History of Jainism

March 17, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

Jainism arose in 7th century BCE Eastern India, home to Hinduism and Buddhism. It was a time and place of religious renewal, in which several groups reacted against the formalized rituals and hierarchical organization of traditional Hinduism, desiring something new and fresh. Jains beliefs holds that 24 historical figures have lived and taught Jain truths in this age. Of these figures, called Tirthankaras, only the last two can be historically verified with any confidence. The 23rd Tirthankara, Parshvanatha, is thought to have lived in the 7th century and founded a Jain community based on renunciation of the world.

Mahavira, the 24th and last Tirthankara to appear in this age, is usually regarded as the founder of the religion, the first signficant marker on Jainism's historical timeline. He is traditionally thought to have lived from 599 to 527 BC, but some scholars believe he was a contemporary of the Buddha in the early 5th century BC.

The Jain religion: past and present

Early History

Like the Buddha, Mahavira was born into the warrior class. At the age of 30, he renounced the world to seek spiritual truth in ascetic solitude. He found enlightenment after 13 years of renunciation, and soon made 11 converts. All were former Brahmans and became disciples of Mahavira. Mahavira is said to have fasted to death (a practice called salekhana) at Pavapure (near modern Patna).

Jain tradition teaches that the monastic community founded by Mahavira boasted 14,000 monks and 36,000 nuns by the time of his death. An early schism occurred that lasts to the present day over certain aspects of monastic discipline. The Schvetambara sect believed that monks and nuns should wear white robes, whereas the Digambaras believed that monks should wear no clothes.

The latter group is also differentiated by its belief that a female cannot attain liberation. The schism was further cemented when the Schvetambaras met in a council to fix the Jain canon of scriptures in c. 456 AD. The Digambaras were excluded from the council, and they later rejected the decisions of the council.

In the period of the fourth through sixth centuries AD, the Jain community migrated westward, eventually settling in western and central India. Jainism was more influential in its new area than it was in the area of its birth. The Digambaras settled in the south, where they enjoyed much political favor. King Amoghavarsha (early 9th century AD) is even reported to have abdicated his throne to become a Jain monk.