Handbook of Today's Religions


Hinduism gave birth to three religious factions: Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Jainism was its first offspring and though, like any child, it appears in a certain light to be somewhat like its mother, it eventually established itself as a new religion. Within the Hindu religion, Jainism started as a reformation movement but soon found itself as an independent religion based upon the teachings of its founder, Mahavira. Although relatively small in its number of adherents (3 million Indian followers) compared to other religions, Jainism has had an influence disproportionate to its size.

Founder Mahavira

Jainism, in contrast to Hinduism, is based upon a founder and leader known as Mahavira. This name actually is an honorific title signifying "great man." Tradition places the birth of Mahavira at 599 B.C. in northeastern India, which would make him a contemporary of Buddha. Tradition also relates that Mahavira was the second son of a rajah living in luxurious surroundings. He married and had one daughter.

When his parents died, Mahavira decided at the age of 30 to live a life of self-denial, pledging to deny himself the care of his body and not to speak for 12 years. After a short time, Mahavira put off the robe he wore and wandered naked through India receiving injuries from both man and beast. He wandered for 12 years until he reached enlightenment at the age of 42.

The Sacred Books of the East record, "During the thirteenth year, in a squatting position ... exposing himself to the heat of the sun ... with knees high and the head low, in deep meditation, in the midst of abstract meditation he reached nirvana, the complete and full, the unobstructed, infinite absolute" (F. M. Mueller, ed., Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 22, Oxford: Krishna Press, 1879-1910, p. 201).

After reaching enlightenment, Mahavira stopped living by himself and took on disciples, preaching his new-found belief. So he continued to live until the end of his life, at which time he was said to have over 14,000 monks in his brotherhood (Maurice Rawlings, Life-Wish: Reincarnation: Reality or Hoax, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1981, p. 63).

Jainism's Debt to Hinduism

It must be stressed that Jainism did not appear in a religious vacuum. Jainism began as an heretical movement within Hinduism, but now can only be viewed as a distinct religion with reference to Hinduism. Mahavira held firmly to such Hindu beliefs as the law of moral retribution or karma and the transmigration of souls after death. There were, however, many points of disagreement between the two religions at the inception of Jainism. Herbert Stroup lists some of the differences between Hinduism and Jainism:

1. The doctrine of karma, the law of causation as applied to the moral sphere, seemed to him too rigid and restrictive, for within Hinduism its rule is absolute. He sought to lessen this rigidity and to find a practical measure of release from it.

2. The Hindu conception of rebirth came to mean, especially in
the Upanishadic period, that individual souls do not possess real individuality. According to Hindu doctrine souls do not remain individualized in eternity, but become absorbed in Brahma. Mahavira strongly asserted the independence or autonomy of the individual soul.

3. Hinduism taught caste. In Mahavira's time these lines of social organization were still in the making, and he benefited to a considerable extent personally from the system. But he was strongly democratic, believing in the worth of all individuals. He taught the importance of a casteless society.

4. The priestly caste, as a result of the solidifying caste system, was clearly becoming the most influential group in Indian life. Mahavira was a member of the second or warrior caste. This had much to lose as the priesthood became dominant in the society, and a good deal of the impact of early Jainism was in opposition to the prominence of the priestly caste.

5. Particularly in the Vedic and Brahmanic periods, Hinduism was polytheistic. One hymn in the Vedic literature suggests that the gods may number as many as 3,333. Mahavira, in the simplicity of his character, was repelled by the extremes of Vedic polytheism. In fact, he did not teach the existence of a god at all.

6. Hinduism in the Vedic and Brahmanic period also taught the importance of animal sacrifices. These ceremonial occasions became complex affairs with large numbers of animals slaughtered. Mahavira may well have developed his emphasis upon harmlessness (ahimsa) to all living things in response to the excesses of animal sacrifice in his time (Herbert Stroup, Four Religions of Asia, New York: Harper and Row, 1968, p. 99).

Jainism and Belief in God

Mahavira was vehemently opposed to the idea of acknowledging or worshipping a supreme being. He once said:

A monk or a nun should not say, "The god of the sky!" "The god of the thunderstorm!" "The god who begins to rain!" "May rain fall!" "May the crops grow!" "May the king conquer!" They should not use such speech. But, knowing the nature of things, he should say, "The air" "A cloud is gathered, or come down" "The cloud has rained" This is the whole duty (E M. Mueller, ed., op. cit., vol. 22, p. 152).

