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The subcontinent of India has been the birthplace of three great religious traditions of the world, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Jainism is one of the oldest living religions of India, predating recorded history as referenced in Hindu scriptures. It is an original system, quite distinct and independent from other systems of all other Indian philosophies.  The Jain philosophy was not developed to oppose the elaborate hierarchical Vedic practices as well as it is not an offshoot of Hinduism as some claim. Jainism has become one of the essential spiritual traditions in the South Asian religious fabric.

Jains believe in the philosophy of karma, reincarnation of worldly soul, hell and heaven as a punishment or reward for one's deeds, and liberation (Nirvän or Moksha) of the self from life's misery of birth and death in a way similar to the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.  Though there are multiple similarities in these South Asian religions, there are some major portions of the belief system that remain unique to each religion.  For instance, the Jain philosophy believes that the universe and all its entities such as soul and matter are eternal (there is no beginning or end), no one has created them and no one can destroy them. 

Jains do not believe that there is a supernatural power who does favor to us if we please him. Jains rely a great deal on self-efforts and self-initiative, for both - their worldly requirements and their salvation. Jainism appeals to common sense. Jains accept only those things that can be explained and reasoned. Jains believe that each living being is a master of his/her own destiny.

Jains believe that from eternity, the soul is bounded by karma and is ignorant of its true nature.  It is due to karma soul migrates from one life cycle to another and continues to attract new karma, and the ignorant soul continues to bind with new karma.  This way it provides a logical explanation of our sufferings on Earth. 

To overcome the sufferings, Jainism addresses the path of liberation in a rational way.   It states that the proper Knowledge of reality, when combined with right Faith and right Conduct leads the worldly soul to liberation (Moksha or Nirvän).  This way one can break the continual binding process of karma to the soul and attain liberation from karma.

With regards to truth, the Jain philosophy firmly states that the whole truth cannot be observed from a single viewpoint.  To understand the true nature of reality, it is essential to acknowledge the multiple perspectives of each entity, situation or idea. We must strive to be open-minded and embrace the positive thoughts and vantage points of other human beings, religions, and philosophies.  This concept is called Anekäntväd.

The ultimate goal of Jainism is for the soul to achieve liberation through understanding and realization. This is accomplished through the supreme ideals in the Jain religion of nonviolence, equal kindness, reverence for all forms of life, nonpossessiveness, and through the philosophy of non-absolutism (Anekäntväd).  Above all, these ideals translate into a religion of love and compassion not only towards human beings but also towards all other forms of life.

1. Concept of God

Jainism is a religion of purely human origin. It is propagated by self-realized individuals who have attained perfect knowledge, omniscience, and self‑control by personal effort and have been liberated from the bonds of worldly existence, and the cycles of all future life and death. 

In ancient times Jainism was known by many names such as the Saman tradition, the religion of Nirgantha, or the religion of Jin.  Jin is one, who has conquered the inner enemies of worldly passions such as desire, hatred, anger, ego, deceit and greed by personal effort.  By definition, a Jin is a human being, like one of us and not a supernatural immortal nor an incarnation of an almighty God.  Jins are popularly viewed as Gods in Jainism. There are an infinite number of Jins existed in the past. All human beings have the potential to become a Jin.

 The Jins are not Gods in the sense of being the creators of the universe, but rather as those who have accomplished the ultimate goal of liberation of sufferings through the true understanding of self and other realities.  The concept of God as a creator, protector, and destroyer of the universe does not exist in Jainism.  The concept of God's descent into a human form to destroy evil is also not applicable in Jainism.

 The Jins that have established the religious order and revived the Jain philosophy at various times in the history of mankind are known as Tirthankars. The ascetic sage, Rishabhadev was the first Tirthankar and Mahavir was the last Tirthankar of the spiritual lineage of the twenty-four Tirthankars in the current era.

 In summary, Jainism does not believe in a creator God, however this does not mean that Jainism is an atheistic religion.  Jains believe in an infinite number of Jins (Gods) who are self-realized omniscient individuals who have attained liberation from birth, death, and suffering.

2. Founders

Approximately 2600 years ago Lord Mahavir or Vardhaman (599 to 527 BC), the twenty-fourth and last Tirthankar of this era, expounded the Jain philosophy, which had been previously preached by his predecessor Tirthankar Parshvanath (about 950 to 850 BC). Lord Mahavir expanded the code of conduct and introduced daily observances for his followers. He felt that such changes were essential for proper spiritual advancement. Thus Mahavir, like other Tirthankars was more of a reformer of an existing religious order rather than the founder of a new faith. The present Jain scriptures are compilation of Lord Mahavir's teachings. In summary, the Jain religion philosophy is eternal but its code of conduct is continually modified by various Tirthankars based on time, place and circumstances of the era.

3. Philosophy

In essence, Jainism addresses the true nature of reality.  Mahavir explained that all souls are equal in their potential for perfect knowledge, perfect vision, perfect conduct, unlimited energy and unobstructed bliss.  However, from eternity the soul is in bondage of karmic particles of matters and is ignorant of its true nature.

It is due to karma that the soul migrates from one life cycle to another and seeks pleasure in materialistic belongings and possessions and suffers.  It is due to ignorance that the soul continuously accumulates new karma as it feeds the passions such as anger, ego, deceit, greed, lust, hatred, and self-centered violent thoughts.

