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Also known as Jain Dharma, Jainism is an ancient Indian religion claiming from three to five million adherents, known as Jains, most of them in India.

Outside of India, there are small Jain communities in Canada, Europe, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Suriname, Fiji, and the United States. Within India, most Jains reside in or near Bombay.

Like Buddhism, Jainism began as a rebellion against Vedic Hinduism, rejecting the authority of the Veda as well as the idea of sacrifice. The Hindu caste system, which was still in the making, but that was rejected by the Jains as well.

Like Buddhism, Jainism is atheistic, in there are no deities associated with the religion. The chief religious concepts in Jainism are non-violence (ahiṃsa), many-sidedness (anekantavada), non-attachment (aparigraha), and sexual abstinence (asceticism).

Jainism traces its history through twenty-four saviors and teachers known as tirthankaras, the first being Rishabhanatha, who lived millions of years ago, but Mahariva, the twenty-fourth, is recognized as the founder of modern Jainism. Born to a royal family in the 6th century BCE, Mahariva abandoned all that he had to pursue spiritual awakening. Tradition has it that he died of self-imposed starvation, not far from his hometown.

Two major denominations of Jainism developed during the lifetime of Mahariva, and this separation continues today in the form of Digambara and Svetambara, the most obvious difference between the two is that the monks of the Digambara (sky-clad) sect do not wear clothing, while Svetambara monastics are clothed in seamless white clothes.

The Svetambaras admit women to their monastic order, assuming that they have a chance to experience enlightenment (moksha). The Digambaras, on the other hand, do not admit women to their temples or to monastic life, holding that women cannot achieve enlightenment until they are reborn as men.

Sub-sects of the Svetambara include the Murtipujaka, the Sthanakavasi, and the Terapanth.

The Murtipujaka is also known as the Deravasi or Mandir Margi and are the larger Svetambara sect. They differ from the other Svetambara sects in that they worship images of the Tirthankara, revered as a savior and spiritual teacher of the dharma. For this reason, they are sometimes considered to be part of the Digambara tradition, who also use images in their worship.

The Sthanakavasī have no temples, and do not tolerate the worship of idols, choosing to worship everywhere, largely through meditation and introspection.

The Terapanth is a third sub-sect of Svetambara Jainism. They are strongly opposed to an iconography, including images of anything that exists.

The Digambara tradition also has a Terapanth sub-sect, who worship what the idols represent, but replace flowers and fruits with dry substitutes, and oppose the worship of several minor gods and goddesses.

Another Digambara sub-sect is the Bispanth, who use flowers and fruits in worship, as well as milk and other substances during anointing. They also worship gods and goddesses who are rejected by the Terapanthi.

The Digambara tradition can also be divided into the original community and the modern community, and some other minor sub-sects.

Overall, Jains are noted for asceticism. According to Jain principles, at least twelve years of a person's life should be devoted to asceticism. Monks and nuns sleep on the bare ground or on wooden slabs. Upon initiation, monks in some Jain traditions will pull their hair out by the roots rather than simply shaving their heads.

Jain belief is that one can achieve salvation only in the human body. One passes through fourteen states of ascent, each of which involves the removal of false mental impressions, purification of the self, and the relinquishment of passion. Once one has reached a state of perfection (kevala), one experiences perfect bliss and unlimited vision. Only at this point, is it possible to lead an active and productive life, free of the passion that binds people to earthly things.

Jains also practice nonviolence to a degree that far surpasses that of Buddhists and Hindus. The Jain concept of ahimsa, which means "no injury, no harm," is considered the highest dharma of Jainism. The Jain view of the world is one in which the universe is packed with living beings, many of them very tiny, but each with as much right to life as a human being. Therefore animals, including bugs, cannot be killed or harmed. They were also the first in India to set up animal hospitals, and make a practice of buying caged birds in order to set them free.

Jains believe that the killing of a living being accumulates negative karma, even if by accident. Jains can often be seen walking about with a soft brush, moving insects out of their path without harming them.

 

 

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