Indian Philosophy – Jains & The Tirthankaras

As the primary Upanishads were being written down and shared between 1000 and 600 BCE, the golden age of ancient Indian thought dawned as many thinkers founded new schools of thought, including the six orthodox schools of Hinduism.  There are also many references at the time in texts to “strivers” (shramanas) who were leaving Hinduism and setting off to form new unorthodox (non-Hindu) Indian traditions.  Today we call this the Shramana Movement, which gave rise to two of the most famous thinkers in human history: Mahavira (599 – 527 BCE) and the Buddha (563 – 483 BCE).  These two distinct but similar seekers were dissatisfied by traditional life and beliefs and went off to seek, learn and practice on their own, often in the jungle beyond civilization.  In the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, similar sorts of strivers traditionally practice in the desert, symbolic of death.

jain debate

Both Mahavira and Buddha were of the Kshatriya second caste, beneath the Brahmin first and top caste, warrior’s sons who wanted to be priestly philosophers instead.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whom some scholars thought wrongly was the Buddha, is also said to be a king who abandoned the throne to become a sage, symbolic of the mind’s superiority to the body, the mental conquering the physical.  Both Mahavira and Buddha supposedly left home at age thirty, with Mahavira obtaining enlightenment in twelve years and the Buddha in six.  The Buddha and Buddhist tradition follow just after Mahavira and the Jain tradition in years, developing in dialog with each other, so this may possibly be Buddhists claiming the Buddha did what Mahavira did, but in half the time.  Jainism, founded by Mahavira, is one of the world’s great religions with five million followers today, most living in India but with communities throughout the world.  Buddhism is one of the three largest cultures of human thought in history, along with Christianity and Islam.

jain monk preaching

One of the stranger parallels in world history is that Jainism was a small, local culture which gave rise to Buddhism, a large, international culture, much as Judaism gave rise to the larger, international cultures of Christianity and Islam.  Both Buddha and Jesus taught that diet and ethnicity are not centrally important, creating international traditions out of earlier local teachings.  Jains are a minority in India, and have been stereotyped as merchants, traders and bankers who keep wealth amongst their own kind, much as Jews have been similarly stereotyped in Christian and Islamic lands.  While both groups have historically suffered charges of usury (profiting from the misfortunes of others), discrimination and exclusion leads to the development of an exclusive, localized community and economy that justifiably looks after communal interests.  Because Jains and Jews were excluded from investing in the mainstream community, both invested in cultures of business and trade among their own.  Both Jains and Jews, small in numbers compared to many cultures, have small communities spread throughout the world that developed over thousands of years along major trade routes.  This is in spite of the fact, as we will shortly see, that Jainism is not a philosophy that favors long distance travel.

The Tirthankaras

fording a river

‘Jain’ means follower of the Jina, the conqueror, the one who conquers themselves.  In the Chinese Dao De Jing, an early verse reads, Those who conquer others are powerful, but those who conquer themselves are truly strong.  The Jains worship and leave offerings for accomplished human sages who conquer themselves rather than gods, much as Buddhists do, leaving offerings at statues much as Hindus do for gods and sages alike.  Just as Buddhists revere the Buddha and other buddhas, the Jains revere the Tirthankaras, the Ford-Makers (tirtha means ford), not originally from Detroit, but there is a sizable Jain community in Toronto nearby, one of the largest outside India.  In the American educational video game The Oregon Trail, early (not so PC) versions would ask if the player would like to hire an “Indian” (Native American) guide to help ford a river, crossing where the water is shallow enough for travelers, animals and wagons to walk across.  The Tirthankaras are the actually Indian guides who help all sentient beings ford the chaotic river of life to find firmament on the other side, with water symbolic of chaos and death and earth symbolic of permanence and life.

wheel of life

The Jains innovated several ideas which became central to Hinduism as well as Buddhism, including the idea that the cosmos works in cycles.  Just as the Sun rises and sets over the course of a day, the Jains claimed that the consciousness of the Cosmos awakens and then falls asleep in each great era (kalpa), destroyed and then reborn, much as ancient Mayan astrologers predicted would happen in 2012.  Today, modern physicists debate as to what was before the Big Bang, whether or not there will be a Big Crunch, and whether or not there would be another Big Bang again after such a Big Crunch, with no clear consensus.  For the Jains, Buddhists and Hindus, as our own era awakened, humanity began teaching philosophies and religions, and then after the golden age of ancient Indian thought, the apex and high noon of our era, humanity began to “lose religion” and fall into darkness, the time in which we now live.


Jains believe that Mahavira did not create or discover the truth, but rediscovered it, as it is rediscovered at the pinnacle of each era by similar sages of each age.  Buddhists refer to Mahavira as “The Boundless One”, without attachments.  Jains believe that Mahavira is the 24th and final Tirthankara of our era, the pinnacle of enlightenment, liberation and omniscience that can be achieved in this cycle, just as Buddhists say of the Buddha.  Mahavira’s name means Great Hero, and he is revered along with other triumphant heroic Tirthankaras who conquered existence and the mind.  Mahavira is said by Jains to have fashioned four fords, the four ordered communities of Jain monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.

jain text

Today, scholars are critical of the existence of Tirthankaras listed before Mahavira in Jain texts just as they are about the existence of Buddhas listed before the Buddha in Buddhist texts.  According to the Jains, the first Tirthankara of our era was Rishabha, who discovered agriculture and thus founded civilization.  While the ancient Chinese say the same about their ancient sage kings, it is likelier that agriculture and city-states disseminated to both India and China from earlier human cultures, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians.  ‘Rishabha’ means bull, and there is evidence of bulls identified with kings in early Indus civilization, much as cows are venerated as sacred by Hindus.