Jainism is one of the oldest living religions of the world. The term Jaina means the devotee of Jinas (Spiritual Victors). Jinas are called so because they have won victory over passions of attachment, aversion, etc. that defile the soul. As a result, they have attained omniscience and supreme bliss. They are enlightened human teachers. They are also called Tirthankaras (Ford-makers). Here in the context, ford means tirthankara's words and teaching which help living beings to cross the ocean of misery or transmigratory existence. In every half-cycle of Time there flourish twenty-four Tirthankaras. The twenty-fourth Tirthankara of the present half-cycle of Time is Vardhamana, known as Mahavira.
Mahavira was born in 599 B.C. in a royal knightly family in Kshatriyakunda, a wellknown city of the ancient kingdom of Videha (modern Bihar). At the age of thirty, to find out the path to Ultimate Release from all misery he renounced the world, he embarked upon a spiritual career and lived a life of a Jaina ascetic. After twelve years of severe spiritual discipline of self-culture, self-control, austerities and deep meditation, he totally exterminated attachment completely and attained omniscience (kevalajnana). He became a perfected soul and prophet (Tirthankara). During the next thirty years of his career as a prophet he travelled on foot from place to place giving his message of peace and goodwill for the welfare of all living beings, without any discrimination of race, class, caste or sex. Eleven men accepted his spiritual leadership and became his chief disciples (ganadhara). He founded the order of nuns with Candanabala as its first member. The number of male and female ascetics increased and reached upto about 50,000. The lay followers were about half a million.
Mahavira's parents were followers of Parshva, the penultimate Tirthankara, who lived about 250 years earlier in Varanasi. The historicity of Parshva is proved by the modern historians and scholars. So Mahavira was not the founder of Jaina religion. He was the rejuvenator, propagator and exponent of Jaina religion which had been taught by Parshva and other omniscient teachers of his ever present and imperishable Jaina tradition.
Initially the followers of Jainism lived throughout the Ganges Valley. Around the time of Ashoka (250 B.C.) most Jainas migrated to the city of Mathura on the Yamuna river. Later, many travelled westword to Rajasthan and Gujarat and south word to Maharashtra and Karnataka, where Jainism rapidly grew in popularity.
The Jaina canon contains some sixty texts and is divided into three main group, the Purva (old texts : 14 books), the Angas (limbs : 12 books) and the Angabahya(subsidiary canon). Not all are extant. In addition to the threefold canon itself, there are extensive commentaries written in Prakrit and Sanskrit by the monk scholars. The Tattvartha Surta, written in the second century A.D., belongs to this group. Its author Umasvati is held in high esteem by both Svetambar and Digambar tradition. It for the first time presents in Sanskrit the entire canonical material on various subjects in aphoristic style and in classified form succinctly and systematically.
In Jainism, the essence of religion lies in an intuitive apprehension of the purity of consciousness. According to Jainism, the love of truth is inherent in each self, but it requires spiritual exercise for its manifestation. Once this love of truth is manifested, it will lead the self to liberation sooner or later.
The conduct of a person, in the Jain view cannot be isolated from his way of life. For the true Jaina, Truth and Values are inseperable. This is where right knowledge comes in. As Acharya Samantabhadra in his Yuktyanushasanam (Verse 15) says :
"Without knowing the real nature of things, all moral distinctions between bondage and liberation, merit and demerit, pleasure and pain will be absurd."
The values of Jain religion are based on five vows viz.- non-violence, devotion to truth, non-stealing, celibacy and non-possession. The entire life style of the Jain Shravak and the Jain Sadhu emanates from these vows and the foremost is non-violence.
Ahimsa, non-violence, has been the sheet-anchor of Jainism. Ahimsa is one of the basic virtues. No where else in the other religious traditions has this basic virtue been so scientifically, scrupulously and thoroughly integrated with the main doctrine. Jainism is the only tradition which has consistently allowed this tenet soak into the very essentials of its teachings and practices. This singular uncompromising emphasis on Ahimsa is the special and exclusive feature of Jainism. In Jainism, Ahimsa is not mere human sympathy; it is empathy, the urge to identify oneself completely with other persons, other living beings, with the whole universe.
Bhagwan Mahavir said, "If you kill someone, it is yourself you kill. If you overpower someone, it is yourself you overpower. If you torment some one, it is yourself you torment. If you harm someone, it is yourself you harm." A wise man knows this and so he does not kill, nor does he overpower or torment anyone.
