Education About Asia

Mahavira: From Heretic to Fordmaker

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Why Teach and Learn about Jainism and the Life of Mahavira?

Apart from Buddhism, Jainism is the only other ancient non-Vedic Indian tradition that has survived until the present day. While Buddhism all but disappeared from India by the fourteenth century CE and was only later revived, Jainism has existed in India uninterruptedly for over 2,500 years. However, unlike Buddhism, it had not spread from India until recent times, which is largely due to the observance of the ethical principle of nonviolence. Careful attentiveness not to harm even the tiniest of living creatures prevented Jain mendicants— wandering monastics who own no property and obtain food by collecting alms—from using any means of transportation other than walking. This severely limited their travels, restricting their activities to India. Jainism has played a significant role throughout Indian history and remains an important component of religious and social life in present-day India. Chiefly involved in trade, Jains have been an affluent and powerful community, and despite the fact that Jainism is now a minority religion with about four million followers in India and between 100,000 and 200,000 in the diaspora, they continue to have authority and influence in contemporary society. Due to the great efforts of recent scholarship on Jainism, many of the myriad aspects of this rich tradition are studied and written about today. It is now more than ever possible to include Jainism in history and religious studies curricula. Such an inclusion allows a much more comprehensive understanding of India’s past and present religious contexts in which Jainism has played a substantial part. In addition, Jainism’s radical commitment to nonviolence and encouragement of ascetic practices makes the tradition interesting to explore in comparison to other world religions, as well as in ethical discussions.