Jainism: Definition, Origin & Founder

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Jainism shares a home with some of the oldest practiced religions in the world, and may predate them all. In this lesson, we'll check out the origins of this ancient system of faith.


India is renowned for its devout religious cultures, and in fact some of the oldest practiced religions in the world originated here. Buddhism is at least 2,500 years old, and Hinduism is even older. Well, we're going to add another ancient religion to that list today: Jainism.

Jainism is a faith of devotion, where worshippers are encouraged to pursue personal and spiritual perfection through nonviolence and asceticism. The ultimate goal is to release one's spirit from the eternal cycle of rebirth. It's one of India's oldest religions and is still practiced by millions today. But where did this faith come from? Let's take a look back to its origins to find out.


Our tour of Jain history starts with the historical figure of Mahavira (599-527 BCE by traditional dates). Mahavira was born Vardhamana, an Indian man of the noble warrior class who was actually a contemporary of the Buddha. After the death of his parents, this warring prince decided to live the life of an ascetic and renounced all worldly possessions. After 12 years of fasting and meditating, he achieved enlightenment and set out to teach the world a better path. He is said to have had around 50,000 followers when he died and his spirit was released from the cycle of reincarnation.


The Tirthankaras

In Jain tradition, Mahavira was the most recent of 24 Tirthankaras, who were spiritual teachers that stretched across history. Mahavira did not invent Jainism or Jain ideals; he merely manifested the most recent iteration of it. His principle contribution was consolidating the teachings of previous Tirthankaras into a more unified doctrine.

So, who were the Tirthankaras who came before Mahavira? The first one was a mysterious figure named Rsabhadeva, but almost nothing is known about him. In fact, most of the Tirthankaras are complete mysteries to historians. Does this mean that historians assume they didn't exist? Not necessarily. The 23rd Tirthankara (the one to directly precede Mahavira) was named Parsva and is believed to be a historic figure of the eighth or ninth century BCE. He lived hundreds of years before Mahavira, but his memory and teachings were still alive by the time of Mahavira's enlightenment.

Rsabhadeva, the first Tirthankara

The Origins of Jainism

If the 24th Tirthankara lived in the 6th century BCE, and the 23rd lived in the 8th or 9th century BCE, then just how old is Jainism itself? According to Jain belief, it's eternal. Time does not have a beginning or an end, and neither does Jainism. In fact, the oldest Tirthankaras are said to have lived hundreds of thousands, and even millions of years ago.

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