Defining qualities: Jainism has an emphasis on ahimsa (nonviolence). Essentially atheistic, but believes in eternal spirit / reincarnation and worships thirthankaras (saints). In this view, the universe is eternal and uncreated, with the living (jiva) somehow attached to the unliving (ajiva), and everything possessing a living soul.

Founded when: 6th century BC

Founded by: Mahavira, while not considered the founder in the strictest sense, gave Jainism its present form.

Holy book(s): Agamas (The list of what the Agamas contain varies slightly according to sect.)

Range: About 1.5 million Jains, mostly found in India

Major Jain Holidays and Dates

Basic Jainism

Jainism developed as a separate faith in its own right during the 6th century BC as a reformist offshoot from the Hindu religion. The leader of the Jain religion was a Kshatriya (member of the ruling caste) named Mahavira who renounced wealth and power at the age of 30 to purify his consciousness through fasting and self mortification. As a matter of choice, Mahavira never again owned property, wore clothes, or lived in a house.

However, legends of Jainism claim an origin much further back for the faith itself, stretching back through 24 thirthankaras (saints) to a time before Hinduism. Mahavira is supposed to be the last reincarnation of this original thirthankara.

Jainism may be divided into three basic sects, although there are many other divisions within and aside from them:

1. Digambaras, some of who go about “sky clad” (i.e., nude). This sect is made up of men, who own nothing and collect donated food in their hands. Some Digambara Jains do not believe women can achieve nirvana.

2. Shvetambaras, who wear only white clothing. The Shvetambara sect of Jainism allows for both monks and nuns, all of whom carry bowls to collect donated food.

3. Sthanakavasis, a later sect that arose from a repudiation of idolatry that occurred as Jains began to worship images of the thirthankaras in their temples.

Dilwara Jain Temple

Dilwara Jain Temple, Mt Abu, Rajasthan (clean and cool--a treat for tired, bare feet)

Jain Virtues

As noted above, the central tenet of Jainism for all sects is one of complete ahimsa (nonviolence) toward all creatures — even insects and worms. Many Jains will strain water before drinking it. They also tend to work within a narrow band of professions, such as banking, that minimize the inadvertent killing of anything.

Ahimsa is a part of one of the Three Jewels of Jainism, which may be broken down as Right Knowledge, Right Faith, and Right Conduct (including ahimsa and tapas / asceticism).

Four additional virtues of Jainism include:

1. Do not lie.

2. Do not steal.

3. Live a life of chastity.

4. Renounce pleasure in external objects.

The last two are primarily significant for monks and other renunciates. Jain monks will even sweep the paths in front of them to avoid stepping on any small creatures or insects.

Jain Legalism

Jains maintain very high standards for behavior and interaction. But even if one can manage to be chaste or honest, it’s impossible to entirely avoid killing anything — particularly when you acknowledge (as Jains do) the value of the life in everything from plants and animals to bacteria.

Adherents of Jainism may make a sincere attempt to reduce this as much as possible, eating a strictly vegetarian diet, and reducing the sorrow they inflict on the world through their own living needs. This reflects a noble desire to walk softly in a world filled with the small and the helpless, who are easily damaged by our actions.

The Trouble with Sin

However, that also leaves the sincere Jain with a bit of a problem: It is completely impossible to live without sin.

According to the Jain belief system, this then leads to an endless series of reincarnations, since only those who achieve sinlessness and renounce all attachments can find kaivalya (salvation) and release their souls from matter (i.e., their bodies and, thus, the cycle of rebirth).

Some realize this problem and seek cleansing from their sins via confession. But since Jains don’t ultimately believe in a Supreme Being of any sort — Hindu gods being viewed as only slightly higher than humans — there is no real source of absolution or forgiveness in Jainism.

The Ultimate Goal

By way of constant work and asceticism, the ultimate goal of the Jain religion is to be free of sin, free of bad karma, free of desire and attachment to people or to the needs and comforts of the body — the matter to which the living soul is tied.

Nirvana is the term attached to release from this bondage to the “nonliving” body and its associated rebirths ... the attainment of ultimate peace and deliverance from the chains of karmic cycles.

Only One Way Out

According to Jainism, there is only one certain way to achieve salvation and nirvana: to live as a true ascetic and starve oneself to death, a practice called santhara. This is seen as the highest form of nonattachment, and although it does obvious violence to the body of the ascetic, it is least destructive to other life forms.

This was the method chosen by Jainism’s founder, Mahavira, when he is reported to have achieved nirvana during Diwali, India’s celebration of lights.

As a faith group, Jains are conscientious and seek to have a high level of integrity. Their chief philosophy, ahimsa, has inspired great individuals like Gandhi and aided in achieving Indian independence from the British Empire.

However, in spite of this, their guiding belief system itself has no particular place for compassion for the weak, love for others (since it produces attachment, thus interfering with kaivalya), or any real means to receive forgiveness or salvation outside of complete self-annihilation.

Although in modern times, Jain missionaries claim ahimsa as the fullest expression of universal love, this notion is not contained within the Agamas and is most likely borrowed from the Christian belief system.

Famous Jains

Jains tend to be well educated and successful in business. There are many famous Jains in a variety of occupations, from rulers to dancers to scientists. Here are just a handful of them:

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