Sixth century BC witnessed the rise of many religious movements in ancient India. People expressed their discontentment with the biased Varna system, priesthood and complex ritualistic sacrifices. It was against this background of exploitation of the masses and discrimination among people on the basis of Varna system that Mahavira and Buddha protested, resulting in rise and growth of liberal and inclusive religious sects in ancient India.



The varna-divided society seems to have generated tensions during the sixth century B.C. The Kshatriyas who functioned as rulers, reacted strongly against the ritualistic domination of the brahmanas and seem to have led a kind of protest movement against the importance attached to the birth in the varna system. The kshatriya reaction against the domination of the priestly class called brahmanas, who claimed various privileges, was one of the causes of the origin of new religions. Buddha and Mahavira, both came from Kshatriya origin.


The agricultural economy based on the iron ploughshare required the use of bullocks, and it could not flourish without animal husbandry. But the Vedic practice of killing cattle indiscriminately in sacrifices stood in the way of the progress of new agriculture. The newly emerging peasant communities who appear to have become dominant did not approve the killing of cattle in the sacrifice, as cattle wealth was very essential to supplement agricultural operations. The non-killing or Ahimsa preached by the heterodox sects appears to have made these social groups opt for the heterodox sects.


The increase in trade and commerce added to the importance of the vaishyas. The vaishyas being ranked third in the brahmanical society, looked for some religion which could improve their position. The patronage extended to trade and commerce in particular by Buddhism and Jainism made the merchants, rich and poor agriculturists and artisans to favour Buddhism and Jainism.


The new forms of property created social inequalities, and caused misery and suffering to the masses of the people. So the common people wished to return to primitive life. They wanted to get back to the ascetic ideal which dispensed with the new forms of property and the new style of life.


The complex rituals and sacrifices advocated in the Later Vedic period were not acceptable to the common people. The sacrificial ceremonies were also found to be too expensive. The superstitious beliefs and mantras confused the people. The teachings of Upanishads, an alternative to the system of sacrifices, were highly philosophical in nature and therefore not easily understood by all. Therefore, what was needed in the larger interests of the people was a simple, short and intelligible way to salvation for all people. Such religious teaching should also be in a language known to them. This need was fulfilled by the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira. The code of conduct prescribed for lay people by these new religions appeared to be more practical than performing protracted rites through the Brahmin priest.


The changing scenario of the socio-economic order of the 6th century BC led to the establishment of Jainism and Buddhism as heterodox sects later to be popularly known as reform movements. Jain tradition speaks of twenty-four Tirthankaras (prophets). In the Rigveda, there are references to Rishaba, the first Tirthankara as claimed by Jains.

Very little is known about the life of Parshva, the 23rd Tirthankara. It is believed that he was the son of the King of Banaras who became an ascetic at the age of thirty, got enlightenment after 84 days of penance, gave his message to the people up to the age of 100 years and died in Bihar nearly 250 years before Mahavira.Vardhaman Mahavira was the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism. According to Jain tradition, most Tirthankaras were born in the mid-Gangetic basin and attained nirvana in Bihar.

According to one tradition, Vardhaman Mahavira was born in 540 BC in a village near Vaishali. Being the son of Siddhartha, the head of a Kshatriya clan Jnatrika. Mahaviras mother was named Trishala, sister of the Lichchavi chief Chetaka whose daughter was wedded to Bimbisara hence he also had connections with the royal family of Magadha. Initially, Mahavira led the life of a householder but in his quest for truth, he abandoned the world at the age of 30 and became an ascetic.

After wandering from place to place for 12 years, he attained omniscience (Kaivalya) through which he conquered misery and happiness. Because of this conquest, he is known as Mahavira or the great hero or Jina that is the conqueror and his followers are known as Jainas. He propagated his religion for thirty years and his mission took him to Koshala, Magadha, Mithila, Champa etc. He passed away at the age of 72 in 468 BC at Pavapuri near modern Rajgir.


The most important idea in Jainism is that the entire world is animated:  even stones, rocks and water have life and they have soul. Non-injury to living beings, especially to humans, animals, plants and insects, is central to Jaina philosophy.  In fact, the principle of ahimsa, emphasised within Jainism, has left its mark on Indian thinking as a whole. According to Jaina teachings, the cycle of birth and rebirth is shaped through karma. 

