Cultures & Traditions

Jainism

Jainism was formed around the sage Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha in the 6th century BCE, but Jains view this founder as the twenty-fourth in a series of spiritual leaders that extends back in time. Jainism prohibits harming others or taking life, emphasizes strict self-denial, and promotes life in monasteries. Although strong in western India, Jainism did not move beyond its homeland.

Jain derives from the word Jina, meaning victor or conqueror, indicating one who has overcome all human passions. Jains live according to five key principles: ahimsa (avoidance of harm), satya (truthfulness), asteya (no stealing), brahmacharya (chastity), and aparigraha (detachment from material things). Jains also believe in reincarnation and karma, as well as right thought and right action to liberate the soul and reach moksha or Nirvana.

The Jains believe in cycles of evolution and that twenty-four tirthankaras, or Jain saints, appear in each cycle to serve as guides for worshippers hoping to gain release from the cycles of existence or rebirth. Tirthankaras are supernatural figures who began as mortals and through spiritual practices gained supernatural status. Mahavira was the twenty-fourth tirthankara who lived between 599-527 BCE. Though Mahavira is not the founder of Jainism, it is during his lifetime that Jainism emerged as a historic sect or religion.

The 6th century BCE saw the rise of both Buddhism and Jainism, which are typically conceived as reactions against the Hindu caste system. Though Jainism is derived from Hinduism, Jains reject the notion of a priestly caste (Brahmins), while maintaining the other hierarchical categories found in the Hindu caste system. Jainism departs from Buddhism in the rejection of gods, spirits, and demons, and Jains only believe in the tirthankaras as supernatural beings.

Jains erect temples as works of piety, and some of the finest temples in India have been built to contain images of Jain tirthankaras.

Adapted from

  • "The Arts of Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art," Teaching Packet," 1997.

  • DMA Connect, 2012.