Jainism and Hinduism posses many similarities. Both religions emerged in India and still primarily exist there today. Both share similar belief systems- Jains and Hindus believe that life is an endless cycle of reincarnation, karma keeps us in bondage, and moksha is the highest goal (to attain spiritual liberation). They also believe in samsara, the continuous cycle of death and rebirth. The practitioners worship in temples, which contain statues and artifacts dedicated to prominent religious figures- Hindus worship deities, or symbols of Brahman, while Jains honor statues of the twenty-four Tirthankaras.
Both traditions celebrate religious festivals, including Diwali- a festival celebrated throughout India. To Jains, Diwali marks the liberation of Mahavira’s soul, the day he reached nirvana. To Hindus, Diwali celebrates Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The way in which Jains and Hindus celebrate Diwali is very different. Hindus lavishly decorate their homes, go shopping, and light fireworks, while Jains avoid firecrackers as they cause harm to living organisms and observe fasting and penance as a way to honor the legacy of Lord Mahavira.
On this page, I have compiled three video interviews of three representatives of the tradition. In order to truly understand Jainism, one must acknowledge the voices of its devout practitioners, as a way to gain new perspective on their attitudes towards Jain belief systems.
Acharya Shree Yogeesh shares his thoughts on the Jain system and how it differs from the Jain religion. Currently, he lives as an enlightened master of the tradition and dedicates his life to helping advance the spiritualities of others. He is the founder of the “Siddhayatan Tirth and Spiritual Retreat, a unique 200+ acre spiritual pilgrimage site and meditation park in North America providing the perfect atmosphere for spiritual learning, community, and soul awakening to help truth seekers advance spiritually.” He is known by his peers as an inspiring spiritual leader and well-renowned speaker. His mission is to spread the Jain message. I encourage you to check out Acharya Shree Yogeesh’s YouTube channel, where you will find dozens of videos about Jain beliefs, teachings, and practices, taught by the wise master himself!
Next, I have an interview with Pravin Shah (Chair of the JAINA Education Committee) that highlights his views on why Jains follow a vegetarian diet and his argument as to why Jains should become vegan. I found this video to be an authentic representation of the devout faith and dedication of Jainism practitioners. Please enjoy!
Lastly, I have included a rather lengthy interview with Indu Jain, the current chairperson of India’s largest media group, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd., which owns the Times of India and other large newspapers. As I researched Indu Jain, I found her personal journey and religious convictions to be very inspiring, so I decided to share this interview that provides insight into some of her views as they pertain to her faith. If you cannot watch the whole video, the first ten minutes should suffice, as they capture the essence of her devotional spirit and the importance of Jainism in her life and mission. Watch however much you can!
Below, please find my audio commentary on Lord Mahavira’s teaching to his disciples.
The principle of non-violence, ahimsa, is very strong in Jain teachings and greatly influences the tradition’s approach to ecology and the natural environment. Jains believe that every part of the universe is filled with living beings- a single drop of water contains three thousand living beings, all of whom want to live. Humans have no special right to supremacy; all things deserve to live and evolve as they can. Jains believe that to kill any living being has negative karmic effects.
Thus, Jains wear face masks, purify water, and adhere to strict vegetarian diets to avoid violence to other creatures. As people walk, they squash insects unknowingly. Even in breathing, Jains feel, people inhale tiny organisms and kill them. Jains avoid eating after sunset, so as not to inadvertently eat unseen insects who might have landed on the food, and some Jain ascetics wear a cloth over their mouth to avoid inhaling any living organisms.
Levels of life are determined by their degree of sensitivity. The highest group of beings are those with many senses, such as humans, gods, and animals. Lower forms have fewer senses. The “one-sensed” beings only have the sense of touch. They include plants, soil, minerals, stones, rivers, lakes, fire, lightening, and wind. Jains acknowledge the suffering of even one-sensed beings, not wanting to hurt them or cause them pain. Thus, Jains are strict vegetarians and treat everything with great care. In Delhi, Jain benefactors have established a hospital for sick and wounded birds. Jains also go to markets where live animals are bound with wire, packed into hot trucks, driven long distances without water, to be killed as meat. Jains buy these animals at any price and raise them in comfort. Even to kick a stone while walking is to injure a living being.
The twenty-fourth Tirthankara Mahavira was born around 599 BCE in northeast India as Prince Vardhamana, the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, who is said to have had many auspicious dreams during her pregnancy. According to Jain tradition, Mahavira was placed in the queen’s womb by Indra, the king of the Vedic gods. Mahavira was allegedly so dedicated to nonviolence that he did not kick in his mother’s womb, in case he caused her pain.
