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A Brief History of Jainism

    A brief definition : Jainism defined as a human centred religion having, as its goal, the liberation of humans. Therefore, it is perhaps trashiest rather than atheistic. The focus is on the ethics of the individual, and it represents a spiritual denial of the world. In its totality, it possesses all the typical characteristics of an Indian religion, viz. the doctrine of karma, rebirth and moksha. When we look at the the comprehensive history of Jainism it is evident that even the concepts of hell and a world of men and gods, the idea of regular cycles of world history and the periodic appearance of harbingers of liberation reveal its proximity to Buddhism and Hinduism.

    Shvetambaras and Digambaras : The greater austerity and asceticism of Mahavira as compared to Parsva led very soon to the development of two schools (of monks) who until today continue to shape the development and histoy of Jainism. These Shvetambaras (white-clad) are named after the colour of the robes of the order they belong to, and the Digambaras (sky-clad) who insist on total nudity.

    Ajivikas : A disciple of Mahavira, Maskarin Gosala later rejected Mahavira’s doctrine and, instead, propagated an absolute fatalism according to which all human effort to achieve liberation was futile; each living being had to undergo a cycle of 84,00,000 aeons following which he would be liberated irrespective of any effort on his part.

    Maskarin Gosala is of interest because he rejected the doctrine of karma, which otherwise universally accepted in India. Buddha, who did not mention Mahavira, described Maskarin Gosala as his most dangerous rival; he perceived the doctrine of ‘fatality’ as simply criminal. Overall, the Ajivikas forms a brief episode in the religious history of India.

    Canon : Although a first Jain, canon codified as late as 3rd or 4th century BC, it is possible that certain passages are older and are, in fact, the reproduction of Mahavira’s original teachings. Mahavira’s disciple, Sudharma is supposed to be the compiler of these sacred texts. He dictated the texts to his disciple Jambu Swami in response to the questions asked by the latter. Numbers and classification are characteristic of Mahavira’s ideas; thus there are three kinds of consciousness, five kinds of right consciousness, seven principles or categories, five kinds of beings, six colours or shades, eight kinds of karmic matter etc. The sermons and the earliest texts were written in Ardha-Magdhi, the language of the common people and so comprehensible to all those living in the region.

    Bhadrabahu and the expansion of Jainism to the south : In Europe, people learnt of the Jains through the soldiers of Alexander the Great who spoke in great astonishment of the ‘Gymnosophoi’ (the naked philosophers).

    A few years later, apparently inspired by Alexander the Great, Chandragupta founded the first great empire on Indian soil, the Mauryan Empire. His teacher and spiritual mentor was Bhadrabahu who, later, is supposed to have influenced the king into renouncing his throne and into joining him in death through Self-Starvation – Sallekhana at Shravanabelgola. However this could, be a legend since the Jains tend to claim famous kings as the followers of their religion.

    However, one cannot deny the historical significance of Bhadrabahu in the history of Jainism. It is under his leadership that the first council of Jains in Pataliputra held at the end of the 4th century BC. It is here that the canon was first compiled. When a terrible famine stuck Magadha, Bhadrabahu is supposed to have led the migration of the community to the south, thus saving the Jains from destruction. Since then Mysore has been important centre for development of the religion. It is from this time onwards that the Shvetambaras (white-clad) and the Digambaras (sky-clad) truly separate from one another. The reason for the separation is that, since both sections now develop in isolation from one another, each set adheres more rigidly to its respective tradition. The Deccan remained the country of the Digambaras, even after Islam expelled them from the north. Until the present day, the colossal Jain statues in the south, the most famous of these being that of Shravana Belgola (983 AD) continue to attract pilgrims and visitors in equal numbers.

    The spread of Jainism to eastern and western India : In Orissa, Jainism is supposed to have been popular as early as the 2nd century BC. This is borne out by the inscriptions of King Kharavela of Kalinga (168-153 BC) in Udayagiri.

