views updated


POPULATION: 4,225,043 (Census of India 2001)
LANGUAGE: Language of the region in which they live
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hindus; People of India


Jains are followers of Jainism, a South Asian religion that predates Christianity by over five centuries or more. The Jains derive their name from Jina (conqueror), or "one who conquers worldly passions." Although it has much in common with Hinduism, Jainism emerged during the 6th century BC as a reaction against the Hindu religion as practiced at the time. The geographical origins of Jainism lie in the Indian state of Bihar and southern Nepal, a region that also saw the emergence of Buddhism at about the same time. Unlike Buddhism, however, which has spread around the world, Jainism is an ethnic religion. Ethnic religions have little appeal outside their immediate cultures, and most remain localized in the lands of their birth. Jainism remains today a religion of India.

Over the centuries, the center of Jainism gradually shifted from eastern India, first to Mathura and Ujjain to the west, and then southwards. With the patronage of kings and ruling houses, Jainism firmly established itself throughout much of the Indian peninsula (Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Maharashtra). For over a thousand years, it was the principal religion among the Kannada-speaking peoples of Mysore. Western areas such as Rajasthan and Gujarat also became strongholds of Jaina beliefs.

Jainism reached its greatest geographical extent, as well as its highest levels of scholarship and intellectual activity, in the period from roughly the AD. The impact of Jaina thinking and the Jain way of life was felt in all parts of the country at this time. Thereafter, the religion entered a period of decline, especially in the south. Jains gave ground before a strong Hindu revival movement in what are now Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and parts of Karnataka, even facing persecution from Brahmans. But Jainism continued to make gains in the west. Kumarapala, King of Gujarat in the 12th century, is said to have established Jainism as the state religion and to have promoted Jaina values. The end of the 13th century, however, saw western India invaded by Muslim powers from the north. Gujarat was conquered by Ala-uddin Khalji around 1298, and Jainism, its followers persecuted and its temples destroyed by the Muslims, was never to regain its former prominence.

Jainism accounts for only 0.5% of India's total population (2001 Census of India). Mere numbers, however, reveal little of Jainism's influence on the philosophy, art, history, and culture of India.


There are problems in determining the exact number of Jains in India today. The Census of India reports a population of c. 4.2 million people in 2001 and if that figure is accurate, the population of Jains in India is either declining or has been enumerated inaccurately. However, if Jains account for 0.05% of India's population, as reported by the Census, the numbers for 2008 would be around 6.5 million. Some estimates place the population at 10 million, which one suspects is too high. A realistic estimate of the current Jain population in India would be between around 5 million, assuming growth rates reflect the national average, or, at most, just less than 6 million people. Jains have a strong presence in Gujarat and Rajasthan and are also found in the northern region of Madhya Pradesh around Ujjain. Another area of high population concentration is the region of Mysore (the modern Karnataka State) that has historically been a Jain stronghold. The city of Bombay has a large Jain community, and Jains are found throughout much of the rest of Maharashtra State. It is interesting to note that today there are few Jains in eastern India, where Jainism had its beginnings.

During the last century, a number of Jains have migrated to East Africa, Great Britain, and the United States. They are mostly Gujarati in origin and are engaged in business and commercial ventures. Jains living in the West are often quite successful, and in many areas they have set up temples and associations to promote Jain culture.


There is no specific language associated with the Jain religion. Jains use the language and script of their region.


Jainism holds that the universe has existed through all eternity and will continue to exist forever. Thus, there is no need for a creator-god, or a creation myth. Indeed, in its original form Jainism had no gods and did not worship idols (in direct contrast to Hindu practices). The 24 Jain Tirthankaras ("fordmakers") were to be revered, but they were men, not gods. They had attained perfect knowledge, and their appearance in the world was tied to the moral and religious decay of the people and the need for a reawakening and revival of religious values.

Lacking gods, the Jains soon raised the Tirthankaras to deified status, and their literature describes the mythological lives of these saints (only two are known to be historical personages). Today, many Jains have even adopted gods from the Hindu pantheon, although they are ranked lower than the Tirthankaras. The Jaina world of myth and legend is perhaps best illustrated by a display in an imposing two-story hall behind the Jain temple (the Lal Mandir or "Red Temple") in Ajmer in Rajasthan. The hall shows scenes of the birth and death of Rishabdeva, the first Tirthankara. Included in this display, which takes up the entire hall, is the sacred city of Ayodhya, with its palaces and mansions for the nobles. The Tribeni, the sacred confluence of three rivers at Allahabad, is also shown, with the sacred banyan tree, and Rishabdeva in contemplation. Suspended from the ceiling are gods sailing the skies in brightly colored airships. This is, in fact, a huge model of the mythological world of the Jains.


