Jainism, or the Jain Dharma (Divine Law), is an ancient ascetic religion seen as an autonomous philosophy and faith. The faith traces its roots to 24 tirthankaras, humans who achieved enlightenment and became Jinas in primordial eastern India.
Tirthankaras (“Crossing Makers”) were the founders of tirtha, communities of Jainists who act as a “ford across the river of human misery.” The last Jina was Vardhamana (599–27 B.C.E.), also known as Mahavir, “the great hero.” While pregnant with him, Mahavir’s mother is believed to have dreamed a succession of 14 dreams, each one an omen of her son’s virtues. Later on, Mahavir married and had a daughter but, despite his family’s affluence, Mahavir was not content. His parents died when he was 30, so he left his kin, turned his back on luxury, and joined a band of ascetics.
When he failed to find what he was searching for in the ascetics’ company, he went on his own way to create his a more severe asceticism. He gained much valuable experience during those times. He cleaned the path where he walked and strained water before drinking it. He determined that the way to enlightenment was through torment, so he stripped naked and looked for the coldest and the hottest places in winters and summers, respectively. He begged for his meals, stopped resisting violence, and never rested at the same place for more than a night. Finally, he began to perceive everything in the world indifferently. In the 13th year of such severe practices he accomplished release (or liberation) and realized Nirvana.
In 527 he achieved liberation by committing salekhana; he fasted to death, an accepted practice among Jainists. He became a siddha, pure consciousness, living forever in a state of bliss. On the night of his liberation people celebrated the Festival of Lights (Dipavali) in his honor.
The critical objective of Mahavir’s teachings is the attainment of total freedom from the cycle of birth, pain, misery, life, and death, and, in addition, the accomplishment of the lasting bliss of one’s self.
This state is known as Nirvana or Moksha. Mahavir explained that every living soul is bound by karma accumulated by good or bad actions in one’s cycle of rebirth, and the soul will seek pleasures in worldly possessions under the sway of this karma. One’s karma causes violent thoughts, such as hatred, anger, and greed. Violence is a manifestation of karma. The only way to escape violence and achieve Nirvana is to live according to the “three jewels,” the three principles of Jainism: right faith (samyakdarshana), right conduct (samyak-charitra), and right knowledge (samyak-jnana). The three principles would together help attain Moksha.
The core of Jainism is concern for the wellbeing of every organism in the universe (ahimsa), from the tiniest to the largest. Jainism teaches that all human beings, plants, and animals have a soul, and that each soul is of commensurate importance and merits respect and empathy. Jains are firm vegetarians, and one can say that their lifestyle is structured to reduce their use of the planet’s resources. A way of life in Jainism, vegetarianism is based on the idea of compassion for all living beings, or jiva daya.
It is seen as a lifestyle that enables nonviolence and peaceful coexistence. While their food habits do involve harm to the plant kingdom, eating plants is seen as a way of survival, one that involves a minimum of violence toward other beings. But Jains go beyond what is commonly called vegetarianism in that their diet also excludes most root vegetables and certain other foods believed to be unnecessarily injurious. Furthermore, observant Jains do not eat, drink, or travel after sunset and always get out of bed before dawn.
The Jain religion is exceptional in that during its current five millennia of existence there has been no compromise with regard to the theory of nonviolence in practice or principle. It has always espoused nonviolence as the ultimate religion. Jainism teaches the absolute equality of souls, notwithstanding the difference in physical form, a continuum that contains human beings as well as the tiniest organisms.
Because humans are more endowed than other beings, we are responsible for acting compassionately toward all forms of life.
The lives of a Jain monk and a Jain layperson differ greatly. The monks practice extreme asceticism and endeavor to make this lifetime their final one. The laity pursue less burdensome practices and attempt to perform good deeds in this life. The laity, however, must choose a livelihood that has nothing to do with inflicting violence to oneself or any other being. In their attempts to reach the most exalted state of beatification (or siddhatva)-the total release of the jiva (“living being”) from every form of involvement in this existence-the Jains believe that no divine being can aid them in any way. Jainism may be termed a godless religion from this point of view. Moksha, the Jains believe, can only be achieved by individuals through their own hard work. Instead of appealing to an external superior being, Jains believe that human life is the highest good and must be cherished. Jainism holds that not even angels can gain their own release until they experience birth as a human and live the arduous life of a monk.
