Religious life in Ancient India was relatively simple initially but as time progressed worship became more complex with elaborate rituals and ceremonies. For the smooth functioning of society, the Varna system had been introduced which divided society on the basis of their occupation namely Brahmins (scholars and priests), Kshatriyas (warriors, Kings, soldiers), Vaishyas (artisans, cattle herders, merchants, farmers) and Shudras (service providers and labourers). But slowly blind faith and superstitious beliefs led to rigidity and since the Brahmins were the only segment of society who could read Sanskrit and interpret the religious texts, they began to feel superior and dominated society. The original purity of Hinduism began to dissipate and there was unrest as the Brahmins oppressed the lower classes specially the Shudras who were considered untouchables and not allowed to enter temples, draw water from the wells or recite Mantras. To rid Hinduism of these evils, many reformation movements began as social awareness increased and out of these Jainism and Buddhism came into being. Initially they drew inspiration from the teachings of Hinduism but later became distinct and complete in their own format. Thus they were simpler, propagated equality and strived to remove the evils of society.
Meaning and Significance
Jainism is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Jin’ meaning to conquer. Here conquering implies the inner battle which the Jains are supposed to undertake with their bodily pleasures and passions. Those who have achieved this objective are called Jina or conqueror.
Jainism’s main philosophy is the ‘Value for life’ characterised by love and respect for all creatures and respecting and honouring the spiritual nature of every single life.
Origin of Jainism
It is one of the oldest religions in the world. The founder of Jainism is the first Tirthankara Adinatha. Their history can be traced through a succession of 24 Tirthankaras who have achieved enlightenment and liberation and help others to cross the ocean of life. The 24th Tirthankar was the most popular and well known, Vardhaman Mahavira.
Artefacts from the Indus Valley Civilisation (3500-1700 BCE) gives evidence that the Jain tradition existed much before the spread of Indo European culture.
Principles of Jainism
Their most important principle is Anekantavada, which means that there is no single or complete truth and like the story of the blind men and the elephant, due to a limited perspective can only partially succeed. Thus infinity cannot be grasped by finite human perception and absolute truth cannot be perceived by any specific human view. Only Kevalis or omniscient beings can comprehend absolute truth.
Souls are intrinsically pure in Jainism with infinite energy, knowledge, perception and bliss but due to the soul’s association with karma over many lifetimes, these qualities become defiled and proper methods have to be adopted to cleanse it and return it to its earlier sublime and pure state.
According to Jain beliefs, the universe is independent and self sufficient and was never created nor will it cease to exist. Kaalchakra or time is eternal and is made up of two halves, Utsarpini and Avsarpini which indicates a period of happiness and sorrow respectively. The universe is divided into three parts-Urdhva Loka or upper world, Madhya Loka or middle world and Adho loka or lower world and it is made up of six constituents, Jiva or the living being, Pudgala or matter, Dharma tattva, adharma Tattva, kala or time and akasha or space.
According to Jainism, 63 Sakalapurushas or illustrious beings have appeared on Earth and their deeds comprise Jain History. Out of the 63, 24 are Tirthankaras or human beings who help others to achieve salvation, 12 are Chakravarthis or emperors of the material world, 9 are Baladeva or non violent heroes, 9 are Vasudeva or violent heroes and 9 are Prativasudeva or the evil people(villains).
They are based on a collection of 14 texts that contain the teachings of Lord Mahavira called the Purva. The works of the monks Kundakunda (1st century) like Samaya Sara and Panchastikaya Sara and Umasvati(2nd Century)’s book Tatthvartha Sutra have greatly contributed to the understanding of Jain philosophy.
Code of Ethics
Ahimsa or non violence is the most important principle of the Jains. Harmlessness and concern is the hallmark of this religion and all Jains are strict vegetarians. Self control is another important quality to be practised by the Jains. They have to practise Ahimsa or non violence, Sathya or truth, Asteya or nonexploitation, Brahmacharya or celibacy and Aparigraha or non possessiveness. The ascetics and nuns have to be very strict in practice of these principles. They have to follow Right Faith, Right knowledge and Right action. To prevent accidentally inhaling insects and other micro organisms, they even cover their mouths with a white cloth.
Branches of Jainism
The two main branches of Jainism are Digambara(meaning sky clad or nude) and Shwetambara(meaning white clad).
From early civilisation, remnants of cave temples and Jain temples have been found throughout India. There is a significant contribution to art and architecture, cosmology and other fields as can be seen from the manuscripts from ancient centuries like the Kushan Empire in 1BCE. Jain literature is immense and contains a great range of subjects like physics, astronomy, philosophy, business ethics, mathematics, botany, history, political science, linguistics, music theory etc.
The fundamental prayer of Jainism is the Namokara Mantra which pays obeisance to the perfect souls who have attained Nirvana. Fasting and meditation is adhered to very strictly specially by the monks and nuns. They have special temples or Derasars where they pray and perform their sacred rituals. The holy week(8-10 days) of Paryushan generally in August or September is the biggest event in their calendar where they reflect on all actions performed by them during the past year. It concludes with a three hour prayer called Pratikraman.
The philosophy of Jainism is represented by the above symbol. The Universe is symbolised by the polygon. The Svastika signifies Infinite Perception, Knowledge, Will Power and Bliss which are the four innate qualities of the soul. It also signifies the four categories, microscopic, human, angel and beings of hell. The three dots signify Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Action. These lead to the final path of liberation. The single lone dot signifies the Siddha or the liberated pure soul. The Upright palm is an indication to man to stop committing sins. The wheel has the word Ahimsa or non violence contained in it. The Sanskrit phrase below the symbol is taken from the text Tatthvartha Sutra and it implies ’Souls support one another’.
Jainism is generally referred to as a way of living life, a philosophy rather than a religion. It is a dynamic religion, a living faith which exemplifies moral upliftment, the highest and noblest values and spiritual elevation leading to infinite bliss and eternal peace. Practising it faithfully will lead an ordinary individual to spiritual realisation. There are around ten million Jains worldwide, majority of them being in India with a number of expatriates in US, UK and Africa. They have made huge contributions in the field of education and business.