Published On: Thu, Feb 16th, 2017

The Socio Political Cultural Milieu for Birth of Jainism

By – Shubhangi Deshpande

Jainism has prehistoric origins dating before 3000 BC. The people of the Saraswati River civilisation worshipped the idols of Yogis, figures of the ‘Kayotsarga’ posture, which is acknowledged as a Jain posture for meditation. Jainism prevailed during Vedic era, as all the four Vedas have made references to the ‘Tirthankaras’ or Jain Prophets. These include Rishabhadeva, Arishtanemi and Ajitanatha. In the Vedas, Rishabhadeva was considered as one of the forms of Vishnu. There were a total of 24 Tirthankaras, the last of whom was Vardhamana Mahavira.

What is Jainism?

The term Jain (in Sanskrit Jaina) means someone who venerates the ‘jinas” (the conquerors). Jinas in this context refers to one who conquered desires/aversions and achieved liberation from bondage of worldly existence, attained through the elimination of accumulated karmas.

Jainism and Hinduism

Jainism and Buddhism are considered to be heterodox Hindu systems, in that they do not accept the divinity of the Vedas, but rather use Upanishadic thought as a basis for their systems. Jainism’s popular doctrines of ahimsa, karma, satyagraha all have their roots in Hinduism.

Socio Political and Cultural Factors that led to rise of Jainism

Before 6th BCE there was religious unrest in India. The original Vedic religion lost its purity and became very complex. Religion misplaced its inner substance and more importance was attached to ceremonies and sacrifices. Also Brahmins had monopoly on Vedic religions and superstitions superseded spirituality.

Intelligent men had no freedom to read the scriptures such as the Vedas and the Upanishads, as it was perceived as rights of only Brahmins. Common people could only worship god through priests, denying them the right to find their own path to higher spiritual goals. The inner meaning of the creator and the creation, of life, soul and salvation remained submerged in the unintelligible mantras of the priests, slaughter of animals and blind beliefs. Ignorance, not wisdom, dominated the atmosphere.

A reaction against such religious and social evils became inevitable. There were saints and preachers who openly raised their voice for a rethinking. It was in this climate that Jainism and Buddhism rose as two mighty religious movements to usher in an era of enlightened progress.

Jainism advocated to attain “Moksha” or Liberation by gaining “true knowledge” that was not restricted only to higher caste people.”Sacrifices” were dropped and doctrine of karma cleansing or salvation was adopted. Jainism preached asceticism and self mortification to attain salvation.

Vardhamana Mahavira

Mahavira also known as Vardhamana is the 24th and the last Tirthankara of the Jainas. He was born in a royal family. At the age of 30, he left his home in pursuit of spiritual awakening, and abandoned worldly things, including his clothes, and became a Jain monk. For the next twelve-and-a-half years, Mahavira practiced intense meditation and severe penance, after which he became kevalī (omniscient).

Mahavira taught that the observance of the vows ahimsa (non-injury), satya (truth), asteya (non-thieving), brahmacharya (chastity) and aparigraha (non-attachment) is necessary to elevate the quality of life. He introduced Jainism to kings, merchants and laymen. He travelled in South East Asia for the next 30 years, preaching Jainism. The teachings of Mahavira were compiled by Gautama Swami (chief disciple) and were called the Jain Agamas.  Most of these Agamas are not available today. Mahavira attained moksha at the age of seventy two.

Over the centuries, Jainism evolved into a cultural system that has made significant contributions to Indian philosophy and logic, art and architecture, mathematics, astronomy and astrology, and literature.

Indifferent Patronage

Around the 4th-5th CE, a revival of Hinduism began. Dynasties such as the Guptas as well as kingdoms in South India patronised Hinduism and built many temples. Around the 8th CE, Hindu philosophers such as Kumarila Bhatta and Adi Shankaracharya began an intense revival of Vedic traditions, and restoring it to its original glory.

Jainism went through revival and decline at several times in India’s history. It was dominant in Magadha (Eastern India) during the reign of the  Nandas (364-324 B.C.) and the Mauryas (324-300 B.C.). In the Gupta period, Jainism received no royal patronage, and therefore declined. In South India, Jainism flourished because of the patronage of several ruling dynasties, especially in Karnataka. The period from the eighth to the twelfth century CE is regarded as the golden period in the history of Jainism because many Jaina monks, statesmen and merchants contributed to its growth, backed by royal patronage.

Jainism received a setback during Islamic rule, due to the mass scale destruction by the invaders. Jainism suffered further damage during the Lingayat movement in Karnataka in the 12th CE, under the leadership of the Shaiva reformer Basava.

Why did Jainism not Grow in Popularity?

Jainism largely remained restricted to India. Jain teaching and scriptures were passed on by teachers to students and were not documented well.  The handwritten manuscripts became objects of ritual veneration. The Jain reformers faced huge resistance to printing of scriptures due to its cruelty to single-celled organisms.  This did not permit free transmission of religion to masses.   Even today, certain sections of the Āgamas are off limits even for nuns and junior monks.  Only few people have accesses to the original scriptures like bhaõóāras and is written in the ancient language Prakrit which is not even taught to Jain monks.

The teachings of Jainism such as non violence, vegetarianism etc. makes huge sense in modern day life. However one laments that the glorious Jain scriptures were not popularised amongst the masses.


  1. Introducing Jainism – a book by S C Jain
  2. BBC;

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