According to one tradition, Mahavira was a life-long bachelor. But others believe that he married a princess called Yashoda, who bore him a daughter named Anoja. At age 30, Prince Vardhamana left the palace to live as an ascetic, renouncing material comfort and devoting himself entirely to meditation. He wandered naked, lived only on what little food he received as alms, spent most of his time in silence and frequently stood totally still with his body like a statue. During his travels, the Prince encountered great tribulations, as people mocked and ridiculed him. For example, when he was meditating, villagers are said to have treated him miserably to make him leave:
Once when he [sat in meditation], his body unmoving, they cut his flesh, tore his hair, and covered him with dirt. They picked him up and then dropped him, disturbing his meditational postures. Abandoning concern for his body, free from desire, the Venerable One humbled himself and bore the pain.
After 12 years he reached enlightenment and became a great teacher, with the new name Mahavira. His first message after this is found in a Buddhist text, the Majjhima Nikaya:
I am all-knowing and all-seeing,
and possessed of an infinite knowledge.
Whether I am walking or standing still,
whether I sleep or remain awake,
the supreme knowledge and intuition
are present with me- constantly and
Mahavira began to teach others, including eleven Hindu Brahmins, who one after the other heard of this new teacher and came to challenge him in debate. They were all converted by Mahavira’s wisdom and explanation of the Vedas and became his main disciples. Founding a large community of Jain monks and nuns, Mahavira molded Jainism into its current form. He organized his followers into four groups: monk, nun, layman, and laywoman. The group as a whole became known as the Jains. Mahavira died at the age of 72 at the town of Pava in Bihar, India, and is said at this point to have broken the bonds of karma and attained moksha, release from the cycle of death and rebirth. His senior disciples took over leadership of the movement, and by the 5th century CE the Jains were an influential force within India.
Acharya Tulsi (1914-1997) was a prominent Jain religious leader. He is known as the founder of the Anuvrat Movement and the Jain Vishva Bharti Institute and is also well renowned for his spiritual writings. Tulsi was initiated into monkhood at age 11. In 1936, Tulsi was nominated to be the successor of Kalugani, the eighth Acharya of the Terapanth Sangha. During his leadership, Tulsi initiated over 750 monks and nuns.
In 1949, the Anuvrat Movement was begun by Acharya Tulsi to enlist people of all faiths and nationalities to commit themselves to anuvrats (“small vows”). He developed these to help people rejuvenate strong moral standards of self-restraint in the midst of ethically unhealthy society. The small vows include these: to avoid willful killing of any innocent creature, to refrain from attacks and aggression and to work instead for world peace and disarmament, to avoid discrimination on the basis of caste or race, to eschew religious intolerance, to avoid false business and political practices, to limit acquisition of possessions, to eschew addictive substances, and to avoid wasting water or cutting down trees.
In 1995, Tulsi renounced his own position as the leader of his order by installing Acharya Mahapragya as his successor. His self-description is an indication of the internal qualities which keep Jain faith alive:
I am an ascetic. My asceticism is not bound by inert rituals… I follow a tradition, but do not treat its dynamic elements as static. I derive benefit from the scriptures, but do not believe in carrying them as a burden… In my consciousness there is no bondage of “yours and mine.” It is free from it. My spiritual practice is not to “worship” the truth, but to subject it to minute surgery. The only mission of my life is boundless curiosity to discover truth… It is not an external accoutrement. Like a seed it is sprouting out of my being.
In the 1970’s, Tulsi conducted extensive research and compiled translations and commentaries on the Jain Agamas. He also sought to unify the Jain community, proposing harmonious cooperation among the various sects. As a result of his efforts, Samana Suttam, a religious text, was compiled and accepted by all sects.
Throughout his life, Tulsi received endless praise and recognition for his work. He won countless awards/honors, including Title of Yug Pradhan in 1971, Bharat Jyoti Award
Vakpati Award, and The Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration in 1993. On 20 October 1998, the vice-president, Krishna Kant, created an Indian commemorative three-rupee postage stamp of Tulsi. Kant said that Tulsi “gave a new and contemporary direction to the high ideals of Jainism.”
Attached below, please find a video clip of a song led by Acharya Tulsi at one of his sermons.
In the 20th century, Jainism was carried to the outside world by several teachers. One of them, Shree Chitrabhanu, was a monk for twenty-nine years, who walked barefoot over 30,000 miles of Indian soil to teach Jain principles to the populace.
He was a prominent figure in American Jainism.Born on July 26, 1922, Chitrabhanu was raised in the Pali district of Rajasthan, India. As an adult, he went on to study psychology at Banglore and eventually became a Jain monk at the age of 20.
As an adult, he was invited to address the Temple of Spiritual Understanding Summit Conferences in Switzerland and the United States in 1970 and 1971. However, Jain monks are traditionally not permitted to travel overseas. His controversial decision to attend in person marked the first time in Jain history that a Jain monk had traveled outside of India. He was forced to give up his monkhood to attend the Summit, eventually becoming an ordinary shravaka. In 1971, he married a woman name Pramoda, and the couple had two sons, Rajeev Chitrabhanu and Darshan Chitrabhanu. He later established Jain meditation centers in the United States, Brazil, Canada, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and India, helping to further the spread of his religion. Under his guidance, a federation of all Jain associations termed JAINA (Federation of Jain Associations in North America) was founded which became an overarching organization with more than 100,000 members. For his unprecedented journey to bring the Jain tradition of ahimsa to the Western Hemisphere, Chitrabhanu received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award.
