Jainism is a religion not known to many, yet is considered one of the oldest religions in the world.
A minority religion in India, which according to census.gov. is the second most populous country in the world, more than 80 percent of the population identifies itself as Hindu. However, Jainism is not overlooked.
Known as the Jaina dharma in Sanskrit, the Jain community has the highest literacy rate in a religious community in the whole of India. The community’s manuscripts are said to be the oldest in the country.
Dharma, according to the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, means law or natural law considered necessary for the maintenance of the natural order of things. In Jainism, dharma is simply the teaching of the Jinas.
Jinas is the title given to the 24 spiritual teachers, known as tirthankaras, who have showed the way of salvation through suffering and existence. The tradition says that Jainism was brought through their succession.
Keval Shah, senior from the Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology, explained the perspective of time in Jainism:
“The biggest idea is that time is infinite, which is divided into equal time cycles called ‘kalchakras’ that have two parts for each of the six kalchakras,” Keval Shah said.
Kalchakras are analogous to the definition of an era. The first part of the period is the ascending cycle, which is marked by happiness, strength and the best conditions for religious trends.
The latter part, known as the descending cycle, is the opposite, with religious trends going toward the worst.
“There are varying times within each era, the first being the longest and the sixth being the shortest. However, tirthankaras are only set in the third and fourth era of each cycle,” Keval Shah said.
According to Jainism, the current era is the fifth, in the descending cycle. It is through scripture that Jains know the next cycle periods and the names of the next 24 tirthankaras.
Today’s Jain temples contain identical images of all 24 tirthankaras, only identifiable from the totem associated with each teacher. Each of the totems given to the teachers depend on their life story
“The symbol for number 24, Mahavira, is the lion, which was given as a symbol of courage that his mother had dreamt giving birth to him,” Keval Shah said.
Like Hinduism, reincarnation is a big part of the faith.
“You can be reincarnated infinite times,” Keval Shah said. “With reincarnation, any of the beings can be reincarnated into any of the four stages, for example, being a human now, I can be reincarnated as a human, animal, heavenly or hellish being. [It is] only [when] the eight karmas are shed that the cycle is broken and the soul is liberated to Siddha Shila.”
Siddha Shila is a place above the universe where the soul exists in its purest form.
In reincarnation, old ways impact the future reincarnated self.
For example, any Jain follower can become another being in the next life depending on the amount of ‘good’ they acted in the previous life. ‘Good’ is identified as keeping with Jain traditions.
Non-violence and self-control, the most essential religious duties and major components of Jain canons, are the means by which Jain followers can obtain liberation from the cycle of reincarnation.
“Non-violence is compassion and forgiveness in words, thoughts and deeds towards all living beings,” the Federation of Jain Associations in North America said on Jaina.com.
The ways Jains practice non-violence is often scrutinized for its rigorous application in all aspects of life.
“Ahimsa, Sanskrit for non-violence, is one of the ways we stay good,” Keval Shah said, “which means no eating of meat, nor of any root vegetables like potatoes and onions.”
The idea of not hurting living things expands into nutrition especially. Root vegetables are avoided because tiny organisms are injured when the plant is pulled up, and the sprouts are seen as a characteristic of a living being. Similarly, the bacteria in the ground vegetables are also seen as living things.
“The main principle of non-violence is something that I try to adhere to as much as possible,” Neal Shah, a senior from the School of Public Health, said. “I believe we should treat all others the way I would want to be treated.”
Physical violence is also prohibited. Thus, hurting insects and stepping on plants, which falls under actions of violence, is greatly avoided.
As for places of worship, The Hindu Temple of St. Louis provides a room specifically for the Jain deities. Due to limitation of space only the totems of tirthankaras 23 and 24 are located in the temple. The temple is located just 17 miles from SLU.
Neal Shah said he tries to visit the temple whenever he gets a chance and pays his respects to other deities.
“I try to follow the religion as closely as possible, but being a college student makes it difficult. I manage to pray at least twice a day, once in the morning and once at night,” he said.
One of the most important religious events is known as Paryushan, an 8-day festival in September. The event consists of meditation, fasting and reading of the holy book Kalpa Sutra. The other main religious event is Diwali.
According to Keval Shah, the Kalpa Sutra is not as revered as the Bible or the Quran are in their respective Abrahamic faiths, rather the book is used for stories and literary reference.
“I truly love being a Jain because it is more than just an ideology of thought,” Avni Shah from the College of Arts & Sciences said. “It is a way of life… it has enriched my understanding of what it means to be a good person, lead a moral life and uphold all the Jain principles I have been taught.”