Jainism has always been a minority in India, yet they are the most peaceful and loving of the Indian religions and indeed, world religions. Jainism’s greatest belief is nonviolence toward every living thing, including the individual himself. The religion has surprising not altered much through the years, yet still holds many similar ties to neighboring religions.
Scholars have differing opinions about when the religion first came into being. The majority believe that is sprang up with a man known as Mahavira, which means The Great Hero. He lived around 500 B.C.E. and during his early adult hood decided to give up all earthy things to gain a true enlightenment. Everything includes clothing and most food. He spent the rest of his life teaching people his belief’s and taking time to explore more through fasts and meditations. When he believed his life work done, he completed the final fast and starved himself to death. He gained many followers, especially those who wanted to not be bound by the caste system which was not a part of Jainism. All men were equal in the journey to self completion.
According to Erickson Jainism “has prehistoric origins dating before 3000 BC, and before the beginning of Indo-Aryan culture” though this has not been reinforced by others. It may be true as far as most religions have similarities and ties to ancient traditions and religions that have since died out in the modern age. Just like every culture and people that has come about, so religions borrow or spark similarities with others from the past.
It is also commonly accepted that Jainism along with Buddhism branched out of the Hindu religion. That is why they share so many of the same ideas and habits, including the ideas of dharma (the duties a person must perform in life absolutely), karma (consequences of ones actions), samsara (reincarnation), moksha (the transition into nirvana or final enlightenment), devotion, nonviolence, and a deep reverence for life. What separates these at the barest of glances is that Hindu believes in many different gods controlling the fates of humans while Jainism and Buddhism are monothesitic (Rhoades, 27).
Hindu always had a very strong belief in non aggression, yet they had to have some in order to live. Mahavira took it to the next level with ideals to harm the least amount possible. To not cause harm to any organism some will wear masks so that they don’t swallow any insects (Rhoades, 27) and some brush in front of them with a type of broom to make sure that they don’t accidentally step on anything. Vegetarianism goes with this as well. All Jains generally are vegetarians, finding it a necessary evil; however, they eat vegetables because plants are low intelligence. It is the lowest form of harm for their survival. Some are thought to be fruitarians, people who only eat things that will not harm the organism that provides the food (like milk from a cow), but if true, it is only for a very small percentage (Erickson).
The religion then split into two sects, the Digambara who go naked and only allow men into their orders, and the Svetambara who wear simple clothes of white and allow women in their ranks, believing that females can also attain true enlightenment, unlike the Digambara (Jain).
The Digambara goes along with the traditional belief’s that keep women in the completely subordinate role. Throughout history there is a main motif of women being lesser; there are few instances where this is different. Woman may have been worshiped as deities, yet in the culture they were rarely above the station of servitude to man and Digambara simply continues this. The subjugation of female’s is heavily prevalent in most Asian culture (except the Southeast Asia and few other places), and Jainism arose right in the middle of this Asian culture.
Svetambara is taking on a more modern and accepting view that women are humans just like men. Females think and have souls of their own, with these they can do their own meditation and duties and attain nirvana, just like their male counterparts. The females in this society are comparable to nuns in a catholic church. The majority of Jains follow this type of Jainsim.
Jainism always has been and still is a minority in India. The religion hasn’t spread out of its originating country and tends to be found in small communities amidst the larger cities. Out of the billion people in India only seven million follow the way of Jainism. It probably hasn’t spread due to the deep commitment of the surrounding religions and because it is a harder and socially less life. To live out of the caste system, and in the case of the Digambara sect, without clothing, is the same as being an Untouchable, the lowest of the caste system. Jains aren’t considered Untouchables, yet the appeal is still greatly diminished.
Because of its closeness to the other religions the Jain people will still celebrate and worship with the Hindu or Muslim people around them (Jain). This lets them interact much more with the other communities around their own. Instead of making themselves a secluded people that live as hermits in a city they carry relationships with others while still keeping to their own faiths. Since the religions are very close in origin they still share many similar traits in worship and going along with another religion in the particulars is still completing the duties of theirs.
With such closeness to the other two religions which are the mainstream faiths it is a wonder that Jainism sprouted and survived at all, but there are always some zealots that take belief’s to the extreme. Jains can be considered the extreme in this case. Where Hindu and Buddhist abhor harming life in any way, they still use animals for food and work. With the most devout Jains simply relying on the charity of others to survive, there is a hypocrisy innate with that. Other people kill animals and plants to create the food that they give the beggars. If the beggars are Jains who don’t believe in killing then they are simply letting another do the actual work and killing which in the end equals out blame for the one who did the killings and preparation with the one who did the eating through charity. Despite such rationalities, Jainism is the most peaceful of religions.
Jainism is one of the many religions to inhabit India, yet it is the one that tries do the least amount of harm while still living. While still originating from another popular religion it started standing fully on its own from the beginning and is now proving to be a pinnacle of passive-natured religions.
Erickson, E. Jainism. Nov. 15, 1997. .
Jain Religion. IndiaMART, and Pilgrimage India. 2004.
Murphey, Rhoads. A History Of Asia. United States: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2003.