Dec 18, 2013

An Introduction to Jainism

By Dr. Sulekh Jain
Jainism, an ancient religion originating from India- with Hinduism and Buddhism- is an integral part of India. The Jain tradition, which enthroned the philosophy of ecological harmony and non-violence as its lodestar, flourished for centuries side-by-side with other schools of thought in ancient India. It formed a vital part of the mainstream of ancient Indian life, contributing greatly to its philosophical, artistic and political heritage. During certain periods of Indian history, many ruling elites as well as large sections of the population were Jains.

Although the ten million Jains estimated to live in modern India, constitute a tiny fraction of its population, the message and motifs of the Jain perspective, its unconditional reverence for life in all forms, its commitment to the progress of human civilization and to the preservation of the natural environment, continues to have profound and pervasive influence on Indian life and outlook. Jainism, with its distinctive views on matters such as non-violence and intellectual relativity, has relevance to the life and thought of not only of this century but also for many centuries to come.
Jainism has succeeded in preserving to the present time its integrity as a separate system in the midst of preponderant Hinduism. Jainism is a complete system with all necessary branches such as ontology, metaphysics, philosophy, epistemology, ethics, rituals etc. It has its own scriptures, temples (architecturally, some of the most beautiful temples in India are the Jain temples) and deities, places of worship and pilgrimage, and its own festivals and fairs. The organized religious group (Sangha) consists of ascetics and householders of both genders.
Jainism was not founded by any one individual. It is a philosophy, which developed over a long period of time and then acquired its own distinctive status within the broad Indian system. Its latest prophet, Lord MAHAVIRA, was a contemporary of Lord Buddha and more than 2500 years ago; he lived in the same Indian state of modern BIHAR, as did Lord Buddha. 
In the year 2001, the Jains world over, celebrated the 2600th birth anniversary of Lord MAHAVIRA. He was the 24th prophet. The 23rd, Lord Parshavanatha was 250 years before him and the 22nd, Lord Neminatha, a contemporary of Lord Krishna of the Hindus was at least two thousand years before the 23rd prophet.
The Sanskrit word ‘JAIN’ means the followers of JINAS (those who conquered their self by conquering their inner enemies and passions of anger, greed, ego, deceit, attachment, aversion, hatred … and attained complete perfection and omniscience). Jainism is well known in India but because of its non-missionary nature, it is relatively much less known outside India- although its principles of non-violence and intellectual relativity are quite well recognized.
In the twentieth century, the most vibrant and illustrious example of Jain influence was that of Mahatma Gandhi, acclaimed as the Father of the Indian Nation. Gandhi’s Spiritual mentor and friend, Shrimad Rajchandra, was a Jain. The two great men corresponded, until Rajchandra’s death, on issues of faith and ethics. The central Jain teaching of ahimsa (non-violence) was the guiding principle of Gandhi’s civil disobedience in the cause of freedom and social equality. His ecological philosophy found apt expression in his observation that the greatest work of humanity could not match the smallest wonder of nature. Jainism stresses the sanctity of all life, liberty and compassion for all, and a tolerance of all religious views.
Nearly 2000 Jains live and work in Houston and they have 2 places of worship which are open to all. Not all Jains use Jain as their last name but majority of Jains in North India adopted  Jain as their last name.
Dr. Sulekh Jain is Chairman of the Governing Council of International School for Jain Studies, a Senior advisor to Center for Jain Studies at Claremont Lincoln University and a trustee of Mahatma Gandhi Library in Houston. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston. 

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