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Jainism: An Introduction

History & Background

Jains were historically referred to as Sramanes. While Jainism makes no claim to a single founder, the Jain holy book Anusruti records the existence of 24 Tirthankaras (guides to salvation). At various points in history, a Tirthankara revealed the truth, which literally translates as a teacher who makes a ford,' i.e. reveals the path.

Who is referred to as 'Tirthankaras'?

Like great teachers, Tirthankaras attained the highest spiritual goal of life and then taught others how to do the same. A Tirthankara, on the other hand, is not a manifestation of God.

  • He is a common soul who is born as a human and attains the status of a Tirthankara through great self-sacrifice, tranquillity, and meditation practice. As such, the Tirthankara is not an avatar but the pure matured state of the soul.

  • Rishab was supposed to be the first-ever Tirthankara.

  • There is some historical evidence that Parshvanath, the 23rd Tirthankara, existed approximately 250 years before Mahavira.


Parshvanatha was a guru from the seventh century B.C. who founded a society based on the rejection of earthly concerns.

Parsva established four fundamental Jain principles:

  • Satya

  • Ahimsa

  • Asteya (do not steal)

  • Aparigraha (not owning things).

Mahavira added the fifth principle, brahmacharya. Panchanuvsatas are the five fundamental principles.


Vardhamana, also known as Mahavira, was the final Tirthankara, the twenty-fourth. He is regarded as the ultimate teacher of "correct" knowledge, faith, and practice.

Mahavira, who is traditionally dated between 599 and 527 B.C., was the Buddha's close companion.

Mahavira, like the Buddha, was the son of a king who abdicated his throne in order to live an unadorned life.

  • He then spent the next 12.5 years adhering to a single, strict spiritual path.

  • On the tenth day of Vaisakha, Vardhaman attained knowledge (kaivalya) at Jrumbikagrama on the banks of the river Rijupalika.

  • Mahavira became a Jain, or conqueror.

His adherents are known as Jain and Nirgranthas (liberated people). As a result, Mahavira established Jainism as its true founder.

He later converted 11 disciples (dubbed ganadharas), all of whom were originally Brahmins.

Two of these students, Indrabhuti Gautama and Sudharman, who both survived Mahavira, are credited with founding the historical Jain spiritual society, while a third, Jambu, is credited with being the last person to attain enlightenment in the modern era.

Mahavira is said to have died in Pawapuri, near Nalanda.

The Teachings of Mahavira

Mahavira's teachings are founded on the concept of the "three gems."

  • Correct Belief

  • Good Knowledge

  • Proper conduct

Emerging from these three jewels and relating to "right conduct" are the five abstinences, which are the pledges of:

  • Ahimsa (non-violence)

  • Satya (truthfulness)

  • Asteya (not stealing)

  • Aparigraha (non-attachment)

  • Brahmacharya (chaste living)

The five vows are expressed in two ways.

  • Mahavrata: the five great pledges followed by Jain monks and nuns

  • Anuvrata: the lesser pledges followed by Jain laypeople.

These are shortened versions of the major vows.

The Jain philosophy is known as shadvada (the possibility theory) and anekantaravada (everything in the universe has life).

Jain philosophy looks very similar to Samkhya shastra.

The fundamental difference between Jainism and Buddhism is that ahimsa is an ideal for the Jain, whereas, for Buddhists, it is only a quality; violence is unavoidable. For Jains, moksha was kaivalya, and for Buddhists, it is desireless.

Jain Councils

A Split Between The Two

Although the Jain society grew rapidly, it was frequently split by schisms over ideological details. The upshot of these schisms was the split of the community into the Digambara and Shvetambara.

One long-lasting conflict concerned proper religious dress, with the Shvetambara stating that monks and nuns should wear white robes and the Digambara claiming that a real monk should be nude.

This also resulted in a debate about whether a soul may obtain moksha while inhabiting a female body (which is denied by the Digambaras).

The Shvetambara-Digambara division was established as a consequence of a series of conferences convened to codify and preserve the Jain texts, which had remained as an oral tradition for a long period following Mahavira.

Stulabhadra ruled over the first Jain council, which was convened in Pataliputra.

First Council: The council reduced Jainism's original text, 14 parvas, to 12 chapters (angas).

  • Following the first council, Jainism was formally divided into Svetambars and Digambars. Svetambars accepted anga after Stulabhadra. Digambar followed Bhadrabahu and accepted his composition, Kalpasutra.

