We can trace existence of Jainism in Maharashtra from ancient period. Lot of Jain caves, rock inscriptions and copper plates found in various parts of Maharashtra prove that Jainism was a prominent religion in this region.
Maharashtra is situated at western part of India. It is a part of the Plateau of Deccan. In ancient time Maharashtra included Northern parts of present day Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The word Maharashtra is not found in any Vedic literature, Ramayan or Mahabharat, but it is mentioned at many places in Jain and Buddhist literature and some Hindu purans.
Maharashtra has worked as a link between north and south India. This region is called a gateway to South India. Jainism oriented in North and eventually became a major religion of South India. Thanks to the Jain missionaries of North who migrated to South. For these missionary Jain monks of North India, there were at least two major routs to reach southern part of India, i.e. one from Eastern parts of India passing through Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and another passing through Maharashtra. The earliest known migration was in 3rd century B.C.E., when Acharya Bhadrabahu and thousands of Jain monks left North India and went to Karnataka. The only way for them was through Maharashtra as they left from the city of Ujjaiyini, which is in neighboring northern state Madhya Pradesh.
Migration of Jain monks to south India through Maharashtra took place as early as 3rd century B.C.E. The earliest inscriptional evidence of the presence of Jain monks in Maharashtra is the Jain cave at Pale (Paaley) in Pune district. This cave is situated on the famous ancient rout passing through Naane Ghaat. A rock inscription is carved in this cave, which is in Prakrit language and Brahmi script. The first line of this inscription is ‘Namo Arhanta Nam’. No other lines of Namokar Mantra are written in this inscription. Scholars like Sankliya have dated this inscription back to 2nd century B.C.E. This is the earliest rock inscription found in Maharashtra. So the first inscription in Maharashtra is a Jain inscription. Interestingly, the first inscription in Marathi language, although it is not in Maharashtra, is also an inscription related to Jains.
There are many other caves and rock inscriptions related to Jainism in Maharashtra carved in later period. The most important Jain caves in Maharshtra are situated at Dharashiv and Ter in Osmanbad district, Ellora in Aurangabad district, Mangi-Tungi, Gajpanth, Ankai-Tankai and Patan in northern Maharashtra, Paaley in Pune district and Kundal in Sangli district.
Further, history of the most of the Jain pilgrimage centers in Maharashtra goes back to ancient or medieval period.
Many literary references also prove the presence of Jainism in ancient and medieval Maharashtra. The earliest Jain literature in India was written in Ardhmagadhi language, a language of ancient Magadh (Bihar). But later on many sacred texts and other important Jain literature was written in Maharashtri, a Prakrit language spoken in Maharashtra. The volume was so high that in later period this language was named as Jain Maharashtri language. In later centuries Jain literature in Maharashtra was written in Maharashtri Apbhransh language. All these languages are predecessors of present day Marathi language, the most important and official language of Maharashtra. Notable thing is that the old Marathi was known as a Prakrit language.
Samprati was a Mouryan Emperor who was Grandson of Emperor Ashok and disciple of Jain Acharya Suhasti. According to Nishithvisheshchurni, Samprati had sent his men to various regions including Maharashtra to make a way for Jain monks to wander.
Pratishthan (also known as Paithan) in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra was a great center of Jains. A lot of incidents related to Jains and Jainism happened in this city. According to one tradition, it was the birthplace of the famous Jain Acharya Bhadrabahu. In 2nd century BCE this city became capital of Satvahan kings, who were originally from Andhra Pradesh. According to Kalakacharya’s story, on request of the Satvahan King, the Acharya changed the date of Paryushan by one day. After it a festival called Samanpuja was being celebrated in Maharashtra. The King is mentioned as Param Shravak i.e. the best follower of Jainism.
Jnaneshwari, the famous sacred book of Maharashtrian Hindus mentions Jain monks. This book was written by the famous saint Jnaneshwar in 13th century.
