History of Jainism after Mahavira


by Jayaram V

As it is now, so in the past Jainism was never a religion of the majority in the Indian subcontinent. It had its own periods of ascendance and decline. It enjoyed the patronage of many kings and the service of many saintly people. At times its Jinas and followers suffered in the hands of Hindu and Muslim oppressors. It witnessed divisions within its own community of followers. Many of the original teachings of the Tirthankaras were either lost or diluted. Throughout this long and tumultuous history, Jainism never lost its committed followers. They ensured that the ancient teachings of Mahavira and his predecessors would continue to bless aspiring souls and guide them on the path to liberation in a world that was meant to undergo constant change.

Due to various historical and doctrinal reasons, in India Jainism gained popularity and following among certain groups and communities only who were not averse to an ascetic way of life and the hardships that one had to endure in its practice. Jainism prescribed a strict code of conduct for its monks as well laity, which was difficult to practice. It offered little solace to those who took liberties with it. We do not have any indication that the religion ever enjoyed popularity beyond the Indian subcontinent. It had some presence in far reaching areas such as Sri Lanka and Nepal, but unlike Hinduism and Buddhism until recently it remained confined strictly to the native soil in which it originated.

Buddhism was also primarily a monastic and ascetic religion. However, the Buddha ensured that it was not difficult to practice, suggesting the Middle Path and avoiding the extremes  in the methods of self-restraint and self-denial. Although its monks had to lead a life of hardship and shun luxuries and possession of things, it was tolerable enough for an aspiring soul, compared to the austerities the Jaina monks had to practice and the sacrifices the path demanded.

So was the case with Hinduism. While the Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas were directly under the radar of the law books and expected to lead an exemplary life as part of their dharma (duty), the lower castes were relatively let off since there was no proper mechanism in place to enforce the religious laws or monitor their behavior. Persuasion rather than coercion was the wisest choice they could use to secure their support and cooperation in areas and professions where they had no expertise or skill. As a result, while Buddhism and Hinduism enjoyed wider popularity, Jainism remained a niche religion holding its sway only in certain pockets of the land.

In its long history, Jainism went through periods of revival and decline. At times it suffered from conflicts, divisions and schisms. Although Mahavira was not the founder of the religion, he was instrumental in bringing the religion out of the confines of the ascetic fold and introduce it kings, merchants and lay followers of his time in the newly emerging cities and urban centers of ancient India that grew along the banks of the river Ganges in the Magadha (Bihar) and its surrounding regions.

Mahavira was a historic figure and probably a contemporary of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and Gosala the head of the Ajivaka sects. Tradition suggests that the three spent some time together in the company of each other and exchanged their beliefs. The Ajivakas believed in a fatalistic philosophy, while the Buddha and Mahavira believed in the ability of the beings to mold their lives and destinies according to their karma. The three traditions had such fundamental differences that no reconciliation was possible. Tradition records bitter rivalry and intense debates and discussions between the followers of Jainism and Buddhism during the lifetime of Mahavira and the Buddha. They continued to vie for support and patronage in various parts of India until Hinduism, and later Islam gave them serious competition.

Mahavira was born in a princely family of Jnatris (or Natha) in Kundagrama (Basukund near modern Patna) in 599 B.C.E. At the age of 30 he decided to be a warrior against ignorance and delusion rather than the enemies of his kingdom. After wandering as an ascetic and undergoing severe penances and austerities, he attained enlightenment at the age of 42. He spent the next thirty years propagating Jainism mostly in the area comprising parts of modern Bihar and U. P., which was then known as Magadha, supported by 11 chief disciples who were designated as Gandharas.

They codified his teachings and organized the community of monks who became his committed followers. Because of his popularity and personal appeal, the community grew rapidly and even attracted women into the sect. He appointed Candana, his own cousin as the head of the female monks, while Sulasa and Revati acted as the head of lay sisters. Although Jainism was difficult to follow, its doctrines justified the suffering and sacrifices as part of the self-transformation required to attain the highest goal. Absence of caste system, heavy emphasis upon virtue rather than birth and the promise of godhead in the from of perfection were the added attractions.

Jainism after Mahavira

In 527 B.C.E at the height of his popularity and at the age of 72 Lord Mahavira passed away at Pavapuri, leaving behind a growing community of 14000 monkns, 36000 nuns, 159000 laymen and 318000 laywomen. Nine of the 11 Gandharas he appointed attained liberation during his lifetime. One passed away on the same night he died, leaving one chief disciple only in the end, named Sudharma to carry forward the torch of knowledge lit by him. Sudharma and his successor Jambusvami spread his teachings beyond Magadha into various parts of the subcontinent, supported by various kings of northern India including the infamous Nandas and their successors, the Mauryas.

