Jainism : The World of Conquerors ► Abstract

Posted: 10.11.2015

Jainism is the oldest extant religion in Eurasia but it is the least known in the West. Although its teachings are as relevant in our own day as they were in the days of Mahavira who revived it more than two and half millennia ago, why this should be is almost certainly due to its small number of adherents in India: four millions plus (Jain leaders estimate twelve million and claim that it was much larger in earlier centuries of Common Era) out of a total population of nearly a billion.

Jainism possesses a unique all-embracing precept from which all else flows: ahimsaa. Ahimsaa means 'non-violence and reverence for all life' a precept that forms the core of Jain theology; for Jains, both ascetic and lay, and it is the fundamental belief that governs their behaviour. This is supplemented by aparigraha (non-attachment to worldly possessions) and anenkaantavaada (multiplicity of views)

This dissertation aims to analyse the role of Jain beliefs from their evolution in the mists of antiquity, through their reformulation by Mahavira, the last of the twenty four luminaries of Jainism in the sixth century BCE, and their historical influence on Jains and beyond up to our own times. It begins with an introduction on the Jain meaning of life, and the antiquity of Jainism. It follows with Jain history, its literature, its philosophy and teachings, the Jain community, its rituals, festivals and popular Jainism, and its culture. The thesis also discusses Jainism in the modern world covering topics such as animal welfare, environmental concerns and vegetarianism, the Jain view of the universe, Jain logic, science and Jainism, Jain art and architecture, Jain temples and places of worship, Jain institutions, and Jainism and the other major world faiths.

The exemplary luminary for Jains is Mahavira, an older contemporary of the Buddha, who is often described by non-Jains as the 'founder' of Jainism. However, Mahavira is for Jains the last of the twenty-four tirthankaras ('fordmakers' who cross the ocean of suffering to the other side of existence) or jinas (conquerors) of our era, and the inheritor of the religious teaching of Parsvanatha, the twenty-third jina.

Mahavira's major systematic innovation was the introduction of the fourfold sangha: the fourfold division of the community into saadhus (male ascetics), saadhvis (female ascetics), sraavakas (laymen) and sraavikas (laywomen), and this fundamental division reflects the degree of observance of the Jain teachings. It also allows the symbiosis and interdependence of the two groups upon one another; the laity look after the material needs of the ascetics and in return the ascetics guide the lay people on the spiritual path.

The essence of Jainism is of course the teaching of Mahavira. Jains revere a human being whose exemplary asceticism offers an idealised model for humanity to follow. This 'path of purification' is unique, not in its regime of austerities, yoga and meditation, which were common to the Sramanic tradition, but in its overwhelming ethical rigour, scientific approach, logical conduct and spirituality lead to the ultimate goal for the humanity of liberation (moksa) by self-conquest. The central preoccupation of Jain teachings is to realise this objective, to provide a definitive method, the ratnatraya or 'three jewels': samyak-darsana ('right faith'), samyak-jnana ('right knowledge') and samyak-caritra ('right conduct') together constitute the path to liberation.

Jainism has vast amount of sacred literature, but there is hardly a comprehensive text, which discusses all aspects of Jainism. This dissertation is an attempt to provide much needed research to fill this gap, which can be useful to both the modern Jain community and the non-Jains.

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Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998