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Jainism origins

Mahavira, the great teacher of enlightenment, is depicted in this 9th century bronze statue from South India. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The founders of the ancient Jain religion were the 24 Tirthankaras most of whom lived before recorded history. Their name means ford-makers, who cross over the river of birth and death. These sages were also called jina, meaning spiritual victors, and their followers, who revere them and remember their examples, are called Jains.


The last of the 24 Tirthankaras was Mahavira, born around 540 BC. At the age of 30 he left home to wander as an ascetic and practice penance. After 12 years he found enlightenment and started teaching. He gathered hundreds of thousands of followers and divided them into four groups: monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. By the 5th century BC the Jain religion was an influential force in Northern India.

Tattvartha Sutra

The most important Jain scripture is the Tattvartha Sutra, written in Sanskrit in the 2nd century AD. It summarises the entire Jain doctrine and remains the basis for Jain education to this day.

Jainism today

By the 12th century was in decline in India, making way for Hindus and Muslims, but it has remained strong mainly in Gujarat, Maharastra and Rajasthan, in the North-West of India, where more than 7 million Jains live today. Small communities live in Britain and America.

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