Jambusvami is said to be the last of the great disciples of the tradition who attained omniscience. After him the leadership passed on to Srutakevalis, teachers who had the perfect knowledge of the scriptures, but were not truly liberated (kevalins) and had no direct experience of liberation. In other words, they had the right scriptural knowledge, but no omniscience. They were succeeded by seven or eleven teachers who had even lesser knowledge. They possessed partial knowledge of the scriptures, since by their times many teachings of Mahavira and his predecessors were either lost or diluted.

Jainism during the Mauryan era

One of the chief reasons for the spread of Jainism was the patronage it received from kings and influential merchants. Mahavira interacted with many kings during his time including Ajatasatru and his father Bimbisara. Tradition states that the first Mauryan ruler, Chandragupta Maurya, converted to Jainism in the later part of his life and died as a Jain monk in southern India near Sravanabelagola by starving himself to death.

According to Jaina tradition, Bhadrabahu, a Jain monk of highest virtue, was instrumental in this historic conversion. We do not know how the two came into contact with each other. It is possible that Bhadrabahu might have interacted with Nanda kings, some of whom were patrons of Jainism. It is said that foreseeing an impending famine in northern India which was going to cause a great suffering, Bhadrabahu persuaded Chandragupta Maurya to leave his empire to the care of his successor and accompany him to the South.

The king consented, and having abdicated the throne, he followed Bhadrabahu in the company of several monks to a place called Sravanabelagola in the South (which is presently a famous Jaina pilgrimage center). There in the true tradition of Jainism, he ended his life fasting himself to death. The epic journey to the south at a critical time in the history of India laid the foundation of Jainism in the South and led to its subsequent popularity in the region, which presently corresponds to the modern states of Andhrapradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and parts of Maharashtra.

This period also witnessed the rearing of dissention within the Jaina community and disputes regarding the teachings of the Tirthankaras and the code of conduct the monks were expected to follow. When Bhadrabahu was in the south with his followers, a group of monks remained in the north, facing the famine, under the leadership of Sthulabhadra. He said to have diluted the teachings of Mahavira to retain followership, and save the nascent tradition from losing its hold. His decision was however not appreciated by the orthodox section.

When Bhadrabahu finally returned to the North he and his followers were disillusioned by the changes that took place in the Order. A council of monks was convened at Pataliputra to sort out the differences and preserve the teachings. Bhadrabahu did not attend the meeting either because he was away or he chose not to. Tradition suggests that he proceeded to Nepal, and remained there until he ended his life in the true Jain tradition fasting himself to death.

Spread of Jainism and migration of monks

Asoka, the grandson of Chandragupta converted to Buddhism. However, he invented his own code of conduct, called the law of piety, and advocated religious tolerance. He was the last of the great Mauryan rulers and his successor were unable to hold the empire together. At the end of second century B.C.E., without patrons, and probably fearing persecution from the Sungas who came to power after the Mauryas and who were followers of the Vedic religion, a large number of Jain monks and lay followers migrated from Magadha to the other parts of the country. A similar migration said to have happened in case of Buddhism also. As a result only a few followers of Jainism remained in the Magadha.

The migration happened along two main trade routes of ancient India which connected the north to southern and western regions. One group went by the first route from Pataliputra in Bihar to Orissa in the east and Andhrapradesh, Karnataka and Tamilnadu in the South. An inscription of the Kharavela period (157 B.C.E.) found near Udayagiri in the Hathigumpha cave confirms this migration. The inscription states that King Kharavela erected a statue of the first Jina (Agrajina), probably Adinatha, and also got cave dwellings carved for the monks. While we do not know whether Kharavela himself was a patron or follower of Jainism, we know from other sources that Jainism flourished in their region for several centuries.

The other group of monks went westwards by the second route along the Ganges river to Mathura near Agra. Subsequently some of them decided to go further and settle in the Gujarat province. The rock cut caves of this period found near Junagarh confirm the settlement of an active Jain community in this region.

Due to these early efforts, Jainism spread in the South and gained an early following, even before Buddhism took firm hold. Many south Indian kings converted to Jainism and patronized the new religion. Jainism also flourished in the north, despite the famine and distention within the community. Votive tablets and images of Jain Thirthankaras found during excavations in Mathura suggest that Jainism flourished there during 2nd century B.C.E. and 3rd century C.E. due to the effort of the Jaina monks who maintained regular communication with the laity and exhorted them to practice the basic precepts of Jainism and adhered to the austere code of conduct.

