Jainism - more detail
What do Jains believe?
Jains believe that the purpose of life is to liberate the soul through their own efforts. To achieve this, they follow beliefs set out by a jina or tirthankara (teacher).
They belief time comprises infinite millennia revolving in cycles of several million years. During the current cycle, 24 tirthankaras – which means ‘builders of the ford’ – have appeared to spread the faith. Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha, was the most recent.
Jain philosophy also incorporates the principle of karma. According to this belief, the type of body a person’s soul inhabits in the next life is determined by what their soul does in this life. Being human is the only way to achieve moksha – freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
The three jewels of Jainism offer followers a pathway towards moksha. They are:
- Right belief
- Right knowledge
- Right conduct
Another pillar of Jainism is that greed and the desire to possess material goods limits human beings. The absence of material goods enables people to live a free life, and eventually liberate themselves from the endless cycle of birth and death.
But perhaps the most important Jain belief is ahimsa, which means never inflicting pain – physical or mental – on any living being.
The Jain lifestyle is shaped by the faith’s five great vows (mahavratas):
- Ahimsa Non-violence, no taking of life, compassion for all living creatures
- Satya Truth, the renunciation of secular life
- Achaurya/Asteya No stealing
- Brahmacharya Celibacy outside marriage
- Aparigraha No attachment to/ownership of material goods
There are two main groupings within the Jain faith: Digambara (sky clad) and Shvetambara (white clad). Although their beliefs and practices may differ, they share the same basic philosophy and mahavratas (see above). Most of their differences apply to monks, nuns or particularly devoted followers.
There are several theories to explain the development of these groupings. Influencing factors probably included the different cultural conditions in the various areas where Jains settled.
Most Digambara Jains live in the south-west Indian states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Shvetambara Jains are concentrated in the north-west Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradash.
Cultural and geographical differences may also have lead to different interpretations of Jain teachings.
This group follows particularly austere teachings that are very similar to those followed at the time of Mahavira. Indeed, because Digambara monks and nuns lead such strict lives, there are only a few hundred of them in India.
Although Digambara nuns wear clothes, monks do not. They believe that being a true monk means having no worldly possessions and being unaffected by human emotions such as shame.
Shvetambara monks are entitled a few possessions such as a begging bowl; a brush to remove insects from their path; books and writing materials.
Typically, they travel by foot, only stay in one place for a maximum of four days (except in the monsoon), and have no possessions apart from a walking stick and blanket.
How Jainism developed
Jainism has no single founder. Instead, it has been revealed by a succession of tirthankaras. Originating in India, it first flourished around the Ganges valley. After the fall of the Mauryan dynasty around 200 BCE, many Jains followed their leaders west to the city of Mathura on the Yamuna River. Others travelled further west to Rajasthan and Gujarat, and south to Maharashtra and Karnataka. Here, Jainism rapidly attracted new followers.
Among the most important figures in the Jain faith is Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha. Tradition says that he was born in 599 BCE to King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, who called him Vardhamana. When he was 30, he set out on a highly demanding spiritual quest. After 12 years, he attained omniscience. To spread his teachings, Mahavira founded an order comprising monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen. Jain communities still revolve around these four groups.
The Jain faith has no priesthood. However, specially chosen lay men, known as pujaris, sometimes perform religious rituals at the temples – or mandirs.
In the UK, each Jain community has an elected leader and the country’s main temple is in Leicester.
The status of mendicants
Mendicants are men or women who subsist on the support they receive from others. Jain mendicants are held in high esteem by their community, and they play an important role in teaching the faith to lay people. Like lay people, mendicants take the five great vows, but they follow them even more strictly.
Five stages of development
In Jainism, there are five ideal stages of human development. Asceticism, prayer and practice are essential to progressing through each stage:
- Level one Arhats (worthy ones), also known as jinas or tirthankaras
- Level two Siddhas (liberated souls), who have destroyed all eight types of karma
- Level three Teachers – sadhvis (nuns) and sadhus (monks) – who are spiritual leaders
- Level four Teachers, nuns and monks who instruct other monks and nuns
- Level five Ordinary monks
How Jains worship
Jains typically offer worship (puja) at their home shrines three times a day – before dawn, at sunset, and at night. They may also worship at a temple (mandir). Where there is no mandir, they meet in homes and halls.
Before entering a place of worship, Jains take a bath to purify themselves, and leave their shoes and any leather items outside. As they enter the mandir, they place a mark of sandalwood paste on their foreheads. This is a sign of their commitment to the faith.
As they chant mantras, worshippers bathe images of the jina, offering flowers and incense and waving arati (lamps).
On occasion, some Jains will voluntarily undertake tapas (practices of austerity). These might include eating only one meal a day or fasting from sunrise to sunset, either for a day or for a week.
Dairy products such as milk, curd and ghee (clarified butter) are permitted. Meat, eggs, butter, root vegetables, figs, honey and alcohol are prohibited. Garlic and onions are also unacceptable to stricter Jains. Jain ascetics and some lay people do not eat after sunset or before sunrise. This is to avoid unintentional harm to any insects that appear after dark.
Jainsim in the UK
There are up to 30,000 Jains in the UK and most of them belong to the shvetambara group. Most live around the Greater London area and in Leicester, with other communities in Coventry, Luton, Manchester, Northampton and Wellingborough.
Most Jains arrived in this country after 1945. They mainly came from India, where they formed their own merchant and financial community. Today, most British-based Jains are in business or the professions. Many are involved in charities and philanthropic work.
There are four Jain places of worship in England – three in London (Croydon, Kenton, Potters Bar) and one in Leicester, the first in the world to bring together all the main Jain sects under one roof.
There are national and local Jain organisations in the UK known as mandal (circle), samaj (society) or sangh (group or gathering). Contact is best made through the local group secretary, chair or president.