The founder of Jainism is generally regarded to be Mahavira, who was born in Vaisali (in Basarh in northern Bihar) in the 6th century BC. Mahavira literally means "great victor" and is the name given by Jains to Vardhamana, the son of a ksatriya (warrior-caste) chieftain. Mahavira most likely lived from 599 to 527 BC, although some sources give 549–477 BC as his dates. The Jains claim that rather than being the founder of their religion, he was but the twenty-fourth in a line of prophets and teachers stretching back through time. There is historical evidence for the existence of Parsvanatha, the twenty-third Tirthankara, who lived in the 8th century BC. Some Jain scholars even claim that Jainism was present in the Harappan civilization, a thousand years earlier (the swastika, a religious symbol of the Jains, is found in Harappan culture).

As his parents were followers of Parsvanatha, it seems certain that Mahavira was brought up in the Jain tradition. Even though he married and had a daughter, at the age of thirty he became an ascetic. He gave up his family, his high caste status, and all his worldly possessions, and for 12 years he wandered the countryside, naked, meditating, and searching for the truth. Mahavira was a contemporary of Buddha, who was born and lived in the same region, but as far as is known the two never met. At the age of 42, Mahavira achieved a state of perfect knowledge. One who attains this level is certain to achieve the state of ultimate perfection (moksa) upon death. Mahavira continued to travel through parts of what are now northern Bihar, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh, preaching his message. He died at the age of 72 in Pavapuri in Bihar.

In the years following its appearance, Jainism experienced the divisions that are so common in the history of any religion. One, dating to the very beginning of the 3rd century BC, continues to divide the Jain community today. During a 12-year famine, a prominent Jain teacher led a migration of Jains to southern India, eventually reaching the hills of Shravana Belgola in Mysore. This site remains a holy place for Jains today. On their return to their homeland, the migrants found that the monks they had left behind had abandoned the rule of nudity and other observances taught by Mahavira. They regarded this as heretical, and the subsequent dispute led to the division of the Jains into the Svetambara ("white-clad") and Digambara ("sky-clad") sects. The Svetambara sect are the descendants of those who remained behind during the great migration south and took to wearing clothes. They are found today mostly in northern India. The Digambara continue to go naked, although in practice only ascetics adhere strictly to the rule of nudity. The Digambaras, who are found mainly in South India, also hold that women can never achieve sainthood. They are not allowed to become nuns or even enter Digambara temples.

The central themes of Mahavira's teachings were truth, non-violence, and nonattachment to the material world. For the Jain, all living things (and even some inanimate objects) have an immortal soul (jiva). This soul passes through a never-ending cycle of rebirths, acquiring a spiritual and even material presence because of the accumulation of karma. Karma is envisaged as a form of atomic matter that is attracted to the soul in this and past lives through desires and actions. To free the soul from this endless cycle of reincarnations, one has to eliminate existing karma by following an austere lifestyle. The accumulation of new karma can be avoided by nonattachment and lack of desires. Only then can the state of ultimate perfection be reached.

Nonviolence (ahimsa) is a means by which Jains can avoid the accumulation of karma. Technically, ahimsa means the "negation of the desire to injure any living thing," and the concept is found in Hinduism and Buddhism as well as in Jainism. But it is in Jainism that ahimsa has its greatest impact. The philosophy underpins almost all aspects of Jaina life and society. The first of 12 vows taken by the Jain layperson is that of ahimsa. This and the vows taken against falsehood, dishonesty, unchaste behavior, and covetousness form the code by which the Jain lives.

The "Five Great Vows" taken by Jaina ascetics, though similar to those of the laity, hold them to much stricter standards of behavior. For instance, even the accidental death of an insect caused by inhaling it is a sin. To prevent this, Jain monks (or nuns) wear a mask over their mouth and nose. They must not eat after dark in case they accidentally eat an insect. They should not travel after dark in case they tread on an insect they cannot see. When traveling, monks and nuns often sweep their path to avoid violating ahimsa. Hair is pulled out rather than cut, to avoid accidentally harming life. Jains are, of course, vegetarians, but the dietary restrictions on ascetics can extend beyond the eating of animal flesh. In Jaina belief, even plants have life and many vegetables are forbidden them as well. Though rare, strict adherence to ahimsa has led monks and nuns to suicide through starvation, an act that is seen as meritorious.