Schism within the community

During this period, difference within the monks and scholars grew regarding the interpretation of the teachings and their preservation. It led to the formation of two sects, known as the Svetambaras. The Digambaras. meaning the naked ones, drew inspiration from the teachings of Mahavira and chose to remain naked renouncing all clothing. The Svetambaras, meaning the white robed ones, drew inspiration from the teachings of Parsvanatha and decided to wear white robes to avoid inconvenience to the general public and hardships for the nuns.

Apart from dress code, both sides differed about the salvation of women. The Svetambaras held that women were fully qualified for salvation. The Digambaras believed that female monks were not qualified for liberation if they did not discard clothing as it would violate the vow of non-possession of material things. They would qualify for salvation only when they took birth as male monks and practiced austerities, observing all the five vows strictly without compromise.

Another difference between the two was with regard to the depiction of the Thirthankaras and the sanctity of the sacred texts which contained their teachings. The Digambaras worship naked images of the Tirthankaras bereft of any jewelry or ornamentation, in contrast to the Svetambaras who worship the images of Tirthankaras in which they are draped with loincloth and decorated with ornaments. The Digambaras believe that after the third or fourth Jaina council the original texts and teachings of the Thirthankaras were completely lost, while the Svetambaras hold that the teachings are still available and the texts which contain them are still valid and reliable. As a result, the Svetambaras have a cannon of their own while the Digambaras recognize none as authentic.

With the passage of time, such differences between the two sects became irreconcilable. According to tradition, these two sects formally came into existence between 80 C.E and 83 C.E. While the two sects different on important issues, they also interacted and showed tolerance towards each other. Overtime, both the sects suffered from further schisms and disintegrated into sects and schools.

Jainism in the north and central India

Apart from the council of monks organized by Sthulabhadra, two more councils were held at Mathura and Vallabhi in the 4th century C.E., to resolve the differences and determine the correct teachings and their interpretation. Not much is known about the outcome of these councils. However apparently they did not result in any reconciliation between the two sects. Another council was held in the 5th century at Vallabhi, which was not attended by the Digambaras.

Ujjain was another important center of Jainism in ancient India. The area was ruled by Sakas for sometime in the first century C.E. Jaina tradition claims them to be followers of Jainism. Their successor king Vikramaditya was probably either a patron or a follower of Jainism. Jaina tradition also claims that Salivahana of Satavahana dynasty who ruled a vast empire in the south also practiced Jainism. However, we do not know how far these claims are historically accurate.

Jainism continued to thrive in various parts of India for a long time due to the religious tolerance practiced by many kings of the subcontinent. They supported it even while they practiced Hinduism or Buddhism. King Harshavardhana (600-647 C.E.) followed this principle to the extreme. He was a follower of Buddhism, but he showed exemplary tolerance towards all religions and respected the monks of all faiths who visited him. Once in five years he would empty the royal treasure by giving away all the riches to the poor and the needy. Another king of this period noted in the Jaina scriptures was Ama, who converted to Jainism and lent it his support.

Because of patronage it received from kings of such great character, Jainism flourished in many regions of India, from north to south and from east to west. Although it was not the dominant religion in the Indian subcontinent, its patrons and followers held important position and wielded considerable influence, while the monks were respected and held in esteem. During this period, many temples and monuments were built in India in honor of the Tirthankaras. Many Brahmanas served in those temples as priests and offered daily worship. The principle and practice of nonviolence was widely recognized and became a central virtue in all major traditions.

Jainism in Gujarat

Nowhere such transformation was more striking than in Gujarat, where Jainism became popular due to the patrnoage of many kings. Prominent among them were Vanaraja (8th century C.E.), Mularaja, the founder of Chalukya dynasty, and king Bhima (11th century C.E). It was during the reign of Bhima, the famous Jain temple at Mount Abu was built by a layman named Vimala. The notable Jaina scholar, Hemachandra (11th century C.E) also hailed from this region. He lived during the reign of king Jayasimha Siddharaja, who courted his friendship and came under his influence. Although Jayasimha was a worshipper of Shiva, at the behest of Hemachandra, he supported Jainism and built a temple in honor of Mahavira. He also invited Jaina scholars to his court to participate in debates and discussions. Kumarapala (12th century C.E.) succeeded Jayasimha and converted to Jainism, again due to the influence of Hemachandra. He enforced a strict code of conduct in his kingdom, prohibiting meat eating, killing of animals, animal sacrifices, drinking and gambling. He also built several Jaina temples. The Vaghelas, who came to power in Gujarat after the Chalukyas were also patrons of Jainism. They built several temples and honored the Jaina monks.

