Jainism, Tirthankaras and the Indian Way


In spite of the vital role played by the Vedic-Hindu view of life in the making and developing of the Indian Way, the contribution of others towards its strengthening and welfare cannot be minimized. Also cent percent credit of strengthening the Indian Way from time-to-time cannot be given only to the Vedic-Hindu view of life.

Any such attempt will be inappropriate; it will not be justifiable. Moreover, such an attempt will penetrate the wide scope of the Indian Way itself. Along with this, it will be an act of indifference from the fundamental spirit of Ahimsa, which is an eternal, greatest and natural value, which calls upon self-realization, and which fills the Indian Way with features like unity and equality.

After Vedic-Hindu view of life the name of Jain philosophy can be mentioned foremostly in the context of making the Indian Way firm. The Jain Tirthankaras from time-to-time contributed towards strengthening it. Doesn’t matter if the religious community, known as the Jain today, has no faith in Godlike Supreme Power or Jain philosophy does not make God the basis of human-unity and equality, but the approach through which Jain Tirthankaras, in spite of its limited number of followers, parallel to Vedic-Hindu view of life made Ahimsa the only basis of all human-activities that doubtlessly gave strength to India’s Way in which universal acceptance is nucleus.

Doesn’t matter if Jain philosophy connected Ahimsa to tough self-restraint and self-control which would not be possible for common men to follow, but the role played by Tirthankaras and Saints of this religious-community in spreading and propagating this eternal, natural and greatest human value is an indivisible and permanent part of open chapters of the Indian Way.

The tradition of Jain philosophy and Tirthankaras is very old. Particularly the view that Jain Philosophy is Sanatana. Proofs of existence of Tirthankara Rishabhdev have been found in digging worksites of the Indus Valley Civilization. Not only was this, as per the mention in the Jain treatises, Rishabhdev, the first Tirthankara, was the son of Nabhi and Marudevi, the king and queen of Ayodhya.

In the Rig-Veda itself he has been mentioned as one of the Avataras-incarnations. In treatises of Hindus and Jains both it has also been mentioned that Rishabhdev was from the Ikshavaku family line. Particularly Jain treatises describe that Hindustan [India] was known as Bharatha due to Bharat, the eldest son of Rishabhdev and who was a great king. Undoubtedly, the Jain tradition is quite old. Like Hinduism history of Jainism is ancient. Thus, from ancient times, and particularly from the time of Tirthankara Rishabhdev, Jainism has contributed greatly towards strengthening and developing the Indian Way.

Contribution of the First Tirthankara

The contribution of the first Jain Tirthankara Rishabhdev in strengthening the Indian Way can be apparent on four aspects. And the first among them is that being a great and wise cultivator he trained Indians in systematic agricultural work. He called upon people to domesticate animals on larger scale along with agriculture; he inspired Indians for it. Both these practices could grant dimensions to Ahimsa and thus strengthened the Indian Way.

Bringing the society in the range of simplicity was Rishabhdev’s second major contribution. He made great efforts of bringing common men out of the domain of hard rules. He inspired people to lead life on the basis of simple and adaptable laws. In spite of connecting Ahimsa with self-retrain and self-control, he called upon people to make love and friendliness the basis of their social conducts, which confirmed his commitment towards simplicity and adaptable rules for common men. In this regards it has been mentioned in the Trilokakshara:

“Dhammo Vadiyamoolo Vanimmiyio Adybihamen”

Meaning thereby, “Rishabh, the first Tirthankara, laid the foundation of the simple dharma. That dharma was based upon love and friendliness.”

The third and ever memorable contribution of Rishabhdev towards the Indian Way had been in his work and teachings of developing the art of cottage industries and that too according to demand of time and space. In this connection too he trained the people. It has been mentioned in the Vrihat Swayambhu Istrota:

“Prajapatriyah Prathamam Jajivishiyuh Shashasa Krishyadasiyu Karamasu Prajah”

His fourth contribution had been in his exemplary teachings of realistic honesty particularly for those who were involved in business for their livelihood.

All the above four contributions of Rishabhdev, in spite of being extraordinary in his on time, are worth giving a thought until today. Tirthankara Rishabhdev is ideal for those who think about the Indian Way, who are concerned of making this way firm and broad in prevailing conditions of India and the whole world. Doubtlessly, in this regard, Rishabhdev goes beyond the limits set by any particular religious-community.

Chain of Tirthankaras

After Rishabhdev, the first Tirthankara, his great tradition was spread and propagated among the masses by other twenty-one Tirthankaras in prevailing circumstances of their respective times. Among those eighteen Tirthankaras-Ajitnath, Sambhavnath, Abhinandannath, Sumatinath, Padamprabhu [or Padamprabh], Suparshvanath, Chandraprabhu [or Chandraprabh], Pushpadant, Shitalnath, Shreyansnath, Vasupujya, Vimalnath, Anantnath, Dharmanath, Shantinath, Kunthunath and Arhanath came from the Ikshavaku family line. They made the people realize the importance of Ahimsa and tried their level best to bring day-to-day activities of all general and particular within its domain. They were great initiator of Ahimsa in their respective eras.

Mallinath, the child of Queen Prabhavati and Ikshavaku Vanshiya King Kumbha of Ayodhya, who according to the Digambar sect of Jain-community was masculine in gender and according to the Shwetambar sect a feminine, rose to the stature of the Nineteenth Jain Tirthankara. Like earlier Tirthankaras Mallinath too accomplished the great task of spreading Ahimsa and conveyed the reality of this supreme value for the welfare of all.

