The Western mind has a regrettable habit of conflating all Eastern religions, despite their distinct differences. This may be excusable when one considers that in the case of a few of them emerged from one, branching off philosophically and geographically. This, of course, results in similarities as well as differences. Two such related but now divergent religions are Hinduism and Jainism.
Hinduism, “perhaps the oldest and most complex of all the religions of the world,” can trace its origins back to the third millennium B.C.E (Hopfe, 1994, p. 76). Hinduism, unlike many other major religions, does not have an “identifiable founder” (Hopfe, 1994, p. 76). The word Hindu itself reveals the geographical origins of the religion; it derives from “the Sanskrit name for the river Indus, Sindhu” (Hopfe, 1994, p. 76). This geographical designation also indicates its cultural origins as well, as it “generally applies to the religion of the people of India” (Hopfe, 1994, p. 76). The people responsible for the development of the religion were “a pastoral people of Aryan stock from a homeland near the Caspian Sea” (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 34). Their combined native beliefs spawned many sacred texts including the Vedas from which emerges the central idea of Hinduism – “the Brahman, the Supreme Being, the God above all gods, the source of universal life” (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 34).
Hinduism gave rise to two religions, Jainism and Buddhism, which “challenged traditional Indian religious concepts” (Hopfe, 1994, p. 76). Geographically speaking, “Jainism is a minority religion in India” (Hopfe, 1994, p. 76). One of the main reasons the Jains rejected Hinduism was the sacrifice system detailed in the Vedas (Hopfe, 1994, p. 93). Another reason the Jains rejected Hinduism was the caste system, especially the notion of the untouchables, or outcasts (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 44). Its failure to became as popular or significant a religion as Hinduism can be attributed to the fact that “it demanded too much of the average person” (Hopfe, 1994, p. 94). It emphasized asceticism much more emphatically than Hinduism did at that time (Chakravarty, 1978) as it does now.
Like most religions, both of these systems have specific practices. Within Hinduism is the practice of yoga, a collection of various practices of “self-discipline, training, meditation, devotion, and concentration” which are supposed to connect the practitioner “with the Divine” (Eastman, 1993, p. 4). Another practice is the revering of cows and cattle to the point of imposing “penalties on those who slaughtered them” (Hopefe, 1994, p. 92). A third practice of Hinduism is a form of purification ritual, performed before worship: in orthodox Hinduism, the worshiper “must touch the purifying waters [of a stream] before he worships” (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 47).
In Jainism they enlarged on the Hindu practice of preserving cattle – they believe all forms of life are sacred and “were to be loved and preserved whenever possible,” a concept known as ahimsa (Hopfe, 1994, p. 94) – this means that Jains revere all life. This in turn leads to another practice which is, for them, founded in religion: vegetarianism. The notion of ahimsa gives rise to a belief which is also a practice: nonviolence (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 45). These more strict versions of Hindu practices, along with Jainism’s rejection of sacrifice and caste systems, are the main distinctions between Hinduism and Jainism. In most other ways, however, the two belief systems are very similar in terms of beliefs, sacred texts, pantheons, and other practices, such as yoga. It should be mentioned that the beliefs of Jainism influenced mainstream Hinduism, resulting in a loosening of “the shakes of caste” (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 45). Jainism also put an end to other extreme practices of mainstream Hinduism such as suttee, “the immolation of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres” (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 45).
Both religions are still exist today. Hinduism, with its seemingly endless pantheon of both major and minor gods, is significantly larger and more significant than Jainism. It is predominantly still practiced in India, though with globalization and immigration it has spread to other parts of the globe. Mahatma Gandhi brought a lot of positive attention to the religion in the early part of the 1900s. He focused a great deal of attention on ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence and the reference of all life (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 47). As a result, ahimsa is a practice employed by both Hindus and non-Hindus alike. Another Hindu practice which endures but which is not necessarily practiced in the context of Hinduism is yoga. It has entered the field of well-being and is employed as means of building strength and flexibility, though many places do emphasize the spiritual tenets associated with the practice. On the whole, however, Hinduism is still practiced in the form that it developed into during the most influential years of Gandhi, a time by which intense sacrifice and strict caste systems had faded away, though they endure in some ways and places in India.
Jainism, on the other hand, is not as widely practiced as Hinduism. Like Hinduism, the main practices and beliefs of the system have not changed much since their development in the sixth century B.C. (Chakravarty, 1978). One of the reasons it is not widely practiced has been mentioned: the intensity of its ascetic practices. However, it’s worth mentioning that Jainism may partially endure because of its influence on mainstream Hinduism, which “absorbed its concern for asceticism and ahimsa” (Hopfe, 1994, p. 94). Jains are very serious about ahimsa, which takes the form daily in the avoidance of violence, vegetarianism, and strict rules which are intended to preserve life and reduce suffering. For example, tilling of the soil is forbidden “lest it harms even the tiniest of living things” (Chakravarty, 1978, p. 45). In short, though Jainism grew out of Hinduism, it does have significant differences which, in turn, influenced Hinduism.
- Chakravarty, A. (1978). Quest for the Universal One. In M. Severey (Ed.) Great Religions of the World (pp. 34-49). n.l.: National Geographic Book Service.
- Eastman, R. (Ed.). (1993). The ways of religion: An introduction to the major traditions (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Hopfe, L. (1994). Religions of the world. L.R. Hopfe & L.M. Hopfre, Jr. (Eds.). New York: Macmillan College Publishing Company.