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  The Jain, or Jaina, religion of India developed from the ancient sect of Jinas (‘those who overcome’). The founding of the present Jain community in India can be traced back to Vardhamana Mahavira (‘Great Hero’), who lived in eastern India c. 540-468 BCE. Mahavira\'s historicity is established by the fact that he is named in Buddhist scriptures; he came from the same martial clan as the Buddha and had been educated as a prince. He was married with a daughter when he left home to live as an ascetic. After 12 years he attained enlightenment, then wandered along the Ganges teaching, until his austerities killed him at the age of 72.

During the Mauryan dynasty (c.320-c.185  BCE) the small community of monks and lay followers enjoyed royal patronage, but a serious famine caused them to migrate to the Deccan plateau in southern India. There they established important centres of faith. During their migration a division occurred between those Jains who insisted that no clothing at all should be worn, who became known as Digambaras (‘sky-clad’), and those who wore plain white robes, the Shvetambaras (‘white clad’) Jains. Today both groups wear white robes in public, although the division persists and each group has its own body of literature.

Jains are strict vegetarians and their doctrine of ahimsa means that they reject violence and killing. It is because of this that Jains have been unable to follow agricultural occupations for fear of hurting the small creatures in the soil. Similarly, one may not light or extinguish a fire.

Jainism is basically a system of psychic discipline and meditation supported by its own metaphysical doctrine. In this it is not unlike Buddhism since both represent a strong reaction to the extreme forms of Hindu ritualized, sacrificial practices. The Jain doctrine of ahimsa rules out the practice of animal sacrifice since every being is inhabited by a soul and the universe is made up of infinite and separate individual souls. The goal of Jain life is the escape of the soul from the body in order to dwell in eternal bliss (moksha). In order to achieve it karma must be avoided. In the Jain view, karma is a substance adhering to the soul: human activities, especially cruelty and violence, produce a kind of solid encrustation around the soul and must be dissolved by ascetic discipline and meditation in order to set the soul free.

Jains, like Buddhists, are basically atheistic in their doctrines, although they do not deny the existence of gods. Since the universe in their system is eternal, governed by immutable law, there is no need or place for the concept of an omnipotent, divine creator. There is no universal destruction, as in Hinduism and Buddhism; the ages roll on through improvement and decline. The chief distinction between Jains and Buddhists consists in the Buddhist rejection of even the concept of soul or of an immortal ingredient in the human being. Karma in Buddhism arises from the system of ethical relationships between human beings which determine the state of future rebirths.

The Jain community in India continues to flourish. Its three million members have great influence, especially in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Austere but beautiful medieval statues commemorating Jain ascetics have been found as far south as Madurai. Gandhi is believed to have derived his doctrine of ahimsa from Jains in his native Guyarat (see Gandhianism). RW



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