Jainism, India’s Lesser-Known Religion
Founded in ancient spiritual principles predating the Indo-Aryan culture, Jainism was formed between the ninth and the sixth centuries BCE as a protest against the Indian caste system which segregates the people of India by lineage or clan.
With an oral tradition dating back at least 5000 years, some historians have speculated that this religion may have its roots in much earlier times, prior to the Indo-Aryan migration into India.
Although Jainism only has about six million adherents and has until recently been relatively unknown outside of India, it has successful growing immigrant communities in North America, Western Europe, the Far East, Australia and elsewhere.
Prescribing a path of non-violence towards all living beings, Jainism is said to have been a great influence on Mohandas Gandhi.
Sharing ideas found in Hinduism, the idea of samsara, the wheel of birth, death and rebirth, is the locus of the gradual process where the self learns to remove itself from bondage to lower forms of the material world until nothing remains except the purity of the jiva, an individual’s soul.
Samsara is related to karma, the moral law of cause and effect that drives the wheel of birth, death and rebirth. Although this notion is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is actual, physical matter in Jainism that coats or adheres to the jiva. Jainism’s goal is to remove this matter, thus purifying the jiva, and earning for the adherent the same title that Jainism’s spiritual hero, Mahavira held-that of Jina.
Mahavira (“the Great Hero”) is considered the key historical figure for Jainism. Living about the same time as the Buddha, in the sixth century BCE, Mahavira is considered the last of twenty-four “teachers”-Tirthankaras-of the current cosmic cycle.
According to this religious tradition, the universe constantly cycles through periods of progress and decline, with the Tirthankaras appearing to create religion to help people deal with the downward, degenerative part of the cycle.
At about the age of 42, Mahavira experienced liberation, where he was free from bondage to the ordinary world, no longer bothered by suffering or pain. He was in complete control of his experience; he was a conqueror, a Jina. Thus the religion of Jainism draws its name from the experience of conquering the mundane.
Three related beliefs help the Jain to become a Jina.
Ahimsa,the first, is the principle of non-violence.
Although a similar principle can be found in many religions, Jainism adheres to this in an extreme form. For example, as people walk throughout their day, Jains believe that violence is done to insects beneath their feet or in the soil, so Jains take care when walking to injure as few of these life forms as possible. Likewise, when drinking water, many life forms are ingested and therefore killed, so water is often strained to remove as many of these life forms as possible. The ultimate goal is to avoid violence in all forms, thus eliminating karma and making liberation easier.
Jains, of course, are strict vegetarians. But ahimsa also includes thoughts and language. Language can be violent and, therefore, cause negative karma.
The second key belief is paragraph, “non-attachment.”
Jains must live with the minimum requirements and not be attached to material possessions to follow this religious path, believing that as long as people are attached to things, those things exert a power over them. When those things are let go, when an aura of “non-acquisitiveness” is embodied, then there is movement toward peace.
(This belief certainly has a connection with a modern eco-consciousness in a world of limited resources.)
The third key belief is Anekantwad, which means “relativity.”
The parable of the blind people describing an elephant is often used as an instructive tool here. Each blind person feels a portion of the elephant-the trunk, the ear, the leg-and describes the elephant based on that limited, relative, perception. Jains remember this story, avoid judgmentalism and remain open to seeing an issue from many perspectives.
Jainism is an ascetic path. Monks and nuns follow a more rigid asceticism, but everyday people can also purify and perfect themselves by controlling mind and passions. Thus Jainism is a religion of strict ethics and self-control leading to a purification of the Self.