One can detach from karma and attain liberation by following the path of Right Faith (Samyak-darshan), Right Knowledge (Samyak-jnän), and Right Conduct (Samyak-chäritra). Quality, characteristic, energy, power, whose development brings about a realization of truth - that is, of the nature of things as they are - an inclination towards valid discrimination between what is worthy of rejection and what is worthy of acceptance is Right Faith. A valid (true) comprehension of the fundamental verities (categories of truth, realities, fundamental truths, Nav-tattva) (see 4.1 & 4.2) like soul etc. - a comprehension arrived at through the instrumentality of partial truths (Naya) and Complete truth (Pramän) - is Right Knowledge. With Right Knowledge, one gets rid of all passions such as anger, ego, deceit and greed – all attachment & hatred – enjoys his/her own true nature and that is the Right Conduct. Right Conduct includes nonviolence, self-purification, compassion, austerity, penance, non-possessiveness, non-absolutism, and meditation. The spiritual path is determined by this integrated trinity. Not one, not two but all three are needed to attain Moksha. The order of attainment is first Right Faith, second Right Knowledge and last Right Conduct. Right Faith and Right Knowledge are like light and heat of sun – they always happen together.

The principles of Jainism if properly understood in their right perspective and faithfully adhered to, have great relevance for modern times.  They establish universal friendship and peace through nonviolence and true social equity based on non-acquisitiveness. They reconcile diverse religious faiths, political parties, and communal and racial factions through the philosophies of non-absolutism and relativism. They promote ecological conservation through the values of self-restraint, an austere life-style, non-possessiveness, and kindness towards all beings. These principles can bring contentment, inner happiness and joy in the present life through spiritual development based on freedom from passions.

Non-violence (Ahimsä) which strengthens autonomy of life everywhere, non-absolutism (Anekäntväd) which strengthens autonomy of thoughts & speech and non-possessiveness (Aparigraha) which strengthens autonomy of interdependence are the three realistic principles which strengthen our belief that every living being has a right of self-existence. These principles translate into three practices: 1) you’ll not kill, 2) you will not trample others thoughts and 3) you will not trample nature. If everyone adopts these three ideas then there will be: 1) no acts of war, 2) no economic exploitation and 3) no environmental & ecological destruction.

This elevates the soul to a higher spiritual level, ultimately achieving perfect enlightenment, reaching its final destination of eternal bliss, and ending all cycles of birth and death.

About 170 years after Mahavir's Nirvän, Acharya Bhadrabahu Swami became the head of the Jain order. That time. Chandra Gupta Maurya was the king in Magadha. During that time a famine occurred for twelve years. (This is a historical fact). Acharya Bhadrabhahu had predicted that long famine and realized that it will be very difficult for monks to strictly follow religion (Five Mahavrats, no clothes, beg food in hands, etc.). Therefore he, along with twelve thousands of his disciples, migrated to south and settled there so that they can follow the strict religious rules. The remaining monks were led by Acharya Sthulibhadra and he relaxed some of the rules for the monks for survival during this famine. That was the primary cause of the separation of Digambar and Shwetambar sects. However, the real separation occurred during the time of Acharya Vajrasen (six hundred years after Mahavir's Nirvän). It is a fact that Mahavir did not wear clothes after renunciation. However, his disciples were of both types (clad as well as unclad). The disciples of Parshwanath (23rd Tirthankar) wore white clothes.

Shwetambar Jains are also divided into two major subsects: Shwetambar Murti Pujak (Idol worshiper) and Shwetambar Sthanakwasi (Non-idol worshiper). There is an offshoot among Sthanakwasis which is known as Terapanthi. Digambar Jains are divided into three major subsects: Bisa Panth that accepts Bhattarak's authority, Terah Panth which does not accept such authority, and Taran Panth- Non-Murti pujak sect.

We pray/worship to pay our respects to the Tirthankars because they have attained liberation and have laid down the path of liberation. We want to get inspiration to become like them. By praying them, we receive the spiritual incentive to follow the right path of purification. We do not pray/worship for any favors or material benefits from the Tirthankars or from monks and nuns.

The worshipping place provides the necessary environment for spiritual up-liftmen just as the school provides for education. One, who is spiritually advanced, can continue the spiritual activity at any place. But for most of the Sansäris (house-holders) we need to depend upon outside sources such as temple to make initial progress in the spiritual direction. It is also acceptable that one can practice his/her religion from home as long as he/she achieves the similar or better results. For most people, the combination of both is recommended.

There are two types of vows, one for the monks and one for house-holders. The vows for monks are called the major vows (Maha Vrata). In the practice of Maha Vrata, total abstinence from violence, falsehood, stealing, carnality and possessiveness is observed. The vows for the house-holders are called minor vows (Anu Vrata).  House-holders observe the vows of restraining from gross violence, lies, stealing, sexual activities and accumulation. These vows are not as strict as the major vows. Each house-holder can observe such vows according to place, time, feeling, capacity and profession.

The degree of the practice can thus vary. A house-holder takes the vows with certain conditions that he/she thinks can practice without feeling miserable. Observance of minor vows by house-holders and major vows by Jain monks has been prevalent without significant compromise since Bhagavän Mahavir’s time.

There are eight different types of Karmas. One them is knowledge-obscuring Karma. The existence of that Karma does not let us completely realize the knowledge component of our consciousness (soul). There are five reasons that activate the knowledge-obscuring Karma: place, time, substance, emotions and transition to next life. We do not remember everything we know at every place, at every time. During every emotional experience and at every substance-encounter. The time, the place, the feeling and the substance involve in a particular situation decides how, when and where of its memory. The transition of our soul (with our Karman body and tejas body) to the next life activates the knowledge-obstructing Karma. Therefore, we do not remember the previous life. Since this transition to another body is an extraordinary event as compared to other events in our life, it makes us forget about our previous life.

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