General Essay on Jainism

Western scholarship has generally attributed the foundation of Jainism to Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha who flourished in the 6th century BCE. Jain teachings, however, speak of a long tradition of saints, the Tirthankaras, who in the remote past taught the same doctrines as Mahavira. Therefore, the chart does not acknowledge a specific date for the origins of Jainism, but recognises the appearance of Mahavira as a major event in its early history.

According to most Jain authorities, Mahavira lived from 599 to 527 BCE. Having renounced the world he lived as a wandering ascetic in northern India and preached renunciation and non-violence as the path to complete salvation. All beings in this word are bound by the results of their past actions, their karma, but by following the path lived and taught by Mahavira and the Tirthankaras one can break free of this bondage. During his lifetime Mahavira attracted many followers who abandoned the world for the mendicant lifestyle of the Jain monks. Soon after his death the Jain movement spread to south India where in the early centuries of the Common Era it gained a position of power and prestige in the southern kingdoms. This strength in the south of India was undermined by the Hindu revival of the seventh to the tenth centuries CE, so that today there are fewer than 50,000 Jains in the entire state of Tamil Nadu.

Jainism underwent a long period of decline which has only been arrested during the last hundred years. Today there are around 3 million Jains in India (2.6 million, 1971 census) most of whom are located in the north-western states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. There they form a relatively prosperous lay community which still venerates the principles of renunciation and non-violence to all creatures and provides support to around 5,000 monks and nuns. Despite its beginnings as a religion for renunciants, Jainism has from the earliest times attracted support from those who continue to live in society. This distinction is marked by the different codes of practice demanded by Jain scriptures of those living in the world and those who have taken vows of complete renunciation.

The chart draws attention to the major division in the Jain tradition between the Shvetambaras and the Digambaras. It is likely that the schism took place gradually, though both groups possess legends of specific incidents that caused the split. The fractures of Jainism into these two major sub-groups appears to have been recognised as early as the first century CE and was certainly established by the time of the Council of Valabhi in 453 CE which was attended only by Shvetambaras.

The original basis for the schism centred on the question of whether renunciants should be naked or whether they should wear a white robe. Hence the names Shvetambara - white clad - and Digambara - sky clad or naked. Shvetambara legends regard the original Digambaras as arrogant monks who used their nakedness as a vain display of zeal, while Digambara traditions tell of the Shvetambaras' laxity in failing to observe the true standard of renunciation epitomised by Mahavira. In time other points of controversy have arisen which divide the two groups, although they share the principal doctrines and ideals of Jainism. According to the Shvetambaras both men and women may gain salvation, a monk may use a begging bowl to accept alms and one who has attained enlightenment still needs to eat; on all these issues the Digambaras take an opposite view. The two factions possess different scriptures and different versions of the life of Mahavira. It is apparent that geography also played an important role in the schism. It was Digambara Jainism that rose to prominence in south India whilst the Shvetambaras remained primarily in the north, though after the collapse of Jainism in the south the Digambaras also came to be represented primarily in the Northwest of the subcontinent. Today the two factions continue to flourish independently of each other, although disputes over the administration of pilgrimage sites continue to cause conflict which sometimes leads to litigation and even violence.

Medieval Jainism saw the rise of a number of sub-groups, or Gacchas, amongst the Shvetambaras. Doctrinal differences between such sects were usually of a minor nature and the divisions were based primarily on local communities or adherence to a specific Jain holy man. Traditions speaks of there being 84 such Gacchas though only a fraction of that number exists today, the most prominent of which are the Tapa-Gaccha and the Kharana-Gaccha.

