Jainism: a religion based on ethics
One of the world's main religions, Jainism is thought to have originated in the Indus Valley civilisation and follows elements of the Shramana tradition of asceticism, self-denial and self-control to achieve a higher level of spirituality. Jainism is regarded as a pre-Buddhist religion, the two religions are linked by their emphasis on karma, the idea that good deeds in one life lead to a better existence in the next. The ultimate objective of Jainism is the liberation of the soul.
Origins of Shramana
Jainism is founded on an old Indian religious philosophy called Shramana, which emerged as an offshoot of the Vedic religion. Several Shramana schools are known to have existed in India before the 6th century B.C. Shramana coexisted with, but was distinct from, Vedic Hinduism. It follows the teachings and rituals of the Vedas, the earliest texts of the Vedic religion. Shramana, meaning 'seeker', is a tradition that started around 800-600 BC, when a new philosophical group that followed a more rigorous path to spiritual liberty rejected the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmins (priests of the Vedic Hindu caste system).
Shramana promoted spiritual concepts that were prevalent in all major Indian religions, including Sansara, the cycle of birth and death, and Moksha, liberation from this cycle. To achieve spiritual liberation, Shramana renounced conjugal and family life and embarked on the path of asceticism (a path of strict self-discipline and abstinence from all indulgences). The Shramana tradition (or religious and moral practices) later gave birth to the various schools of Hinduism, Yoga, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Origins of Jainism
Jainism is considered an independent pre-Buddhist religion that began around 700 B.C., although its origins are disputed. Some scholars argue that Jainism has its roots in the Indus Valley civilization and reflects the spirituality of indigenous peoples before the Indo-Aryan migration to India.
Some seals from the Indus Valley civilization recall the first Jain rishabas as visual representations of Vishnu. Many artifacts depict Jain symbols, including a standing nude male figure, an image of a serpent's head, and the bull symbol of Vrshabadeva. Other scholars, however, believe that the Shramana tradition differed from the Indo-Aryan religious practices of the historical Vedic religions.
Jain philosophy is based on a belief in the independent existence of soul and matter, a denial of a Creator and Almighty God combined with a belief in an eternal universe, and a commitment to nonviolence, morality, and ethics. The ultimate goal of a Jaina's life is to achieve liberation of the soul.
The omnipresence of karma is one of the main features of Jainism. Karma is the collection of a person's actions in this life and past lives that determine their fate in future existences. The Sanskrit word "karma" means act, word or deed. It is based on the spiritual concept of cause and effect, where individual actions affect individual results. Good intentions and good deeds create good karma and future happiness; bad intentions and bad deeds create bad karma and future suffering. Karma is the concept linked to rebirth, or the idea that death is the starting point for a new existence. This idea is also found in other Asian religions, including Buddhism.
The Jain motto is Parasparopagraho Jivanam, which means "the function of the soul is to help one another. This concept is related to the idea of good deeds and is embedded in the basic principles of Jainism: ahimsa, non-violence; anekantavada, non-absolutism; and aparigraha, non-attachment or non-attachment. The laity take five basic vows, which include ahimsa and aparigraha, as well as satya, not to lie; asteya, not to steal; and brahmacharya, chastity. Jain monks and nuns absolutely abide by these vows, and Jainism can be classified as a tradition of asceticism and shramana self-discipline.
Followers of Jainism
Most Jains live in India and have between 4 and 6 million practitioners. The largest Jain populations outside India are in the United States, with over 79 000 followers; Kenya, with about 69 000 followers; the United Kingdom, with about 17 000 followers; and Canada, with about 12 000 followers. Other countries with large Jain communities include Tanzania, Nepal, Uganda, Burma, Malaysia, South Africa, Fiji, Australia and Japan.
Modern Jainism is divided into two main schools, or sects, known as Digambara and Svetambara. Svetambara, meaning "dressed in white," describes the practice of ascetic followers wearing white robes, while the "sky-covered" monks of Digambara wear no clothes, but they disagree.
The most important religious festival in Jainism is Mahavira Jayanti, which celebrates the birth of Mahavira, the 24th and last tirthankara, or guru god. Other important holidays include Diwali, which marks the liberation of the soul of Nirvana, or Mahavira, and the sacred event of Parushana, also known as Dasrakshana, which is the 8-10 day period in August or September devoted to fasting, prayer and meditation.
Jainism is a unique and multifaceted religion that offers valuable lessons for all people. It calls for non-violence, morality and ethics, and a renunciation of attachment to material goods and pleasures. These principles can help create a more peaceful and harmonious world.