Jainism in its original form was a sect of wandering holy ascetics. It had no temples or idols. Today, however, Jains worship in temples that contain images of the Tirthankaras (in Digambara temples the idols are nude, while in Svetambara temples they are adorned with loincloths). Temple rituals are similar in form to those of the Hindus and include puja (worship), ritual bathing of the idols, anointing of the idols with colored powder, and the offering of special foods. Arati, or the ritual waving of lamps around the idols, is performed during evening worship. Unlike Hindus, Jains have no priestly caste to officiate at religious ceremonies, though some groups employ Brahmans (Hindu priests) for this purpose. One modern sect, the Sthanakavasis, continues the traditional Jain ideal of having no temples or idols.


Jainism is a religion with a strong element of asceticism and it is therefore not surprising that Jain festivals often lack the gaiety, color, and elaborate rituals characteristic of many Hindu celebrations. Jains observe their religious holy days with fasting, offerings of prayer, pilgrimages, and sober feasting.

Pajjusana, which is celebrated in August and closes the Jain year, is an important Jain festival. It is observed by fasting and meditation for a period of 8 to 10 days. On the last day, Jains ask forgiveness of all living things for any harm that they might have done them in thought, word, and deed. It is customary for Jains to seek forgiveness from neighbors and friends, for family elders to ask pardon from younger members, and for employers to seek the forgiveness of their workers. Alms and food are distributed to the poor, and Jain idols are taken through the streets in elaborately decorated rathas or processional carts.

Mahavira Jayanti celebrates the birth of Mahavira. Jains offer prayers at temples, worship the Tirthankaras, and make pilgrimages to sacred places. Images of Mahavira are carried through the streets in processions. The death of Mahavira is celebrated at Deva Divali, which falls soon after the Hindu Divali festival. One unusual ceremony is Jnana-Panchami, when all the Jain sacred texts are dusted, cleaned, and worshipped.

An aspect of Jain religious observances that is often undertaken to coincide with major festival days is pilgrimage to Jaina sacred sites. These include Vaisali (Mahavira's birthplace), the Hill of Parsvanatha in Bihar, Mt. Abu in Rajasthan, Girnar and Mt. Shatrunjaya in Gujarat, and the ancient Karnatak site at Shravana Belgola. At Shatrunjaya, with its temple-city built on top of a hill, the most meritorious pilgrimage involves climbing the thousands of steps to the summit, circling a temple, and descending again, 99 times. This takes about three months to complete. Every 15 years, a major ritual takes place at Shravana Belgola involving the anointing of the head of a statue of Gomatesvara, a Jain saint. The statue is over 17 m (57 ft) in height, or nearly as tall as a six-story building. Jains from all over the country make the journey to be present at the ceremony. Pilgrimages are not undertaken during the monsoon months, however, as the Jains believe that traveling might result in harm to the abundant insect life that flourishes during the rainy season.


Jains follow regional customs; thus, rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death vary around the country. There are broad similarities—for instance, Jains cremate their dead, and their death ceremonies in general follow Hindu patterns—but in detail their death rites differ from region to region. Similarly, in some areas no special ceremonies mark the attaining of adulthood, but in others boys undergo the sacred thread ritual as would a high-caste Hindu. Essentially, Jains in Gujarat follow Gujarati practices, those in Rajasthan follow Rajasthani customs, and so on.


Jains follow regional patterns in matters of interpersonal relations, greetings, and visiting customs. They are enjoined by their religion to be truthful and compassionate in social and business dealings, not to lie, and to live chaste, humble lives.


Jains, as a prosperous urban community, generally enjoy much higher standards of living and greater material comforts than the average Indian. They have access to all the amenities available in modern Indian towns and cities. They also have a strong tradition of involvement in charitable giving, supporting welfare organizations, educational institutions, and even homes and hospitals for animals (pinjrapols).


Although it originated, in part, as a reaction against the Hindu caste system, modern Jainism has its own castes. They are social rather than religious divisions, however, and lack the hierarchy of the Hindu caste system, yet they are still important in matters of marriage. The Agrawala, Oswala, Srimali, Chaturtha, and Panchama are some of the more important Jain castes. Some castes such as the Oswala are divided into major endogamous groups such as Bisa and Dasa, and these are even further divided into exogamous clans or gotras, and over 500 subclans. In marriage patterns, family size, and family structure, Jain communities tend to follow regional patterns and practices.


