Jainism, a form of religion intermediate between Brahminism and Buddhism, originated in India in pre-Christian times, and has maintained its heretical attitude towards Brahminism down to the present day. The name is derived from jina, conqueror, one of the epithets popularly applied to the reputed founder of the sect. Jainism bears a striking resemblance to Buddhism in its monastic system, its ethical teachings, its sacred texts, and in the story of its founder. This closeness of resemblance has led not a few scholars—such as Lassen, Weber, Wilson, Tiele, Barth—to look upon Jainism as an offshoot of Buddhism and to place its origin some centuries later than the time of Buddha. But the prevailing view today—that of Biihler, Jacobi, Hopkins, and others—is that Jainism in its origin is independent of Buddhism and, perhaps, is the more ancient of the two. The many points of similarity between the two sects are explained by the indebtedness of both to a common source, namely the teachings and practices of ascetic, monastic Brahminism. Of the reputed founder of Jainism we have but few details, and most of these are so like what we read of the beginnings of Buddhism that one is strongly led to suspect that here at least one is dealing with a variation of the Buddha-legend. According to Jainist tradition, the founder lived in the sixth century B.C., being either a contemporary or a precursor of Buddha. His family name was Jnatriputra (in Prakrit, Nattaputta), but, like Gotama, he was honored with the laudatory names of Buddha, the enlightened, Mahavira, the great hero, and Jina, the conqueror. These last two epithets came to be his distinctive titles, while the name Buddha was associated almost exclusively with Gotama. Like Buddha, Jina was the son of a local raja who held sway over a small district in the neighborhood of Benares. While still a young man he felt the emptiness of a life of pleasure, and gave up his home and princely station to become an ardent follower of the Brahmin ascetics. If we may trust the Jainist scriptures, he carried the principle of self-mortification to the extent that he went about naked, unsheltered from the sun, rain, and winds, and lived on the rudest vegetarian fare, practicing incredible fasts. Accepting the principle of the Brahmin ascetics, that salvation is by personal effort alone, he took the logical step of rejecting as useless the Vedas and the Vedic rites. For this attitude towards the Brahmin traditions he was repudiated as a heretic. He gathered eleven disciples around him, and went about preaching his doctrine of salvation. Like Buddha he made many converts, whom he organized under a monastic rule of life. Associated with them were many who accepted his teaching in theory, but who in practice stopped short of the monastic life of extreme asceticism. These were the lay Jainists, who, like the lay Buddhists, contributed to the support of the monks.
The Jainists seem never to have been so numerous as the Buddhists. Though they claim a membership of over a million believers, laity included, recent statistics of India show that their number is not greater than half a million. On the question of the propriety of going about naked, the Jainist monks have for ages been split into two sects. The White-Robed Sect, whose monks are clothed in white garments, is the more numerous, flourishing chiefly in N. W. India. To this sect belong a few communities of Jainist nuns. The naked ascetics, forming the other sect, are strongest in the South of India, but even here they have largely restricted the custom of nakedness to the time of eating. As the Buddhist creed is summed up in three words, Buddha, the Law, the Order, so the Jainist creed consists of the so-called three jewels, Right Belief, Right Knowledge, Right Conduct. Right Belief embraces faith in Jina as the true teacher of salvation and the acceptance of the Jainist scriptures as his authoritative teaching. These scriptures are less extensive, less varied, than the Buddhist, and, while resembling the latter to a large degree, lay great stress on bodily mortification. The canon of the White-robed Sect consists of forty-five Agamas, or sacred texts, in the Prakrit tongue. Jacobi, who has translated some of these texts in the “Sacred Books of the East”, is of the opinion that they cannot be older than 300 B.C. According to Jainist tradition, they were preceded by an ancient canon of fourteen so-called Purvas, which have totally disappeared. With the Jainist, “Right Knowledge” embraces the religious view of life together with the end of man, while “Right Conduct” is concerned with the main ethical precepts and with the ascetic, monastic system.
The Jainist, like the Buddhist and the pantheistic Brahmin, takes for granted the doctrine of Karma and its implied rebirths. He, too, views every form of earthly, bodily existence as misery. Freedom from rebirth is thus the goal after which he aspires. But, while the pantheistic Brahmin and the primitive Buddhist looked for the realization of the end in the extinction of conscious, individual existence (absorption in Brahma, Nirvana), the Jainist has always tenaciously held to the primitive traditional belief in a final abode of bliss, where the soul, liberated from the necessity of rebirth on earth, enjoys forever a spiritual, conscious existence. To attain this end, the Jainist, like the Buddhist and the pantheistic Brahmin, holds that the traditional gods can aid but little. The existence of the gods is not denied, but their worship is held to be of no avail and is thus abandoned. Salvation is to be obtained by personal effort alone. To reach the longed-for goal, it is necessary to purify the soul of all that binds it to a bodily existence, so that it shall aspire purely and solely after a spiritual life in heaven. This is accomplished by the life of severe mortification of which Jina set the example. Twelve years of ascetic life as a Jainist monk and eight rebirths are necessary to constitute the purgatorial preparation for the Jainist heaven. While the Jains are not worshippers of the Hindu gods, they erect imposing temples to Jina and other venerated teachers. The images of these Jainist saints are adorned with lights and flowers, and the faithful walk around them while reciting sacred mantras. Jainist worship is thus little more than a veneration of a few saints and heroes of the past.
On its ethical side—the sphere of Right Conduct—Jainism is largely at one with Brahminism and Buddhism. There are, however, a few differences in the application of the principle of not killing. The sacredness of all kinds of life implied in the doctrine of metempsychosis has been more scrupulously observed in practice by the Jain than by the Brahmin or the Buddhist. The Brahmin tolerates the slaughter of animals for food, to provide offerings for the sacrifice, or to show hospitality to a guest; the Buddhist does not scruple to eat meat prepared for a banquet; but the Jain reprobates meat-food without exception as involving the unlawful taking of life. For similar reasons the Jain does not content himself with straining his drinking water and with remaining at home during the rainy season, when the ground is swarming with lower forms of life, but when he goes forth, he wears a veil before his mouth, and carries a broom with which he sweeps the ground before him to avoid destruction of insect life. The Jainist ascetic allows himself to be bitten by gnats and mosquitoes rather than risk their destruction by brushing them away. Hospitals for animals have been a prominent feature of Jainist benevolence, bordering at times on absurdity. For example, in 1834 there existed in Kutch a temple hospital which supported 5000 rats. With all this scrupulous regard for animal life, the Jain differs from the Buddhist in his view of the lawfulness of religious suicide. According to Jainist ethics a monk who has practiced twelve years of severe asceticism, or who has found after long trial that he cannot keep his lower nature in control, may hasten his end by self-destruction.
CHARLES F. AIKEN