Lord Mahavira. Photograph. http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/jinablue.gif
Jainism originated in India, sometime between 7th-5th century BCE. After Mahavira broke the bonds of karma and achieved moksha, his senior disciples took over leadership of the movement, which then numbered in several hundred thousand. By 5th century CE, Jains were an influential force in India. But by the 12th century CE, Jainism was beginning to decline, as the rise of other religions, particularly Hinduism and Islam, led to Jains being mainly concentrated in northwestern India, where Mahavira had taught. However, in 3rd century BCE, a prolonged famine in what is now Bihar in northeast India drove twelve thousand monks to Southern India. After twelve years, they returned to Northern India, where they found that major changes had been introduced to the tradition by the monks who had remained in the area. The disagreements between the two groups led to a split- the religion now remains in both Northern and Southern India. The influence of Jainism was later overshadowed by the growing popularity of devotional bhakti ways in India, but the tradition never died out. More than 98% of the 8 million Jains in the world today live in India, mainly in the provinces of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
The centers of Jainism in India today, where Jains constitute 2-7% of the population.
Until recently, little has been known about Jainism outside of India. Even within India, it is practiced by a small minority. Early descriptions of Jainism by Westerners were extremely negative, accusing the religion of having an “empty heart,” as it has no personal savior or Creator God. But now, interest in Jainism has revived as a complete and fruitful path to enlightenment, gaining more influence within our global community. The two largest Jain communities outside of India are in the United Kingdom and the United States, due in part to immigration and the rise of social media, which have promoted the spread of the religion. Approximately 150,00 Jains live in the United States, to date, with the remaining 30,00 living in the United Kingdom. Regional Jain Congregations in the United States are shown in the map below.
Map of Jain Congregations in the United States
I found an article on “Huffington Post”that highlights the lives of young Jains in America: how they practice their religion and live in modern-day society. I thought it was interesting to see the faith presented, outside of India, in the context of Western culture. Click the link below to check it out!
In the time of Lord Mahavira, Jainism brought an enlightened attitude to Indian religious culture, forming the tradition as a religion of equality. As a religion of spiritual equality, Jainism devote itself to protecting the rights of all living creatures, accepting that women play a part in their paths to liberation. Jainism arose during a time when caste systems and class hatred were prevalent in India- As a result, the religion opposed this inhuman class distinction and glorified the soul that dwelt within each human being, emphasizing equality between men and women. In religious and social functions, women and men enjoy equal rights. Women are considered to be equal partners to men, rather than inferior, submissive beings. Achievements of men and women are also considered to be on equal level. Matters of spiritual enlightenment and moksha are related to the soul- not the physical body. Thus, woman are equally capable of freeing themselves from the bondages of samsara. Jainism asserts that there is no difference between the souls of men and women- it would be illogical for a man to treat a woman as inferior, as Jainism is grounded on the basic concepts of equality and respect.
However, the two orders of Jainism, Digambara and Svetambara, differ over the subject of women’s abilities. Digambaras believe that women do not have the strong body and willpower needed to attain liberation; they can only be liberated if they are reborn in a man’s body. Svetambaras feel that women are capable of the same spiritual achievements as men, and that the nineteenth Tirthankara was a woman.
It is also important to note that, in recent times, Jain nuns have not been able to speak for themselves, as almost all Jain texts are written by monks, and there are more restrictions placed on nuns than monks- A nun is not allowed to be alone, to wander alone, to be without clothing, to be without superior, or to enter the house of a layman alone for food or drink. Generally speaking, Jain nuns are more dependent on their male colleagues and are subordinate to their authority. In modern society, the inferior status of nuns prevails.
The website attached below highlights the life of a Jain nun.
The Jain Hand, as shown above, represents non-violence and reassurance and is a reminder of the responsibility of every individual to act with wisdom and peace. The word ahimsa, or non-violence,appears on the palm of the hand, with the message that all living beings are equal, and none of them should be harmed, for in doing so one will only harm his or herself.
The swastika is an ancient Indian symbol representing the wheel of samsara and reminds people that they may be born into one of four destinies: heavenly beings, human beings, animal beings, and hellish beings. Their aim is liberation- not rebirth. The icon also symbolizes the four pillars of Jain Sangh, or community,: monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.
The primary symbol adopted by Jainism, the Jain Symbol, is a complex arrangement of elements within an outline that represents the universe: earthly concerns in the lower regions lead up to the heavens of celestial beings. At the top lies a single dot and crescent, symbolizing the liberated soul in its elevated dwelling place, the highest region of the universe. Just below, three dots form a line, representing the Three Jewels of right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. The swastika embodies the four states the soul may live in: heaven, human, animal, and hell. Finally, at the bottom, rests the Jain Hand. The wheel on the hand symbolizes the cycle of death and rebirth. The word ahimsa means non-violence, the principle by which all Jains live.