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Jainism is an ancient religion, which originates from Eastern India. Its advent in the 6th century BC was expected as many people were beginning to oppose the hierarchical organization and formalized rituals of Hinduism, the dominant religion in India. Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions. Much of its early history is not known, or has come down to us in a form in which historical fact is difficult to distinguish from miraculous stories. However we do know that this ancient religion was passed on to us through the high spiritual genius of one of the greatest religious teachers of all time, Mahavira. We must be clear, from the start, that Mahavira was not the founder of Jainism. What he did was to bring together in a systematic form the beliefs and philosophy of his predecessors, preach them widely throughout his home country, and lay the foundations of an organized Jain ‘church’ with monks and nuns and lay people following his teachings. The social order which he created has endured to the present day.
Jainism is a way of thinking and living based on logic and science. Jainism teaches that liberation of the soul (jiva) and a life of spiritual freedom can be achieved through the way a person leads his or her life, i.e. in selflessness and harmlessness and with a concern for our living environment. The development of popular personal religious movements in Hinduism with a warm devotion to a god led many away from the religion of Mahavira. The Hindu followers of both Vishnu and Siva increased in numbers and the contest between the newly revived Hindu cults and the Jains became strong, then bitter and finally in some cases led to violence against the Jains. Although we must not overstress this (for Hinduism and Jainism have coexisted happily nearly always), Jainism in south India did suffer a decline from which it never recovered, at least to its earlier strength. Dedicated and faithful Jains continued to practice their religion with enthusiasm, as they do today, but their numbers were fewer.
The name Jainism derives from Jina, meaning ‘victor’ or ‘conqueror’ over the self. Jinas are born human beings who have achieved a sense of liberation and attained what are perceived to be the true characteristics of the soul – infinite faith, infinite knowledge, perfect conduct, infinite bliss and eternity – by their own efforts, through meditation and self-realisation. They are, in effect, enlightened teachers and are also called tirthankaras. There are twenty-four tirthankaras and Jains revere and worship them as exemplary persons or Gods. Tirthankaras provide guidance to Jains on how to attain spiritual liberation by self-effort, an aspiration of all Jains. When Jains say that Jainism is a religion preached by the Jinas, they mean Jainism expresses the eternal truths of life and spirituality taught by pure souls who are victors of themselves, free of ego and base emotions, with perfect knowledge and understanding.
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. 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. However 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. From the early fourth century A.D. until around 600 A.D. northern India, down as far as modern Bombay, was under the control of the emperors of the Gupta dynasty. Doubtless the unified control facilitated contacts across India. In the Gupta period Gujarat seems to have become the most important center of Jainism in India if we are to judge from the fact that the great council, when the holy scriptures were finally put into writing around 460 A.D., was held at Valabhi in Gujarat. Some sixty or seventy years later Jain scriptures were read at a ceremony of mourning for the death of the king’s son even though the king he was not a Jain. Apart from Gujarat, Jainism was well established in many parts of India by the Gupta period: it was certainly already present in Rajasthan by then.
In south India, from the fifth century onwards for some seven hundred years, Jains also received the patronage of royalty and many kings favored them in one way or another. Great poets and writers flourished. Under royal patronage Jinasena wrote a great unfinished epic which was completed by his pupil Gunabhadra in the year 897 A.D. This long work includes much moral teaching on the duties of a Jain and is much respected by the Digambara scholars. In the south one of the great centers of Jainism was Sravana Belgola, noted for its colossal Jain image, still an important center of pilgrimage today and in earlier times a center for Jain influence across the southern regions. Jainism flourished during this period with large numbers of adherents in all classes of society. Finally, it had even crossed the geographical borders of India and spread out smoothly through great extent in the whole world with its intrinsic message that is a core belief to conquer all temptations and inner enemies such as anger, greed and pride by practicing non-attachment with the material world and by living a peacefully disciplined lifestyle.