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Religion: Jain Belief and Practice in South Asia


Jainism is a religion in South Asia, India in particular, which is founded on the doctrine of non-violence to all creatures. Despite the faith sharing some concepts with Buddhism and Hinduism, it is imperative to note that Jainism is an independent religion.

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It is an essential component of South Asian spiritual beliefs, but it is not the same as Buddhism or Hinduism as the majority of the past scholars alleged (Cort, 1995). The religion advocates for equality and pious interdependence among all people. According to Jainism, one can only attain liberation through self-control and being at peace with all creatures.

Consequently, religion focuses mainly on asceticism. Court claims, “The three major policies of Jainism are Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), Anekantavada (non-absolutism) and Ahimsa (nonviolence)” (1995, p. 73). Its primary objective is “the soul to achieve liberation through understanding and realization” (Cort, 1995, p. 79). It explains the reason the creed propagates love and kindness to all creatures.

The origin of Jainism is not apparent, and some scholars claim that it started in between 7th and 5th century before Christ. This paper will focus on the historical development of Jain belief and practice in South Asia. Besides, to understand religion better, the paper will also delve into the three Jainism doctrines.


According to Jainism, violence refers to any deliberate or accidental harm. Absence of sympathy and intended grievance makes one’s dealings appear cruel. Jainism is popular for its emphasis on the doctrine of nonviolence. It believes that humanity must treat all forms of life with love and compassion (Dundas, 2002).

Dundas asserts, “The everyday implementation of ahimsa is more scrupulous and comprehensive than in other religions and most significant hallmark of Jain identity” (2002, p. 43). Jainism understands that it is hard to protect all forms of life against harm. Therefore, it embraces a practice that offers more safety to itinerant creatures than immobile ones. The animals are differentiated according to their wits. Jains accord a lot of care to animals that exhibit a high level of intelligence.

They also try as much as possible not to harm small insects and tiny creatures. People are banned from harvesting honey if the creed finds that the activity amounts to injuring the bees. Besides, Jainism discourages its adherent from walking at night since they may step on crawling insects (Dundas, 2002). In spite of all these, religion accepts that one may apply violence in case of self-defense. Hence, Jainism allows its devotees to work as soldiers.

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Jainism encourages each person to share his or her views. No one is considered to be the sole decision maker. According to Jains, reality and truth depend on the position that an individual takes. The doctrine of non-absolutism encourages Jains always to consider the opinions of others, even the non-believers before discrediting them (Koller, 2000).

What appears to be true from one perspective may not be true when viewed from a different angle. The doctrine helps Jains to practice religious tolerance since they feel that even other religions have their rights (Koller, 2000). Jains believe that the leading cause of conflict, hatred, and grief among the people is a lack of tolerance and failure to acknowledge that truth may be relative.


The third doctrine of Jainism religion is non-possessiveness. The religion encourages its believers not to strive to amass wealth or hold personal property (Rankin, 2010). They are discouraged from craving for material gains and personal ends. Every person is encouraged to possess no more than he or she requires for survival.

Moreover, Jains are encouraged to share their wealth with the needy in society whenever necessary. The religion holds that failure to control one’s material position may lead to an individual harming oneself or others. Also, Jains are encouraged to spare some time to help the needy in society.

For instance, Jains set aside some days for charity work and community projects (Rankin, 2010). The doctrine has led to Jains opening several schools, orphanages, hospitals, and colleges aimed at helping the needy. Besides, they take the initiative to treat sick animals.

Jains are required to cut down on the number of their wants, control their desires, and keep their consumption rate as low as possible. Anyone who uses resources beyond his or her needs is considered a thief and has no room in the sect. The religion has declared misuse of resources and environmental contamination acts of aggression.

Historical development

There is no definite date of when Jainism was established. Many scholars believe that religion dates back to the 7th century before Christ. Jains hold that there is no apparent founder of Jainism (Sangave, 2001). Parshvanatha was the first person to practice Jainism. He believed in the principle of self-denial and abandonment of earthly things. Jains view him as the 23rd Tirthankara (spiritual leader) of the modern era (Sangave, 2001).

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Sangave (2001) posits that Mahavira was the final leader of the Jains. Jains believe that Vardhamana was the final tutor of “right” devotion, knowledge, and practice. Mahavira is thought to have shared several qualities with Buddha. Just like Buddha, he hailed from a family of leaders.

When he was thirty years old, he abandoned his princely position and embraced frugal life. Sangave asserts, “Mahavira spent over twelve years leading a lonely life and passionate simplicity. He later converted eleven followers (Gandharvas), who were once Brahmans” (2001, p. 63). Two of his followers Sudharman and Gautama, who succeeded him went ahead to establish the modern Jain monastic society (Sangave, 2001).

The organization has grown significantly today. According to Tobias (1991), Jains population comprised of 36,000 nuns and 14,000 monks during Mahavira’s death. At the start, the society was prone to divisions over mechanics of doctrine; nonetheless, it was able to iron out the indifference. The only issue that appeared hard to solve concerned the dressing code for both the monks and nuns.

There were some Jains who felt that monks and nuns ought to wear white robes, while others argued that a real monk ought to be naked (Tobias, 1991). The problem led to the emergence of another schism as to whether women can achieve liberation without reincarnation. The division still exists, but its inception remains vague, in part since the existing explanations were designed to validate each faction’s power and pour scorn on the other.