Jainism in the south

As in Gujarat, Jainism received patronage from various kings who ruled in the south, in the region comprising present day Maharasthra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamilnadu. As a result, many Jaina settlements flourished there. King Hala, the founder of Satavahana dynasty, was said to be one of the earliest patrons of Jainism in the south. The Jaina tradition recognize him as one of the four most literary kings of ancient India. The Prakrta language in which the Svetambara texts were preserved originated in these parts. It is however not clear whether Hala converted to Jainism or remained a patron.

Previously we mentioned that Bhadrabahu went to Karnataka in the south, accompanied by Chandragupta Maurya. Before returning to north, he established a settlement of Jaina monks near Sravanabelagola. He was followed by other monks such as Samantabhadra, Pujyapada and Nemichandra. Due to their effort, Jainism took roots in the south and received the patronage of several kings belonging to the Gangas and Rashtrakutas dynasties who ruled the region between 200 C.E. and 1100 C.E. Prominent among them was king Amoghavarsa. He is known not only for his patronage of Jainism but also his contribution to native literature.

Jainism also received patronage from several Chalukya and Hoyasala kings. They built shrines and temples in honor of the Tirthankaras besides encouraging people to practice their teachings. Due to these efforts and developments, Karnataka became the main seat of the Digambaras. It is said that so great was the influence of Jainism upon the people in the region that up to the 12th century C.E. the whole of "Kannada literature was exclusively Jaina literature." The influence continued even afterwards.

Jainism flourished further south in Tamilnadu also and exerted its influence upon Tamil literature, even before it became a popular tradition in the Karnataka. It is believed that as early as 4th century B.C.E. some Jaina monks traveled to Sri Lanka and settled near Anuradhapura. Ruins of Jain temples belonging to 3rd or 2nd century B.C.E unearthed near Madurai and Ramnad suggest that Jainism took roots in southern India during the same period it spread to Orissa and Gujarat. Madurai seems to have been a prominent Jaina center during the reign of Pallavas (4th to 10th century C.E.) who showed tolerance towards Jainism. Hieun Tsang, the Chinese traveler, who visited Kanci in the 6th century C.E. saw a large number of Jaina monks living there.

Religious persecution of Jains

In the long history of Jainas, there were also instances of their persecution by intolerant kings. Buhler mentions persecution of Jaina monks by a few south Indian kings. In the north, Mihrikula, a huna king, said to have taxed those who provided food to the Jaina monks. It caused great inconvenience to the monks since they ate meals only once in a day and avoided human contact.

The persecution was even more severe in some instances. For example, the Pallava king Mahendravarma, who was a contemporary of Appar, said to have destoryed Jaina structures in Kuddalor and built siva temples. A Pandya ruler named Sundara (11th century C.E.) persecuted and tortured to death nearly 8000 Jaina monks who refused to be converted to Saivism.

The Jainas also suffered greatly in the hands of Lingayats who showed great hostility towards them by damaging their properties, destroying their temples and replacing their idols of the Tirthankaras with those of Hindu gods. Jainas also suffered from the hostility of the Vaishnavas. The Hoyasala king Bittideva (11th-12th century C.E), was a follower of Vishnu and a patron of Ramanuja. He persecuted the Jainas in his kingdom by giving orders to throw the monks in an oil mill and crush them.

Because of such incidents of cruelty and persecution, and the revival of Hinduism set in motion by prominent teachers of various Hindu schools and sects such as Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhava, Vallabha, Nimbarka and Caitanya, Jainism lost a considerable following in both north and south and gradually declined. The decline also coincided with increasing references to Hindu customs, practices and deities in Jaina literature.

Jainism in the medieval period

In the north, Jainism suffered greatly in the hands of the Muslim invaders and during the Islamic rule. During the invasions and conquests, they treated Hindus, Buddhists and Jain alike. Ala-ud-din Khilji killed many Jainas, burnt their scriptures, desecrated their deities and either destroyed their temples or converted them into mosques during his conquest of Gujarat (1297-98). It was repeated in other parts of India by other Muslim rulers. While some Muslim rulers, such as Akbar, showed tolerance and leniency towards other faith, overall Jainism suffered greatly during the five hundreds of Muslim rule.

Suggestions for Further Reading


Historical Dictionary of Jainism By Kristi L. Wiley, 1Scarecrow Press Inc., 1949.

Jainism, an Indian Religion of Salvation by Helmuth Von Glasenapp, Motilal Banarasdas Publishers Private Limited, 1999

Open Boundaries, Jain Communities and Cultures in Indian History, edited by John E.Cort, Published by State University of New York Press, Albany, 1998.

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