History of Jainism ►Jainism in Bihar

Published: 07.02.2011
Updated: 02.07.2015



Jainism in Bihar

Mahavira was closely connected with the most significant princes of his home land. He visited the most important cities of their kingdoms in Bihar on his wanderings, Champ, Anga’s capital, Mithila in Videha, Rajgriha, the capital of Mithila, etc. and he was most respectfully received everywhere. King Bimbisara (Jainas called him by the name of Shrenik) of Magadha, the same king, who also patronised Buddha, was considered by the Jaina as a special admirer of their master. They therefore presumed that he would be born as a Tirthankara in his later experience. Even Ajatshatru, Bimbasara’s cruel son who exposed his father to death by starvation, was well-disposed towards Jainas. His successor, Udayi, was in fact, a patron of their doctrine.

The religion flourished even under the dynasty of nine ‘Nandas’, who had (at the time when Alexander the great marched into India) usurped the throne of the Saisunaga kings, and there was no change in the situation, even when the last unpopular Nanda king was relieved of his throne by the great Maurya king, Chandragupta, the Sandrakottos of the Greeks. Jainas reckon this first historical emperor of India as also his great Chancellor, Chanakya among Jains. Chanakya is said to be a son of a Jaina layman Chani and a diligent champion of their faith. He is said to have weaned Chandragupta from his kindness towards heretics. Thus, due to Chanakya’s influence, Chandragupta became a diligent Jaina and bestowed his favours only on them. Finally, he renounced his throne in accordance with the Digambara tradition, became an ascetic and went to Mysore along-with Saint Bhadrabahu and is said to have lived and died there at Sravana Belgola in a cave.


It is said that Chanakya’s name was darkened by his envious colleague, Subandhu with Chandragupta’s successor, Bindusara (298-273 B.C.) and he was relieved. He therefore distributed his wealth among the poor, sa.t on a dung-hill outside the city and died there by starvation Bindusara tried his best to pacify him and sent Subandhu to ask for forgiveness but the latter threw at his dung-hill an incense coal so that Chanakya was burnt alive.

Indisputably authentic material is available about the close connection of Bindusara’s son, Ashokavardhana (273-232 B.C.) with Jainas. Ashoka was a great and a far-sighted ruler, who made it a point to promote the religious and moral life in his great empire. He therefore supported the religious brother-hoods of his lands in a liberal manner. Personally, he embraced Buddhism in his later years. Jainas however, opined that he belonged earlier to their religion. In any case, he did not stop in showing equal concern to the welfare of various sects and he appointed special officers to look after individual religious orders.

Ashoka has spoken of Jainas in his seventh column-edict (shila-lekha), which deals with the duties of the law authorities, saying that he has made arrangements that his supervisors of law will, apart from other things, deal with the matters of Nigranthas (Jainas) and will deal with all the different religious brother-hoods. He commanded his subjects to show obedience to parents, decent behaviour to saints and ascetics, poor and the miserable, asked them to practice charity, generosity, truthfulness, purity, humility and saintliness and reminds them of prohibition of injury to the living beings. He concluded his commands with the intention that that these may remain valid, as long as his sons and grandsons rule, as long as sun and moon shine and that human beings act according to them. If a person acts according to them, he obtains salvation in this and in the other world.

Asoka’s successors to the throne of Magadha were since his son Kunala was blind, his grand sons Dasaratha and Samprati. The Jaina tradition mentions only of Samprati, who is aid to have resided in Ujjain and describes him as a follower of their faith. He is said to have built several Jaina temples and developed a lively missionary activity and erected Jaina monasteries even in non-aryan regions. Not much is known about Jaina faith under the last Maurya rulers and the dynasties which replaced them. The Chinese traveller, Hiuen-Tsiang, came across numerous Nigranthas in Vaisali near Rajgriha, Nalanda, and other places. Jainism appears to have gradually shifted, in an increasing degree, the centre of its activity from its home land, Bihar to other regions.

The Exodus and the great conflict

Significant changes took place in the Jaina order during the period when Jaina faith flourished in the Maurya empire. There was a great famine in Bihar during Chandragupta’s rule. Bhadrabahu, the head of the community at that time, realised that it was not possible either for the people to feed a great number of monks under these circumstances, or for ascetics to follow all the precepts. He, therefore, thought that it was advisable to immigrate with a group of devotees to Karnataka, while the remaining monks stayed back in Magadha under the supervision of his pupil Sthulabhadra.

