What is Jainism?

What is Jainism? June 11, 2016


I am looking for information on Jainism. Any help you can give me would be great.


Jainism is an ancient religion of India that’s relatively unknown in the West. Though with only 4 million or so adherents it is considered a major world faith, alongside others with followers that number in the mere millions like Baha’i, Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism.

This is a remarkably rigoristic and ascetic creed, not only for monks nd nuns but lay followers (“householders”). Though the beliefs are otherworldly, Jains in secular vocations are notably successful because of the thrift and discipline their faith inculcates. This culture has made singular contributions over centuries to the literature, art, and architecture of India.

Both Jainism and Buddhism emerged from Hinduism in the 6th Century B.C.E. to become distinct, separate religions. Buddhism spread across Asia and is far larger while Jainism is limited geographically to India and small populations of Indian emigrants elsewhere. The Buddha was unquestionably the founder of his religion, whereas Jains do not regard his contemporary Mahavira (“Great Hero”) in the same sense.

Instead, Mahavira is considered the successor to 23 prior jinas (spiritual “conquerors”) whose heritage extends back to the distant past. His career does, however, mark the beginning of Jainism’s recoverable history. As John Noss writes, it was Mahavira who defined a monastic movement with the “ethical strength” and “doctrinal clarity” that carried it forward.

He was born into affluence around 599 B.C.E. and died (or achieved nirvana) in 527. Though married and with a daughter, around age 28 Mahavira entered strict monastic self-denial and meditation to achieve enlightenment. It is said he started with 11 students and upon his death led 14,000 monks.

Jainism’s goal is to conquer the physical and material realm to attain complete purity of the soul and accumulate good karma in order to be liberated from the body and the perpetual cycle of rebirths (a.k.a. samsara, reincarnation, transmigration of souls, metempsychosis). This involves monks’ regimen of diet, fasting, mortification of the body, self-denial, study, meditation, and obedience to the “three jewels” of right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct.

Thus Jainism carried on the Hinduism’s samsara (Buddhist concepts are somewhat different) in which one’s deeds determine status in the next life, whether as a human or another “sentient” species. But Jainism is unique in holding that karma is not the law or process that determines these future outcomes but a literal substance attached to the migrating soul.

There are two main branches in Jainism, a gradual split that solidified in the 1st Century C.E. (By coincidence, that same era produced the basic forms of Christianity and rabbinical Judaism that have existed ever since.) In the Digambara (“sky-clad”) branch, monks take renunciation of material possessions to the ultimate. They own no clothing and therefore are totally naked, and lack bowls so will beg for daily food with just their hands. The Svetambara (“white-clad”) branch, larger and more organized, allows monks to have simple clothing and basic possessions.

The two branches use different scriptures, with the larger Svetambara canon consisting of 32 (or 45) treatises. The Digambara believe souls embodied as women cannot achieve salvation, while the Svetambara disagree and allow communities of nuns. There are also some minor sects, some of which renounce temples and the worship of images.

The religion’s particularly strict teaching of ahimsa (non-violence) extends well beyond pacifism to all living things. Jain monks observe this so thoroughly that they wear characteristic gauze to cover their noses and mouths lest they accidently inhale and kill insects, and continually clear the path in front of them with small brooms to avoid stepping on and killing vermin. For the same reason, many Jains filter water before use.

The ultimate self-denial is santhara (also known by other names). An adept voluntarily destroys the body and escapes it through total inactivity and self-starvation. This discipline occurs only at the most advanced level of practice after years of preparation. News reports say santhara is becoming more frequent, despite controversy. In 2015 one regional court in India ruled that such spiritual self-extinction is the same as suicide so abetting it is a crime.

Jainism developed its own version of Hinduism’s caste system, by one scholar’s account with 100 segments, but this is seen as a cultural tradition not intrinsic to the religion. Jain doctrine involves a complex cosmology. Devotion involves home altars, pilgrimages, shrines, and the recitation of sacred names and worship of images in temples that usually display the faith’s chief symbol, the swastika. It is repellent to Jains that their ancient, auspicious sign was employed by German Nazis to proclaim “master race” tyranny.

The faith’s greatest annual festival is Paryushan Parva (also known by other titles), days of fasting and contemplation. The focus is on the 10 supreme virtues of forgiveness, humility, candor, contentment, truthfulness, self-restraint, austerity, renunciation, non-attachment, and celibacy (for monks and nuns; sexual purity for lay followers). Monks, nuns, and the laity alike are expected to shun unnecessary pleasure and travel, theft, meat-eating, alcohol, hunting, and gambling.

Beyond this cursory treatment, further detail is available at the U.S.-based www.jainworld.com.





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