A Jain is someone who follows the teachings of the Jinas (‘Spiritual Victors’) a title given to a succession of 24 great teachers or Tirthankaras (‘Fordmakers’), enlightened human beings who have shown the way to spiritual liberation since ancient times. The raised hand in the Jain symbol reminds us to stop and consider our actions. The wheel in the symbol represents samsara (the endless cycle of reincarnation), the 24 spokes stand for the Tirthankaras and the word in the centre is ahimsa (‘non-violence’). This is the supreme principle of Jainism and probably its best-known feature in the world at large. A Jain should avoid doing harm not just to people, but to animals, birds, fish, vegetation – even to the earth, air and water, down to the smallest of lifeforms.
Jainism has a strong claim to be the oldest living religion in the world, with no agreed date for its beginning. The most important figure in the history of Jainism is Mahavira, whose name means ‘Great Hero’. Latest in the long line of Tirthankaras, Mahavira lived in India in the 6th century BCE, at around the same time as the Buddha. Like the Buddha, Mahavira rejected the prevailing wisdom that spiritual progress depended on correctly carrying out the duties of the class into which one was born. Mahariva taught that the only way for the individual to attain eternal bliss is to live in a state of discipline and renunciation, through right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. These Three Jewels provide Jainism’s path to liberation (moksha) and salvation.
Since Jains do not believe in an all-powerful God, the question of whether Mahavira (or any of the other Tirthankaras) is a prophet, messenger or incarnation of any such supreme being is a meaningless one. Jains see the eternal existence of the universe, without beginning or end in time or space, as self-evident, with no need of any creator to explain it. They believe that endless cycles of time stretch into the infinite past and into an infinite future, and that the teachings which lead to liberation come into the world in the form most suited to the present era. The time in which we live now is one of corruption and decay – including degradation of the natural environment – therefore a stricter form of discipline is required in order to escape from it.
Mahavira’s teachings were transmitted orally from teacher to pupil for generations before eventually being written down in the 4th century BCE. These were compiled into holy books called Agams, ranging in number from 33 to 45, depending on the Jain sect. Some cover specific topics, including Mahavira’s final sermon, the environment and death. So Jainism does not have one central holy book, but many authoritative texts. One of the most revered books outside the Agams is the Kalpa Sutra, which tells the life stories of the Tirthankaras and codifies conduct for Jain monks and nuns. These texts are written in the ancient languages of Ardha-Magadhi and Prakrit. Nowadays, some extracts from Jain scripture have been translated into vernacular languages including Gujarati, Hindi and English.
Worship, prayer & meditation
Jains do not worship the Tirthankaras, but look upon them as living embodiments of perfection. Jains commonly chant mantras or contemplate images; such practices are known as puja. Recalling and reciting good deeds from the pious lives of the Tirthankaras generates a positive mental state in the individual, engendering religious merit which, in turn, contributes to good rebirth. Devotees focus on the Tirthankaras and other pure souls, so that they might follow their example more effectively. They may also engage in rituals involving decoration or anointing of images. Jains also practise a form of meditation called samayika for sessions of 48 minutes, to establish a peaceful state of mind and obtain some idea of what it means to follow a monastic life.
Jains believe that the souls of all living creatures throughout the universe are caught up in an endless cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth – and that it is the purpose of life to free oneself from this. Each soul is capable of achieving liberation when it rids itself of the burden of accumulated karma (the consequences of one’s deeds). This attaches itself to the soul and retards its progress toward the state of nirvana. This freedom is obtained by one’s own efforts, under the guidance and direction of scripture and example. Jain spiritual insight and practice deal with the smallest aspects of daily life, as much as they address the big questions of the purpose of existence. Most Jains fast at special times, during festivals and on holy days.
While the Jain way of life is rooted in ancient and traditional teachings, it is increasingly seen as being relevant to the needs of the modern world. For example, Jains should limit the extent to which they travel, and to which they consume resources. They should avoid violence, lying, lustfulness, and materialism, and steer clear of everyday sins, such as thinking or speaking badly of others, being inconsiderate or self-indulgent. Jains should also be charitable. Ahimsa directs the thoughts and actions of all Jains, as individuals and in their community (samaj). In keeping with this central principle, Jains are vegetarian. Some Jains show such commitment to their way of life that they choose to renounce all worldly things and become monks or nuns (though this is not so common outside India).
Like most religions, Jainism has many branches or traditions, affecting its development throughout its history. There are two well-known denominations: Digambara (‘Sky-Clad’) monks who wear no clothes and usually live in seclusion; Svetambara (‘White-Robed’) monks who are more moderate in belief and lifestyle. While such divisions have long been influential to Jains in India, they are of less importance to those living in other countries today. Being such a small minority in the UK, for example, has moved Jains to overcome many of these differences and build a robust community, for whom their common identity as Jains comes first. This unity is expressed in practical terms in Leicester’s Jain temple, where all the main traditions have their own shrines or rooms for worship.
Jains mark the passing of Mahavira and the ascent of his soul to nirvana in Vira-Nirvana (which occurs at the same time as the traditional India festival of Diwali). Paryushana is a festival lasting eight to ten days, during which the whole of the Kalpa Sutra is recited. On the fifth day of this recitation, the scriptures tell of the birth of Mahavira – so Jains celebrate his birth on that day. During Paryushana, Jains get in touch with the original virtues of their soul. The final day of that festival is a time of repentance. Jains celebrate Oli twice a year, for nine days each time. During this period, they eat bland food, once a day only. The Jain community follows a lunar calendar, so the dates of these festivals will change each year.
There are between 5 and 10 million Jains in the world, mostly in western and southern parts of India. Despite the fact that they make up less than 1% of India’s population, Jains have long had considerable influence on the religious, social, political and economic life of that country. Jainism was historically confined to India for many centuries, with no noticeable migration to the West until the late 1960s and early 70s, when many Gujarati Jains, who had previously settled in East Africa, migrated to Europe. Today there are thought to be around 25,000 Jains in Europe, with similar numbers in North America. Many of these communities are now well established and confident enough to build their own places of worship, after Indian models.
Jains in Britain
At the time of the 2001 census, there were 15,000 Jains in England and Wales. Most of them live in London, Leicester, Manchester or Birmingham. Jains traditionally belong to the business community, although many Jains in Britain are professionals. There are four Jain temples in Britain: three in the Greater London area, one in Leicester. There are numerous Jain institutions, organizations and associations undertaking research and promoting community development. The Institute of Jainology (established at the first International Jain Conference in London in 1983) has become an authoritative source of information about Jainism. Young Jains UK encourages discussion of Jainism’s practical importance to the lives of young members of the community in Britain.
Jains in Leicester
The first Jains who came to Leicester arrived here from Kenya and India, followed by greater numbers from Uganda. The establishment of the Jain Samaj Europe in Leicester in 1973 demonstrated a thriving Jain community in the West, despite its being distant from the influence of its roots in India. The Jain temple in Oxford Street was dedicated to worship in 1988, and has become one of Leicester’s most recognisable landmarks, with its remarkable pillars carved from Jaselmere yellow sandstone. Different sects of Jainism have their own place of worship within the temple, the only one in the world where this is so. The Jain community of Leicester is estimated to be 1,000 strong; the community occasionally plays host to visiting influential speakers and leading religious figures from India.