The unfavourable period burdened heavily on Magadha and the monks could not strictly observe all the holy customs anymore and maintain the holy scriptures. It was therefore found to be necessary to acquire the canon anew. A Council was called for the purpose in Patliputra. This assembly, however, did not succeed in putting together the whole canon. When the monks who had emigrated to Karnataka, returned, they did not approve the resolutions of the Council. Besides, there surfaced a difference in the ascetic conduct of life between those who had emigrated and those who had stayed back. Further, Lord Parsva Nath’s followers were allowed to wear clothes, whereas Mahavira’s followers did not wear any clothes.

Mahavira’s pupils followed his example, it appears, the ascetics were not generally moving in nude. Monks staying back in Magadha gave up the custom of moving around in nude and got accustomed to wearing white garments. When the emigrants returned to Magadha, and found that their brothers were wearing white clothes, they had the impression that practices laid down by the Lord had been abandoned. On the other side, those who had stayed back and adopted white garments, felt that the emigrants were showing undue fanaticism. Thus, there came an estrangement between the two trends, the stricter one of the Digambaras (those who were clothed by the sky) and the shwetambaras (who clothed in white).This trend gradually led to a complete divide or schism. It cannot be said how and where the formal separation came in. What is narrated by both the parties, differs widely, because every side tries to show that it alone represents the ancient Jainism and the opposite one had arisen by the succession from the pure faith. However, it has established fairly accurately that final divide took place at the end of the first century.


Excavation at the ancient site of Pataliputra (late 19th or early 20th century CE)

Each one of the branches of Jaina religion went their own way since that period. The differences between the two, inspite of the division are quite negligible. The most conspicuous of these differences concerning the garments does not seem to be so strict now. On the other hand, there are important differences in the social organisation of the two sects; they trace back to the original differences in faith and rites. Digambaras think that a woman can never get salvation.Their cult idols show the Tirthankaras naked without a loin cloth and without ornaments. Swetambaras show these on their idols. Digambaras do not believe like their opponents that Mahavira, before being born to queen Trishala, was in the womb of Devananda and that he was married before he renounced the world.

The different attitude taken by both the sects with respect to the holy tradition has a far-reaching importance. Both accept that Bhadrabahu was the last Srutakevali and that teachers after him did not possess any knowledge of all the holy scriptures. But, while Digambaras believe that the canon has been gradually completely lost, so that it does not exist now, Swetambaras presume that its main part has come down to the present day. When there was a danger of the collection of the holy scriptures, as far as they had been saved through the stormy times from getting lost, Swetambaras called a meeting of the Council in the year 980 or so after Mahavira’s nirvana under the chairmanship of Devarddhi Gani in the city of Vallabhi in Gujarat. This Council finally edited the canon, and gave it a form which it is said to possess even now for the most part.

Although Swetambaras have a canon and Digambaras do not have it, and although there are differences in the dogmatism and the cult of two sects, the dividing line between them, inspite of all the antagonism has never been so strong. Both the orientations have been constantly aware of their common origin and goal and have never lost spiritual contact with each other. This is most clearly seen from the fact that members of one group very often use philosophical and scientific works of other and that Swetambaras have written commentaries on the works of Digambaras and vice versa.


Compiled by PK

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  1. Anga
  2. Ashoka
  3. Bihar
  4. Bimbisara
  5. Buddha
  6. Buddhism
  7. Chanakya
  8. Chandragupta
  9. Digambara
  10. Digambaras
  11. Gani
  12. Gujarat
  13. JAINA
  14. Jaina
  15. Jaina Temples
  16. Jainism
  17. Jainsamaj
  18. Karnataka
  19. Magadha
  20. Mahavira
  21. Mysore
  22. Nalanda
  23. Nath
  24. Nirvana
  25. PK
  26. Shrenik
  27. Sravana
  28. Sravana Belgola
  29. Srutakevali
  30. Tirthankara
  31. Tirthankaras
  32. Trishala
  33. Ujjain
  34. Vallabhi
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