Jainism At A Glance(1)

by Mrs. Sushila Singhvi, Dayton OH

The word 'Jain' is derived from the Sanskrit word 'JIN' which means 'conqueror' &endash; one who has conquered his lower nature, who has become a supreme being by absolving his soul of all karma and who has attained NIRVANA &endash; the supreme state of existence. A follower of JIN is termed Jain.

Historical Background:

Jains believe that the universe and its principles are eternal, and therefore, the principles of Jainism are also eternal. The universe undergoes cycles of time during which TEERTHANKARs, who reform and reinstate the Jain religious order, are born. In this cycle, Bhagwaan Mahaveer was the last (twenty-fourth) TEERTHANKAR. The lives of twenty-four TEERTHANKARs is given in the great religious books like 'KALPASUTRA'. The first TEERTHANKAR was Bhagwaan Rishabhanath. Bhagwaan Parshvanath, who lived about 250 years before Bhagwaan Mahaveer was the twenty-third TEERTHANKAR. Many modern historians recognize Parshvanath as a historical personality.

According to some historians, the foundation of Jainism was systematically laid down by Bhagwaan Mahaveer around 600 B.C. Thus Mahaveer was a contemporary of Gautam Buddha. The credit of introducing Jainism to the West goes, surprising, to a German scholar Herman Jacobi who translated some Jain literature and published it in the series 'Sacred Books of East' in 1884.

Life of Bhagwaan Mahaveer:

Bhagwaan Mahaveer, the last TEERTHANKAR of Jains, was a great thinker and social reformer. He was a supreme personality. He was born in 599 B.C., into the royal family of King Siddharth and Queen Trishala. After his conception, the wealth, prosperity and influence of the family increased. So his parents named him Vardhaman, the increaser of prosperity. Later, his followers named him Mahaveer, the great hero. Although a born prince, Mahaveer showed indifference towards worldly pleasures from his early age. At the age of thirty, he renounced the world, adopted the lifestyle in harmony with nature and remained engaged in meditation for full twelve years. At the age of forty-two, he became an omniscient &endash;KEVALI, all-knowing teacher. He then preached his philosophy, message of universal love and service to all living beings for the next thirty years. At the age of seventy-two, he attained salvation (NIRVANA) in 527 B.C.

Bhagwaan Mahaveer's Teachings:

Bhagwaan Mahaveer's first and foremost teaching is nonviolence and universal compassion. This teaching changed the very hearts of people at that time. The principle of nonviolence had visible effects on the life of people. It had salutary effect on man's diet. Those who came under the influence of Mahaveer's personality and teachings gave up eating meat and fish, and adopted a vegetarian diet. The principle of love and compassion was also emphasized by Mahaveer. In his last sermon, when asked by one of his disciples as to which principle was the most fundamental to his teachings, Mahaveer replied: My most important teaching is nonviolence. Do not hurt or kill any living being by thought, word or deed. Do no go to war. Do not kill animals. Do not hunt or fish. Never kill even the smallest creature. Do not step on a worm. Even the worm has a soul.

The message of nonviolence (AHIMSA) is the greatest heritage Bhagwaan Mahaveer left for mankind. Mahatma Gandhi practiced and preached the same principle of nonviolence and won political freedom of India in 1947.

The other four virtues preached by Bhagwaan Mahaveer are:

Never tell a lie

Never steal

Lead a life of chastity

Renounce the pleasures in external objects

The last two teachings are practiced by householders only partially.

The Jain Philosophy:

According to Jain philosophy, a worldly being has a soul living in a material body. Life consists of interactions between soul and its environment. These interactions involve extremely fine particles of matter called karmas and cause the cycles of birth and rebirth. The ultimate goal of each individual soul is to attain infinite perception, infinite knowledge and infinite bliss, the intrinsic attributes of a pure soul that is free from all external interactions. This ultimate goal is called NIRVANA &endash; deliverance from the bondage of karmas and attainment of everlasting peace. This is achieved by practicing physical and mental discipline, and thereby getting rid of the undesirable karma particles.

Evidently, Jainism believes in reincarnation. The soul never perishes. The body is just the cover of soul. One should not focus on bodily comforts. The proper action consists in bringing out the true qualities of soul. This is the path to liberation, which can be attained by self-discipline so that one's soul is least affected by bodily pleasure and pain. These days the world is becoming more and more materialistic. People are looking for luxuries and comforts. In spite of these, there is no real peace and happiness in our lives. According to Jainism, one can attain real peace and happiness by having a rational outlook towards life, and by leading a life of self-discipline and austerity. Meditation &endash; reflecting on one's life and one's place in one's environment, is an important means of developing self-discipline and a life of austerity.