Second Council: The second Jain council met in either 453 or 456 B.C. in Vallabhiin, Saurashtra. Devavrata Kshamasramana presided over it.

  • The council further decreased the 12 angas to 11 upangas (sub chapters). This was conducted in the absence of Digambara and defined the Shvetambara canon, which is still in use.

  • The Digambara monastic group rejected the codification, precipitating an irreversible split between the two communities.

Popularity of Jainism

Mauryan Rulers

Bhadrabahu converted Chandragupta Maurya, India's first great king, to Jainism. At Sravana Belgola, he did Sallekhna (soul) vrata.

Smprapti, a later Maurya, was also a Jain and was known as Jain Ashoka'.

Chedi Dynasty

Kharvela, the most powerful king of the Chedi dynasty (Kalinga), was a Digambara Jain. He held the Jain monks' council at Kumariparvata in 161 B.C. to foster peace between the two groups.

Additionally, he established an order of Jain monks known as yapanacharyas to promote unity.

Jainism moved westward during this era to Ujjain, where it appears to have had royal sponsorship. Later in the first century B.C., a monk named Kalakacharya murdered King Gardabhilla of Ujjain and planned for his replacement by the Shahi rulers, according to legend (likely Scythian or Persian origin).

During the Gupta dynasty (320-600 A.D.), the majority of the Jain community relocated to central and western India, where it became stronger than in its original Gangetic basin home.

Early Mediaeval Period

The early mediaeval period saw the rapid rise of Digambara Jainism.

The Digambaras achieved importance in Karnataka and neighbouring Tamil Nadu during the early mediaeval period, gaining the patronage of prominent kings from three major dynasties:

  • the Gangas in Karnataka (3rd-11th century)

  • the Rashtrakutas in Karnataka (8th-12th century),

  • the Hoysalas in Karnataka (11th-14th century).

The Ganga commander Chamundaraya directed the construction of a massive statue of Bahubali (also known as Gommateshvara, the son of Rishabhanatha, the first Tirthankara) at Shravana Belgola in the tenth century.

Art & Poetry

Digambara authors also created numerous philosophical treatises, commentaries, and songs in Prakrit, Kannada, and Sanskrit, frequently with royal support. With the help of Rashtrakuta King Amoghavarsha I, Jinasena authored Sanskrit intellectual treatises and poetry.

Amoghavarsha, a Kannada and Sanskrit poet, resigned from his kingdom and reportedly became a student of Jinasena in the early ninth century.

While Mahavira rejected caste claims, a formalised caste structure developed gradually among the Digambara laity in the south.

In his Adipurana, Jinasena presents and legalises this order, a biography of the Tirthankara Rishabhanatha and his two sons, Bahubali and Bharata.

However, the system differed from the Hindu system in that the Kshatriyas were given authority over brahmans due to their link to a moral rather than a ritual source of purity. Additionally, unlike other theologians, Jinasena did not view the caste system as an essential component of the world.

Among the Digambaras, a new practice called bhattaraka developed, in which a cleric receives monk initiation but, rather than living as a naked ascetic wanderer, becomes an orange-robed governor and guardian of sacred places and temples.

Amoghavarsha, the most beneficent of Rastrakutas, was Jainism's final major patron. He composed Ratnamalika and Kavirajamarga, which was Kannada literature's first kavya.

The Contribution of Jainism

The Jains developed the construction of cave temples. They were associated with Indragiri and Chandragiri (Sravana Belgola), Badami cave temples, Kandagiri, and Kumaragiri in Orissa, Sittamavasal cave temples in Tamil Nadu, and Vairavkonda cave temples in Andhra.

They invented massive sculptures.

The earliest monolithic statue was discovered in Bihar at Sultanganj. It is from Parsvanath.

At Sravanbelgola, Prime Minister Chamudaraya of the Kadamba dynasty placed the huge Gomateshwar statue of Bahubali. Aristanemi sculpted it. Even today, Mahamastakavishek is done every 12 years here.

Jain temples are referred to as basadis. Bhimavan of the Solanki dynasty built the famed Dilwara temple on Mt. Abu.

Jain literature

The entire Jain literature was written in Prakrit only.

Ardhamagadi was Mahavira's original language. The Jains were instrumental in the development of the local languages, including Kanarasi (forerunner of Kannada) and Sauraseni (Gujarat).

Adipurana is a work by Gunabhadra and Jainasena Suri that details the lives and teachings of the Tirthankara.


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