Asceticism and penance are required to free oneself from the cycle of karma. This can be achieved only by renouncing the world; therefore, monastic existence is a necessary condition of salvation. Religious texts written in Pali do not recognize Mahavira as an originator of a new religion but as a reformer of an existing religion. Mahavira accepted mostly the religious doctrines of Parshva but certainly made some alterations and additions to them. Parshva emphasized self –control and penance and advised his followers to observe Satya (truth), Ahimsa (non-violence), Aprigraha (no possession of property), Asteya (not to receive anything which is not freely given). To these Mahavira added Brahmacharya (celibacy).


  1. Non- violence (ahimsa),
  2. No lies (satya),
  3. No stealing (asteya),
  4. No property (aparigraha), and
  5. Observing continence (brahmacharya).

The five principles or vows when observed by the monks strictly are known as ‘mahavratas’, but when lay members practice them they are called ‘anuvratas’.


The aim of Jain life is to achieve liberation of the soul. This is done by following the Jain ethical code, or to put it simply, living rightly by following the three jewels of Jain ethics. Three jewels or triratna are a metaphor for describing conduct and knowledge:


This doesn’t mean believing what you’re told, but means seeing (hearing, feeling, etc.) things properly, and avoiding preconceptions and superstitions that get in the way of seeing clearly. Belief in True Prophets (like Jain Tirthankars) True Scriptures (like Jain Shastras) and True Preceptors (like Jain saints).


A person who has right knowledge will naturally free themselves from attachment and desire, and so achieve peace of mind. Right Knowledge is broadly divided into five categories:

  1. Sensory knowledge (Mati Gyan): knowledge derived through the sense organs like eyes, ears etc. and the mind. It can be false or right depending on the truth and rightness of the perception
  2. Study Knowledge (Srut Gyan): verbal or scriptural knowledge
  3. Remote Knowledge (Avadhi Gyan): determinate knowledge of remote physical objects derived directly without instrumentality of senses or mind.
  4. Mind Reading knowledge (Telepathy or Man Prayaya Gyan): All living beings with mind when engaged in thinking give different shapes to the mind according to objects thought of. The knowledge which can apprehend these shapes of other minds or thoughts of others is telepathy.
  5. Omniscience (Kewalya Gyan): This is unlimited knowledge of the whole of reality which the individual soul acquires directly. Once omniscience appears, the soul is all set for liberation.


This means living your life according to Jain ethical rules, to avoid doing harm to living things and freeing yourself from attachment and other impure attitudes and thoughts. Jains believe that a person who has right faith and right knowledge will be motivated and able to achieve right conduct.


As regards philosophy, Jaina philosophy shows a close affinity to Hindu Sankhya philosophy. It also ignores the idea of creator God, accepts that the world is full of sorrows and believes in the theory of Karma and transmigration of soul.  Jaina philosophy is that of dualism. It believes that human personality is formed of two elements: Jiva (soul) and Ajiva (matter).

While Ajiva is destructible, Jiva is indestructible and the salvation of an individual is possible through progress of Jiva. In short, the living and non-living (soul and matter) by coming into contact with each other create energies which cause birth, death and various experiences of life. These energies already created could be destroyed by a course of discipline leading to salvation or nirvana. This means seven things:

  1. There is something called the living.
  2. There is something called the non-living.
  3. The two come in contact with each other.
  4. The contact leads to production of energies.
  5. The process of contact could be stopped.
  6. The existing energies could be exhausted.
  7. Salvation could be achieved.

These seven propositions are called the seven tattvas or truths or realities by Jainas. On the basis of these propositions, Jaina philosophy states that if one desires to attain Nirvana, it is important for him to destroy Karma. One could gradually do it by avoiding evil Karma first and later other Karma. To equip himself for such a task a person should observe the five principles of the religion namely Satya, Ahimsa, Aprigraha, asteya and Brahamacharya. Jainism is essentially atheistic the concept of God being irrelevant. But it accepts a group of prophets or Tirthankaras who were deified men.

ANEKANTAVADA refers to the principles of pluralismand multiplicity of viewpoints, the notion that reality is perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth, yet taken together they comprise the complete truth. It is one of the most important and fundamental doctrines of Jainism.

UNIVERSAL LAW Every mortal possesses the potentiality of becoming as great as they were. Jainism represents the universe as functioning according to eternal law continuously passing through a series of cosmic waves of progress and decline. According to it, the sole purpose of life is the purification of soul.