Jains dress according to local customs and are hardly distinguishable from local peoples of similar social standing. However, they are still subject to the restrictions of the ahimsa philosophy. Jains do not wear furs, feathers, silk, or wool because the obtaining of these products causes harm to insects, animals, and birds. They are required to restrict the use of leather goods to a minimum, and to ensure that such leather they do use comes from animals that died a natural death and not from slaughtered animals. There are no restrictions on the wearing of ornaments, however. Given the Jains' involvement in the jewelry business, women usually wear quite spectacular gems and gold ornaments when dressed for formal occasions.

It is the custom of Digambara ("sky-clad") monks to go naked, while Jain monks and nuns often wear masks to prevent the accidental inhalation of insects and use brooms with which to sweep the road, so they do not tread on insects and thus accidentally do harm to living things.


As a consequence of the vow of ahimsa, Jains are strict vegetarians and avoid all animal flesh, eggs, and even certain types of root vegetables (e.g., potatoes, carrots, onions, and beetroots) and fruits. They are enjoined to drink strained water and are prohibited from using intoxicants and stimulants. Honey is not eaten because bees are killed when it is collected.

Fasting, though an ascetic practice, is also popular among the Jaina laity, especially women. It is undertaken as a vow rather than a penance and is a means of demonstrating one's piety and commitment to Jain ideals. It is common at the time of festivals, on full-moon days, and during the four-month rainy season.


Jains have a tradition of education and have schools (gurukuls) that provide both a religious and a secular education for Jains. Jains are also open to modern education and have achieved great prominence in areas of business and industry, finance, scholarship, and government service.


Mahavira preached his message in Ardhamagadhi, the language of the area of his birth (which was called Magadha). The Jain scriptures originally were written in this language so that the common people could have access to their sacred texts without the need for a class of priests or scholars to interpret them. Jain scriptures are called Sutras and the most important of these, the Kalpasutra, contains the life and teachings of Mahavira. Jain sacred texts have been written in other vernacular languages and also in Sanskrit, the classical language of North India. The Jains have some of the oldest libraries of ancient manuscripts in India. Jain writings have also enriched regional literary traditions such as those of Gujarat and Karnataka.

Architecture is another area where Jains have left their imprint on India. The past commercial success of the Jain merchant community in western India is reflected in the numerous havelis (mansions) and temples they constructed. The intricately carved white marble temples of Dilwara and Ranakpur in Rajasthan, the temple complex of Girnar, and the walled, temple-city atop Mt. Shatrunjaya are part of a Jain tradition of temple-building that goes back to the 11th century AD. The earliest surviving examples of a Jaina school of palm-leaf painting in western India also date to this time.


The Jains' commitment to ahimsa effectively bars them from activities that might result in injury or death to living creatures. Thus, occupations such as butcher, leatherworker, or flour-miller are prohibited. Pastoralism violates ahimsa, since it takes sustenance out of the mouth of calves. Agriculture is prohibited, because ploughing the land could result in harm to insects and other creatures living in the soil (although the Chaturthas of southern India are an agricultural community). Similarly, the operating of machinery could result in harm to insects and flying creatures, so manufacturing industries are avoided.

As a result of such occupational restrictions, Jains have devoted their energies to business, trade, and similar urban professions. They are typically an important and prosperous element in the "Bania," or business community, of any Indian city. They are mainly bankers, moneylenders, jewelers, traders, cloth-merchants, and, more recently, highly successful industrialists. They have entered the legal, medical, teaching, and engineering professions and also hold important positions in state and central governments.


There are no sports uniquely associated with the Jains.


There are no forms of entertainment or recreation identified specifically with the Jain community.


Given their emphasis on commercial activities, the Jains are not engaged in folk arts and crafts.


The Jain community in Delhi, where there are almost 500,000 adherents to the religion, is currently agitating for minority status on par with the Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, and Parsis, listed as notified minority groups under the Delhi Minorities Commission Act, 1999. Members of the community say they want minority status primarily because they want to incorporate Jainism, the religion of the community, as a subject in Jain schools. The capital and its adjoining areas have eight Jain schools. They are not able teach Jainism to their children because most of the Jain schools in Delhi are partially funded by the government, which doesn't allow the teaching of any particular religion at schools unless it belongs to a minority community. Delhi is one of the few states in India where the Jain community has not been granted official minority status. According to Article 30 of the Indian Constitution, non-Hindu groups are entitled to certain benefits that Hindus are not. The most important of these is the exclusive right to run state funded educational institutions free of governmental interference. In light of this, many religious sects that are typically classified as Hindu have tried to obtain the non-Hindu status in order to be able to obtain state funding for their private institutions. "Hindu," as defined in the Constitution, originally included Jains, and there has been a debate in the Jain community as to whether or not to seek minority status.