Many Jain scholars of Maharashtra wrote various books in Marathi language on Jainism, in the period of 14th to 18th century. Before that period, Jain literature was written in Maharashtri Apbhransh language. Some of the famous Jain scholars were Mahakavi Pushpadant, Chimna Pundit, Meghraj, Kamraj, Mahichandra etc.
Many words, phrases and idioms in Marathi language show that Jainism was an influential religion in Maharashtra.
The Bhattarak Tradition
Bhattaraks, a type of Jain ascetics, have a special place in Jains of South India. The Bhattarak tradition primarily flourished in Karnatak. Later this tradition got a place in Maharashtra also. There were four major seats of Bhataaraks in Maharashtra. The Jinsen Jain Math at Nandani in Kolhapur district, the Laxmisen Jain Math of Kolhapur, Vishalkeerti Jain Math of Latur and Karanja Jain Math. All these seats have a history of several centuries. The Bhattaraks did a good job for Jain community in the decline period of Jainism. The first two Jain seats are still in existence, while latter two are closed.
Jainism and Royal Dynasties in Maharashtra
As you know, Jainism was a prominent religion of Kshatriya (Warriors) community in India. The most of the royal families in Maharashtra also were followers of this faith. Major parts of Maharshtra were ruled by various dynasties like Kadambs, Rashtrakuts, Chalukyas, Ratts, Kalchuris, Shilahars, Yadavs and others in different periods. All the dynasties mentioned above had affiliation with Jainism.
Kadambs were supporters of Yapaniya sect of Jainism. Kadambs built many Jain temples. They ruled from Banvasi in Karnataka.
Rashtrakuts: According to A.S. Altekar, Jainism was the religion of masses in the period of Rashtrakuts. Shivlilamrut, a Marathi religious book of Hindus supports this fact.This book mentions that the people of all classes and castes were following Jainism in the period of Adi Shanakaracharya. This book also mentions that Adi Shanakaracharya, the famous reformist of Vedics, visited the city of Kolhapur, where he had a conflict with Jains of Kasar caste. Interestingly, Kolhapur is still a stronghold of Kasar Jains.
Rashtrakuts ruled from Malkhed (Manykhet) in present day Gulbarga district of Karnatak. They ruled over a wide region including entire south India and up to Malva in north. Rashtrakut King Indra II built the famous caves of Ellora, situated in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. 4 out of the 34 caves there belong to Jainism. Another Rashtrakut King Amoghvarsh was a staunch follower of Jainism and a disciple of Jain Acharya Jinsen. Another Jain Acharya Mahaveer of this period was a famous mathematician. Mahaveeracharya is called one of the 10 great ancient mathematicians of the world. Amoghvarsh’s successor Krishna II was pupil of Jain Acharya Gunbhadra. Gunbhadra compiled last five chapters of Jinsen’s incomplete Uttarpuran. Indra II, the last king of this dynasty took vow of Sallekhana, the Jain way of death.
Jainism flourished in the period of Rashtrakuts all over Deccan and during this period many Jain scholars wrote their masterly works. In this period, the education system of masses was in the hands of Jain monks.
Chalukyas: The first capital of Chalukyas was at Kundal in present day Sangli district. Ruins of Chalukyan forts are found in the town of Kundal. Kundal is a pilgrimage center of Jains and there are cave temples on the hill near Kundal. The Chalukyas were supporters of Jainism. According to several copperplates and rock inscriptions, their family religion was Jainism. Chalukyas migrated to Badami and ruled from there for about two and half century. A branch of Chalukyas migrated to Gujarat. The famous Emperor Kumarpal, who was disciple of Jain Acharya Hemchandra promoted Jainism in large scale in Gujarat.
Sinds, was a minor dynasty of medieval Maharashtra. According to a copper plate, the first ancestor of this dynasty was Ajanbahu, who was the son of Dharnendra and Padmavati of Ahichhatra in Uttar Pradesh. As you know, Dharnendra and Padmavati were chief disciples of Parshwanath, the 23rd Jain Teerthankar. Ajanbhahu came to Maharashtra and found his kingdom. Several rock inscriptions indicate this dynasty’s affiliation with Jainism.
