Origins of Jainism
- Jainism originated in India, although its time of origin cannot be determined.
- The word Jain derives from the title “Jina”, meaning spiritual victor. This title, or that of Tirthankara (Ford-maker), was given to a succession of teachers who, through their own spiritual struggle, are believed attained kevalajnana or omniscience.
- In the present cycle of the cosmos, Jains believe that there have been twenty-four Tirthankaras. Tirthankaras help others to cross over the floods of samsara (the cycle of birth and death).
- Jains acknowledge Vardhamana (believed to have been born in 599BCE in contemporary Bihar, India), usually known by his title of Mahavira or Great Hero, as the twenty-fourth Tirthankara.
- At the age of thirty Mahavira began a spiritual quest which, twelve years later, resulted in his attainment of kevalajnana and the founding of the fourfold order of sadhus (monks) and sadhvis (nuns), shravakas (laymen) and shravikas (laywomen).
Central Aspects of Jainism
Significance of Life
- Jainism does not believe in a creator god, but views everything as eternal and beginningless, with change being only an appearance.
- Jainism holds to the perspective of anekantavada or the multi-faceted nature of reality, in which the taking of an holistic view is advocated even when things are apparently in opposition to one another.
- Life is seen as a hierarchy of being from plant life through to human beings, “hell beings” and “heavenly beings” and it is categorised according to the number of senses possessed by jivas or atmas (sentient beings or souls).
- Jivas are distinguished from everything else that exists through their possession of consciousness.
Karma and Moksha
- The principle of Karma teaches that the body inhibited by a soul in its next life is determined primarily by the soul’s present actions and the volitions which inform them.
- Jainism teaches that the human state is the only one from which moksha (release from the cycle of birth and death) is possible.
- In Jain understanding, all actions that are chosen attract quantities of eight different forms of subtle karmic matter. This accumulated matter is believed to diminish the soul’s capacity for jnana (knowledge) and sukha (the experience of happiness).
- The Three Jewels offer a graduated pathway towards moksha which both laypeople and mendicants can follow according to their vows. They are:
- right faith
- right knowledge
- right conduct
- Over many lifetimes, emancipation from destructive karmic matter can be achieved by one who then becomes known as an arhat (worthy of worship) or a kevalin (one who has attained omniscience), and on birth reaches the summit of the universe as a Siddha (Perfected Being).
- Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the central teaching of Jainism. It leads to avoiding all harm, including mental harm, to even the smallest being.
- The anuvratas (five life-long minor vows) provide the framework for lay Jains who aspire to live according to this principle. These include:
- ahimsa (non-harming)
- satya (truthfulness)
- asteya (not stealing)
- brahmacharya (abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage)
- aparigraha (keeping possessions within limits)
- The path to true emancipation is believed to begin with renunciation of the household in order to become a sadhu (monk) or sadhvi (nun). This is marked by taking the mahavratas (the great vows) which are stricter applications of the principles of the anuvratas.
- Jains offer puja (worship) at their home three times daily, before dawn, at sunset and, at night. The most important mantra used is the Panca-namaskara-mantra which states: “I pay homage to the Arhats (the living omniscient beings), Siddhas (the perfected beings), Acharyas (the Jain mendicant leaders), Upadhyayas (Jain mendicant teachers) and the Sadhus (all other Jain ascetics)”.
- Jain scriptures are composed of around sixty texts, known as the Shruta, Agamas or Siddhanta (doctrine) which incorporate the teachings of Mahavira and other Tirthankaras, with the majority of the texts being written in the ancient language of Ardhamagadhi:
- The Purvas are believed to include oral traditions of the previous Tirthankaras. Digambara Jains see some of this material as the basis for the Shat Khanda-Agama (the Scripture in Six Parts), whilst Shvetambara Jains believe this material to have been lost.
- The Angas are traditionally held by the Digambaras to have twelve books, based on the teachings of Mahavira, but which are no longer available in their original form.
- The Angabahya is a collection of later, subsidiary texts, which mainly develop material found in the Angas.
- There are also other texts, such as the Tattvartha Sutra, which is seen by contemporary Jains as summarising the key features of Jain teaching and as providing the basis for contemporary Jain education.
Diversity in Jainism
- The Shvetambara and the Digambara are the names of the two main monastic traditions in Jainism which are also used in respect of their lay followers. The distinction between these groups emerged in the third and fifth centuries CE. Shvetambara.
- The majority of Jains, including around 2,500 monks and 5,000 nuns in India, are Shvetambara (white-robed). Monks and nuns in this tradition wear three pieces of white clothing and also have a set of begging bowls and a rajoharana (small woollen whisk-broom) used to avoid harming insects.
- The Shvetambara include groups such as the Sthanakvasis, as well as the Terapanthis who are a sub-group of the Sthanakvasis, and are characterised by the wearing of a muhpatti (piece of cloth) over their mouths to avoid harming even with the tiniest living beings in the air. Digambara
- Digambara (meaning “sky-clad”) monks have no property, although they can carry a whisk-broom of peacock-feathers and a gourd for water to wash with. Digambara nuns wear a white sari.
- There are only a few hundred Digambara monks and nuns in India and the practical leadership of the community draws upon the work of lay scholars and advanced laymen.
Written by Professor Paul Weller