Jainism (jī´nĬzəm) [i.e., the religion of Jina], religious system of India practiced by about 5,000,000 persons. Jainism, Ajivika, and Buddhism arose in the 6th cent. BC as protests against the overdeveloped ritualism of Hinduism, particularly its sacrificial cults, and the authority of the Veda. Jaina tradition teaches that a succession of 24 tirthankaras (saints) originated the religion. The last, Vardhamana, called Mahavira [the great hero] and Jina [the victor], seems to be historical. He preached a rigid asceticism and solicitude for all life as a means of escaping the cycle of rebirth, or the transmigration of souls. Thus released from the rule of karma, the total consequences of past acts, the soul attains nirvana, and hence salvation. Mahavira organized a brotherhood of monks, who took vows of celibacy, nudity, self-mortification, and fasting. Since the 1st cent. AD, when a schism developed over the issue of nudity, there have been two great divisions of Jains, the Digambaras [space-clothed, i.e., naked] and the Svetambaras [white-clothed]. Jainists, then as now, accumulate merit through charity, through good works, and in occasional monastic retreat. Early Jainism, arising in NE India, quickly spread west, and according to tradition Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya empire, was converted to the sect, as were several kings of Gujarat. The Jaina canon, however, is preserved in an ancient dialect of NE India (see Prakrit literature). As Jainism grew and prospered, reverence for Mahavira and for other teachers, historical and legendary, passed into adoration; many beautiful temples were built and cult images set up. However, as time passed, the line between Hindu and Jain became more and more unclear. Soon Hindu gods such as Rama and Krishna were drawn into the Jaina pantheon, and Hindu Brahmans began to preside at Jaina death and marriage ceremonies and temple worship. The caste system, which primitive Jainism had rejected, also became part of later Jaina doctrine. Modern Jainists, eschewing any occupation that even remotely endangers animal life, are engaged largely in commerce and finance. Among them are many of India's most prominent industrialists and bankers as well as several important political leaders. A distinctive form of charity among Jains is the establishment of asylums for diseased and decrepit animals.
See M. S. Stevenson, The Heart of Jainism (1915, repr. 1970); M. L. Mehta, Jaina Philosophy (1970); A. K. Chatterjee, A Comprehensive History of Jainism (1984).