Jainism: India's Lesser-Known Religion (with video)
Founded in ancient spiritual principles predating the Indo-Aryan culture of India, Jainism was formed between the ninth and sixth centuries BCE as a protest against Hinduism and the Indian caste system which segregates the people of India by lineage and clan.
With an oral tradition dating back at least 5000 years, some historians have speculated that Jainism may have its roots in much earlier times, prior to the Indo-Aryan migration into India.
Although Jainism only has about six million adherents and has until recently been relatively unknown outside of India, it currently has successful growing immigrant communities in North America, Western Europe, the Far East, Australia, and elsewhere.
Prescribing a path of non-violence towards all living beings, Jainism is said to have been a great influence on Mohandas Gandhi. Sharing ideas found in Hinduism, the idea of samsara, the wheel of birth, death and rebirth, is the locus of the gradual process whereby the self learns to remove itself from bondage to lower forms of the material world until nothing remains except the purity of the jiva, an individual’s soul.
Samsara is related to karma, the moral law of cause and effect that drives the wheel of birth, death and rebirth. Although this notion is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is actual physical matter in Jainism that coats or adheres to the jiva. Jainism’s goal is to remove this matter, thus purifying the jiva and earning for the adherent the same title that Mahavira, Jain's founder, held, that of Jina.
Mahavira (“the Great Hero”) is considered the key historical figure for Jainism. Living about the same time as the Buddha, in the sixth century BCE, Mahavira is considered the last of twenty-four “teachers”—Tirthankaras—of the current cosmic cycle.
According to this religious tradition, the universe constantly cycles through periods of progress and decline, with the Tirthankaras appearing to create religion to help people deal with the downward, degenerative aspect of the cycle. At about the age of 42, Mahavira experienced liberation, whereby he was free from bondage to the mundane world, no longer bothered by suffering or pain. He was in complete control of his experience; a conqueror, a Jina. Thus, Jainism draws its name from the experience of conquering the mundane.
Three related beliefs help the Jain to become a Jina. Firstly, ahimsa is the principle of non-violence. Although a similar principle can be found in many religions, Jainism adheres to this belief to what many consider an extreme. For example, Jains believe that as people commonly walk, violence is done to insects beneath their feet or in the soil, so Jains take care when walking so as to injure as few of these lifeforms as possible. Likewise, when drinking water, many lifeforms are ingested and therefore killed, so water is often strained to remove as many of these lifeforms as possible. The ultimate goal is to avoid violence in all forms, thus eliminating karma and making liberation easier. Jains, of course, are strict vegetarians. Additionally, Jains also apply ahimsa to thoughts and language, believing that language can be violent, and therefore, cause negative karma.
The second key belief in Jainism is “non-attachment.” Jains are prescribed to live with the minimum life requirements and not become attached to material possessions. To follow this religious path, they must adopt the believe that as long as people are attached to things, those things exert a power over them. When those things are let go, when an aura of “non-acquisitiveness” is embodied, then there is movement toward peace. (This belief makes Jainism attractive to many of the modern eco-conscious.)
The third key belief in Jainism is anekantwad, which means “relativity.” The well-known parable of blind people describing an elephant is often used as an instructive tool here. Each blind person feels a portion of the elephant—the trunk, the ear, the leg—and describes the elephant based on that limited, relative, perception. Jains meditate on this story, seeking to avoid judgmentalism and remain open to seeing an issue from many perspectives.
While Jainism can be an ascetic path, with monks and nuns following a very rigid asceticism, ordinary people can also purify and perfect themselves by controlling the mind and its passions. Thus Jainism is a religion of strict ethics and self-control leading to a purification of the Self.
An ancient Jain temple
images via Wikipedia and www.jainism.org
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