Jainism is the most ascetic of all Indian religions. Its followers practice self-denial to progress towards enlightenment. The word Jain refers to those who conquer their inner feelings of hate, greed, and selfishness: Overcoming desires is the chief principle of Jainism. Jains believe that all individuals are bound to this world by deeds done in previous lives- karma- and it is only by renouncing materialistic desires that these bonds can be broken and the soul achieve the blissful state of moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth and death. Jainism as we know it was founded by Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha, in the 6th century BCE. However, Jains take a long view of their historical development, as they believe their religions has always existed and always will exist. Within the faith, Mahavira is regarded as the most recent of twenty-four enlightened teachers in the current era. Jains believe each era lasts for millions of years and recurs in an infinite cycle of ages. These teachers are called jinas, or more commonly, Tirthankaras. By following the path of self-denial taught by the Tirthankaras, Jains hope to free their souls from the entanglements of material existence. Without this hope, life is simply a continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation.

Jains do not recognize any deity, placing full responsibility on the actions and conduct of the individual. In order to adhere to a life of self-denial, Jain monks and nuns take what are called the Five Great Vows- non-violence, speaking the truth, celibacy, not taking what is not willingly offered, and detachment from people, places, and things. The most important of these vows is the practice of ahmisa, which extends beyond avoiding violence against humans to encompass all animals, including the smallest organisms found in water or air. The other four Great Vows equip the monk or nun to follow the life of a wandering ascetic, dedicated to preaching, fasting, worship, and study. Lay Jains do not take the Five Great Vows, but they do take lesser vows that are very similar: renouncing violence, vowing not to lie or steal, embracing chaste sexual behavior, and avoiding attachment to material things. All Jains are strictly vegetarian, in line with the vow of non-violence, and must not do work that involves the destruction of life.

Jains worship in temples of domestic shrines at home. Jain temples are seen as replicas of the celestial assembly halls where the liberated Tirthankaras continue their teaching. The adoration of images of these Tirthankaras is thought to bring about inner spiritual transformation. The forms of devotion conducted by Jains coinside with their fundamental belief system: Life is an endless cycle of reincarnation. Only by freeing ourselves from the burden of karma can we achieve enlightenment and be liberated from this cycle. To do this we must follow the example of the great teachers who have achieved liberation, such as Mahavira. The path is set out in the Five Vows of non-violence, truth-telling, chastity, not stealing, and non-attachment. If we follow this path, we too may eventually achieve enlightenment. All Jains live with this process in mind, existing with deep desires to continue their quests for enlightenment.

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