sixth century BC Buddhism had just been founded. The Vedic religion was
almost getting extinct and Hinduism as we know it today was at a nebulous
stage. Jainism at that time was not only a mature and living religion but
also one claiming a hoary antiquity. All its tenets had fully developed by
that time and these tenets have remained almost unchanged all these 2500
years. Jainism is thus the oldest living religion of India.
But age alone is not what gives importance to Jainism. This religion is
important because it has greatly influenced practically all-religious
thinking of India. If, as is thought by many, the spirit of Indian
religious life was 'life and world negating' it might be said that it was
mainly due to the influence of Jainism and similar other religions of that
time on Indian thought. It also shows the triumph of the Jain spirit over
the 'life and world affirming' attitude of the Vedic people who failed to
divert the main stream of Indian religious thinking from pessimism to an
optimistic and joyous path. The aversion to the killing of animals, the
belief that all ascetics are holy people (and conversely that a person in
order to be holy should be an ascetic), the theory of the transmigration
of the soul, and that 'getting born in this world is itself a punishment'
all these are parts of Hindu thinking. They seem to have been adopted
without much change from Jainism and similar other religions which existed
in India in the sixth century BC. (The evidence of the existence of such
religions, though scanty, is available from the Buddhist and Jain texts.
Yet, the Jains constitute a small proportion of the Indian people. They
probably number a little over three million in a population of nearly 700
million. How did such a small community exercise so much influence? The
answer probably lies in the fact that the original religions of the Indian
people at least from the Indus Valley times were similar in many respects
to Jainism. These religions got somewhat modified by the impact of the
Vedic cult, but ultimately the ancient religions of India, of which
Jainism was one, prevailed Jainism has thus not so much influenced as
provided a guide-post to Hinduism to get back to its original course.
Since Jainism itself has not much changed or developed in the course of
these 2,500 years, it has in a sense no history. In fact, the last change
in Jainism was introduced by Mahavira himself when he proposed an
additional vow to the original four vows of Parshva the immediately-
preceding Tirthankara. The Jains themselves recognized this absence of
change by hesitating to write any history of their religion after Mahavira.
Indeed, when the Digambaras write any history (or mythology) of their
religion they stop with Mahavira. The Svetambaras have no doubt at least
two works, which continue the history even after Mahavira, but these too
stop after a few centuries.
This is, therefore, a history of the Jain people and not so much a history
of their religion.
In the history of the Jains the most important figure is Mahavira. He was
a contemporary of the Buddha. This we know from the Buddhist works only,
for the Jain works never mention the Buddha. Mahavira lived for 72 years
of which for the last 30 years he was a teacher. The Jain works give some
details for the first 42 years of Mahavir's life, but tell us little about
his life as a teacher. (In the case of Buddha also the Buddhist works give
few details of his life after he became a teacher).
Jainism did not get much royal support in the first few centuries after
Mahavira. Indeed, the Jain's themselves claim only one royal patron in
these centuries. He was Samprati, grandson of Ashoka, and ruler of Ujayini.
Epigraphic evidence, however, shows that Ashoka himself was a protector of
the Jains and had appointed officers to look after their welfare, though
he may not have been a patron. Again from epigraphic evidence we know that
in the 1st century BC king Kharavela of Orissa and his queen were patrons
of Jainism. (The Jain works mention Ashoka only in passing, and Kharavela
is not known to them at all). People engaged in commerce and trades were
drawn towards Jainism from at least the early centuries of the Christian
era. This we know from the extensive remains of the sculptures gifted by
them in the Kankalitila in Mathura.
We do not know how the Jains broke into two groups, the Digambaras and the
Svetambaras. Perhaps there was no actual schism, the two groups just
drifted apart due to geographical reasons, the Jains of Gujarat and the
neighboring areas emerging as the Svetambaras sometime in the 5th century
By perhaps the 4th century AD Jainism had spread to South India. Southwest
Karnataka from the very beginning became its center. Though the Jains were
found more or less all over the South, in this part of Karnataka and
specially in the Tulu speaking areas, Jainism was a force to reckon with
for many centuries. They received patronage from the rulers of many
dynasties, and occupied important administrative and military posts under
them. In fact some of the Western Ganga rulers themselves became Jains.
There were many learned Jains in the court of the kings of Karnataka. They
wrote books on logic and philosophy and some of them produced important
works on mathematics and medicine also.
In the matter of Architecture and Statuary, the Jains produced remarkable
pieces of art in a number of places in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
In the 12th century Gujarat the rulers appreciated the learning of the
great Jain polymath Hemachandra by making him their confidant. The Gujarat
Jains continued the tradition of learning. In the 16th century, Abdul Fazl
counted Hira Vijaya Suri as one of the 21 most learned persons of the
Mughal Empire, and Akbar himself invited him to his court. The Jains
maintained their fame in visual arts. They constructed beautiful temples
in Shatrunjaya, Girnar, Ranakpur, Abu, Deogarh, Khajuraho, and other
places in northern India. The contribution of the Jains in the cultural
heritage of India has been high.
The Jain religious philosophy has not changed much in all these years. The
only development one can think of is that they have elaborated their
logical system known as the Syadvada. The original enunciation of this
doctrine given in the canonical literature is not very clear. The later
logicians have developed it into a complete system. The important point to
notice, however, is that no Jain author has tried to refute this doctrine
or to advance a rival system. There is no controversy in Jainism
comparable to the one that has been going on for centuries on the
interpretation of the Hindu Vedanta-Sutra. It is not that there have been
no differences at all among the Jains in the matter of their religion.
There have been many groups and sub-groups within the community. But when
one comes to analyze the differences among them it is found that these
relate to trifling matters of ritual, or to details of the mythological
stories. Even the great division between the Digambaras and the
Svetambaras are in relation to such petty details.
As the Jain temples and monasteries grew rich with fresh endowments, the
persons in charge of these establishments became powerful. New groups
arose within the community to protest against such domination. One such
Protestant group arose among the Digambaras in the Agra region in the 17th
century. They were known as the Terapanthis. Among the Svetambaras also
there rose a new group in the 15th century that believed that image
worship was not mentioned in the canon.
These controversies have not affected the essentials of the Jain religion.
Never the less, they have made the Jains think about their religion and
have kept Jainism alive.