Later Jainism, however, did acknowledge and worship a deity: Mahavira himself became their object of worship.

Deification of Mahavira

Although Mahavira denied that any God or gods existed to be worshipped, he, like other religious leaders, was deified by his later followers. He was given the designation as the 24th Tirthankara, the last and greatest of the savior beings. Mahavira was regarded as having descended from heaven without sin and with all knowledge.

He descended from heaven ... The venerable ascetic Mahavira descended from the Great Vimana (palace of the gods) (Ibid., pp. 189, 190).
Having wisdom, Mahavira committed no sin himself... He meditated, free from sin and desire (Ibid., p. 86, 87).
He possessed supreme, unlimited, unimpeded knowledge and intuition (Ibid., p. 257).


Jainism is a religion of asceticism involving rigid self-denial. Salvation or liberation could be achieved only by ascetic practices. These practices for the monks are listed in the "Five Great Vows" and include the renunciation of: (1) killing living things, (2) lying, (3) greed, (4) sexual pleasure, and (5) worldly attachments.
The monks, according to Mahavira, were to avoid women entirely because he believed they were the cause of all types of evil:

Women are the greatest temptation in the world. This has been declared by the sage. He should not speak of women, nor look at them, nor converse with them, nor claim them as his own, nor do their work (Ibid., p. 48).

These five great vows could be fulfilled completely only by those Jains who were living the monastic life. Consequently, the laymen who practiced Jainism were given a more modified code to follow.


Central to Jainism is the practice of non-violence or ahimsa. The dedicated Jain is constrained to reverence life and is forbidden to take life even at the lowest level. The obvious consequence of this belief is strict vegetarianism. Farming is frowned upon since the process would inevitably involve killing of lower forms of life. Ahimsa has been summed up in the following statement:

This is the quintessence of wisdom: not to kill anything (Ibid, Vol. 45, p. 247).

The Principles of Jainism

Among the sacred books of Jainism, the 12 angas hold the foremost position. In the second anga, called sutra-keit-anga, the following sayings are contained which give insight into the nature of Jainism:

Know what causes the bondage of the soul; and knowing, try to remove it.
All things are eternal by their very nature.
As imprisoned birds do not get out of their cage, so those ignorant of right or wrong do not get out of their misery.
There are three ways of committing sins: by our actions; by authorizing others, and by approval.
A sage leads a life as far removed from love as from hate.
All living beings hate pain: therefore do not injure them or kill them. This is the essence of wisdom: not to kill anything.
Leave off pride, anger, deceit and greed.
Men suffer individually for the deeds they themselves have done.
The wise man should consider that not he alone suffers; all creatures in the world suffer.
Conceit is a very thin thorn; it is difficult to pull out.
No man should seek fame and respect by his austerities.
A man should treat all creatures in the world as he himself would like to be treated.
He who is purified by meditation is like a ship in the water that avoids all dangers until it reaches the shore.
Do not maintain that there is no such thing as good or evil, but that there is good and evil.

The reason most Jains are wealthy is that their devotion to ahimsa precludes their assuming most manual jobs. They were left to run such non-life-threatening occupations as finance, commerce, and banking.

Jainism and Christianity

Jainism is a religion of legalism, for one attains his own salvation only through the path of rigid self-denial. There is no freedom in this religion, only rules. In contrast to this system which teaches salvation in the Hindu sense of the word (through self-effort), the biblical salvation sets one free through Jesus Christ, who said:

If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:36, NASB).
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light (Matthew 11:28-30, NASB).

The faith Jesus taught alleviates the burdens of people, while Jainism only adds to them. Any concept of God in a personal sense is missing from Jainism. Mahavira and early Jainism rejected the idea of the existence of a supreme being. Although prayer and worship were not advocated by Mahavira himself, after his decease Jainism took to worshipping Mahavira and the Hindu deities. The Bible condemns the worship of any other god apart from Yahweh.

"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:2,3, NASB).

The doctrine of ahimsa, which is central to the Jain belief, is impossible to practice fully since there is no way to avoid killing millions of micro-organisms every time even a glass of water is drunk. This in turn should produce bad karma and thereby make any salvation virtually impossible.

Furthermore, there is no established source of authority for Jain beliefs in light of existing disputes over which of the various books are to be considered authoritative. These books did not even take any permanent form until 1,000 years after the death of Mahavira.