Suvratnath and Naninath were twentieth and twenty-first Jain Tirthankaras and both of them also came from the Ikshavaku family line, while Neminath, the twenty-second Tirthankara, came from the Hari Vansha. They successfully went forward in giving dimensions one after the other to Jain philosophy in their respective eras. They became source of inspiration for many to come to the fold of Jainism and make Ahimsa the basis of their chores.

Tirthankara Parshvanath

Parshvanath [872-772 B. C.], the son of King Ashvasen and Queen Vama of Varanasi, who rose to the stature of the Twenty-Third Jain Tirthankara, became most popular in the chain of Tirthankaras after Rishabhdev. He was the predecessor of Vardhamana Mahavira, the last and the Twenty-Forth Tirthankara. The most valuable contribution of Parshvanath to the Indian philosophy and spiritualism was the foundation of the Chaturyama, a fourfold Shramanika system by him. And the solidarity which Parshvanath gave through this contribution to the Indian Way was not the less than any of the Vedic Rishis.

When during the Upanishadic era under the Vedic system Ahimsa was being purified as the supreme human value, and altogether it was being mentioned particularly in the Shandiloyopnishad and Chandogyopnishad, at that very time Parshvanath, with the purpose of making it foremost in theory and practice both, and to accord it the supreme place in prevailing circumstances, made it first in the Chaturyama. Through this he ratified India’s commitment to human equality and unity. Thus, he himself proved to be the best representative of the Indian Way of his time.

Chaturyama is made of those four principles on the basis of which Parshvanath established the Shramanika System. Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya and Aparigraha are included in it. Doubtlessly, by following this system, particularly its principles of true conduct, non-stealing and Aparigraha, the level of ethics and morality increases to a large extent. Both-ethics and morality-are necessary for the development of Ahimsa. They are the means of realizing it. Therefore, through his Chaturyama system, which is made of Satya, Asteya and Aparigraha along with Ahimsa, Tirthankara Parshvanath gave an extension to the Indian Way; he made it concrete.

Vardhamana Mahavira

Vardhamana Mahavira, who rose to the stature of the Twenty-Fourth Jain Tirthankara, was the son of Kashyapgotriya King Siddhartha and Queen Trishla of Kundagram near Vaishali in present Bihar. It was Mahavira who not only had brought forward the Jain tradition established by Rishabhdev but gave to it the best, unprecedented, unique and historical dimension in theory and practice, which could be known and understood by his own lifelong practices. In his own life Mahavira was on the peak of Ahimsa. I am of the view that he was unique in fostering Ahimsa. Until today he holds unique position in this regard. I am not acquainted of any such other who experienced and practiced Ahimsa to the extent as Mahavira did. Also I am not sure whether someone else will become equal to him in this context. Indians can take pride of having such a unique and matchless initiator of Ahimsa like Mahavira who born on their motherland.

Mahavira added Brahmacharya [Celibacy] to the Chaturyama system established by the Twenty-Third Tirthankara Parshvanath. Thus, he based it on five principles-Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha. The purpose behind adding this new principle in the Chaturyama system was to make human conduct morally sound. In fact, celibacy is one of the best means of self-control and self-restrain. It contributes towards maintaining mental and physical balance. Furthermore, it plays vital role in developing constructive approach in man. Therefore, it promotes activities related to Ahimsa.

Being a great guide, elucidator and defender, Mahavira took the Indian Way to heights. The Ratna-traya system established by him is one of the living examples of it. Through the Ratna-traya System-Samyak Darshan, Samyak Jnana and Samyak Charitra-he inspired the people to go forward to attain the highest stage of humanity.

Being a great initiator of Ahimsa and elucidator of the Indian Way, Mahavira tried to make all, general or particular, realize that unity in diversity was a reality. He declared Ahimsa to be the soul force, and through its constant development he emphasized upon realizing harmony, which prevailed not only among human beings, but also between a dangerous and a weak or feeble animal. He talked of drinking water by a lion and a buffalo on the same landing-place.

In the scope of Mahavira’s harmony and human-unity all general and particular, woman and man, rich and poor were, and are, equal. All were, and are, eligible of equal progress. All can attain the highest-Moksha. In the entire history of Jain tradition, Mahavira set record of inspiring lacs of men and women to follow Jainism by making Ahimsa nucleus in their day-to-day practices. He wished all to break their bonds and to reach the level of a Tirthankara. In this regard he surpassed all his predecessors.

To understand the reality of the [exiting or materialistic] world, Mahavira proposed a great philosophy of Anekantvad [non-absolutism]. He also presented another philosophy of Syadvad, which was based upon seven possibilities, before the world. These philosophies gave strength to the Indian philosophy on the one hand and on the other they fostered India’s way of life. Moreover, by repeating the principle of possibility of harmony among all creatures he made the aspect of universal acceptance of the Indian Way strong in theory, and by his own pure and true activities in practice.

*Dr. Ravindra is a renowned Indologist, Gandhian writer and scholar; he is a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Meerut in India.

Dr. Ravindra Kumar is an eminent writer, Indologist, political scientist and a former vice chancellor of Meerut University, India, who authored and edited over 100 works on great personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and on various social-cultural issues.