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Jainism’s Historical Development in South Asia


Jainism forms one of the oldest religions across the world, and it is traditionally referred to as Jain Dharma amongst the South Asian communities as transcribed in the Sanskrit literature. Jainism emphasized the doctrines of non-violence and peaceful coexistence towards all living beings, whilst prescribing equality and respect to all forms of life. Just like Buddhism, Jainism followers shared the belief that peaceful existence, self-control, and care for all creations was the key factor by which people could achieve all forms of liberation including spiritual, emotional, or psychological (Williams 23). The objective of this paper is to project the lived experience of Jains from all sections of the South Asian community by placing the Jain traditions in a wide spectrum of the South Asian religious perspectives. This paper will seek to accomplish this objective by examining the Jain doctrines, principles, and practices accruing to the historical development of the religion in South Asia. Most importantly, this paper will argue that Jainism principles remain to be of great influence to the religious society of the Jains and perhaps other religions and literature such as Hinduism, since time immemorial.

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Origin of Jainism

Arguably, Jainism existed around 3rd century, but the most precise background was articulated during the 5th or 6th century and onwards. There existed twenty-four Jinas with lord Mahavara been the last to exist around 599-527 B.C.E. Lord Mahavira was among the last of the great Tirthankaras of the last influential followers of Jainism. Unlike the dominant sacrificial practices of Vedic and other religions, Jainism as advanced by Mahavira, strictly focused on the avoidance of all forms of indulgence for religious reasons (Mendis 90). Doctrines of lord Mahavira sought to underrate most of the building elements of the existing Vedic social order like the dominance of Brahmins in religious matters, caste order, sacrifice of animals, and undermining the status of women.

Sub-sects of Jainism

The most prominent sects included the Digambar and Shvetamabr, which developed around the end of the first century. The Digambar sect included three main sub-sects. First, was the Bisapantha, which involved idol worshiping and supporting of the Bhattarak who was the top of religious monastery. Jains’ offerings to the gods included fruits and flowers. Secondly, Terapantha was considered to have revolted from Bisapanth at around 17th century. This sub-sect worshiped Tirathakars by offering sacred rice called Aksata, dates, and coconuts (Doniger 24). The third was the Tarapanth, which was non-idolatrous sub-sect founded by Taran Swamy and practiced the sacred readings of the Digambara Jainism. Nonetheless, these sub-sects developed under relatively similar principles basing their originality from the practices of the main sect. However, sub-sects continue to emerge due to evolving practices and ideologies in the Jainism teachings. Every aspect of religion be it beliefs, values and principles were subject to change and this notion was expected across many religions. According to Muller (31) these changes is what brought about the explosion of other sub-sects due to evolving ideas.

Principles of Jainism

Jainism main practices were based on Jina, the perceived conqueror and the spiritual victor who overcame all the worldly pleasures and material obsession. The antiquity of the sectarian of Jainism believed strongly in several principles, which guided the everyday life of the followers. Such principles included the teachings of non-violence, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness and non-possessiveness, which were reflected in other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism (Bhikkhu Cula-Malunkyovada par.8). These principles reflected the daily lives of the Jains coupled with providing major distinction between Jains and non-Jains.

Doctrine of non-violence

Jainism main emphasis was peaceful coexistence by avoiding any form of violence to all living thing. This principle is the most important and highly venerated aspect of the Jain religious teachings. Adherents of Jainism are obligated to practice non-violence to all living beings. The strict adherence to non-violent activities brings forth the distinction of the Jain practice from other religions, and thus this aspect is regarded as the hallmark for Jainism. Jainism avoids any form of violence, be it intentional or accidental, since it is all seen to harm living beings. Spiritual practices in the South Asia and particularly India condemned violence to human life but to other living things like animals, it was not seen to be violence when making sacrifices to the gods (Bhikkhu Dhammacakkappavattana par. 5). The Jain belief goes ahead to restrict followers from certain diets, which are perceived to harm other living beings. For instance, Jains are lacto-vegetarians, and they avoid consumption of underground roots such as onions and garlic since consumption is assumed to terminate the life of these plants (Burton 47). Jains claim that access and use of dairy products amounts to violence against cows, as articulated in the holy doctrines of the religion (Balcerowicz 19). At times, these beliefs were very demanding, and thus they resulted in criticism since they overemphasized the lives of animals and plants at expense of human beings.

