? Here is where the matter becomes philosophically interesting. If an individual becomes a monk, he holds to all five. On the other hand, a Jain layperson integrates this philosophy with marriage, family, and the material well-being that accompanies such a life. But this sort of life will not lead to spiritual release.

The purpose of the Great Vows, and indeed of the other ancillary vows a Jain ascetic undertakes, is to bring about a state of internal purification. The first of the five — the renunciation of violence — is fundamental according to the Jains. For instance, not speaking falsely (the second vow) is important because of the connection between truth and violence. While lying should be avoided, truths that harm others should not be spoken. Also, the third Great Vow of not taking what has not been given concerns the ascetic’s honesty in dealing with all people, but also includes not taking the lives of other beings. Likewise, the attachment to possessions and sense objects rejected by the fourth Great Vow stirs the passions in people, one of the primary causes of violence. In addition, sexual activity is prohibited not only because of the distraction and passion it causes, but because innumerable life forms are destroyed in each ejaculation of semen.

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The Problem and Solution of Living

Jains agree with the Hindu idea that you must learn how to shake off the repetition of reincarnation: You are born, live your life, die, and then are born again. But how does one get away from this endlesswheel of life (samsara)? Jainism provided a different answer than Buddhism and, later, Sikhism. Jainism says if people are stuck in the wheel of birth and rebirth, it is because of the karma they possess as a result of their past actions.

Karma in an individual is not only created by actions so good they were saintly or so bad they were monstrous. Mahavira taught that karma was a result of even seemingly trivial actions or even inaction. The ideal existence was to live detached from life, thereby freeing oneself, as far as one could, from karma.

Despite rebelling against Hinduism, Jainism, like Hinduism, embraces the law of karma. The Jains also accept the omnipresence of the soul. Soul inhabits even the lowest forms of life, no matter how weighed down by karma. As such, the soul can descend from the weight of karma and can rise from the release of karma. Salvation can only come about through individual effort. One who follows the example of Mahavira and performs good works will achieve final liberation. In order to achieve liberation, Jain monks typically take five vows.

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The Jains Today

While Jainism emerged as a protest against the Hindu caste system, Hinduism came to accept Jain asceticism and ahimsa. Still, Jainism doesn’t claim many adherents, with slightly less than 4 million followersin the world today. Perhaps the strict requirements of Jainism keep it a minority religion.

No Jain can belong to any profession that takes a life or profits from slaughter. The off-limits professions include soldiers and butchers, leather workers and exterminators, and even farmers. Farming is forbidden because the profession involves plowing and tilling soil, which kills insects and worms that live in the soil. Since professions that involve killing are prohibited, Jains have entered less morally objectionable commercial professions.

Jains acknowledge no transcendent beings. In fact, they have no need for gods, since they embrace a secular ethic. They worship the twenty-four spiritual leaders or Tirthankaras who embody their philosophy. Some 40,000 temples in India worship these figures. One of the temples — erected on Mount Abu — is considered one of the seven wonders of India. In addition to temple worship, Jain worship extends to rituals in the home. This includes a broad variety of activities, including reciting the names of the first jinas (or saints), bathing their idols, and making offerings of flowers and perfume to these idols. Home ceremonies typically include meditation and the observance of vows, too.

The Jain’s only religion is a kind of ethic, a way of life. The Jains might fall into two camps: a majority, who are immersed in their material lives and cannot give up their homes and accept the rigors of an ascetic life; and a minority, who become monks. They are quintessential Jains; their lives are guided by the five vows.

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