Q: Question: What are the causes that led to the formation of Jainism? What are the major practices and beliefs?
A: This is a pretty broad question, one that could easily take a whole book to answer, so I''m afraid I will have to give you a somewhat limited answer. Jainism was a part of a widespread movement in the sixth century B.C., rebelling against the dominant priest-oriented form of Hinduism and the caste system, which resulted in the emergence of some new religions and a new form of Hinduism. Let me first talk about the second part of your question, namely the practices and beliefs, so that subsequently the origin for the of this particular religion will make more sense to you.
According to Jainism, at least in theory, any human being has the chance to attain enlightenment, and thereby to experience liberation, which means that the person''s soul will come to rest in nirvana.—Okay, I need to qualify that Jainism is divided on the question of whether all human beings excludes those with two x-chromosomes or not.—Regardless of which side you take on this question, the above statement implies it implies that, according to Jainism, there are many souls, one for each individual living being, rather than there being only one world soul of which we all are a part (such as the idea of Braham in Hinduism). So, Jainism teaches that we are each responsible for our actions and what we do in this life has a direct influence on where we will be in next life. Note that I said "where" rather than "what" because of the way in which Jains picture the universe. It has the shape of a human being, and our souls may be at any height within this cosmos. The best place to be is the top of the head, which is nirvana. I''m sure you recognize the idea of karma in this description, namely the belief that your actions in this life will affect your next life, but the way in which it is presented in Jainism is different from the way that it is held in other Indian religions.
To be more specific, Jainism has a very concrete way of looking at the nature of karma. It teaches that the only way to attain nirvana is for the soul to float up to the head of the universe. But karma holds us down because our actions add weight to our souls in the form of dead matter which clings to us like barnacles and keeps us from rising to enlightenment. Consequently, the object of the religion becomes to do everything that is necessary to scrub this karma matter off our souls and attain purity. These actions are embodied in basic rules that, if observed rigorously, may eventually bring about the state of liberation. But do not think that this is an easy task. Only those who have devoted their entire lives to this pursuit will be able to attain the fruit of their labor. This means that, even though there is no caste system in Jainism, there is a strict division between monks and laypersons, and the job of the latter is to support the monks in their pursuit, while attempting to accumulate sufficient karma so as hopefully to be a monk in the next life. Even though, as I said above, theoretically anyone can attain nirvana, for economic and social reasons it is just plain not possible for many people to sever themselves from their families and spend their entire lives looking for enlightenment. The five basic rules, called the “vows,” of Jainism are:
1. Never harm any living being;
2. Always tell the truth;
3. Do not steal;
4. Abstain from sex;
5. Do not cling to any thing that is of this world.
The rigor with which these rules apply to you depends on whether you are a monk or a layperson. For a monk, not stealing means not to own any private property; for a layperson, the rule about abstinence from sex means to be faithful to your marriage partner and not to commit adultery. Jain monks must live in such a way that they will never do any harm to any living beings, including not interfering with insects that might like to feast on you. The culmination is, after having lived a life according to Jain principles, to observe a complete fast which will usher you out of this life and into nirvana.
An important part of Jainism is the veneration of the Tirthankaras (“ford-finders”), the 24 teachers who in various ages have taught these principles. They are not gods, but they are originally humans who have become distinguished spiritual beings, and their example is supposed to help us find our own way.
And this brings us to Mahavira, the last of the Tirthankaras, who lived in the sixth century B.C., and who is the historical person with whom we associate the origin of Jainism. This particular century constitutes a time of religious upheaval all over India. By this time, the Aryan invaders had established themselves all over the subcontinent and were maintaining their supremacy in society by means of the caste system, in which they laid claim to the highest rank, that of the Brahmins. The Brahmins constituted the priesthood and reserved for themselves the exclusive right to learn the scriptures and to perform the rituals. By this time, other people neither understood the rituals nor were permitted to learn them; in other words, they were completely dependent on the Brahmins for their religious lives. As a result, a broad counter movement started to the end of opening up religious spirituality to anyone regardless of caste because the traditional rituals were insufficient for attaining salvation. This movement spawned the Vedantic school within Hinduism, as well as Buddhism and Jainism outside of Hinduism. It is significant that the latter two did not originate among the Brahmins, but were founded by members of the Kshatriya cast, the warriors and rulers. Both the Buddha and Mahavira grew up in royal palaces, and both of them, after having been married and fathered a child, abandoned everything and assumed an ascetic lifestyle in order to find enlightenment. But whereas after seven years of self-torture the Buddha found peace in the doctrine off the "middle way," which lies between luxury and extreme self-denial, Mahavira continued a very harsh way of living his entire life. Neither of these two men were unique in their time insofar as they tried to escape from the rigidity of the Brahmanic system, but for various reasons they turned out to be the ones who attracted many followers and started new religions.
Thus, you can see that Jainism actually started out as a movement within Hinduism, but then found its own way because it did not go along with the social restrictions that are part of the Hindu dharma. However, despite all of the differences, Jainism did retain the basic idea that we are trapped in a cycle of reincarnations, and Jainism’s solution to this problem turns out to be about as drastic as what has been conceived of in any religion. The one thing that Jainism does not offer at all is the help of a merciful God. In fact, Jainism specifically denies the existence of a creator God, let alone a Redeemer. It refuses to provide any answer to the question of how the world came about, and how our souls became entrapped in it. This perspective seems to be somewhat unusual, particularly when you are talking about a religion that recognizes spiritual reality. Now, I obviously cannot revise what Jainism does or does not teach. But I certainly want to encourage anyone reading this entry to consider the plausible idea that what exists now must have been made by a creator, and that the creator has an interest in his creatures. One would expect that such a creator would not leave his creatures to suffer on their own, but would provide us with whatever we need to become liberated from the problems of human existence.