The Jainas believed that their most important religious teacher Mahavira had twenty-three predecessors who were called tirthankaras.
If Mahavira is taken as the last or the twenty-fourth tirthankara, the origin of Jainism would go back to the ninth century BC.
Some Jainas believe that Rishabhadeve was the first tirthankara or teacher of Jainism, but he is associated with Ayodhya which was settled on any scale only by 500 BC.
Most tirthankaras, up to the fifteenth, were supposed to have been born in eastern UP and Bihar, but their historicity is extremely, doubtful. No part of the mid- Gangetic plains was settled on any scale until the fifth century BC. Evidently the mythology of the tirthankaras, most of whom were born in the mid- Gangetic basin and attained nirvana in Bihar, seems to have been created to endow Jainism with antiquity.
The earliest important teachings of Jainism are attributed to Parshvanatha, the twenty-third tirthankara, who hailed from Banaras, abandoned royal life, and became an ascetic. However, it was his spiritual successor Vardhamana Mahavira who was the real founder of Jainism.
It is difficult to fix the exact dates of the birth and death of the great reformers Vardhamana Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. According to one tradition, Vardhamana Mahavira was born in 540 BC in a village near Vaishali, which is coterminous with Basarh in Vaishali district of north Bihar.
His father Siddhartha was the head of a famous Kshatriya clan, and his mother, Trishala, was the sister of the Lichchhavi chief Chetaka, whose daughter was married to Bimbisara. Thus, Mahavira’s family was connected with the royal family of Magadh, and such high connections made it easy for him to approach princes and nobles in the course of his mission.
Initially, Mahavira led the life of a householder, but in his quest for truth he abandoned the world at the age of 30 and became an ascetic. He wandered for twelve years from place to place, not staying for over a day in a village and more than five days in a town. During the course of his long journey of twelve years it is said he never changed his clothes, and abandoned them altogether at the age of 42 when he attained omniscience (kaivalya).
Through kaivalya he conquered misery and happiness. Because of this conquest he is known as Mahavira or the great hero or jina, that is, the conqueror, and his followers are known as Jainas. He propagated his religion for thirty years, and his mission took him to Koshala, Magadha, Mithila, Champa, and elsewhere. He passed away at the age of 72 in 468 BC at a place called Pavapuri near modern Rajgir. According to another tradition he passed away in 527 BC, but, archaeology does not support his existence in the sixth century BC. The towns and other settlements with which he was associated did not come into existence till 500 BC.
Doctrines of Jainism:
Jainism taught five doctrines:
(i) Do not commit violence,
(ii) Do not tell a lie,
(iii) Do not steal,
(iv) Do not hoard, and
(v) Observe continence (brahmacharya).
It is said that only the fifth doctrine was added by Mahavira: the other four were taken over by him from previous teachers. Jainism attached the utmost importance to ahimsa or non-injury to living beings. Sometimes it led to absurd results, for some Jaina kings ordered the execution of persons guilty of killing animals.
Although Parshva, Mahavira’s predecessor, had asked his followers to cover the upper and lower portions of their bodies, Mahavira asked them to discard their clothing altogether. This implies that Mahavira asked his followers to lead a more austere life. Because of this, in later times, Jainism split into two sects: shvetambaras or those who donned white garments and digambaras who remained naked.
Jainism recognized the existence of the gods but placed them lower than the jina, and did not condemn the Varna system as Buddhism did. According to Mahavira, a person is born in a high or in a lower Varna as a consequence of his sins committed or virtues acquired by him in his previous birth. Mahavira looks for human values even in a chandala.
In his opinion, by leading pure and meritorious life, members of the lower castes can achieve liberation. Jainism principally aims at the attainment of freedom from worldly bonds. No ritual is necessary for such liberation. It can be obtained through right knowledge, right faith, and right action. These three are considered to be the three jewels or triratna of Jainism. Jainism prohibited the practice of war and even agriculture for its followers because both involve the killing of living beings. Eventually the Jainas principally confined themselves to trade and mercantile activities.
