Among religions, Jain Religion has contributed some original ideologies to the world. The most significant aspect of it is that it has always respected the smallest of the insects among living organisms and this attitude extends even to the inanimate world, to even a blade of grass. As a legitimate consequence, equality amongst men and fraternity with the animals, the insects and Nature in all its manifestations has come to be the essential feature of Jain ideology. It is but natural for such a religion to cultivate an attitude of respect towards women. The period when Jain religion emerged as a major religion also saw casteism and class-hatred ruling Supreme. A few of the classes or castes styled themselves as superior to others and the inferior classes were required to serve them as bonded labourers. Jain religion opposed this inhuman class distinction and glorified the soul that dwelt within each human being. Obviously, therefore, it emphasised equality between men and women. Jain religion regarded the women as equal partners of men in strong contrast to the common concept of woman as an inferior being. In the Jain fold, religious and social functions, a woman enjoys as many rights as a man does; it would therefore be sheer ignorance to treat woman as inferior. Jain religion has pre ched that where a man goes, woman can go; what a man does, woman can do. Achievements of man and woman should be considered as being on equal level. Matters of religious achievements and self development are related to the soul rather than to the body and the difference of sex as merely on the physical plane. Woman is thus equally at liberation by freeing themselves from the bondages of desires, passions and doings that is KARMA. Jain religion pointed out that there is no difference or distinction as far as the souls of a man and a woman are concerned, on the spiritual plane. Thus it would be illogical, irreligious and ignorant for a man to treat woman as an inferior. Thus the approach of Jain religion towards woman is based on the concept of equality.
Jain religion is oriented towards emancipation. It mostly emphasises the values of renunciation, of detachment and liberation. Normally, in almost all religions a woman is belittled whenever the concept of freedom from passion is being highlighted, for the reason that she evokes passions and carnal desires, and thus she is someone to be avoided or kept at a safe distance. But in the Jain fold, the approach is totally different. "Sutrakrutang Niryukti" specifically mentions that just as a woman is liable to destroy the character of man, so a man might destroy the character of a woman. Hence, women averse to worldly pleasures shall save herselves from men, in the same manner as men have to save themselves from women.
Jain religion has also probed some of the deeper aspects of man- woman relationship. The significance of the word NARI had been fully explained in 'Sutrkrutang Niryukti' and in 'Churni' and woman has been classifies as 'Dravya Stri' and 'Bhav Stir'. Dravya Stri would mean the physical formation of a woman and Bhav Stri would mean her temperament. So also in 'Uttradhyayan Churni'. 'Nishith Churni' and 'Acharang Churni' the female temperament is elaborately described. Again, 'Tandulvaicharik Prakirnak' dwell upon some 94 innate characteristics of a women. Indeed, at some places the description seems to be derogatory but it is specifically mentioned in 'Bhagvati Aradhana' that this description of the shortcoming applies only to ordinary women and women of no chastity, whereas women of chastity have no such shortcomings. Moreover, in praise of women thid book mentions how the glory of a virtuous woman spreads everywhere and she is like a goddess on earth. She is worshipped even by the gods and no words are adequate enough to praise her. It is for this reason that the Jain Agams regard wife as 'dhammasahaya' - as one who helps in religion.
As a result of this concept of equality for women, the role of women in Jain religion has been very significant.
Women also played the role of providing inspiration to men. It was because of the inspiration of Hemchandracharya's mother Pahimi that he came to earn the reputation as the "Ocean of Knowledge", Kavi Dhanpal was inspored by his sister Sundari in writing his monumental work 'AMARKOSH'. So also women like Shreedevi and Anupamadevi provided inspiration to their husbands spend their wealth for religious purposes. Even in this century, there have been numerous sadhvis and shravikas who have earned high reputation in various fields. Impressed by the personality of Mahasati Ujjavalkumari, Gandhiji himself went to visit her. Harkunvar Sjethani constructed the Hathisnha temples of imense grandeur and sponsored a huge procession of pilgrims and thereby exhibited her skill in management Mahattara Mrigavatishriji inspired the contruction of Vallabhsmarak at New Delhi. Sardabai Majasatiji Sadhvi Pramukha Kanakprabhashriji and many other Sadhviji's have provided fruitful guidance and leadership to the society.
It is because of this emphatic and positive role of Sadhvis and Sharvikas that the Jain religion, committed as it was to non- violence did not approve the 'Sati' system which was prevalent in the Middle Ages. So also it has strongly resisted the 'dasi' system-women slavery and the practice of the trading of women. 'Dasi' system was regarded as a symbol of affluence and prestige. Many dasi's were bought from various countries for the pleasure of Megh Kumar. But Bhagvan Mahavir protested stronlgly agaisnt the practice. Sadhvi Yakshakunvarji struggled incessantly to end the practice of sacrificing animals. Jain religion is fundamentally opposed to the seven vices like polygamy, adultery, addiction to alcholic frinks, harlotry and gambling. Women from this religion are saved from the torture that results from these evils. In 'GNATA DHARMAKATHA' King Drupad asks Droupadi to select husband for herself. As mentioned in 'UPASAK DASHANG' , Mahashatak does not compel his wife Revati in any way as regards religious faith, food habits and other mtters. On the other hand women like the wife of Sharvak Anand very willingly and joyously follow the faith of their husband and perform the 'Upasak' vows of Bhagvan Mahavir. Thus, since the times of Agama era women are allowed total freedom as regards religious faith and life style. Sadhvis used to live and move independently from the company of the Sadhus, and arranged for their own security by appointing a sadhvi as like Pratihare-guard.
Bhagvan Mahavir has glorifies the vow of celibacy and women were also allowed to refuse the marries way of life and go for the celibate way of living. Women like Brahmi, Sundari Mali, Chandanbala, Jayanti and others accepted the lifelong vow of celibacy by rejecting the marries life. In view of the prevailing traditions and circumstances, it was considered inevitable in those times for women to live a marries life. But Jain religion has left such a personal issue of marriage to the discretion of women, a woman may herself decide whether to marry or not. If she felt that the unmarried way of life was better for her effective religious pursuits, she was entitled for 'DIKSHA' without getting married.
At the 'SAMVASARAN' (gathering for preaching) of Bhagvan Mahavir, women enjoyed as much freedom as did men. They attended such gatherings without any restraint or restriction, listened to the preachings and satisfies their curiosity by publicly asking questions as in the case of Jayanti who settled her doubts by raising questions.
Thus, the role of women in Jain religion has been very progressive and ennobling on th whole. As mothers they have given birth to "Trithankaras', as wives they have provided inspiration to their husbands; as individuals they have managed large trade and commerce independently. In the Jain way way of life, woman has always been bold enough to protect her chastity and defeat the enemy. Her learning has for ever been honoured everywhere. Sadhvis have set an example for the society in matters relating to the ultimate achievement of spiritual progress. The liberation of women, the freedom of women and the advancement of women are integrated in Jain religion. These principles are sure to guide and lead the people in the ensuring decades towards the new path of attainment of the liberty of women.
You may like to read Life of Jain Women in India by Mahavir Sanglikar discussing different issues related to Jain women.