The Early Centuries of Jainism
Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world, so old that we cannot with certainty date its beginnings. Jain tradition tells that Mahavira twenty-forth and last of the Tirthankara or Prophets of the current cycle of the time. Some of the stories about them are truly amazing and non- Jains are rarely convinced. They are credited with enormously long spans of life and gigantic size and various other miraculous attributes. Leaving aside the stories (which are valuable if regarded as edifying stories), we have some historical details about some of them. The first Tirthankara was Rsabha and there are some accounts in non-Jain records which seem to fit in with the broad details of Jain tradition. He is recorded as a king of some ability who gave up his throne to become a wandering ascetic, going around naked (a symbol of total renunciation of worldly possessions) and frequently scorned or attacked by the ignorant. After Rsabha, Jain tradition gives us the names and some details if the next twenty Tirthankara. They were all men except perhaps the nineteenth, Malli, who is said to have been a woman (though this is not accepted by all Jains.) The twenty- second, Neminatha or Aristanemi (both names are found) is said to have been a relative and contemporary of the Hindu God hero Krishna.
With the twenty-third Tirthankara, Parsva, modern scholars fins themselves on stronger ground. He is recorded as the son of the king of Varanasi (Benaras), the greatest holy city in India. He renounced the worlds at the age of thirty and after a fairly brief period of meditation and austerity he attained enlightenment. Thereafter he preached his message and gathered followers around him. He died, reputedly at the age of 100, passing to his final abode of bliss as a liberated soul. This was about 250 years before the time of Mahavira: Mahavira's parents were followers of the religion of Parsva. He taught four of the five great moral precepts of Jainism, non-violence, truthfulness, non- stealing and non-acquisitiveness, omitting, for reasons which have been disputed, the vow of sexual restraint which was introduced or reintroduced by Mahavira. So with Parsva the Jain religion emerges clearly into the light of history, through darkness falls again in the period between the attainment of moksa or liberation by Parsva in the Parasanatha Hills (in Bihar) around 780 B.C.
We have looked at Mahavira's life in the first chapter. A great many people were impressed by Mahavira's personality and his teachings so that when his life on earth ended he left behind a large number of people (reputed to be as many as a third of a million) who were trying in various ways, in the vocation of Monk (sadhu) or nun (sadhvi) or as lay men (shravaka) and women (shravika), to follow the principles of Jainism. In his lifetime Mahavira appointed eleven leaders (ganadhara)among his followers. Only two of them, Indrabhuti Gautama and Sudharman. were alive at the time of Mahavira's moksa and it was to Sudharman that the task fell of preserving and passing on the teachings of their master, and leading the community, when Mahavira was no longer with them. The order of nuns was headed by Chandana. She had been placed in this position by Mahavira: nuns have always had a important place in Jainism and it is said that the nuns under Chandana outnumbered the Jain monks of the time by more than two to one.
Mahavira and his early followers lived in north-eastern part of India, mainly in ancient kingdom of Magadh (in modern Bihar). Jain missionaries visited Kashmir and even Nepal but it was not until several centuries after Mahavira that Gujarat and the western part of India became the major center of Jainism as it is today. How ever Jainism spread southwards from Magadha into the kingdom of Kalinga (in modern Orissa) whose ruler became a convert. This king, Kharavela, lived in the second or third B.C. We learn from an inscription that he was a pious Jain and provided for monks but he appears to not to have seen military expeditions as incompatible with his religion. This area became an important center of Jainism in the earlier centuries, though we must not forget that we are speaking several hundred years after Mahavira. Much in Indian history of this period is not yet completely clear to historians and the spread of Jainism has to be priced together from scattered, and sometimes cryptic, references. However, for the first centuries it is clear that the centers of this religion were in eastern India. There seem to have been Jains in Bengal from very early times.
The teachings of Jainism made a considerable impact amongst all classes of society. There is even a story that the great emperor Chandragupta Maurya, around 300 B.C., became a Jain monk at the end of his life. Chandragupta's grandson, Asoka, ruled over an empire which included all the sub-continent except the extreme south. As his capital was in the region of Magadha he was doubtless familiar with the Jains and they are mentioned in his records (though Asoka himself was a Buddhist). However, one of Asoka's grandsons was certainly a Jain and he did a lot to further the progress of his faith.