Ratts ruled from Belgavi. They too were Jains and Jainism flourished in Sangli, Kolhapur and Belgavi region in their reign. Ratts were feudatories of Rashtrakuts. Kamalbasti, athe famous Jain temple in Belgavi fort was built by Ratts.
Shilahar was another major dynasty supporting Jainism. The main branch of Shilahars ruled from Kolhapur, which was a major Jain center in 9th to 13th century.
Shilahar Kings Marsinh, Gandraditya, Vijayaditya were great patrons of Jainism. Shilahar king Bhoj II and his mighty General Nimbaras were disciples of Jain Acharya Maghnandi. An inscription at Kolhapur says about Nimbaras ‘…. He erected Jain temples everywhere. He filled all the villages with gentlemen and sweet speaking Jains and made the region full of Jains’. Nimbaras was seriously wounded while fighting with Kalchuri King Bijjal. Nimbaras took the vow of Sallekhana on the battlefield. Thus he lived and died as a true Jain.
Shilahar Princess Chandralekha was a staunch Jain and the administrator of 7000 villages. She was married to Chalukya emperor Vikramaditya VI.
In the period of later Shilahars, many Jain families of Bijapur & Koppals districts of present day Karnataka migrated to Kolhapur and Sangli region of Maharashtra.
Kalchuries were contemporaries of Shilahars. According to Jain and Veershaivite literature, the famous Kalchuri king Bijjal was a Jain. Historically this dynasty was savior of Jains in Tamil Nadu.
Yadavs came into Maharashtra from Gujarat. Their first capital was Anjaneri near Nasik. They were closely related to Jainism. Drudahpahar, one of the yadav kings was born into a Jain temple. Many of the Yadav Generals and queens were staunch Jains. One can see Jain ruins at Yadav capitals like Anjneri, Devgiri and Sindkhedraja.
All the ancient archeological evidences and literary references indicate that Maharashtra was stronghold of Digambar Jains from ancient period. However there was some influence of Shwetambars and Yapaniya Sangha. Shwetambars Jainism made some place for it in North West Maharashtra while Yapaniya Sangha was a prominent sect in South Maharashtra and Marathwada region for a long period. Later this sangh was absorbed by Digambar sect.
Many literary and sociological evidences denote that Jainism was popular in common people. Many Hindu castes of today’s Maharashtra were followers of Jainism in medieval period. According to Kolhapur Gazetteer (1885), people like Barbers, Washermen and others were followers of Jainism. There was a time when Jainism was a prominent religion amongst Marathas, the major caste of Maharashtra.
The oldest inscription in Marathi language is at the feet of the giant statue of Gomateshwar at Shravanbelgola. This place is far away from the Marathi speaking area. This inscription was carved in 981 C.E.. The same inscription is in Kannad and Tamil language too. Writing the inscription in Marathi language also proves that a large number of Marathi speaking Jain pilgrims were visiting this place. Obviously they were from Maharashtra.
Decline of Jainism
Jainism was most important religion of Deccan in medieval age. But after 13th century, in Maharashtra and other parts of the country started to decline. Most of the medieval Jains of Maharashtra got converted to other religions after 13th century because of political and social situations. The main reason were the rise of Warkari, Mahanubhav and veershaivite faiths. The code of conduct in these three faiths was just like Jainism, but in easy way and practical. Masses were attracted to these faiths. Another reason was anti Jain activities by Vedic Brahmins, which took place in Later Yadav rule. In Peshava rule, there were restrictions on Jainism and most of Somvanshi Kasar Jains in Western and north Maharashtra got converted to other faiths.
Probably present day Saitwals, Jain Kasars and Somvashi Kshatriya Kasars are the remnants of medieval Jains as many of their surnames are like other older communities in Maharashtra. All other Jain communities in present Maharashtra are migrants from South and North India.