The antiquity of Jainism as an Indian religion is well documented. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures refer to Jainism as an existing tradition which began long before Mahavira. However, because virtually no archaeological ruins can be found in India for the period from 1500 to 300 BCE, exact dates cannot be determined. Jainism is thought to have arisen in 7th BCE in Eastern India, during a time of religious renewal.
The origins of Jainism are somewhat difficult to trace. The tradition holds that twenty-four great teachers, or Tirthankaras, established the foundation of the Jain faith. Practitioners take a cyclic view of history, believing that the universe follows an eternal pattern of rise and fall. In each age, there are twenty-four teachers. These Tirthankaras, also known as “bridge-makers,” help men and women cross the gap between life and death. Mahavira was the last of the twenty-four Tirthankaras of the current age, which is regarded as one of decline. Parshva, an earlier ascetic who lived around 900 BCE with a similar philosophy to Mahavira’s, was the twenty-third. The first Tirthankara, Rishahba, was believed to have lived millions of years ago and to have invented human culture.
For the earlier Tirthankaras, there are no specific dates to reference. While Mahavira is Jainism’s major teacher, Jain teachings are not thought to have originated with him. He is considered the last of twenty-four Tirthankaras of the current cosmic cycle. The first Tirthankara is said to have been Lord Rishabha. He introduced civilizing social institutions such as marriage, family, law, justice, and government, and taught the arts of agriculture, crafts, reading, writing, and mathematics. Twenty-three Tirthankaras followed him over a vast, immeasurable expanse of time. The twenty-second is generally acknowledged by scholars as Lord Krishna’s cousin, known for his compassion for animals. During his wedding procession, it is said that he heard the groans of animals being slaughtered and immediately decided not to marry since so many innocent animals would be killed to feed his wedding guests. He became an ascetic who practiced the religion for many years. The twenty-third Tirthankara, a prince who became an extreme ascetic and great preacher of Jain teachings, lived from 877-777 BCE.
Shortly after Mahavira’s death, a prolonged famine occured that lead to the split of Jainism into two, distinct sects. When the monks returned to their original home, they discovered that two major changes had been introduced by the monks who had remained in the area. One was relaxation of the requirement of nudity for monks; the other was the convening of a council to edit the existing Jain texts into an established canon of forty-five books. Eventually, the two groups split over their differences into the Digambaras who had left and did not accept the changes as authentic to Mahavira, and the Svetambaras who had stayed near his original location. Ever since then the two sects have drifted away from each other, extending their activities in different parts of India. The Digambaras still depict images of the Tirthankaras shorn of all clothes, and due to the rigors of their rules have all but lost the order of monks, their laity being guided mostly by householders advance in spiritual discipline. On the other hand, the Shvetambaras still have a sizable community of monks. Overall, the schism, harmful as it was for the unity of the community, did not result in any significant departure from the fundamental teachings of Mahavira.
In modern times, Jains have continued their activities with added emphasis on the application of non-violence on a wider scale. Today, the religion is practiced in India, primarily, with smaller communities located in the United States and the United Kingdom.
My timeline provides a look at the major historical events and developments of Jainism as they progressed from its formation forward. Click on the link below to access my timeline. Use the right and left arrows to scroll and the plus icon to zoom.