In a religion as ancient as Jainism it is natural that interesting controversies about details of the faith emerge. Whilst Jains are united on the fundamental questions, within that unity many different sects and schools of thought coexist in a tolerant manner. These may be the followers of one revered teacher or a group placing emphasis on certain particular teachings. The important division is between the Svetambara and the Digambara sections. 'Svetambara' means 'dressed in white' and 'Digambara' means 'dressed in the sky', a reference to the fact that Digambara monks renounce all worldly possessions, including clothes, whilst the monks of the Svetambara section wear two pieces of white cloth. The Svetambara (who form probably around two-thirds of all Jains, and the very large majority of those in the United Kingdom) are found in particular in Gujarat and the neighboring areas of western India. The Digambara are strongest in south India. The origins of the split are not clear. One account says that, probably some three hundred years B.C., there was a terrible famine in Bihar. The crops failed, people were dying of starvation and this went on for twelve years. Some of the Jain monks, led by Bhadrabahu, moved southwards away from the famine area. It is said that the monks who left were more rigorous in certain ways than those who stayed behind and when, after the famine was over, they came back it was found that the two groups had drifted apart in some ways. In particular, according to this account, before this time all Jain monks went naked but those who stayed in the north had now taken to wearing a single piece of cloth to cover themselves. Other accounts place the division much later, possibly as late as the second century A.D. Quite probably it was not a sudden split but a slow process. At any rate, to this day the Svetambara and the Digambara differ on certain minor matters, not only the clothing of monks but also such questions as whether a woman can achieve moksa (the Digambara say not until she is reborn as a man), whether Mahavira was married before he gave up the world, and some other points.
In these early centuries, of course, reading and writing were not as common as they are today, and religious teachings (and indeed all other literature, history, stories and songs) were preserved in the memory of people. Mahavira's closest followers must have committed to memory the things which he said in his preachments and after he left them the responsibility of passing on the teachings fell on the new leader of the community, Sudharman, whom we have mentioned above. For nearly two centuries the collected teachings were handed down by word of mouth. It seems wonderful to us today that a man could retain in his memory the fourteen Purva texts, each of them quite a lengthy work, which made up the basic part of the sacred literature of the Jains. But the Jain monks of those early centuries lived a much simpler life than we do today, without the distractions of our complicated modern civilization. Moreover they doubtless did train their memories for the repetition of long texts. Even so it appears that memories were not infallible and only ten of the fourteen Purva texts were still known 200 years after Mahavira. They have now all been lost, though much of their teaching (which was said to go back in part to the time of Parsva) was preserved in other texts, like the twelve Anga texts, eleven of which survive to this day.
The last man who knew all the scriptures by heart was Bhadrabahu and he died 170 years after Mahavira. About that time, around 360 B.C., the Jains were concerned that the memory of the holy scriptures might get lost. It was a difficult time in parts of India with a long famine and the death or dispersal of many monks. Hence a great conference of monks was held at Pataliputra (now called Patna, in Bihar) when the contents of the sacred texts (those which had not been lost) were put in order. Not all Jains believe today that the original scriptures have survived. The Digambara in general feel that the original texts eventually disappeared from knowledge over a fairly long period of time. Some modern scholars believe that some re-editing of the texts must have taken place so that they are not exactly in the original form. Many centuries after the conference at Pataliputra another conference was held at Valabhi, around 460 A.D. when all the sacred scriptures were finally written down, the twelve Anga texts representing the oldest section, with a further thirty-four works which are recognize as rather later in time. There is no doubt that, in spite of some differences of opinion about it, the Jains still have today a collection of ancient religious literature which contains the noble teaching of Mahavira as it was followed two thousand and more years ago. For a very long time these scriptures were studied only by monks and learned men. The language in which they were compiled, called Ardhamagadhi, was once the language of ordinary people in Magadha so that the teachings of Mahavira (who preached in this language) could be understood by them. But Ardhamagadhi died out as a spoken language and only scholars could understood it (though most Jains today know at least some of the ancient prayers in the beautiful and solemn ancient tongue). In recent years, however, many of the Jain writings have been translated into modern Indian languages, as well as into English and other European languages, so that with little trouble we can obtain and read them today.
We have been talking about matters which cover many, many centuries of time. Generation after generation passed, of people much like ourselves, even though they lived two thousand and more years ago. They had the same hopes and fears, the same joys and sorrows. And like Jains everywhere today they had the teachings of Mahavira to guide and support them.