Other cardinal principles of Jainism, taught by Bhagwaan Mahaveer, include having rational perception or outlook towards life (SAMYAK DARSHAN), rational knowledge (SAMYAK JNAAN) and rational conduct (SAMYAK CHAARITRA). There is no rational knowledge without rational perception and there is no proper conduct or action without rational knowledge. This approach helps one to develop a rational attitude towards life.

Divisions in Jainism:

All religions have divisions. For example, Christianity has been split into Catholicism and Protestantism, and Protestantism has been further divided into Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. Similarly, Jainism has two major traditions: Digambers, whose monks give up all material possessions including clothes, and Shwetambers, whose monks too give up all material possessions but they are clad in white. Shwetambers have been further divided into DERAAVAASI (temple goers who worship idols of JINs), and STHAANAKVAASI who do not worship idols. There is another group among Shwetambers called TERAAPANTHI who do not worship idols and emphasize thirteen virtues. Digambars are also divided into two or three groups.

It should be emphasized that these differences are minor and of no consequence during the present times. The doctrine followed by all Jains is identical. All Jains believe in the same basic principles and worship the twenty-four TEERTHANKARs.

Life of a Jain Monk:

Life of a Jain monk is hard. A Jain monk or nun lives away from his or her family and travels from one place to another on foot. To a Jain monk, the whole world is his family. Jain monks usually live in groups of five or six. They have very few worldly possessions. They do not keep any money. The senior monk of the group lectures every morning and many householders go to listen to his lecture. The monks eat the food offered to them by the householders. The monks study almost the whole day. They meditate two or three times each day. The monks do not go from one town to another during the rainy season. They also do not go out for food when it is raining. These practices are followed to minimize accidental killing of small insects. The monks observe several fasts in a year. Jain monks do not eat before sunrise or after sunset. This is because the number of living organisms in the atmosphere is reduced by sunlight. Many Jain householders also do not eat before sunrise or after sunset.

Jain Temples:

Temples are important for Jains who worship idols. There are thousands of Jain temples in India. Jains visit them everyday. Some temples are well-known for their architecture. For example, Delwara Temples of Mount Abu in Rajasthan are famous for their architectural beauty. Among other temples, Shatrunjaya (Palitana, Saurashtra), Sammed Shikhar (Bihar), Ranakpur (Rajasthan) have historical importance.

Jain Festivals:

The important festivals of Jains are Paryushan, Samvatsari, Deepawali, Jnaan Panchami, etc. Since austerity is emphasized in Jainism, Jains are expected to observe fasts on the days of their festivals. The fasts are very strict. Jains do not eat or drink anything except boiled water during a fast.

Paryushan consists of the last eight days (or ten days) of the Jain year. It is a celebration of spiritual awareness. It is known as the festival of fasts. Some Jains observe fast for a month, others for eight days (or ten days), and many for one to three days during Paryushan. The last day of Paryushan is known as Samvatsari. All Jains are expected to observe fast on this day. All the holy places are crowded with followers performing introspection (PRATIKRAMAN). At the end of the celebration of Paryushan, everyone asks for forgiveness from his/her relatives, friends and neighbors for any offense he/she may have committed intentionally or unintentionally. People also send cards to relatives and friends asking for their forgiveness.

Deepawali is the festival of lights. It is celebrated by all people of India. However, it has a special significance for Jains because on that day Bhagwaan Mahaveer attained salvation (NIRVANA).

Jnaan Panchami is the festival celebrated by Jains to recognize the importance of their scriptures.


India is a country of vastness and variety. There is hardly any religion that does not flourish on her soil. According to 1961 census, conducted by the Indian government, there were 366 million Hindus, 47 million Moslems, 11 million Christians, 7.8 million Sikhs, 3.3 million Buddhists and 2 million Jains in India. Although the population of Jains is very small in comparison with other religious groups, Jains form an important segment of Indian society by making a significant contribution in the fields of education, commerce and politics.

It is evident that the fundamental principles of Jainism are of great importance even today.


1) Slightly edited version of the article originally published in the Jain Study Circular, January 1980.
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The writer expresses her sincere gratitude to Dr. Surendra S. Singhvi for his help and suggestions.


Lord Mahavira, published by World Jain Mission, Aliganj, U.P., India, 1962.

Glimpses of Jainism by S. C. Diwakar, Delhi, 1964.

Jainism and Democracy by I. C. Shastri, All India S. S. Jain Conference, Delhi, 1964.

An Introduction to Jainism by A. B. Lathe, Jain Mitra Mandal, Delhi, 1964.

So Sayeth Our Lord (Teachings of Lord Mahavira), compiled by Ganesh Lalwani, Jain Bhavan, Calcutta, 1965.

Jainism and Peace by S. C. Diwakar in 'Voice of Ahimsa', Vol. XV, No. 7-8, July-August, 1965.

Lord Mahavira by Bool Chand, Delhi, 1948.

Mahavira &endash; His Life and Teachings by S. C. Law.

The Heart of Jainism by E. Stevenson.

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