Unlike the Upnishads, Jainism preaches that the purification of soul cannot be attained through knowledge but only through rigorous ascetic punishment of the body thereby freeing the soul from the sorrows of life.

A monastic life was essential for full salvation. No lay jaina could take up the profession of agriculture since this involved not only the destruction of plant life but also of many living things in the soil. That is why strict limitation of private property enforced by Jainism was interpreted to mean only landed property. There was no restriction on amassing wealth by means of trade and commerce. The practice of nonviolence in Jainism had more of negativity since it lays greater emphasis on vegetarianism and precaution against killing of insects and animals rather than on loving them.


By the end of the fourth century B.C., there was a serious famine in the Ganges valley. Many Jain monks led by Bhadrabagu and Chandragupta Maurya came to Sravana Belgola in Karnataka. Those who stayed back in north India were led by a monk named Sthulabahu who changed the code of conduct for the monks. This led to the division of Jainism into two sects Svetambaras (whiteclad) and Digambaras (Sky-clad or Naked). Digambar means those whose garment is only the four directions, or "sky-clad". 'Svet' means white and Svetambars are those who wear white coverings.


Digambar Jain monks do not wear clothes because they believe clothes are like other possessions, increasing dependency and desire for material things, and desire for anything ultimately leads to sorrow.

Svetambar Jain monks wear white clothes for practical reasons and believe there is nothing in Jain scripture that condemns wearing clothes. These differing views arise from different interpretations of the same holy books.

Digambars believe that women cannot attain moksha in the same birth, while Svetambars believe that women may attain liberation and that Mallinath, a Tirthankar, was female. The difference centres on the fact that Digambar ascetism requires nudity. As nudity is not practical for women, it follows that without it they cannot attain moksha.

Digambars believe that Mahavir was not married, whereas Shvetambars believe the princely Mahavir was married and had a daughter.

In the first Jain prayer, the Namokara Mantra. Sthanakavasis and Digambars believe that only the first five lines are formally part of the Namokara Mantra, whereas Svetambaras believe all nine form the mantra. Other differences are minor and not based on major points of doctrine.


In the first council at Pataliputra, the Jaina canon was divided into 12 sections which the Svetambaras accepted but Digambaras refused to accept this claiming that all old scriptures were lost. At the second council held at Vallabhi new additions were made in the form of ‘Upangas’ or minor sections. Among the 12 angas the Acharayanga Sutta and the Bhagwati Sutta are the most important. While the former deals with the code of conduct which a Jaina monk is required to follow, the later expound the Jaina doctrines in a comprehensive manner. 

Teachings of Mahavira became very popular among the masses and different sections of society were attracted to it. One of the important causes for the success was the popular dialect (Prakrit) used in place of Sanskirt. The simple and homely morals prescribed to the masses attracted the people. The royal patronage by the rulers of Magadha later made Mathura and Ujjain great centres of Jainism. Jain councils collected the material of the sacred texts to write them down systematically, in Ardhamagadhi. But in the absence of popular religious preachers after the death of Mahavira, its division into two important sects, absence of protection by the later rulers, revival of Hinduism under the Guptas, Cholas, Chalukyas and Rajput kings also contributed to its slow decline.


Its contribution to Indian culture particularly literature, architecture and sculpture has been remarkable. Though the language of its religious texts had been Prakrit, it helped in giving a literary shape to some spoken languages of India. The temples and idols still existing in various cities as Mathura, Gwalior, Junagarh, Chittor, Abu have been accepted as some of the best specimens of Indian architecture and sculpture particularly the temples of Abu, the Jaina tower at Chittorgarh, the elephant caves of Orissa and the 70 feet high idol of Bahubali in Mysore.


Jainism helped a lot in the growth of Art and Architecture. The kings patronized Jainism. So many Jaina unages and the images of Jaina Tirthankara were found in many parts of India. The image of Bahuvalin in Shravanavelgola in Karnataka (known as Gomateswara) is the highest Jaina image ever craved in India. The Jaina images found in Mathura, Bundelkhand, Northem Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Benares are important Jaina Art remains in India. The cave art of Udayagiri in Bhubaneswar, Madhya Pradesh, Ellora and Maharashtra are unique examples of Jaina art.