Jains emphasize on preserving the lives of tiny animals to the extent that even when these animals intrude the lives of followers, they find ways to move them out without hurting them (Doniger 21). It becomes ridiculous when monks and nuns are compelled not to walk out in the night since this might increase the probability of harming small animals. To Jains, harm caused by carelessness or ignorance is equivalent to intentional harm. In addition, Jains take harsh utterances as form of violence, and thus they encourage the avoidance of harsh speech that may hurt other people’s feelings. Despite their strong belief to non-violence to any living being, Jains agree that plants are destroyed to acquire food, but they insist that such violence should only be tolerated if it proves necessary for human survival. In addition, violence regarding self-defense is justified. For instance, soldiers on duty are justified for their brutal response towards perceived enemies. This aspect is depicted in the existence of the Jain monarchs and military. Although these were desirable values manifesting compassion to other living things, Jains exaggerated the definition of harm as involving intentional and unintentional damage, which compelled Jain monks and nuns to be extra keen. To other doctrines such as the facts of impermanence, Buddhists believed that it was usual for living things to come to existence and at some time pass away (Thera The Three Basic Facts par.7).


Non-absolutism is the second major principle referred to as Anekatavada. Non-absolutism refers to the aspect of inclusivity or pluralism of viewpoints. Jains acknowledge that different people perceive facts and knowledge in diverse ways and no single view can be justified as absolute. The values of religious tolerance come in, and even the Jains acknowledge that their own practices have limitations and are open to criticism from rivals. This was viewed to welcome acceptability from other religions, for instance, Bhikkhus practiced the inclusion of everyone and toleration of other people from other religions (Bhikkhu Cula-Malunkyovada par.6). In a bid to elaborate on this perception, Jains give an account of blind men and an elephant. This account argues that each blind man gives a different generalization of how the elephant looks like. Due to their restricted perspectives, they can only grasp few facts. Similar concept applies to human nature in the way individuals articulate issues as people focus only on the relevant aspects concerning their objectives (Easwaran 43). This aspect does not mean that the other aspects not reflected are meaningless, since they are only irrelevant on certain cases, but useful on others. Jains employ the perception of Nayas, which allows adherents to fathom facts part by part. This aspect improved inter-ethnic relations, which developed a sense of tolerance and peaceful coexistence with other societies. The teachings of Anekant and Syadavad involved the use of words, and thus it means that may be the doctrines did not guarantee or affirm correctness (Burton 49).

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This form the third main principle in Jainism is referred to as Aparigraha. As described in the Sanskrit literature, non-possessiveness emphasizes on taking what is essential and avoiding what is not necessary to our survival (Doniger 32). Jainism urges followers to limit themselves voluntarily by utilizing what they have before they seek more. Greedy and amassing of wealth is considered unnecessary, and thus it is highly discouraged. Jains believe that material possessions should be shared and donations done to ensure that wealth obsession does not override the goodness of man. Jains believe that unlimited possessing can be consequential to oneself, family, or the entire community. This belief created the spirit of donations and sharing with others regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliations. Buddhist shared the same ideology by practicing impermanence and detaching their passion from material goods (Bhikkhu Pancavaggi par.13).