As a relatively small, affluent, urban community, the Jains do not face the social and economic problems so typical of many groups in India. Rather, the problem—if it can be called a problem—is one of identity. As an offshoot of Hinduism, Jainism has retained many Hindu characteristics and Jains are often seen as just another caste of Hindus. Some observers argue that Jainism, as a small minority religion, is rapidly losing its separate identity. Others see in Jaina religion and society a distinctiveness that will ensure its continued survival. For the Jains, however, there is no question. Mahavira gave Jainism its current existence. Mahapadma, the next Tirthankara or ford-maker to come, will ensure that it lives forever.


Theoretically, in Mahavira's Jainism, there was no distinction of caste, color, creed, or sex. Thus, for some, Jainism is a religion of equality, but for others, a woman's very femaleness creates spiritual inequality. The Digambara Jain sect believes that women cannot achieve liberation without being reborn as men first. Digambara Jains hold this view because they believe that nakedness is an essential element of the road to liberation. Since women are not allowed to be naked in public they cannot achieve liberation directly and so are seen as second-class citizens. This ban on female nakedness is partly intended to protect both men and women: if women went around naked it would cause men to experience sexual desire and the desire produced would hinder the man's progress to liberation. Digambaras also believe that women are inherently himsic (which is best translated as harmful). This comes partly from a belief that menstrual blood kills micro-organisms living in the female body. The killing of the micro-organisms is said to show that a female body is less non-violent than a male body—although that idea doesn't have any scientific support and isn't found in modern Jain thinking.

Some Jain texts say that menstrual blood is a sign of impurity (this view is mirrored in Hinduism also), but the idea that women are spiritually impure because of menstruation is a rather odd basis for a Jain argument, since Jainism usually concerns itself with thinking, speaking, and acting rightly— there isn't any other area where Jainism says that involuntary bodily functions are a spiritual obstacle.

Another argument is that because a woman's nature is to care for children and other dependents, she will find it much more difficult to break free from these earthly attachments, and unless she does this, she cannot achieve liberation.

The Svetambaras have a different view of women, and indeed, there are famous nuns in both the Svetambara and Digambara traditions. Sadhvi, for instance, is a modern Svetambara nun well known for social reform and for her charitable works.

Jains exist in a specific social context, however, and, especially away from areas of Jain concentrations, have come to the influenced by local (usually Hindu) societies. When this author was talking to Jain families in the Brahmaputra River Valley of Assam, where Jains are few in number, they expressed the view that they were but another caste of Hinduism, whereas in Rajasthan and Gujarat, Jains saw their religion as quite distinct from Hinduism.

As one author observes, Jain women in India have legal and constitutional protection and that, whereas in the majority of Jain families in Uttar Pradesh the status of women used to be inferior to that of men, the impact of education, western culture, and the breakdown of the joint family have tended to loosen the stranglehold that "outmoded social mores" exerted over the freedom of Jain women. Literacy rates among Jain women at 90.6% are the highest of any religion, but female work participation (9.2%) is the is lowest of any group, suggesting that education is a means of attracting good husbands, and that the primary role of Jain women in society remains, in general, taking care of the home and their husbands, and raising male children.


Dundas, Paul. The Jains. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Jain, Satish Kumar and Kamal Chand Sogani, ed. Perspectives in Jaina Philosophy and Culture. New Delhi: Ahimsa International, 1985.

Jaini, Padmanabh S. ed. Collected Papers on Jaina Studies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000.

———. The Jaina Path of Purification. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970.

Kumar, Rajjan. Different Aspects of Jainism. Delhi: Sunrise Publications, 2006.

Lodrick, Deryck O. "Ahimsa, Man and Animals: Aspect of Religion in the Cultural Landscape of Western India." In India: Cultural Patterns and Processes, edited by Allen G. Noble and Ashok K. Dutt. Westview Press: Boulder, Co., 1982.

Sangave, Vilas Adinath. Jaina Community: A Social Survey. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1980.

—by D. O. Lodrick