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.
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).
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
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
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
He descended from heaven ... The venerable ascetic Mahavira
descended from the Great Vimana (palace of the gods) (Ibid., pp.
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
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
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.
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
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
... you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea
Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8,
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
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
Worlds Living Relogions, New York: Charles Scribners
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).
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
Jains-The designation for the disciples of Mahavira the Jina (the
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
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