Jaina comes from the word – jina – means conqueror.

Jain teachers are known as Tirthankaras. One who attains moksa is referred to as a siddha, but only a siddha who establishes or revitalizes Jainism – one who establishes a tirtha across the river of human misery – is called a tirthankara. In Jainism, a Tirthankara is a human being who achieves moksa through asceticism and who then becomes a role-model and teacher for those seeking spiritual guidance.

Jaina tradition identifies Rishabha (also known as Adinath) as the first tirthankar. Parshavnath was 23rd Tirthankara. His emblem was ‘snake’ and his main teachings were 4 

  • non-injury, 
  • non-lying, 
  • non- stealing,
  •  non-possession of property

The 24th and last Tirthankar is Mahavira, who lived from 599 to 527 BCE. He added – ‘Celibacy’ to the 4 existing principles given by Parshavnath. Earlier 22 Tirthankars are considered to be mythical while evidence of only last two has been ascertained.

Thus, Jainas believe that to attain enlightenment and ultimately liberation from all karmic bonding, one must practice the following ethical principles not only in thought, but also in words/speech and action –

  • Ahimsa or Non-injury
  • Satya or Non-lying
  • Asteya or Non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya
  • Aparigraha (Non-possession, Non-materialism)

The teachings of the Tirthankaras before Mahavira are known as Purva. There were total 14 Purvas which were memorized and passed on through the ages, but later lost into oblivion.

3 Ratnas or Three fold path of Jaina teachings are –

  • Right Faith – In the infallibility and competence of teachers
  • Right Knowledge – Correct understanding of the teachings of omniscient Teerthankaras.
  • Right Conduct – Observance of charity, chastity and renunciation

Vardhamana Mahavira was a kshatriya. The parents of Mahavira were Siddhartha, a Janatrika chief of Kundapura, and Trishala. His mother Trishala was sister of Lichavi prince Chetak. He was related to Bimbisara and was married to Yashodha. He became an ascetic at the age of 30 after the death of both his parents.

He attained supreme knowledge or Kaivalya outside the town of Jrimbhikagrama and became a Jina or the conquerer. He was also called Arihanta. He died at Pavapuri.

He taught a simple doctrine – ‘men and women who wished to know the truth must leave their homes’ to join the Sangha. They must follow very strictly the rules of ahimsa, which means not hurting or killing living beings. ‘All beings,’ said Mahavira ‘long to live’. All men could join the sangha. However, children had to take the permission of their parents and slaves that of their masters. Those who worked for the king had to take his permission and debtors that of creditors. Women had to take their husbands’ permission.

Like Buddha he used Prakrit. There were several forms of Prakrit, used in different parts of the country, and named after the regions in which they were used. For example, the Prakrit spoken in Magadha was known as Magadhi.

One of the major differences of Buddhism and Jainism is that while the former called for a ‘middle path’, later called for severe non-violence. Everything in the universe, material or otherwise, has a soul according to Jainas. This is also the reason that the Jainism became out of bound of peasants and kshatriyas who have to kill living beings for one reason or another. So, Jainism was supported mainly by traders. Today, Jainas are concentrated mainly in Rajasthan, South India etc.

Like Buddhists, Jainas also held councils after his death. 

First Council was held in Patliputra presided by Sthulbhadra and it led to compilation of 12 Angas or scriptures of Jainas or Holy books of Jainas. Acharanga Sutra is the first of the 12 Angas. Angas are part of a wider group of Jaina teachings called Agamas.

After his death, his followers divided into two branches –

  • Shvetambara or wearer of white cloth of North India, guided by Sthulbhadra.
  • Digambara or wearer of sky (remained nude) of south under guidance of Bhadrabahu. According to them, like other possessions, clothes increase dependency and desire for material things. Bhadrabahu is considered to be the last expert of fourteen Purvas. Bhadrabahu was also a guru of Chandragupta Maurya. Since women cannot be naked, they cannot attain moksha. But under Shvetambras, women can attain moksha. The Kalpa Sutra is the holy book of the of Jainism (Digambaras) religion written by Bhadrabahu. It includes the biographies of Jain thirthankaras.

Jainas also place low importance on gods and placed gods low than Jina. 

Core beliefs and principles of Jainas are –

  • Everything has a soul. The most important idea in Jainism is that the entire world is animated. Even stones, rocks and water have life. Jaina believed that – monastic existence is a necessary condition of salvation.
  • They don’t believe in a creator deity. They believe that world is created by a ‘Universal Law’ and not by God (though, they recognised gods and placed them below Jina). Jainas rejected the idea of creator as well as authority of Vedas, though it doesn’t oppose caste system. Jainas as well as Buddha believed in Karma and transmigration of soul.
  • Every soul is potentially divine, with innate qualities of infinite knowledge, perception, power, and bliss (masked by its karmas).
  • Ultimate aim is Nirvana
  • Another important principle of Jainism is ‘anektawad’ or principle of pluralism which refers to multiplicity of viewpoints. It says truth can be perceived differently and no single truth is the ultimate truth.

Jainas believe in 8 symbols –

  • Swastika – Signifying well being
  • Vardhmanaka
  • Bhadrasana
  • Kalasha
  • Minayugal – Fish couple signifying victory over desires
  • Darpana
  • Shrivatsa
  • Nandyavartya

Monastries established by Jains were called – ‘sthanakas’ – like Viharas of Buddhists.

One of the major impacts of Jainism on Hinduism and Indian society was practice of non-violence and vegetarianism. Animal sacrifice was also given up by most of the Hindu society due to influence of Jainism and Hinduism.

Merchant class was attracted to Buddhism and Jainism because, both the religions preached non- violence and it was conducive for spread of trade. Dharmashastra also decried the practice of lending money and merchant class wanted to improve their status.

Further, Buddhist and Jainist literature is also one of the oldest written sources of earliest history. Ashvaghosha was one of the Sanskrit writers. Buddhist and Jaina texts list sixteen Mahajanapadas and hence give information about later Vedic period also.