Jainism is a spiritual path which centres on the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence. It began in the 7th to 5th centuries B.C. and has been a significant force in Indian culture, contributing to Indian philosophy, art, architecture and sciences.
According to Jainism, the universe was never created, nor will it ever cease to exist. It is eternal but not unchangeable, because it passes through an endless series of alternations or swings. Each of these upward or downward swings is divided into four world ages (yugas). The present world age is the fourth age of oneof these "swings", which is in a downward movement.
When this reaches its lowest level, even Jainism itself will be lost in its entirety. Then, in the course of the next upswing, the Jain religion will be rediscovered and reintroduced by new leaders called Tirthankaras (saintly teachers), only to be lost again at the end of the next downswing, and so on.
In each of these enormously long alternations of time there are always twenty-four Tirthankaras. In the current world age, the twenty-third Tirthankara was Parshva, an ascetic and teacher, who may have lived around 850-800 BC. The Jains regard him as a reformer who called for a return to the beliefs and practices of their original religious tradition. The twenty-fourth and final Tirthankara of this age is known by his title, Mahavira,the Great Hero (599-517 BC). He too was a wandering ascetic teacher who attempted to recall the Jains to the rigorous practice of their ancient faith.
The Jains believe that reality is made up of two eternal principles, jiva and ajiva. Jiva consists of an infinite number of identical spiritual units; ajiva (that is, non-jiva) is matter in all its forms and the conditions under which matter exists: time, space, and movement.
Both jiva and ajiva are eternal; they never came into existence for the first time and will never cease to exist. The whole world is made up of jivas trapped in ajiva; there are jivas in rocks, plants, insects, animals, human beings, spirits, etcetera.
Any contact whatsoever of the jiva with the ajiva causes the former to suffer. Thus the Jains believed that existence in this world inevitably means suffering. Neither social reform nor the reform of individuals themselves can ever stop suffering. In every human being, a jiva is trapped, and the jiva suffers because of its contact with ajiva. The only way to escape from suffering is for the jiva to completely escape from the human condition, from human existence.
Karma and transmigration keep the jiva trapped in ajiva. Achieving release from the human condition is difficult. The Jains believe that the jiva continues to suffer during all its lives or reincarnations, which are of an indefinite number. They believe that every action that a person performs, be it good or evil, opens up channels of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), through which an invisible substance, karma, filters in and adheres to the jiva within, weighing it down and determining the conditions of the next reincarnation.
The consequence of evil actions is a heavy karma, which weighs the jiva down, forcing it to enter its new life at a low level in the scale of existence. The consequence of good deeds, on the other hand, is a light karma, which allows the jiva to rise in its next life to a higher level in the scale of existence, where there is less suffering to be endured. However, good deeds alone can never lead to release.
The way to release or liberation (moksha) is withdrawal from the world. Karma is the cause-and-effect mechanism by virtue of which all actions have inescapable consequences. Karma operates to keep the jiva chained in an unending series of existences in which the jiva suffers to a greater or lesser extent. Thus the way of escape must involve an escape from karma, the destruction of all karma and the avoidance of new karma.
Then, at death, with no karma to weigh it down, the jiva will float free of all ajiva, free of the human condition, free of all future embodiments. It will rise to the top of the universe to a place or state called Siddhashila, where the jiva, identical with all other pure jivas, will experience its own true nature in eternal stillness, isolation and noninvolvement. It will be totally free The way to burn up old karma is to withdraw from all involvement in the world as much as possible, and close the channel of the senses and the mind to prevent karmic matter from entering and adhering to the jiva.
Jain society is as dualistic as the Jain universe. On the one hand, there are the monks, who practise severe asceticism and strive to make this life their last. On the other hand, there are the lay people, who pursue less rigorous practices, striving only to do good deeds and hoping for a better incarnation in the next life.
In their effort to attain their highest hope, which is the permanent release of the jiva from all involvement in worldly existence, the Jains believe that no spirit or divine being can assist them in any way. Hence Jainism is a nontheistic religion. The Jains consider that gods and spirits can influence events of this world only. They cannot help the jiva to obtain release. This has to be achieved by individual through their own efforts. In fact, the gods cannot even gain their own release until they are reincarnated as people and undertake the difficult life of a Jain monk.
The Jain ethical code is taken very seriously. It is summarised in the Five Vows that are followed by both lay people and monks. These are:
- (1) noninjury (ahimsa)
- (2) nonlying
- (3) nonstealing
- (4) nonpossession
- (5) chastity
For lay people, chastity means confining sexual experience to the marriage relationship. For monks, it means complete celibacy. Noninjury commonly means vegetarianism, but some Jains have been known to starve themselves to death in order to avoid harming any living creature. There are even those who wear masks over their mouths and noses to avoid any possibility of breathing in tiny insects. Gandhi was deeply influenced by the Jain insistence on a peaceful, nonharming way of life and made it an integral part of his own philosophy.
The Jains adopted Vedic rituals for marriage and other family rites since the Jain religion itself has neither priests nor rituals They also adopted many of the Hindu deities as a means of explaining how world events may be influenced; they do not, however, regard such gods as ultimate in any important sense of the word. Like us, the gods are trapped in the cycle of transmigration. Jains have built temples where images of their Tirthankaras are venerated in much the same way that Hindus worship images of their gods. Jain rituals are elaborate, and include offerings of flowers, fruit and other symbolic objects, with the Tirthankaras being praised in chant using passages from the Jain scriptures.
The two major sects of Jainism trace their origin to events that occurred about 200 years after the death of Mahavira. At the time Bhadrabahu, the chief of the Jain monks, foresaw a period of famine and, in order to avoid it, he led all who would follow him - both monks and laity - to the south of India. Some years after the famine had passed, Bhadrabahu returned to the north to find that, in his absence, monastic life had become corrupted. The monks were wearing white robes instead of going naked. (The practice of nakedness was a refusal to give in to the body's demand for protection and comfort - this was of course only ever applied to the Jain monks, not to the average Jain householder).
Bhadrabahu forcefully opposed the weakness which had led the monks to wear clothing. Those monks who continued to wear the white robes were called Svetambaras (white-clad). The monks who wore nothing were called Digambaras (sky-clad). The two groups have remained separate to this day.
The Svetambaras believe in equality of the sexes, whereas the Digambaras believe that women cannot attain moksha. They have to be reborn as men in order to qualify for moksha. The Digambaras thus exclude women from their monastic orders, while the Svetambaras have convents for women who choose the higher life.
The Jain symbol incorporates a swastika and a hand.