Possibly the oldest ascetic religious tradition on Earth, Jainism is followed today by about 3.5 million people, especially in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. Along with Buddhism, Jainism was one of several renunciatory movements—the Sramana schools—that grew up in modern-day Bihar and southern Nepal in the sixth century B . C . The other Sramana movements (including Buddhism) gradually died out in India, leaving Jainism as the only one with an unbroken succession of Indian followers down to the present day. The Sramana schools, including Jainism, reacted against the contemporary form of Hinduism (known as Brahmanism) and posited that worldly life is inherently unhappy—an endless cycle of death and rebirth—and that liberation from it is achieved not through sacrifices or propitiating the gods but through inner meditation and discipline. Thus while Jains in India today share many social practices with their Hindu neighbors (indeed, several castes have both Hindu and Jain members), their religious tradition is in many ways philosophically closer to Buddhism, though distinctly more rigid in its asceticism than Buddhism has been.
The "founder" of Jainism is taken by modern scholars to be Mahavira ("great hero"), otherwise known as Vardhamana (c. 599-527 B . C .); but there is evidence that Jain practices were in existence for some time before him. The Jain texts speak of a succession of prophets ( tirthankaras ) stretching back into mythological time, of whom Mahavira was the twenty-fourth and last. The tirthankaras are distinguished by the fact that they are thought to have achieved liberation of their souls through meditation and austerities and then preached the message of salvation before finally leaving their mortal bodies. Jains today worship all twenty-four tirthankaras, not in the sense of asking them for boons or favors, but in memory of the path they taught. One of the most popular of the Jain texts is the Kalpa Sutra, at least part of which is canonical and may date back to the fourth century B . C ., and which describes, among other things, the lives of all twenty-four tirthankaras.
The essential principle of Jain philosophy is that all living things, even the tiniest insects, have an immortal soul ( jiva ), which continues to be reincarnated as it is bound and constrained by karma—a form of matter that is attracted to the soul through good and bad desires in this and in past lives. Thus to free the soul one must perform austerities to strip away the karma-matter and cultivate in oneself a detachment or desirelessness that will not attract further karma. The principle means to this end is the practice of ahimsa , the lack of desire to cause harm to any living thing. From this principle arises the most characteristic features of Jain life: insistence on a strict vegetarian diet, filtering drinking water, running animal shelters and hospitals, never lying or causing hurt to others, temporarily or permanently wearing a gauze mask to prevent insects from entering the body, and sweeping the ground in front of one's every step.
For some Jains, their devotion to ahimsa leads them to be ordained as monks and nuns who live the life of wandering ascetics. Most Jains today, however, are laity, living worldly lives but seeking to adhere to the principle of ahimsa in as many ways as possible. The laity support the wandering ascetics, providing them with food and shelter; the ascetics in turn provide religious and moral guidance. Lay Jains include some of India's leading industrialists, jewelers, and bankers, concentrated particularly in the cities of Bombay, Ahmedabad, and Delhi. Because so many are businesspeople, the Jains are one of the few religious groups (along with the Parsis and Jews) who are more numerous in cities than in rural areas. Throughout western India Jains are to be found in every urban center, however small, working as merchants, traders, wholesalers, and moneylenders.
As so often happens in religious sects, the Jains are no strangers to schism. The most basic and widely known split within their community of believers, dating back to the fourth century B . C ., separates the "sky-clad" (Digambaras) from the "white-clad" (Svetambaras) ; the names refer to the fact that the highest order of Digambara monks go naked to announce their complete indifference to their bodies, while Svetambara monks and nuns always wear simple white clothing. These two sects differ in their attitudes toward scripture, their views of the universe, and their attitudes toward women (the Digambaras believe that no woman has ever achieved liberation). Another major sectarian division, found particularly among the Svetambaras and dating back to fifteenth-century Gujarat, rejects all forms of idolatry. While murti-pujaka (idol-worshiping) lay and ascetic Svetambaras build and visit temples in which idols of the tirthankaras are installed, the Svetambara Sthanakavasi sect—like certain Protestant Christian sects—holds that such forms of worship may mislead the believer into thinking that idols, famous temples, and the like are sources of some mysterious power. Instead lay and ascetic Sthanakavasis prefer to meditate in bare halls.
Today, lay Jains—mostly of Gujarati origin—are to be found in east Africa, Great Britain, and North America, where they have migrated over the last century in search of business and trading opportunities. Temples have been established in several of these countries and the Jains are making themselves felt as a distinctive presence within the wider South Asian migrant community overseas.
See also Bania
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