Jainism originated in India long before its revival in the sixth century B.C. and may be one of the world's oldest religions. Mahavira, a prince who chose the life of a monk and teacher, is sometimes called Jainism's founder, but he actually revived this ancient way of life rather than started a new religion. Jainism's most notable influence is the theory of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

Jainism and Buddhism

Jainism is closely connected to Buddhism in terms of its guiding principles. Interestingly, Lord Buddha and Mahavira were contemporaries and share a similar background; both were high-born and chose an ascetic life. It is difficult to say definitively that Jainism influenced Buddhism, but there are sufficient similarities between them to suggest an exchange of ideas. Nonviolence, reincarnation and a religious philosophy that isn't centered on worship are the main shared principles.

Jainism Guiding Principles

Jainism's principal teaching is that a person can achieve liberation and bliss by living a life with non-harm and renunciation at its center. Jains are concerned with the welfare of every being in the universe and with the universe itself, which suggests a religion that sits comfortably alongside environmentalism. For example, Jains are forbidden to work in forestry because it involves cutting trees, and they are not allowed to sell pesticides or work in any industry that uses a fermentation process. Like Buddhism, Jainism has no gods or divine beings to help people, and Jainism has no priesthood, just monks and nuns who lead a strictly ascetic existence. Jainism's three guiding principles, called the "Three Jewels," are right belief, right knowledge and right conduct.

Ahimsa or Nonviolence

Jains believe that to save your soul and achieve liberation, or moksha, from the cycle of birth and death, you must protect every other soul. Although Buddhists believe in nonviolence, it is more important to Jains. Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is the supreme principle of Jainism and was a key influence on the way Mahatma Gandhi approached liberating India from British rule. Jains practice ahimsa in a number of ways: They eat a strictly vegetarian diet, do not kill animals, and Jain monks and nuns take great care not to tread on insects; some even wear muslin masks to avoid swallowing flies. Other ways of practicing ahimsa are working for justice and peace, as long as it doesn't involve violence. Violence includes mental and verbal violence as well as physical. A person may be guilty of violence even if he only thinks about it and doesn't take action.

Contribution to Indian Culture

Jainism has made a number of significant contributions to Indian culture in the religious, political and social spheres. Jainism's rejection of the caste system and its belief that men and women are equal are two examples of Jain influence in India's social sphere. Jains have also made significant contributions in the field of education, particularly in educating the masses. Because of its tolerant attitude, Jainism has coexisted with Hinduism and Buddhism without confrontation and all three share beliefs about karma and reincarnation. Jainists are close to Hindus and some families may practice both.