Namokara mantra was a form of important prayer for the Jains, which was conducted during the worship time. This prayer distinguished Jainism from the other religions since it did not involve asking favors from the gods. Jains believe that the worshiping should focus on strengthening followers to have the capacity to resist worldly pleasures. Fasting was a common practice among the Jains particularly during special ceremonies (Doniger 22). For instance, when one sensed that the time of death was nearing, Jains would slowly cease from eating and drinking, which was referred to as santhara. Jains believed that through fasting, one could achieve death with calmness and devoid of emotions. It can take a long time if the person approaches gradual reduction of food consumption. Jains acknowledged santhara as the manifestation of spiritual involvement commanding a great deal of spiritual comprehensiveness and maturity. However, this declaration or perception that one has accomplished his or her duties and s/he has to leave the world remains a controversy in the modern society. Justifying santhara is intolerable, and thus Jainism needs to seek better and rationalized values when fasting. For instance, Bhikkhu practices acknowledged that no one was immortal to death but insisted that life was crucial for everyone needed to tolerate and ensure prosperity of everyone’s life (Bhikkhu Cula-Malunkyovada par.11).

The third practice is meditation and Jainism developed Samayaki, which is a type of meditation meant to attain a feeling of perfect contentedness and understanding the calmness of oneself. Meditation was widely applied during religious festivals such as Paryushana. Meditation was believed to help followers achieve non-possessiveness by limiting and balancing desires. Of great significance was the ability to manage states of awakening and control thoughts since they had potential impact to alter one’s character and objectives. Jainism has attracted huge criticism due to some of its dogmatic practices and values such as overemphasizing the role of fasting at the peril of one’s life (Burton 56).

New religious ideas and social practices

Jain modernism traces its roots to the 19th century. The separating ideologies between the ancient and the modern Jainism were the disparity in belief particularly that modern Jainism was superior in structure and discourse analysis. Jain modernism was influenced by modern science on the interpretation and practice of the doctrines. The improved role of women in religion and incorporation of languages such as English facilitated the recognition of Jainism beyond South Asia due to factors, which were rarely addressed in the ancient Jainism. On social realm, Jain modernism provided an alternative and better lifestyle by acknowledging science and ethics whilst holding the universally agreeable Jain values involving non-violence, non-one-sidedness, and non-possessiveness (Thera The Dhammapada 83). Social modernism of Jain traditions involved changing or improving the ancient practices such as raising the code of conduct and education levels of the monks and nuns (Doniger 27). The modern adherents call for acceptability and recognition of members of non-Jain religion. Additionally, modern Jainism seeks to address concerns beyond the boundaries of South Asia. Such issues involve self-development through adjusting lifestyle coupled with sustainable growth motivated by self-constraining and ethics of peaceful existence (Burton 112). Conventionally, the three major principles of Jainism are considered as desirable by non-Jains. These factors are articulated in the Hindu religion, which believes in peaceful coexistence.


Jainism constituted an integral part of the South Asian society’s culture since the ancient days onwards. Jainism gives its followers a broad view and sustainable lifestyle by incorporating social equality, life tolerance, and limiting one’s needs. With modernization of Jainism, the orthodox Jainism might appear to be gradually declining; however, this assumption might be wrong, since modern Jainism seeks to improve on the ancient practices rather than a revolutionary change to bring forth immediate reforms. Jainism beliefs on preservation and tolerance of all creatures including microbes and plants were unique and compassionate. By discouraging the superstition that healing and good health came through worshiping deities and seeking help from the monks, Jainism overcame problems by expressing desired moral conducts and compassion to all living things.

Works Cited

Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya 1998. Web.

—. Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion 1993. Web.

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—. Pancavaggi Sutta: Five Brethren (aka: Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic) 1993. Web.

Burton, Stein. A History of India, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda Translations, London: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality), Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 2007. Print.

Mendis, Gupta. The Questions of King Milinda, London: BPS, 1993. Print.

Muller, Max. The Upanishads, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing LLC, 2004. Print.

Thera, Buddharakkhita. The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path of Wisdom, Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 2003. Print.

Thera, Nyanaponika. The Three Basic Facts of Existence I. Impermanence (Anicca) 2006. Web.

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Williams, Paul. Buddhist Thought, London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

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