Jainism is primarily an Indian religion. There are more than 3 million Jains in India, forming almost the smaller sections among the various religious groups. In spite of its small number, the Jain community has a strong influence on the Indian life. Jains belong chiefly to the mercantile class, spread mainly over central, northern and southern India. Splendid Jain temples and statues can be found almost in all parts of the country. The Jains have also set up many trusts and charitable institutions in the country.
The theme of self-conquest, common to all religions is supremely important to the Jains. The very word Jaina is derived from 'Jina' conqueror. Carrying the idea of self-conquest to its extreme, Jainism has become the worlds most rigourously ascetic faith. God has no place in this system. The popular god's of Hinduism are accepted, but they are placed lower than the Jains who are regarded as the true recipients of worship.
Vardhamana better known by his title Mahavira (great Hero) was an elder contemporary of the Buddha. He cannot be called the founder of Jainism but rather its reformer. He is said to be the last of a line of 24 Jains. The Ist Rsabha whose name is detected in the Vedas and hence Jainism can be claimed to be of great antiquity. The 22nd prophet 'Neminatha' (or Austanemi) who came from Kathiawar is very popular in Gujarat. He is supposed to be a kinsman of Lord Krishna, the Hindu god. Jainism belongs to mythology rather than history till the period of this prophet.
The 23rd prophet Parsvanatha belonged to 8th century BC has been considered by the researchers and was therefore a historical personage. He was the son of Asvasena, the king of Benares. He laid a normal life till the age of thirty and thereafter renounced all his worldly possessions, devoting himself to meditation and asceticism and attained supreme knowledge. When he was 70 he retired to a mountain now known as Parsanath near Bihar and went into meditation. He lived till 100 and died after a rigorous fast of one month. He had many followers. Mahavira was converted when he encountered a disciple of Parsvanatha and it is he who completed the doctrine. Therefore Jainism in its complete forms is not the work of one prophet, but Mahavira is held in the highest esteem as he completed the work and really set its principles and was also responsible for its growth.
Vardhamana was born in 599BC at Kundagrama near Vaishali, about 27 miles north of Patna, in Bihar. He was born to an aristocratic parents of the Naya Clan. When he was about 30, his parents passed away and with his brothers permission, he distributed his worldly possessions and left house.
Mahavira imposed upon himself the life of a religious mendicant. After 3 months in the severe cold he renounced wearing cloths. He meditated for 2 years, undertook several fasts and began his journeys for 12 years across Magadh up to the western boundary of Bengal. He perfected his knowledge and elaborated the fundamental principles of the religious life which he preached later on. He attained Nirvana (omniscience) on a summer night of Vaisabha Sukla Dashmi under a Sal tree on the bank of the river Riyvalia near Jrmbhika grama. After leading the life of an ascetic for 42 years, Mahavira died or attained Nirvana at the age of 72, at Pavapuri near the present Patna.
Mahavira had 11 disciples, each entrusted with a band of about 300 to 500 monks to preach the religion. Bhadrabahu, contemporary of the great Mauryan king Chandragupta was the greatest propagator of faith. After Bhadrabahu's death, serious differences began to arise among the Jain community. The group led by him migrated towards the west coast and Deccan, while others remained in the north. The group which remained in the north were chiefly led by Sthulabhadra, the last of the omniscient. The final break between the two groups came around AD 79. Jains divided into Digambaras (sky /air as their cloth). i.e., naked who follow Mahavira and Swetambaras (wearers of white clothes), who follow Parshvanatha. Most famous among the disciples were Gautama, Indrabhuti and Sudharman and they are said to have attained omniscience (knowing everything). Mahavira is said to have preached in Ardhamgadhi language. A fixed form was given to the Jain Canon is the 5th century AD at Valabhi which consists of 45 works of varied content. Digambaras did not accept, this canon. They believed mostly on the oral teachings of the monks and that liberation is impossible unless one renounced clothes, in the foot steps of Mahavira. They contest that Mahavira was married. Women can attain liberation and the omniscients can take ordinary nourishment. Finely they believe that the ancient texts have definitely been lost and do not believe in the authenticity of the scriptures which constitute the canon of Swetambaras. The Swetambara canon is called 'Agama' or 'Sidhanta' or even 'Gampidaha'. The other important Jain religious texts are 'Devadashangas'; 'Upangas' and 'Mulashatras'.
Jains have made valuable contributions in many areas of Indian culture: philosophy, literature, painting, sculpture and architecture. Their poetry is often excessively didactic. Their sculpture is of a high quality and some of the images of Tirthankaras are technically perfect. Their faces are however devoid of any expression, as they are supposed to have transcended all human emotions. The greatest glory of Jaina religious art lies in temple architecture, particularly at Ginar, Palitana and Mount Abu. These temples reveal a breadth of aesthetic sensitivity and a feeling for ornamentation reminiscent of the finest specimen of classical Hindu and Buddhist architecture.