Jainism has great antiquity. According to the Jains their religion originated in the remotest ages. They believed that Mahavira, the last Tirthankara was preceded by twenty-three other prophets.
Mahavira was the twenty-fourth one. The historicity of the first twenty-two Tirthankaras starting from Rishabhnath to Neminath is doubtful. They are all shadowy figures wrapped up in mythology.
The twenty-third Tirthankar Parsvanath seems to be a historical personage. He was the son of king Asvasena of Benares who had abandoned the royal life to be a sage. His teachings gave a formal shape to Jainism.
The twenty-fourth Tirtliankara of Jainism, Mahavir, followed his predecessor Parsvanath after 250 years. But he definitely placed the religion on a firm footing. He improved upon an already existing faith and made it very widespread and influential. His message endeared him to the heart of the people.
Main Tenets of Jainism:
Many religious movements have contributed their different hues to the multi-coloured canvas of ancient Indian culture. Among those religious and philosophical streams Jainism occupies a prominent position for its rational approach.
The main tenets of Jainism are as follows:
Vardhaman Mahavir accepted the four doctrines of Parsvanath, the 23rd Tirthankara of Jainism.
1. Non-injury to living beings
2. Speaking the truth
3. Non-possession of property
4. Not stealing.
To these four principles Mahavira added a fifth one, namely, celibacy. By following these five doctrines one can attain eternal bliss or Self-realization. Out of the five doctrines Ahimsa or non-injury is the most important one. Mahavir emphasised the need of Ahimsa in every walk of human life. To develop the practice of non-violence one should try to give up thoughts of worldly attachment.
The practice of the above five principles or Panchayama dharma depended to a great extent on a pure and spiritual life. So to make life more sanctified Mahavir prescribed ways to observe three qualities which are better known as Triratna or three jewels of Jainism.
1. Right faith.
2. Right knowledge.
3. Right conduct.
Practice of these three qualities purifies the heart. The practitioner becomes conscious of irrelevant worldly attachment.
The Jain philosophy centres round the philosophy of dual existence of soul and matter. In other words human personality comprised of material and spiritual matter. Material things will perish. But spiritual things are eternal. These two things in a way cover the entire existence in the form of Jiva or conscious and the Ajiva or unconscious.
The Jiva corresponds to soul which itself is imperceptible, but its presence can be felt by the qualities of a material body. The Ajiva corresponds to matter whose essential characteristic is that of lack of consciousness.
The link between Jiva and Ajiva is the doctrine of Karma. It is the Karma or action which decides the future of the soul, if man does not perform the right Karma in his life time, then he will face an unending cycle of rebirth. But through severe austerity and self-mortification one can reduce the influence of bondage and move towards liberation.
The entire universe functions through interaction of living souls (Jiva) and five categories of non-living (Ajiva) entities such as:
1. Akasha (Space)
2. Dharma (Principle of Motion)
3. Adharma (Principle of Rest)
4. Kala (Time)
5. Pudgala (Matter)
The ultimate aim of the Jains is to achieve Nirvana or Salvation. According to Jain ideology, a layman cannot attain Nirvana. To attain Nirvana or salvation of the body one must abandon all wordily attachments, even one’s own clothing; observing fasts, ascetic discipline and self-notification. Thus by severe austerity final liberation or Nirvana will come. Hence monastic life is essential for salvation.
Stress on Morality:
Though the Jains didn’t, deny the existence of God they simply ignored Him. The world for Jains is not created, maintained or destroyed by God but functions through a universal or eternal law. Further, Jainism stresses the principle of equality.
To popularize this concept once Lord Mahavira had declined the offer of a rich man of Vaisali and had taken the meals prepared by a prostitute. Thus caste system, authority of the Vedas and Vedic rituals were set aside by the Jains. In addition, to make human life more disciplined and regulated Jainism recommends the rejection of thirteen sins in the life of its followers.
The Thirteen sins are:
9. Intoxicating drinks
12. Levying charges
13. Speaking ill of others
Thus Jainism is more a moral code than a religion in modern sense of the term. It affords an example of one of the most reformed rationalized religious faiths. In the 6th century B.C. it had protested against the existing religious structure and brought into existence a comprehensive ideology including Indian religion, philosophy and culture. For this spirit of accommodation Jainism has still survived in India today whereas Buddhism had to look for its shelter elsewhere.
Contribution of Jainism to Indian Culture:
Jainism like its twin sister Buddhism received royal patronage and the spread of Jainism in different parts of the country seems to have taken place for quite some time. It took its deep roots in the soil of India through several ages. Even in the 21st century Jainism has stood firm in the religious firmament of India. A religion with such remote antiquity and rich heritage had its natural influence on the culture of the sub-continent of India. Jainism has enriched the cultural tradition of India in many respects.
Language and Literature:
Jainism has played a very important role in the linguistic development of the country. Jain community was smaller in size but bigger was its contributions in the field of literature. Prior to the advent of Jainism, Sanskrit was the medium of expression Even during the same period the Buddhists preferred Pali language.
The Jains deviated from this norm. They preferred the regional languages for better understanding among the common people. Thus they utilized the prevailing languages of different places for religious propaganda and sacred literature. In this way they gave an impetus to the development of Prakrit language. Even they gave a literary shape to some of the regional languages for the first time.