    The most important area for Jainism came to be the western region of India, particularly Gujarat which is an important aspect in the history of Jainism in this part of India. The holy mountains Girnar and Shatrunjaya are in this area. It is here, in Vallabhi, that the second great council summoned around 500 AD. At this council the Shvetambaras canon, the Agama, acquired its definite and final form. The canon divided into eleven angas (the twelfth one having been lost) and twelve Upangas and it includes legends, texts on the doctrine of knowledge, the cosmological representation and teaching on right conduct. Due to their formal structure, these texts often appear unreadable to the Western mindset. They are, however, rich in narrative tradition and the artistic use of meter.

    Deepening of the schism between the Shvetambaras and Digambaras : The compilation of the canon and the enshrining of the angas in the sacred texts further deepened the schism between the two sects since the canon is not important for the Digambaras who stress the authority of the head of their order.

    A further history of the Digambaras : In the first half of the first millennium, the Digambaras undoubtedly had a vital role to play in the history of Jainism since they divided into five gacchas (dioceses). Increasingly, however, they came to lose their influence in the north. To begin with, Buddhism in the land of their origin, Magadha, displaced them. Here the Buddhists erected so many Vihara (monasteries) that the country itself named after this phenomenon as Bihar. Consequently, Jains driven out of the northeastern region; finally, it was the Islamic conquest of the north in the 13th century that arrested the spread of the ‘nude’ Jains in this area. The believers of Islam could not tolerate nudity, for religious reasons.
    In the south, Hindu revivalism brought great pressure to bear on the Jain community from the outset of the medieval period. For a short spell, the Pallava and Chola kings destroyed the Jain temples. For a while, Jain followed Shaivite ritual by the offering of betel and ash. In the face of the increasing power of the Hindus, and for the sake of their own survival, more and more Hindu gods were included in the Jain texts and temples. Forced as well as voluntary conversions in the course of centuries greatly reduced their numbers. Ultimately, this led to their becoming an insignificant minority.

    Further details on the history of the Shvetambaras : In contrast with the plight of the Digambaras, the 7th and 8th centuries marked the heyday of the ‘white-clad’ in the history of Jainism. They also began to organise themselves into dioceses increasingly. Gujarat became the chief centre for the development of the Jains, as they repeatedly succeeded in securing the patronage of powerful rulers of this region. Among these, the greatest patrons were perhaps the Chalukya (Solanki) kings who were themselves founders of temples. They also often employed Jains as ministers. Thus, it was possible for Vimala Shah, a minister of Bhima I (1022-1061) to construct the temple, named after him in Mt. Abu.

    History of Jainism in Gujarat and Rajasthan: The Jains of Gujarat and Rajasthan reached their zenith during the 11th and 12th centuries the greatest and most famous writer of the Jains, Hemachandra lived at this time and was extremely prolific. He wrote on the doctrine of liberation, on the art of governance from the Jain perspective, an epic on the Chalukya dynasty, grammar, and a lot more. To his contemporaries he appeared gifted with supernatural and magical abilities: for instance, he is supposed to have prophesied to his ruler that the Jain tutelary goddesses would safeguard the country against invasion. This also happened: the enemy was marching by night and the king’s necklace caught in a tree, thus strangling him to death.

    Eventually King Kumarapala (1143-72 AD) allowed himself to be converted to Jainism by Hemachandra. He transformed his empire into a Jain model state. He issued orders on the prohibition of killing and the Brahmans had to replace their animal sacrifices with offerings of grain. Hemachandra showed a natural aptitude for resolving any conflict arising between kingly duties and religious ones. He himself has described one such incident in the Prabandhakosha:

    A short time after Kumarapala had prohibited the killing of living beings, the moon lit half of the month of Ashvina approached. In connection with this, the priests of Kanteshvari and the other goddesses informed the king. Lord, on the seventh day, the King must according to tradition and custom of the ancestors, offer the goddesses seven hundred goats and seven buffaloes, on the eighth day eight hundred goats and eight buffaloes, on the ninth day again nine hundred goats and nine buffaloes.

    On the advice of Hemachandra, the king promised to offer the animals as sacrifice. The temple guarded by reliable Rajputs herded the animals in at night. In the morning, the temple opened and at the sight of the peacefully resting animals, the king declared to the priests: Priests, I offered these animals to the goddesses. Had the goddesses derived pleasure from this offering, they would have devoured the animals. They, however, have not devoured them. Therefore, the goddesses do not enjoy meat, you however do. Hence be quiet, I will not permit the killing of living beings. The priests hung their heads, the king, however, made an offering of grain, worth the same amount as the goats, to the goddesses.

