Understanding Jainism

Understanding Jainism

Understanding Jainism

Understanding Jainism

Synopsis

Jainism is Buddhism's often overlooked cousin. As the only surviving examples of ancient India's non-Vedic religious traditions, the two religions are often grouped together as 'heterodoxies', but this is to ignore deep differences between Jain and Buddhist beliefs and practices. Unlike Buddhism, Jainism has hardly spread beyond the Indian subcontinent but Jainism survives in India where it is a prominent element in the mix of Indian religions today.
As an introduction to Jainism as a religious tradition and way of life, this book pays due attention to Jainism's history and doctrinal basics. However the author emphasises the ways in which formal Jain teachings are manifested in the practices of both laity and the monastic elite; explores the distinctive Jain systems of cosmographic and biological knowledge and describes how Jainism is woven into the social identities of Jain communities in modern India.

Excerpt

Jainism is an ancient religion of India with roughly 4–5 million adherents in India itself and a small but flourishing overseas community. The 2011 Indian census gives the figure of 4.2 million, but this is likely an undercount because some Jains return themselves as Hindu. This will doubtless strike readers as very tiny relative to the size of India, which indeed it is, but one must not be misled. If the number of Jains is small, their influence in Indian society is very great, far out of proportion to their numerical strength. This is a consequence of the fact that Jains – not all Jains, but most of them in India’s North – have specialised in business and business-related occupations. And while it is far from true that all Jains are rich (a national stereotype in India), Jains are among the wealthiest of modern India’s religious communities and one of the most influential as well.

In India, and abroad to the extent that they are known at all, Jains are noted for two behavioural traits. One is ahiṃsā (non-harm, nonviolence), which is an ethic enjoined by their religion as well as a deeply entrenched cultural value. Jain mendicants, in particular, are renowned for the pains they take to avoid harming even the most microscopic of living things. Jains are also well known for the extent to which mendicants, and to an impressive extent laity also, engage in the most demanding ascetic practices, especially fasting. Illustrative of the importance of ascetic practice in Jain life is the fact that some Jains end their lives by means of ritualised self-starvation, and this includes laity as well as mendicants.

Jainism is frequently paired with Buddhism, its far betterknown cousin. This makes sense because both traditions came into . . .

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