Mahavir himself preached his teachings in a mixed dialect called Ardha-Mugadhi so that people speaking Magcidhi and Sauraseni languages could understand him properly. In the initial phase these two languages were very popular. Later on Jain literature was composed in Prakrit language.
Of late a rich treasure of literature produced by the Jains has come to limelight. It is known as Apabhramsa literature which forms a link between the classical languages like Sanskrit and Prakrit on the one hand and modern regional languages on the other. Even in early Kannada and Tamil literature we find traces of Jain influence. Further the Jain texts of twelve Angas, twelve Upangas, Agama and Kalpasutra were written in Sanskrit. Thus Jainism indirectly helped the growth of literature of different types in Indian languages.
Art and Architecture:
Jainism has played a greater role in the development of artistic tradition of the country. It is true that the Jains did not believe in the existence of God. But at the same time it created a galaxy of deified men who were spiritually great. To pay reverence to these souls Jains all over the country erected several stupas. These stupas created in the honour of their saints are valuable gems of Indian architecture.
The accessories of stone railings, the decorated gateways, stone-umbrellas, elaborate carved pillars and numerous statues of the stupas evoke the appreciation of the observer for their artistic charm even today. Early specimens of Jain stupas are found at Mathura whereas Bundelkhand is full of Jain images of 11th and 12th century A.D.
The huge statue of Bahubalin, known as Gomatesvara at Shravanbelgola (120 ft. height) is a marvel by itself. The stone carvings of Kliandagiri and Udaygiri in Orissa give the impression of symbol-worship. The Jain Ashtamangala or eight auspicious signs such as a Swastik, a mirror, an urn, a cane seat shaped like an hour-glass, two fishes, a flower garland and a manuscript carved on the pedestal bear Jain artistic taste.
The Jains also built cave temples in rocks. The Jain cave temples at Udaygiri and Ellora and the Dilwara temple of Mount Abu are beautiful specimens of Jain architecture and sculpture. Junagadh, Junar, Osmanabad are other places where Jain art is preserved. The numerous Jain places of pilgrimage such as the Parsvanath Hills, Pavapuri, Rajgir, Girnar and Palitana possess temples and other architectural monuments of different ages.
The Jain images include a long list of Indian divinities such as Sri-Lakshmi, Dikpalas, Kubera, Navagraha, Saraswati etc. In the Jain temples the images of Saraswati are not rare. Even one special Jain festival called Jnana-Pancliami or Sruta Panchami is celebrated by the Jains in the honour of goddess Saraswati.
Jainism influenced the Indian life style to a great extent. Its basic tenet of Ahimsa or non-violence has firmly been established as a rule of life.
In the words of A.N.Upadhye:
“Jain literature includes myths, fairy-tales, proverbs, popular stories, model behaviour, patterns and moral exhortations, all of which unanimously denounce cruelty to living beings. All these have done much to discourage animal sacrifice. Most of the Indian religions have casually preached ahimsa. But nowhere except in Jainism is the basic creed so systematically worked out to pervade the entire moral code.”
Even in the twentieth century colonial India the apostle of non-violence Mahatma Gandhi, who gave a new lease of life to this principle, was greatly influenced by Jainism rather than any other Indian creed. Jainism and Buddhism have been foremost in upholding the doctrine of ahimsa and Jainism has held firm to its original ideology more closely than that of Buddhism. Thus in a way in the Indian cultural field the most important contribution of Jainism is the concept of ahimsa.
In the words of A.N. Upadhye:
“Numerous traces of Jain influence on Indian life can be detected. The worship of idols in a refined form, the building of temples, the founding of charitable lodges for men and animals, the preservation of rich libraries and manuscripts and the distribution of food and other necessities to the poor— these are some of the outstanding features of Jain society and to a large extent they have been imitated by other Indian religious groups.”
As a community the Jains have been strict vegetarians and wherever they are found in large numbers they have influenced the social circle around them. To lead a life with minimum necessity, to bear no ill will towards anyone, to take recourse to fasting for self-purification, to undertake long tours on foot, to make contact with the people are routine affairs in a Jain’s life. These various aspects of Jain routine have had deep impacts on Indian culture.
Rise of Trading Community:
In the beginning Jainism was very popular among the traders and businessmen. The mercantile community was attracted by the rigorous asceticism and religious life of the Jains and adopted Jain way of life. Being bounded by a sense of fraternity they formed business guilds for smooth conduct of business. These wealthy merchants patronized Jainism to a great extent.
With the increasing social recognition and status, the rich merchants came closer to the ruling class. Jain laymen now began to play an important part in the political activities. This happened specially in Rajasthan during the Mughal period. Even during the time of English East India Company, Jain business families like the Jagatseths and the Singhis acted as state bankers and naturally wielded great influence in the society.
Jainism is still a living faith in some parts of India. The number of its followers is more than two million. But its contribution to India’s cultural heritage is far more significant than its numerical strength. The tradition of art in India, enrichment and preservation of Indian literature and cultivation of both Aryan and Dravidian languages in a way show Jain influences which are really praiseworthy. The religious instincts of the Jains have also lasting impressions on Indian life style.
To conclude with the words of Prof. Radhakrishnan:
When the storm of persecution swept over the land, Jainism simply took refuge in Hinduism which opened its capacious bosom to receive it and to the conquerors it seemed an indistinguishable part of the great system.