    The history of the Shvetambaras had revolutionary change of fortune from this time on and in an important event in the history of Jainism. Two brothers, Tejapala and Vastupala, who were ministers under the Vaghela dynasty, undertook the construction of innumerable shrines including that of the Luna Vasahi temple at Mt. Abu. In the history of the art of India, they number among the greatest builders of all time. The Muslim threat, however, resulted in setbacks: secret vaults housed libraries to secure these, deception buildings, having an altogether different function were erected over them.

    At the same time, the Jains in western India also began to conform more and more to the majority Hindu community. They accepted the Hindu gods, and parts of the rituals, services of Hindu pujari. They benefited from the revenues and were thus, won over to the Jain cause; this kind of adaptation by the Jains ensured their survival.

    Again, in the 15th century, the Jains enjoyed the massive support and patronage of the Sisodia dynasty in Mewar. This is another important milestone in the history of Jainism in Rajasthan region. The temples of Ranakpur justify this. From the time of Akbar, who known for his religious tolerance, the Muslims too gave up their attitude of hostility towards the Jains. As a result, the Jains have not suffered any religious persecution at the hands of the Muslims after the 16th century. The state forbade the killing of animals in that area and protected their holy shrines.

    The Sthanakavasi : However, friendly relations between the Muslims and the Jains also resulted in the former influencing the latter, the iconoclasm of the Muslims led to the rise of non-idolatrous sects. In the middle of the 17th century a reformist order was founded called Sthanakavasi. The Sthanakavasis do not use idols or worship in temples; they have done away with pilgrimage and they strive for greater discipline and morality. In terms of numbers, the size of their following today is almost equal to that of the Digambaras and Shvetambaras. Consequently, they can now be termed as the third church of the Jains.

    British Colonial rule ushered in a period of general prosperity. The traditionally affluent Jain merchant class also benefited from this state of affairs. In spite of this, until the beginning of this century there has been a steady decline in the number of Jains. One reason for this is the basic Hindu influence on the lay followers – many of the views, rituals and festivals of the Hindus have been appropriated by the Jains, and partly the same gods are Worshipped, with that the boundaries between the two religions have tended to become blurred According to the 1921 census there were only 1.18 million Jains.

    British also contributed immensly in documenting the history of Janism through the studies conducted by different foreign scholars and cleared many mis-conceptions that was prevelant in the western world about the origin of Jainism.

    Renaissance : As is the case with the Hindus, there has been a renaissance among the Jain community since the late I9th century. To begin with, attempt were made to attract the common masses by either writing in or translating many of the Jain scriptures into the vernacular Gujarati or Hindi. The first Jain literature conference held around the same time.

    At the turn of the century, the various Jain’s began, for the first time, to organise themselves under a centralised headquarters: in 1893, the Digambaras began with their headquarters in Khurai in central India. The Shvetambaras followed suit in 1903 with their headquarters in Bombay and. finally, the Sthanakavasi in Ajmer in 1906. This facilitated for the first time the founding of Jain schools and institutes, the publishing of their own series of books and literature and the establishment of social institutions such as homes for widows or orphanages.

    This example followed on a small scale by private enterprise that, for example, took up the cause of the protection of animals or the women’s issues among the Jains. All this led to an enormous spiritual resurgence as well as to an expanded growth and the end to these activities is nowhere in sight yet.

    Article Source : Jainism & The Temples of Mount Abu And Ranakpur
    Publisher : Gyan Gaurav Publishers. C-34, Sir Pratap Colony, Airport Road, Jodhpur
    Tele : 91 2912515861, 9414127863, Editor: Mr. Dilip Surana
    Layout & Graphics : Antesh Choudhary
    Text : Lothar Clermont, Photos: Thomas Dix,
    Printer : First Printed 1998, Reprinted 2006 by Thomson Press, New Delhi
    Volume: 96 pages, Size: 242 x 312 mm

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