Spread of Jainism:
In order to spread the teachings of Jainism, Mahavira organized an order of his followers that admitted both men and women. He preached his teachings in Prakrit, the language of the common people. It is said that his followers numbered 14,000, which is not a large figure. As Jainism did not very clearly differentiate itself from the brahmanical religion, it failed to attract the masses. Despite this, Jainism gradually spread into south and west India where the brahmanical religion was weak. According to a late tradition, the spread of Jainism in Karnataka is attributed to Chandragupta Maurya (322 298 BC).
The emperor became a Jaina, gave up his throne, and spent the last years of his life in Karnataka as a Jaina ascetic, but this tradition is not corroborated by any other source. The second cause of the spread of Jainism in south India is said to have been the great famine that took place in Magadha 200 years after Mahavira’s death.
The famine lasted for twelve years, and in order to protect themselves, many Jainas migrated to the south under the leadership of Bhadrabahu, though the rest of them stayed back in Magadha under the leadership of Sthalabahu. The emigrant Jainas spread Jainism in south India. At the end of the famine, they returned to Magadha, where they developed differences with the local Jainas.
Those who returned from the south claimed that even during the famine they had strictly observed the religious rules. They alleged too that the Jaina ascetics living in Magadha had violated those rules and had become lax. In order to sort out these differences and to compile the principal teachings of Jainism, a council was convened in Pataliputra, modern Patna, but the Jainas who had returned from the south boycotted it and refused to accept its decisions.
From now onwards, the southern began to be called digambaras, and the Magadhans shvetambaras. The tradition that refers to drought as the cause relates to a later period and is considered doubtful. It is, however, beyond doubt that the Jainas were divided into two sects, but epigraphic evidence of the spread of Jainism in Karnataka is not earlier than the third century ad. In subsequent centuries, especially after the fifth century, numerous Jaina monastic establishments, called basadis sprang up in Karnataka and were granted land by the king for their support.
Jainism spread to Kalinga in Orissa in the fourth century BC, and in the first century BC it enjoyed the patronage of the Kalinga king Kharavela who had defeated the princes of Andhra and Magadha. In the second and first centuries BC, it also seems to have reached the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.
In later centuries Jainism penetrated Malwa, Gujarat, and Rajasthan, and even now these areas have a substantial number of Jainas who are principally engaged in trade and commerce. Although Jainism did not win as much state patronage as did Buddhism and did not spread very rapidly in early times, it still retains its hold in the areas where it spread. On the other hand, Buddhism virtually disappeared from the Indian subcontinent.
Contribution of Jainism:
Jainism made the first serious attempt to mitigate the evils of the Varna order and the ritualistic Vedic religion. The early Jainas discarded the Sanskrit language principally patronized by the brahmanas. They adopted instead Prakrit, the language of the common people to preach their doctrines. Their religious literature was written in Ardhamagadhi, and the texts were eventually compiled in the sixth century ad in Gujarat at a place called Valabhi, a geat centre of education. The adoption of Prakrit by the Jainas helped the growth of this language and its literature. Many regional languages developed out of Prakrit, particularly Shauraseni from which the Marathi language developed.
The Jainas composed the earliest important works in Apabhramsha and compiled its first grammar. Jaina literature comprises epics, Puranas, novels, and drama. A large percentage of Jaina writing is still in the form of manuscripts that have yet to be published and which are to be found in the Jaina shrines of Gujarat and Rajasthan. In early medieval times, the Jainas also made substantial use of Sanskrit and wrote many texts in it. Last but not the least; they contributed to the growth of Kannada, in which they wrote extensively.
Initially, like the Buddhists, the Jainas were not image worshippers. Later they began to worship Mahavira and also the twenty-three tirthankaras. Beautiful and sometimes massive images in stone were sculpted for this purpose, especially in Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and MP. Jaina art in ancient times is not as rich as its Buddhist counterpart, but Jainism contributed substantially to art and architecture in medieval times.