Contrast that with the evidence for the authority of the biblical documents, especially the New Testament. Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, wrote this about the New Testament:

"The interval between the dates of original composition (of the New Testament) and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established" (Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology, New York: Harper and Row, 1940, pp. 288, 289).

The failure of Jainism to advance much beyond certain areas of India speaks to the fact that it does not meet universal human need. This can be contrasted to Jesus Christ, whose impact is universal.

Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God and there is no other (Isaiah 45:22, NASB).
Jesus sent his disciples out with these words:
Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15, NASB).
... you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and
Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8, NASB).

Griffith Thomas sums up the universal appeal of Christianity: "Other religions have had their ethical ideal of duty, opportunity, and even of love, but nowhere have they approached those of Christ, either in reality or in attractiveness or in power. Christ's message is remarkable for its universal adaptation. Its appeal is universal; it is adapted to all men from the adult down to the child; it makes its appeal to all times and not merely to the age in which it was first given. And the reason is that it emphasizes a threefold ethical attitude toward God and man which makes a universal appeal as nothing else does or perhaps can do. Christ calls for repentance, trust and love" (Griffith Thomas, Christianity Is Christ, Chicago: Moody Press, 1965, p. 35).

Comparison of Hinduism, Buddhism and fainism

Hinduism, the mother religion, and its offshoots, Buddhism and
Jainism, have much in common. However, on certain issues they sharply disagree. Robert E. Hume lists both the areas of agreement and disagreement between the faiths:

Points of Agreement between All Three Religions

General pessimism concerning the worth of human life in the midst of the material and social world.
The specific worthlessness of the human body
The specific worthlessness of human activity
The specific worthlessness of the individual as such.
A common tendency to ascetic monastic orders.
A common tendency to sectarian subdivisions.
No program of organized social amelioration.
A common ideal of the greatest good as consisting in subservience, quiescence or passivity, certainly not universally beneficial.
A common ideal of salvation to be obtained by methods largely negative or repressive, certainly not self-expressive.
A common appreciation of a certain religious value in sufferings borne, even voluntarily self-imposed, for self-benefit.
A common belief in many prophets in the same religion, teaching the same eternal doctrines of that particular system.
A common belief in karma and transmigration.Points of Disagreement among the Three Religions (See Robert Hume, The World’s Living Relogions, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, rev. ed. 1959, pp 82-84)
(Robert E. Hume, The World's Living Religions, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, rev. ed., 1959, pp. 82-84).

Jainistic Terms

Ahimsa -The practice of non-violence and reverence for life. Ahimsa forbids the taking of animal life at any level.
Digam baras -The sect of Jainism that insists on going naked, as did the Mahavira, when duty called for it.
Five Great Vows -The principle of self-denial, central to Jain belief, which includes the renunciation of (1) killing living things, (2) lying, (3) greed, (4) sexual pleasure, (5) worldly attachments.
Jains-The designation for the disciples of Mahavira the Jina (the Conqueror).
Jina- Literally, "the conqueror." The designation given to Mahavira for his achievement of victory over his bodily desires. His disciples were thus named Jains.
Mahavira -An honorific title meaning "great man;' given to the founder of Jainism.
Nirgrantha -Literally, "naked one!'A person who practices asceticism in accordance with Jain principles.
Sallakhana-The rite of voluntary self-starvation which, according to tradition, took the life of Mahavira's parents.
Shvetambaras--"The white clad," one of the two main sects of Jainism. The Shvetarnbaras are the liberal wing who believe in wearing at least one garment in contrast to the Digambaras, who insist on wearing nothing when duty demands.
Sthanakvasis -A Jain sect that worships everywhere, not allowing for idols or temples.
Tirthankaza-A savior being. According to Jain belief, Mahavira is the 24th Tirthankara, the last and greatest of the savior beings.
Twelve Angas -The part of the sacred scriptures of Jainism which holds the foremost position.
Venerable One-One of the titles given to the Mahavira by his later disciples.

Jainism Bibliography

Hume, Robert E., The World's Living Religions, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, rev. ed., 1959.
Mueller, F. M., ed., Sacred Books of the East, vol. 22, Oxford: Krishna Press, 1879-1910.
Rawlings, Maurice, Life-Wish: Reincarnation: Reality or Hoax, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1981.
Stroup, Herbert, Four Religions of Asia, New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

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