Jainism, along with Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, is one of the four major Dharmic religions originating in India. In general, Jains are extremely well-represented in spite of the fact that they form only 0.4% (around 4.2 million) of India's total population. Many of them rich and an overwhelming majority of them are well to do. As such, it can be said that they hold power and wealth disproportionate to their small population. According to the India Census 2001, Jains have the highest literacy rate (religion-wise) of 94.1% compared to the national average of 64.8%
According to Jain beliefs, the universe was never created, nor will it ever cease to exist. It is eternal but not unchangeable, because it passes through an endless series of cycles. Each of these upward or downward cycles is divided into six eons (yugas). The present world age is the fifth of these "cycles", a downward movement. These ages are known as "Aaro" as in "Pehela Aara" or First Age, "Doosra Aara" or Second Age and so on. The last one is the "Chhatha Aara" or Sixth Age. All these ages have fixed time durations of thousands of years.
When this cycle reaches its lowest level, even Jainism itself will be lost in its entirety. Then, in the course of the next upswing, the Jain religion will be rediscovered and reintroduced by new leaders called Tirthankars (literally "Crossing Makers" or "Ford Finders"), only to be lost again at the end of the next downswing, and so on.
In each of these enormously long alternations of time there are always twenty-four Tirthankars. In our era, the twenty-third Tirthankar was Parshva, an ascetic and teacher, whose traditional dates are 877-777 BC, i.e., 250 years before the passing of the last Tirthankar Lord Mahavir in 527 BC. Jains regard him, and all Tirthankars, as a reformer who called for a return to beliefs and practices in line with the eternal universal philosophy upon which the faith is based. Hence the title Bhagavan ("Lord") is applied to Mahavir and all other Tirathankars in the sense of the Venerable One.
The twenty-fourth and final Tirthankar of this age is known by his title, Maha-vi-r, the Great Hero (599-527 BC). He too was a wandering ascetic teacher who attempted to recall the Jains to the rigorous practice of their ancient faith.
Jains believe that reality is made up of two eternal principles, jiva and ajiva. Jiva consists of an infinite number of identical spiritual units; ajiva (that is, non-jiva) is matter in all its forms and the conditions under which matter exists: time, space, and movement.
Both jiva and ajiva are eternal; they never came into existence for the first time and will never cease to exist. The whole world is made up of jivas trapped in ajiva; there are jivas in rocks, plants, insects, animals, human beings, spirits, etc.
Any contact whatsoever of the jiva with the ajiva causes the former to suffer. Thus Jains believe that existence in this world inevitably means some suffering. Neither social nor individual reform can totally stop suffering. In every human, a jiva is trapped, and the jiva suffers because of its contact with ajiva. To avoid suffering, the jiva must escape completely from the four ghatis (stages) of Human Life, Heavenly Bodies, Plants/Animals/Insects/Fish Life, and Hell, by practising Jainism continuously and attain liberation, salvation,never letting go of the ultimate aim.
Karma and transmigration keep the jiva trapped in ajiva. Achieving release from the human condition is difficult. Jains believe that the jiva continues to suffer during all its lives or reincarnations, which are indefinite in number. They believe that every action, good or evil, opens up channels of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), through which an invisible substance, karma, filters in and adheres to the jiva within, weighing it down and determining the conditions of its next reincarnation.
The consequence of evil actions is heavy karma, which weighs the jiva down, forcing it to enter its new life at a lower level in the scale of existence. The consequence of good deeds, on the other hand, is a light karma, which allows the jiva to rise in its next life to a higher level in the scale of existence, where there is less suffering. However, good deeds alone can never lead to release.
The way to moksh (release or liberation) is withdrawal from the world. Karma is the cause-and-effect mechanism by which all actions have inescapable consequences. Karma keeps the jiva chained in an unending series of lifetimes in which the jiva suffers to a greater or lesser extent. Thus liberation means an escape from karma, its annihilation and avoidance of new karma.
Then, at death, with no karma to weigh it down, the jiva will float free of all ajiva, free of the human condition, free of all future embodiments. It will rise to the top of the universe to a place or state called Siddhashila, where the jiva, identical with all other pure jivas, will experience its own true nature in eternal stillness, isolation and liberation. It will be totally free. The way to burn up old karma is to withdraw from involvement in the world as much as possible, and close the channel of the senses and the mind to prevent karmic matter from entering and adhering to the jiva. Such eternal liberation from the unbinding of the Jiva and the Pudgala (ajiva), so no new reincarnation occurs into the material world, is called as Moksh. Ignorance (ajña-na) causes attachment, and true knowledge (keval jña-na)leads to liberation.
It is generally believed that the Jain sangha became divided two major sects, Digambar and Shvetambar, about 200 years after the nirvana of Maha-vi-r. Bhadrabahu, chief of the Jain monks, foresaw a period of famine and led about 12,000 people, to southern India. Twelve years later, they returned to find that the Svetambar sect had arisen. The followers of Bhadrabahu became known as the Digambar sect.
The Digambar monks do not wear any clothes because they believe clothes are like all other possessions thereby increasing desire to material things, which needs to be removed. The Svetambar monks wear white clothes because they believe there is nothing in Jain religious books to condemn the wearing of clothes. The different points of view are caused by different interpretations of similar holy books. The sadhvis (lady religious persons) of both sects wear white clothes. There are also minor differences in the enumeration and validity of each sect's Agama (sacred) literature.
There are also many other differences between Digambar and Shvetambar traditions. The former believe that women cannot attain moksha,while Shvetambars believe that women can attain liberation.
Some historians believe that there was no clear division until the 5th century. The Valabhi council of 453 resulted in editing and compilation of scriptures of the Svetambar tradition.
Excavations at Mathura have revealed many Kushana period Jain idols. In all of them the Tirthankaras are represented without clothes. Some of them show monks with only one piece of cloth which is wrapped around the left arm. They are identified as belonging to the ardha-phalaka sect mentioned in some texts. The Yapaniaya sect is believed to have originated from the Ardha-phalakas. They followed Digambara practice of nudity, but held several beliefs like the Shvetambaras.
Both traditions are further subdivided into several sects, such as Sthanakvasi, Terapanth, Deravasi, and Bisapantha. Some of these can be divided into murtipujak (idol worshipper) and not murtipujak. In recent decades, attempts have been made to bring the sects together. In 1974, a new religious text Samana Suttam was compiled by a committee consisting of representatives of all the sects