In more recent times sects have arisen based on doctrinal differences within the main Shvetambara and Digambara groups. Under the leadership of Lavaji the Sthanakvasis broke with the main body of Shvetambaras over the question of whether it was proper for Jains to worship images of saints and Tirthankaras. Whilst most Shvetambaras accept such practice as an authentic part of the Jain panth - and hence are known as Murti-pujakas or Deravasis - the Sthanakavasis urge that it is alien to the true spirit of Jainism. The Terapanthis, founded by Acharya Bhiksu in 1764, broke away from the Sthanakavasis whom they criticised for worldliness and a lack of commitment. Following Acharya Bhikshu's death in 1803, the Terapanthis continued with the institution of one overall leader, or Acharya, which has served to unite the sect and maintain its integrity down to the present day.

Amongst the Digambaras, a prominent sect is the Kanji Swami Panth founded in this century by Kanji Swami who was in his early life a monk of the Sthanakavasi Shvetambaras. In the early 1920s, influenced by the writings of the Digambara teacher Kundakunda, he became convinced that Digambara Jainism was closer to the spiritual essence of the tradition. He therefore left the Sthanakavasis with a number of followers and founded his own sect which was devoted to Digambara ideals and the teachings of Kundakunda in particular. Today the Kanji Swami Panth is an active Digambara sect, campaigning on various issues and engaging in missionary activities to spread the message of Jainism.

Whilst most Digambaras worship images in temples, among the Shvetambaras dissident sects have arisen which condemn such practices. The sixteenth century teacher, Taranaswami, forbade image worship amongst his followers, who formed a sect known as the Taranapanthis characterised by their opposition to image worship. Another prominent Digambara leader was Banarsidass (d.1643 CE). His Adhyamata movement stressed that the essence of Jainism was the mystical experience of the spiritual self and that this individual realisation was attainable by lay persons as well as monks. Although the Adhyamata sect had disappeared within one hundred years of the death of Banarsidass, a similar form of Jainism is practised and taught by the contemporary sect known as the Terahapanthis.

Relationships between the Jain sects are complex and varied with the primary division persisting between Shvetambaras and Digambaras. Between the subsects of these two there is frequent social interaction and intermarriage is commonplace. Despite the sectarian divisions, all groups still adhere to fundamental principles, and differences tend to be of detail rather than substance. Where such divisions have occurred they have often been based on geographical location or adherence to a particular spiritual leader. Doctrinal controversy has arisen from differences over details of monastic practice, over the search for inner spirituality as opposed to mechanical practice, and over the question whether the worship of images is a true part of the Jain tradition.


Balbir, N. 1983. Observations sur la secte Jaina des Terapanthin Bulletin d'Etudes Indiennes 1, 33-9.

Caillat, Colette. 1987. Jainism, in The Encyclopaedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, Vol. 7, pp. 507-14, New York: Macmillan.

Cort, J. E. 1989. Liberation and Wellbeing: a Study of the Svetambar Murtipujak Jains of North Gujarat Harvard University PhD dissertation.

Dundas, Paul. 1992. The Jains London and New York: Routledge.

Harris, I. et al. 1994. Longman Guide to Living Religions Harlow, U.K.: Longman.

Jain, Jyotindra and Fischer, Eberhard. 1978. Jaina Iconography, Part One & Part Two Iconography of Religions series XIII, 12 & 13 of the Institute of Religious Iconography, State University, Groningen, published Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Jaini, P. S. 1979. The Jaina Path of Purification Berkeley: University of California.

Kumar, Satish. 1977. No Destination Llandeilo: Carms.

Mitra, Sumit. 15 January, 1982. Jainism: Division in the Ranks India Today.

Oldfield, Kenneth. 1982. Jainism Today: A study of the Jain Community in a Rajasthan Village in 1982 Unpublished MA dissertation. University of Lancaster.

Pal, Pratapaditya. 1953. The Peaceful Liberators: Jain Art from India Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Thames and Hudson.

Renou, L. 1953. Religions of Ancient India New York: Schocken.

Sangave, Vilas Adinath. 1959. Jaina Community: A Social Survey Bombay: Popular Book Depot.

Tulsi, Acarya. 1988. Anuvrat: a Code of Conduct for Moral Development New Delhi.