During this time, Jainism started gaining popularity in Ujjain. However, the popularity did not last for long as Gupta dynasty forced Jains to shift to central and western India. Jainism became more famous than ever in these regions. The religion saw may rulers converting to Jainism, a move that helped it to spread across many parts of the country (Upadhye, 1982). Despite its influence in central and western India, several factors led to the religion losing grounds.

Some of the factors included competition from other faiths, harassment, sectarian breakup, and lack of a central figure to lead the group. Since its inception, Jainism suffered immense violence from Hinduism and Buddhism. However, the onset of the Hindu reformist group was what resulted in Jainism losing its popularity (Upadhye, 1982). Additionally, Jainism had thrived due to loyal patronage.

The conversion of king Mahendravarman from Jainism to Shaivism led to Jainism losing fame. Besides, Brahmana, working under the Jain king Bijjala, lured many Jains to convert to Lingayat Shaivite religion (Vallely, 2002). They demolished many temples belonging to Jains and confiscated others. As Hinduism continued gaining grounds, Jains had no option but to adopt some of the Hindu practices. Many Jains were killed through an order by King Koon Pandiyan. Scores of Jains converted to other religions in fear of persecution.

Jainism has at least 4.2 million followers across the globe. Despite its decline in South Asia, Jainism still upholds a number of its spiritual beliefs and practices. For instance, the monks continue advocating a simple life, and they do not wear clothes. According to them, wearing clothes leads to increase in enslavement and to suffer (Vallely, 2002). Nevertheless, there is another group of Jains that allow monks to wear seamless garments.

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According to this group, the scripture does not prohibit putting on clothes. Vallely posits, “Jains do not ask for favors or material benefits from the monks in their Namokara mantra” (2002, p. 94). The song merely acts as a sign of profound reverence towards individuals they consider to be spiritually superior. Moreover, the mantra reminds them of their sole purpose, which is to detach themselves from worldly things.

Jainism honors and encourages monasticism (Wiley, 2009). The simplistic disciplines that Jains practice are rigorous. Some monks go to the level of wearing face masks to shun accidentally harming creatures of the air. Others even carry the broom-like thing to sweep the crawling insects out of their way as they walk. Jains are vegetarians.

Consequently, they are always keen when served with food to ensure that there is no meat. They do this to uphold their promise not to hurt any living organism. In South Asia, Jain ascetics do not own anything, including a house. Instead, they move from one place to another (Wiley, 2009).

“They lead a very difficult life due to numerous hurdles placed on them: they are not allowed to board cars and always walk barefooted for long distances” (Wiley, 2009, p. 56). Also, they do not use electricity or purchase mobile phones to embrace the doctrine of non-possessiveness. Jain monks survive on donations, and they do not cook food.

Many creeds disapprove of Jainism for its divine viewpoints and observations. The Catholic Church questions the practice of operating veterinary sanatorium for rats. Besides, many religions wonder why Jainism tolerates suicide (Jaini, 1991). Every religion must promote life. Tolerating suicide depicts Jainism as a non-pro-life religious entity.

Moreover, the doctrine has been criticized for valuing the life of animals more than that of humanity. Some religions have depicted Jainism as gender biased. They do not understand why Jains maintain that a woman has to be restored to man before obtaining freedom. The practice appears to undermine women, which is an unethical practice of any religion (Jaini, 1991).


Jainism as one of the religions in South Asia, advocates for religious purity. The faith is established under three canons that guide the Jains in their daily life. The three traditions help Jains to ensure that they coexist with all living organisms. Historical development of Jainism in South Asia is not well elaborate.

There was no clear date when the religion was founded. Besides, it is hard to tell who the founder of the religion was. Jainism enjoyed a favorable reception in South Asia after its inception. Many people, including leaders, converted to Jainism. The high conversion led to the religion spreading across the region. However, this did not last for long. Establishment of other faiths, Jains’ persecution, and division among the monks lead to Jainism losing many of its followers.

Besides, it was hard for most of the Jains to keep to the doctrine of non-possessiveness. Those who could not live without owning property left the religion. Jainism does not have a large following, but this does not deter its adherents from practicing its beliefs. Monks and nuns own nothing, and they depend on donations.

They believe that owning property adds to human suffering and draws people away from spiritual life. Jainism is criticized for valuing the life of animals more than that of humanity. Furthermore, some people view Jainism as male dominated due to its position on female’s freedom.

Reference List

Cort, J. (1995). The Jain knowledge warehouses: traditional libraries in India. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 115(1), 77-88.

Dundas, P. (2002). The Jains. New York: Routledge.

Jaini, P. (1991). Gender and salvation: Jains debates on the spiritual liberation of women. California: University of California Press.

Koller, J. (2000). Syādvadā as the epistemological key to the Jains middle way metaphysics of Anekāntavāda. Philosophy East and West, 50(3), 619–628.

Rankin, A. (2010). Many-sided wisdom: a new politics of the spirit. London: John Hunt Publishing.

Sangave, V. (2001). Facets of Jainology: selected research papers on Jain society, religion, and culture. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.

Tobias, M. (1991). Life force: the world of Jainism. Freemont California: Jain Publishing Company.

Upadhye, A. (1982). Mahavira and his Teachings. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 102(1), 78-93.

Vallely, A. (2002). Guardians of the transcendent: an ethnology of a Jain ascetic community. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Wiley, K. (2009). The A to Z of Jainism. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press.

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