The moral code of Jainism is summed up in the Five Vows, which are followed by both monastics and lay people. The Five Vows are: Nonviolence (Ahimsa), Truth (Satya), Nonstealing (Achaurya or Asteya), Celibacy (Brahmacharya), and Nonattachment or Nonpossession (Aparigraha). Mahavir also designed a fourfold order for his followers: monk (sadhu), nun (sadhvi), layman (shravak), and laywoman (shravika).
Jains feel that reality consists of two everlasting principles: jiva and ajiva. Jiva is made up of an endless number of identical spiritual components; ajiva (or nonjiva) is matter in all of its shapes, forms, and states-time, movement, and space. Both jiva and ajiva are everlasting; they always existed and will never stop existing. The world is made up of jivas that are trapped in ajiva; in other words, there are jivas in inanimate objects like rocks in addition to those in animate objects like plants, insects, animals, and human beings, and even spirits.
Contact of any kind of the jiva with the ajiva causes the jiva to suffer. Thus Jains believe that living in this world invariably means suffering. No reform whatsoever can stop that suffering. Even in human beings the jiva is trapped, and it suffers as a consequence of being in contact with ajiva. The only way to escape from this suffering is for the jiva to escape completely from the human condition or existence.

Origins and History
If one follows Jain beliefs, statements about origins or history will be true and not-true, because reality is so complex that no single human mind is capable of knowing everything there is to know about reality.
Our perceptions are always partial, subjective, and necessarily limited by our perspective. Jains believe that the universe was never created and that it will never cease to exist. What we know as the universe is eternal and infinite but not unchangeable.
In fact it is always changing and never static because, as the universe moves through time, it passes through an endless series of phases, or swings. Each of these upward or downward phases has six world ages called aras, as in Pehelo Ara (“First Age”), Beejo Ara (“Second Age”), and so on.
The last age is the Chhatho Ara, or Sixth Age. All these ages have fixed time durations of thousands of years.
In the current ara, Jainism began before 3000 B.C.E., prior to the beginning of Indo-Aryan culture.
Though Jainism can be said to have been founded by Mahavir, the statement is not entirely true. Jainism existed before Mahavir, and his teachings were based on those of his predecessors. Unlike Buddha, Mahavir was more of a reformer of an existing religious order than the founder or prophet of a new faith. He followed the well-established creed of his predecessor Tirthankara Parshvanath, the 23rd tirthankara of this cycle, who lived in the era immediately prior to this one. However, whereas Lord Parshva preached four great vows for his era, Mahavir preached five great vows for this one.
It is probable that Buddhism may have developed as a result of the pervasive influence of Jain culture and philosophy in India; Buddhists maintain that Jainism is an ancient faith and culture that predates Buddhism. Buddhist scriptures record philosophical dialogues between the Buddha (Siddartha Gautama, 563–483B.C.E.) and his teacher, Udaka Ramaputta, a Jain who taught that there are eight types of karma. Early Buddhists also thought that there had already been 24 buddhas before Siddhartha Gautama, and many of their names are identical to those of the 24 Jain tirthankaras.
There are two major sects of Jainism that developed as a result of events that took place two centuries after Mahavir’s death. The issue that divided the Jainists was nudity. Bhadrabahu, who was the leader of the Jain monks, anticipated a phase of drought and took his followers to southern India.
There were about 12,000 people. A little more than a decade later they returned, only to find a new sect, the Svetambara. Because they had been living in southern India, where it is warm most of the year, they were accustomed to not wearing clothes. The followers of Bhadrabahu became known as the Digambaras, which means “sky-clad” or “naked.” These monks rejected clothing, even in public places. The Svetambara, or “white-clad” monks, wear simple white robes. The laypeople of the sect are allowed to wear clothes of any color.
