The Jain community of India was successful in sustaining their unique identity at a time when Buddhism — its contemporary religion — was in a state of decline to the point that it is considered virtually wiped out of India. The differing fates of the two non-vedic religions arouse curiosity in particular due to their many similarities as both Mahavira and Buddha, both kshatriyas from princely families turned saints who left the household in their prime, each founding a sangha consisting of both monastic and lay followers. Yet, an enigma stems from the decline and disappearance of Buddha’s religion in his native land, even as the Jain community survived in continuum, albeit without traveling outside India.
Although according to the 2011 census by religion, the number of Buddhists in India (0.84 crore) is in fact double the number of Jains (0.45 crore), most of them are a result of a revival of Buddhism in modern times such as the one embraced by a few Dalit communities and promulgated through the presence of a Tibetan diaspora in India.
The challenges faced by Buddhism and Jainism in the ancient period were quite similar. In spite of enjoying a period of ascendancy and royal favour for a few centuries, one of the greatest challenges to Buddhism and Jainism came from the resurgence of reformed Hinduism that began in the fourth and the fifth century AD.
According to Dr Padmanabh S Jaini, renowned scholar of Buddhism and Jainism at University of California Berkeley, the popularity of the various Hindu devotional cults and particularly of those associated with Rama and Krishna caused many defections from among the lay followers by suggesting that Rshabha, the first Tirthankara of Jains and Buddha had been incarnations of Vishnu. Jaini suggests that while the Buddhist monks were unprepared to respond to these grave development, the Jains “sought to outflank the bhakti movement by taking its main cult-figures as their own” by produced alternate versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata, in which Rama and Krishna were depicted as worldly Jaina heroes subject to laws of Jaina ethics. The ahimsa-practising Rama of Jaina Ramayana, for instance, does not kill Ravana (Lakshmana does it) and is reborn in heaven as a result.
The Islamic invasion of the Indian subcontinent between twelfth and sixteenth century is generally recognised as era that dealt a setback to Indian religions, their worship places and idols. “Although a great number of Jaina temples in Gujarat and Rajasthan were converted into mosques in later centuries,” writes Jaini, adding, “the Jainas of those areas not only survived but were able to become important leaders in the economic life and government of the Muslim regimes”.
The Jain community of medieval India shared relatively harmonious bonds with Mughal ruling elite, via their spiritual leaders and affluent traders. Emperors like Akbar and Jahangir are known to have conferred royal favours and released farmans or imperial orders directing against slaughter of animals on certain stated days, such as the Jain festival of Paryushan, in places around Jain religious sites.
Dr Shalin Jain, Associate Professor of History at University of Delhi, attributes the community’s tenacity and survival to its cohesive organisation, intra-community bonding and relative affluence as a result of engagement with trade and commerce as its primary occupation.
Since Jains held that even unintentional activities generate karma, they sought to avoid not only those modes of livelihood that clearly and always cause harm to the living, but also any which might do so incidentally or occasionally. Almost from its inception, a number of common occupations including agriculture, animal transportation and animal by-product trades were thus deemed unsuitable for a practising Jain. “Eventually Jains came to largely eschew agriculture in all its forms and to specialise chiefly in trade and mercantile occupations, with the most favoured ones being jewellery-making and money-lending,” writes Dr Christopher Key Chapple, Professor of Indic theology at Loyola Marymount University. The community became very accomplished in these two fields and grew affluent, which historically helped its members stay influential and relevant in medieval India’s multi-cultural society.
“If you look at the organisation of this community as envisaged in Jainism — the fourfold division of society known as the Chaturvidhasangha — a very deep, emotional bond exists between the community of Jain ascetics and the Jain laymen,” says Jain, “The ascetics completely depend on the lay people for food and shelter as they keep on traveling and have no permanent abode; the community in turn holds in deep respect the traditions of their monks and nuns. They invite and welcome them”. A similar bond between ascetics and lay followers of Buddhism did not exist.
Another strong pillar of Jain identity is its strong, unexceptionable emphasis on vegetarianism, which attributes it with a distinct identity. “In Jainism, both the ascetic and the householder subjectivity is weaved around the principle of ahimsa which is expressed formally through the prism of this dietary habit. This collective action of dietary habit leads to community formation,” says Jain, “Vegetarianism is there in Hinduism and Buddhism too, but there it is voluntary”.
Unlike these defining set of criteria that Jainism could rely on, Buddhism floundered due to a lack of such unifying criteria. While the Jains eventually produced some 50 manuals on conduct proper to a Jain lay person, Buddhists (as far as it is known) produced only one. The result of a weak Buddhist identity and a weak community connection among them.