Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions whose roots go back to times before recorded history. Those who follow Jainism are known as Ajaina or the followers of Jinas, from whom the teachings of this religion have been derived. Jainism’s teachers of old whose wisdom and spiritual evolution are most revered are known as Tirthankaras or “builders of the ford.” The teachings of these builders ultimately lead humans across the endless cycle of rebirth to spiritual release. Symbolically, this endless cycle is compared to a river that only those enlightened by the teachings of the Tirthankaras may hope to cross (Basham 100-101).
Originating on the Indian subcontinent, Jainism — or, more properly, the Jain Dharma — is one of the oldest religions of its homeland and indeed of the world. Having prehistoric origins before 3000 BCE, and before the propagation of Indo-Aryan culture, the Twenty-four Crossing-Makers guided its evolution and elaboration by first achieving and then teaching. The first Tirthankara of the present declining era was Lord Rishabhanath, and the last was Lord Mahavira (599-527 BCE) (Smart 80).
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In Jain’s philosophy, time consists of infinite millennia that come and go in cycles of several million years. In our current cycle, twenty-four Tirthankaras have appeared and Mahavira the 24th, Tirthankara has been the last to appear. Like all preceding Tirthankaras, Mahavira, whose name means “the most courageous one,” was an actual historical figure who lived sometime between 599-527BCE. Mahavira was a contemporary of another great spiritual teacher–Gautama Sakyamuni–who would come to be known in history as Buddha.
According to most accounts, Mahavira was also a highborn member of a warrior caste who renounced the world when he was thirty to pursue a life as an ascetic. His moment of enlightenment came after twelve years of spiritual pursuit. He then gathered twelve disciples around him, and it is through these disciples that his teachings were eventually documented and disseminated (Basham 100-101).
Jain religion is unique in that, during its existence of over 5,000 years, it has never compromised on the concept of nonviolence either in principle or practice. It upholds nonviolence as the supreme religion and has insisted upon its observance in thought, word, and deed at the individual as well as social levels. Both in its philosophical essence as well as in its rituals, Jain religion invokes an intense and constant awareness of communion and understanding of not only all living beings but indeed all that exists.
The chief concept that guides behaviour in Jainism is ahimsa, or reverence for life, the principle of nonviolence and noninjury toward all living things. This principle has led to a belief in the equality of all souls and to the freedom to associate with anyone. Because of ahimsa, the social distinctions prevalent in the Hindu caste system never became firmly established in Jainism. Ahimsa is just part of a code of conduct that Jains follow (Smart 83). The rest of the key concepts are:
Apirigraham (avoidance of material possessions)
Satya (renunciation of secular life)
Anekantavada (multiple view points)
Jain religion focuses much attention on Aparigraha, non-possessiveness towards material things through self-control, self-imposed penance, abstinence from over-indulgence, voluntary curtailment of one’s needs, and the consequent subsiding of the aggressive urge. The code of conduct prescribed for the Jain monastic order, made up of monks and nuns, is more rigorous than that prescribed. The concept of Anekantvad is another basic principle of Jainism, extended to the idea as to how each person is limited by her/his own perspectives and cannot therefore either pass judgements or act upon a limited point of view (Smart 85).
Jainism has not only shown a spiritual way of life to its followers, but has inspired a distinct stream of culture which has enriched philosophy, literature, art, architecture, democratic living, and spiritual advancement in the land of India. The artistry and architecture of Jain temples all over the Indian subcontinent depict the magnificence of detachment, serenity, and the natural purity of the soul. As seen in the slide presentation in class, the details of these temples are magnificent (Smart 89)
Jainism is an eternal philosophy, whose benefits can be taken up by anyone willing to improve his or her life and in situations of both stress and tranquillity. Today, more than ever, when suspicion and distrust are vitiating the atmosphere of international peace when the world is filled with fear and hate, we require a living philosophy that will help us discard those destructive qualities and recover ourselves. Such a living, wholesome philosophy, bearing a message of love and goodwill, Ahimsa and peace, personally as well as universally, is the Jain philosophy of life.
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