The heart of Jainism is non-violence. Jainism is a religion of compassion, universal love and friendliness. It aims at the welfare of all living beings, and not of man alone. It maintains that living beings are infinite, all so called empty spaces in the universe are filled with minute living beings. According to it, there are countless single-sense organisms that take the subtlest possible units of material elements -earth, water, fire and air - as their bodies. Fresh earth is alive but when it is baked it becomes dead. Fresh water from a well, etc. is alive but when it is boiled or influenced by mixing some other substance it becomes dead. Vegetables, trees, plants, fruits, etc. do have life but when they are dried, cut or cooked they die. To avoid injury to them as far as possible, man is advised to use them discreetly. He should resist from polluting water, air, etc. and thereby perpetrating violence to them. Worms, insects, animals, etc. help in keeping ecological balance thus they help man. And domestic animals have for ages been a constant and faithful aid to man in civilizing himself. From the ultimate standpoint of their original pure pristine state, all living beings are uniform in their nature. Jainism teaches to look upon them as upon one's ownself. Inflicting injury to them is inflicting injury to one's ownself.
In Jain philosophy Ahimsa is said to be the supreme religion and himsa is considered to be source of all evil and of all miseries. Ahimsa is not limited to not harming the human beings, it extends to all living beings. This philosophy believes in the unity of life and regards all living beings as equal. He who can be cruel to animals can be cruel to human beings too. Further, cruelty is not only an aspect of external behaviour, but it is also an inner evil tendency. He who is cruel at heart will behave cruelly towards animals as well as human beings. He who is compassionate at heart, will behave compassionately towards all. Moreover, the jain religion believes in the cycle of birth and rebirth.
It is one of the tenets of Jainism that all living beings desire life and not death. No one has the right to take away the life of any other being; to kill a living being is the greatest of sins. Life is dear to everyone, and we must have respect for life. Not only "Love and Let Live" but "Live and Help Others Live" should be our principle. Just as the head of a family looks after the welfare of the members of the family, a human being, who enjoys the highest place in the evolution of life, should look after the welfare of other lower orders of creations.
In the universe, there are different forms, different orders, of life, such as human beings, animals, insects, trees and plants, bacteria and even still smaller lives which perhaps be seen only through the most powerful of microscopes. Jainism has classified all the living beings according to their sense organs. Jainism firmly believes that life is sacred, irrespective of caste, colour, creed or nationality and therefore not only physical or mental injury to life should be avoided, but all possible kindness should be shown towards all the living things. This should be the true spirit of Ahimsa. Jainism believes that more weapons are in no way an effectiveanswer to weapons. Lord Mahavir has emphatically declared in "Acharanga Sutra" that one weapon may be stronger or superior to another, but the path of Ahimsa or peace remains unsurpassed. Fire cannot be put out by fire. It is our duty to stop adding fuel to the fire. Jaina scriptures say that a piece of blood-stained cloth cannot be washed with blood, we need water to do it. To achieve peace, world peace, we have to stop the race of armaments and we have to have an unshakeable faith in Samyag Darshana in the effective validity of Ahimsa. The second great vow is Truth. To speak the truth, one require moral courage. Only those who have conquered greed, fear, anger, jealousy, ego, vulgarity, frivolity etc. can speak the truth when required.
Jainism always advocates the generous view, the view that there can be a grain of truth in what the other persons say, Anekantadrishti, for truth is relative. As you have full faith in what is truth from your point of view, so too one should make room for the view-point of others. Thus, Anekantavada (Theory of many-sidedness) enables one to tolerate and co-ordinate a wide range of points-of-view in a spirit of co-operation even if at times, these may be contradictory. This is the true method involving ceaseless endeavour to search out truth. To regard everything from a relative point of view and to see an element of truth in everything, this is Anekantavada. Not 'mine is the truth' but 'truth is mine' should be one's motto.
Anekantavada is the heart of Jainism. It constitutes its most significant contribution to religious thought, and especially in the field of ethics. It teaches that the kingdom of truth can be reached through plurality of ways. It also teaches not to impose one's own thoughts or views on others, and to try to reconcile the thoughts or view-points of others with one's own. This principle, therefore, if earnestly put into practice shows us how to overcome our personal view of things, which is often short-sighted, selfish and partial. It shows us how to remove discord and disharmony and establish concord and harmony in life, by being catholic and tolerant in our outlook and attiude towards others.
The principle of Anekantavada should be applied to every field of life. It shows how to respect candid opinions of all free thinkers of the world; the roots of modern democracy could be traced in this Jaina principle. It establishes unity in diversity. It promises reconciliation of divergent or conflicting statements, thoughts, ideologies, systems, religions etc. The principle of Anekantavada therefore can be a great instrument for promoting peaceful co-existence and unity in the world.