Q: Please discuss the formation of Jainism and why did it never become as successful as Hinduism or Buddhism?
A: Jainism came about during the sixth century B.C., a time when many new religions and newer versions of older religions were forming. In many cases, it was a matter of taking a stand against a rigid and thoroughly entrenched religion with a professional priesthood, who were in control of the rituals and the implements used for them, and who kept all of the authority of the religion to themselves. They were the only ones who knew the rituals, and they gave themselves the sole authority to perform them. Now, for many people that was just fine. They were just as happy to leave the difficult matters of religion in the hands of experts. On the other hand, there were some people who thought that a religion ought to be more personal and that what really counted was, not someone else''s proficiency at performing various rituals, but one''s own relationship to whatever is ultimate.
During this time the Vedantic form of Hinduism, which is exemplified in the Upanishads among other places, came into being, as did Buddhism, and, of course, Jainism. For both Buddhism and Jainism we know of a specific person as the founder, who laid down the basic teaching of their religions.
The founder of Jainism was a man whose name was Nataputta Vardhamana. He was the son of the king, who became increasingly concerned about his own spiritual state as well as that of other people. His story is similar to that of the Buddha in that, after living his earlier life in comfort and luxury, including a wife and a daughter, he finally decided to forsake all of these advantages in order to find spiritual truth. For 13 years he lived a life of complete self deprivation, eating barely enough to sustain life marginally, and allowing himself to be exposed to all discomforts of his environment, including bad weather, vicious animals, insects, and abusive of people. Still, throughout this time, he was always careful never to hurt any living being, no matter how small, and he was always kind, gracious, respectful, and truthful to people, no matter how badly they treated him. Then, after this long time, enlightenment came to him. He had a sudden moment of full awareness of reality; he knew and understood all, including his own past lives; and he realized that he was going to escape from the cycle of incarnations and all of the suffering that comes with it.
In contrast to the Buddha, he continued to live this very rigorous lifestyle, and he gathered followers who joined him in this way of living in order to pursue enlightenment. Mahavira and his followers became known as “Jains,” which means "conquerors," in the sense that they conquered the endless cycle of reincarnations. They believed that karma consists of dead physical matter, which clings to a person''s soul, and holds it back from rising up into the state of supreme bliss. Thus, the object of the religion became to attempt to rid one''s soul of as much karma matter as possible, in the hope that one would eventually be able to rise out of the entire cycle of birth and rebirth altogether. The most important rule that one must follow in this pursuit is to avoid harming any living being. Attaining this goal is a full-time job, which can only be accomplished by someone who is a monk.
The second part of your question is, why it is that Jainism has never achieved the same degree of popularity as Hinduism or Buddhism. This is a very intriguing question because it would appear that on the outside, Jainism and Hinduism have a lot in common. In fact, some people have said that Jainism is one school of Hinduism, albeit an unorthodox one. The main reason why it would be considered unorthodox is because Jainism does not accept the caste system and does not consider the Vedas inspired Scripture. Furthermore, Jainism specifically denies the existence of the creator God, which certainly puts it at odds with most religions as well as most schools of Hinduism. Nevertheless, if we keep in mind that there are atheistic schools of Hinduism, and that other schools of Hinduism only pay lip service to the Vedas, and that for some of them the caste system is not as important as for others, the question remains pertinent why Jainism is not as broadly accepted as Hinduism.
Please let me try to be as careful as I can as I try to delve into this answer a little bit more. Obviously, whenever we compare and contrast two religions, it is pretty hard not to get caught up in value judgments (in fact, it''s really impossible to do so entirely, and sometimes it''s truly essential to make value judgments). However, an answer that would just basically consist of a statement like, "Hinduism is better than Jainism," or, "people just don''t see that Jainism is better than Hinduism," is not particularly helpful for anybody, and it certainly does not answer your question. So, let me attempt to be as factual is possible.
Most Eastern religions have a historical phase in which there is a stark division between the monks, who alone are eligible for enlightenment, and the laity, who can work for a better a reincarnation, but for whom the ultimate goal of enlightenment in this life is not a possibility. One good example would be the more traditional schools of Buddhism, e.g., Theravada, in which the pursuit of Nirvana is the privilege of the monks, or bikhus, while laypeople have duties to support the bikhus and the temples, but have to postpone their hopes for Nirvana for some future life. However, Buddhism has also taken one step further and has extended itself into newer versions, known as the Mahayana schools, in which everyone, not merely monks, can attain salvation.
Jainism, on the other hand, has always remained within that stage in which the monks are the ultimate beneficiaries of the religion, and laypeople play an important, but only supportive role. This is not to demean the place of lay persons in Jainism. Jain adherents live by high moral standards; they are well-known for their respect for life, and because the regulations of their own religion have kept them from engaging in agricultural pursuits, they have made outstanding contributions in finance and commerce. In terms of their religious practice, Jain laypeople support the monks in their endeavors, venerate the Tirthankaras (Mahavira and earlier teachers just like him), and study their teachings, but oftentimes need to look to the Hindu gods for immediate help in life. They observe regular worship practices and festivals, and they gladly perform the various duties that come with their religion. They take great pride in Mahavira, the founder of their religion.
So, you can see that, even though it would be wrong to think of Jainism as in some way inferior, the structure of this religion is such that it dictates a strong division between laity and monks. Thus there will always be this barrier to making Jainism an extremely popular religion. You might ask then, why it has attained the popularity that it does have. After all, four million adherents is not exactly a tiny group either. For one thing, of course, if people are convinced that the teaching of Jainism is true, then one would hope that popularity or immediate benefits would not keep them from embracing what they consider to be the truth. Also, the fact that Jainism does not recognize the caste system undoubtedly has contributed to its success.
Your question illustrates vividly how incredibly diverse the world of religions is. Please do not let numbers, whether the number of religions or the number of adherents of a religion, deflect you from seeking that which is genuinely true.