Born in India, Jainism originated in the teachings of the twenty-four Jinas (“conquerors”), who defeated the cycle of birth and death (samsara) and attained enlightenment. Digambara and Shvetambara are its two main sects, each dominant in a geographic region of India.

Mahavira, the most recent Jina, was a historical person contemporary with Buddha. He attained spiritual enlightenment after renouncing luxury and engaging in a nomadic lifestyle centered on deep meditation.

Asceticism is a core value of Jainism; ascetics are supported entirely by laypeople either in a home community or in the places they travel to every few days. The Jain scriptures describe the religion’s history, cosmology, and ethical codes and include devotional hymns.

Jain belief is centered on the attachment of the soul to the physical world, samsara, through karma. Individuals are responsible for their own liberation by following the proper stages of purity. The cosmos is seen as dualistic, including the consciousness of souls and the nonconsciousness of matter and of aspects like space and time. It has fifteen realms, the middle of which is the realm of human beings, who may attain liberation and enter the celestial realms if they follow the ascetic path.

Jain ascetic communities are hierarchical and are characterized historically by having more women than men. Jains, whether ascetic or lay, are committed to nonviolence; while ascetics are celibate and dependent entirely on alms, lay people avoid careers that would force them to harm other living beings, and they practice charity.

Veneration of the Jinas is at the core of worship. Many sects do not allow image worship, instead showing their reverence by chanting, meditation, and scripture study. Festivals often bring lay and ascetic communities together to celebrate an aspect of the lives of the Jinas. Fasting and pilgrimage are also common features of festivals.

Today Jainism has had to respond to ethical dilemmas posed by scientific discoveries and the influence of Western culture on Jains in diaspora. The importance of ascetics means that Jains living outside of India either travel to an ascetic community or are part of a modernized sect that addresses the unique needs of the diasporan group.

Wright, Beth. Introduction to World Religions: Study Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.
“Top of Chitharal Jain Temple” (cropped) by John Mathew licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.