The Digambara sect is concentrated largely in southern India. They stick to the age-old principles that require their monks to walk about unclothed.
They also differ with the Svetambara sect on certain features of Mahavir’s life. According to the beliefs of the Digambara sect, women cannot achieve salvation until they become men in their rebirths, nor are they allowed to enter temples and monasteries.
The Svetambara are primarily found in northern India. They are easily the more liberal of the two sects when it comes to interpreting Mahavir’s teachings regarding nudity. Women have access to religion and monasteries, and the Svetambara accept the possibility that women can save themselves.
The infinity of time is divided into time cycles, called kalchakras, and every time cycle consists of two equal halves: a progressive cycle (utsarpini) and a descending, or regressive, cycle (avasarpini).
Within both cycles are six unequal periods (aras), so there are 12 aras within an entire time cycle. In an utsarpini half cycle, everything-happiness, strength, age, body, religious trends-develops in an ascending order, from the worst conditions to the best. When the utsarpini cycle has ended, the avasarpini half-cycle begins, and development, happiness, strength, age, body, religious trends, and so on gradually deteriorate, going from the best conditions to the worst. Presently we are in the fifth ara, Dukham Kal (“bad”), of an avasarpini phase, which started about 2,500 years ago. Although things may seem pretty bad now, they will become worse in the next era, called Dukham Dukham Kal (“very bad”), which will end the current half cycle. Then a new utsarpini phase will begin with a Sukum Sukum Kal (“very good”) era, the kalchakra will repeat again and go on forever. When a cycle reaches its lowest level, even Jainism itself is lost, but it will be rediscovered and reintroduced by new tirthankaras, only to be lost again at the end of the next downswing, and so on, ad infinitum.

Holidays and Religious Observances
Jainism, another world religion that has its roots in India, has close ties to Hinduism and Buddhism and shares holidays as well as core beliefs with both.
Like Hinduism, Jainism uses the lunar calendar and has many religious observances in the course of a year, including the birthdays of several tirthankaras.
Lord Rishabha, whose birthday is celebrated in the middle of Chaitra (early April in the Gregorian calendar) was the first tirthankara of our time, so he is also known as Adi-nath, the First Lord. In Jain tradition, he is more than a tirthankara. He was also a king, and gave the people important social innovations, such as the professions, to smooth their transition from a simple to a more complex society.
Another important birthday is that of the tirthankara called Mahavira, the 24th, and the last, tirthankara of the Jain religion. Mahavira was born a prince in Bihar in 599 B.C.E., and his birthday is observed toward the end of the month of Chaitra (late April in the Gregorian calendar). Lord Mahavira taught people about the principle of universal love and compassion, and achieved enlightenment (nirvana) after 13 years of a severely ascetic life. Because he achieved nirvana on the night of Diwali, the Festival of Lights is celebrated in his honor.
Paryushana and Diwali are both significant religious observances among the Jains. Paryushana has its origins in the rainy season, when Jain monks remain in one place for its duration, about four months. The two-day observance itself, however, is not extended for that long (although its minimum length is thought to be 70 days). Jains actually limit the observance to two days during the waxing half of Bhadrapada (early September in the Gregorian calendar).
During this time Jains listen to the monks recite the Dharma, meditate, and practice self-discipline.
It is a time when they renew their faith.
The Daslakshan observance, which begins on the second day of Paryushana (early September) focuses on the way to enlightenment, and is intended for meditation on the soul’s attributes, spiritual reflection, prayers, and fasting. The devout are expected to spend the day in self-study and discussion of the nature of spiritual principles. Because its purpose emphasizes spirituality and removing oneself from worldly desires, it is also known as the Dashlakshan Parva, the Great Festival of Ten Virtues. The 10 Jainist virtues are: supreme patience, supreme modesty, supreme honesty, supreme contentment, supreme truth, supreme selfrestraint, supreme austerity, supreme renunciation, supreme possessionlessness, and supreme celibacy.