The Dilwara Jaina temple at Mount Abu of Rajasthan is a dream in marble. Nearly 90 percent of Jaina temples are the gifts of single wealthy individuals and as such the Jaina temples are distinguished for elaborate details and exquisite finish. The Jain Tower in the fort of Chittor is another specimen of architectural en­gineering. Innumerable manuscripts in palm leaves were written down and some of them were painted with gold dust. These have given rise to a new school of painting known as the “Western Indian School”. Thus, Jainism helped in the growth of art and architecture in India.


Santhara is a century old Jain ritual which implies facing death by a person voluntarily when he is nearing his end and when normal life according to religion is not possible due to old age, incurable disease, severe famine etc., after subjugation of all passions and abandonment of all worldly attachments, by observance of austerities, gradually quitting food and water, and by simultaneous meditation on the real nature the self, until the soul parts from the body. According to Jainism, it is a means for self-realization.

Recently, The Supreme Court has restored the Jain religious practice of a ritualistic fast unto death by staying an order of the Rajasthan High Court, which compared it to an act of suicide.

Sallekhana is not the destruction of life out of passions, nor it is motivated by any desire. on the other end, suicide is motivated by physical or psychological feelings of exhaustion, frustration, or both. Suicide is a desperate measure, triggered by failure and setbacks in life; it is an act of cowardice, a surrender to the circumstance because of lack of will power. According to the Jains, Santhara is the exact opposite of this.

In Jainism, the concept of choosing the manner and time of one’s death is a centuries-old ritual. The devout Jains believe that Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankar, allowed Santhara, or Sallekhana, as the ultimate test of spirituality, will power, whose ultimate goal is purifying body and mind and facing death voluntarily. Though both ultimately causes death, they carry huge difference as santhara practice is done in systematic way with full consciousness. For a religious culture that believes in rebirth, it certainly cannot be suicide. Further it is performed as an ethical act to attain moksha.

Misinterpretations and misunderstandings of such religious practices may often damage the ethics of society as whole taking in view the following points.

  1. The practice can also be a mean to overcome economic hardships and other grave problems of life. It is very difficult to find out the real intention behind one's vow of Sallekhana or santhara.
  2. Recent reports show that women perform it than men that forces one to think that religious belief cannot be the sole reason behind it.
  3. Further, as suicide brings dishonour, individuals can take guise of such practice. It will also help them in earning admiration and worship.
  4. It will also motivate others to adopt the same which can never be in the interest of any society.

For a multi-religious country like India, it cannot be a good idea to abolish absolutely such religious practice but a proper counselling of the individual and understanding their psychological thinking can help in differentiating the real objective of such rituals. The Practice of Santhara is ethical as long as they do not violate any person's or family's freedom. It should not be forced on anyone in the guise of family / social pride and must be based on true devotion. Further the practice of Santhara shall be subjected to the test of rationality and its outcome should be implemented after proper consultation and involvement of the people following such religious ritual.



The royal patronage of Jainism by Bimbisara, Ajatasatru, Udayin and Kharavela was not kept up by kings and princes of later times. Rather the zeal and determination of Asoka, Kanishka and Harsha to spread Buddhism came to end Jainism. As such, lack of sincere and determined royal patronage came to cease Jainism.


The severity of Jainism is also responsible for its gradual decline. Unlike the ‘middle path’ of Buddhism, Jainism stood for severe penance, meditation, fasting and restraint etc. All these were too severe to endure. People soon became disillusioned with it. In course of time, Jainism, once adored, became alienated from the people.


Most of the Jaina philosophy was unintelligible for the masses. The concepts of Jeeva, Ajeeva, Pudgala, Syadbada etc. could not be understood properly by the people. Many could not accept the view that stone, water, tree or earth had a soul of their own. There was, thus, a gradual decline in popular faith for Jainism. This paved the way for its decline.


Division among the Jainas after the death of Mahavira was the another important reason of the decline of Jainism. Some now advocated to literally follow the teachings of Mahavira, while others wanted to dilute the severity of Jainism. As such, the rift led to a division in Jain ranks. They were now divided into ‘Digamvara’ and ‘Swetamvara’ groups. The former, led by Bhadrabahu, gave up dress, adopted severe penance for self-purification and became indifferent to worldly life. The ‘Swetamvara’ group, led by Sitalabahu, wore white dress. The division weakened Jainism and gradually led to its decline.

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