As Jains, Do We Know Who We Are?

November, 2020 by Dr. Sulekh C. Jain
About Jainism

Jainism, one of the oldest religions if not of the world but certainly of India, originating from India with Hinduism and Buddhism is an integral part of India. The Jain tradition, which enthroned the philosophy of ecological harmony and non-violence as its lodestar, flourished for centuries side-by-side with other schools of thought in ancient India. It formed a vital part of the mainstream of ancient Indian life, contributing greatly to its philosophical, artistic and political heritage. During certain periods of Indian history, many ruling elites as well as large sections of the population were Jains.

Although the eight to ten million Jains estimated to live in modern India, constitute a tiny fraction of its population, the message and motifs of the Jain perspective, its unconditional reverence for life in all forms, its commitment to the progress of human civilization and to the preservation of the natural environment, continues to have profound and pervasive influence on Indian life and outlook. Jainism, with its distinctive views on matters such as non-violence and intellectual relativity, has relevance to the life and thought of not only of this century but also for many centuries to come.
Jainism has succeeded in preserving to the present time its integrity as a separate system in the midst of preponderant Hinduism. Jainism is a complete system with all necessary branches such as ontology, metaphysics, philosophy, epistemology, ethics, rituals etc. It has its own scriptures, temples (architecturally, some of the most beautiful temples in India are the Jain temples) and deities, places of worship and pilgrimage, and its own festivals and fairs. The organized religious group (Sangha) consists of ascetics and householders of both genders.
Jainism was not founded by any one individual. It is a philosophy, which developed over a long period of time and then acquired its own distinctive status within the broad Indian system. Its latest prophet, Lord Mahavir, was a contemporary of Lord Buddha and more than 2500 years ago; he lived in the same Indian state of modern Bihar, as did Lord Buddha. Lord Mahavir’s teachings and his life exerted a profound influence on the Indian thoughts and on a way of life. The 23rd, Lord Parshavanatha was 250 years before him and the 22nd, Lord Neminatha, a contemporary of Lord Krishna of the Hindus was at least two thousand years before the 23rd Prophet
All of us Jains belong to this great tradition but unfortunately, most of us do not know our full identity. Let me share some of my concerns, observation, and conclusions.

1. Birthplace of Bhagwan Mahavir?
Nearly all religions know exactly without any doubt the birthplace of their Lords such as Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Prophet Mohammad but we Jains even today don’t know exactly where our last Tirthankar was born. We all have a general idea but cannot agree or pinpoint the location. Digambars and Shwetambars all agree that he was born in Kundalpur or Kundalgram or Kashatrikund but where are all these places and which one in Bihar? Each tradition has a concept of its own Kundalgarm which is separated by nearly 100 miles from that of other tradition. The only place that all Jains agree, and visit is Pavapuri (place of his Nirvaan) but not his places of birth, dixa, and kevalgyan (very few Jains visit this place if at all) and chaturmas. Further pity is that many Jains will visit Pavapuri but not the places of his other kalyanaks.

2.Who Are Jains and What is Our Population?

This is a loaded question with no one answer.

  1. Many blogs and emails tell us that there are many more of us than we currently know of. For examples, there is a community in Bihar called Sharak (from Shravak) who observe Jain traditions. Similarly, in Maharashtra and Karnataka, there are many farmers, tradesmen, dalits and others who practice many Jain traditions but are not counted and accepted as Jains.
  2. There is a big question mark about our exact population numbers. The best guess is between 4.5 million (by Govt. of India) — 8 million (estimated by some Jains). Of course, these figures still do not include the unforgotten Jains such as sharaks and dalits etc.
  3. Some Jains believe that Jains come only from the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. In reality, Jains come in many shapes, sizes, castes and colors and from most of the states of India such as J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, U.P, Karnataka, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh also. In fact, there are probably 2 lakh Jains in Delhi and its surrounding areas alone with several hundred Jain temples and sathanaks there. Right across the famous Red Fort in Delhi, there is a famous Jain Mandir nearly 400 years old (its land was given by Emperor Shah Jahan) and always shown on National TV on August 15 when the Prime Minister of India unfurls the national Flag. These Jains are as much Jains as from the four states mentioned above. Since I (Sulekh Jain) come from Haryana (formerly Punjab) and use Jain my last name, at least a dozen times (if not more), my own identity as a Jain has been questioned by other fellow Jains. In so many instances, I have been asked, “your last name is Jain but are you really a Jain and since you are from Punjab or Haryana, how come you can be a Jain?” What a pity! Even after living in USA for more than 50 years, my identity has been doubted by some followers of my own religion. 20 years ago, I was reminded of this very much outside the Jain derasar in Antwerp (Belgium) which I had gone to for darshan. There are many such examples even in USA as well. In doing so and not knowing who and how many of us we are, we ourselves have diminished our shape, size and stature.
  4. It is very rare that we will meet someone who is nothing but a Jain. Generally, we will find many, who will claim that they belong to a particular tradition or come from a particular state of India. In my travels when I go to some smaller cities in USA, I generally ask some Jains a question “How many Jain families are here” The answer comes in some small numbers . When I remind them that there must be more Jains coming from other states of India and belonging to other Jain traditions, then there is big silence as the others many times had not been included into a total count.

3. Various Traditions/Sects of Jainism know Little About Each Other and Behave as if They Are All Different Religions.

We all say and know that other than a few rituals and shape of pratimas, all traditions/sects of Jains have the same history, philosophy and culture yet in practice we behave as if all the traditions are separate religions.

  1. On any level (local, state, national and international) there is very little dialog between various established Jain sects. Each sect has its own think tanks, leaders, organizations, monks, nuns, acharyas and places of worship. Only in USA, some of these walls have been broken but still differences do surface from time to time. Some attempts have been made in India too but with limited success.
  2. There is little knowledge and awareness about our various sects and its rituals. Here are a few real examples,

About 27 years ago, when we were living in Cincinnati, Ohio, we had Charukeerthi Bhatrarak ji from Moodbidri India staying with us. On one weekend, we decided to have a Bhaktamar Pooja by Bhattarak Ji at our house. I announced to the Jain Sangh and invited them to attend this Pooja (I by mistake and unknowingly announced it as a Digambar Pooja). Next morning even after one hour from the scheduled time, no one from the Jain Sangh came. My wife and I were puzzled how come no one are here. Very soon after, one fellow Jain (not a Digambar) showed up. I asked him what is going on. He said “Sulekh bhai, last night many of us were in a real fix as to how to attend a Digambar Pooja at Sulekh’s house since you all including Bhattarak ji will be sitting in nude without clothes and that will be very embarrassing for women and children”. Now, seeing us that there was no nudist colony in Sulekh’s house, he immediately called fellow Jains and they all came quickly and in large numbers . We all had an awakening and a big laugh.
Nearly all Jain Centers in North America, after the Pooja or some lecture, usually do an Arti of Bhagwan Rishabh Dev followed by Mangal divo. Some time, someone will say that let us do the Digambar Arti also. I just laugh when I hear this. In my opinion, there is no Digambar or Shwetambar Artis. The Arti in reference is Panch Parmeshthi Arti in Hindi language.
Many years ago, I went to Sammed Shikharji for darshan. Our guide (a local non-Jain boy) was taking us to tonks belonging to one tradition only. When I asked him about the other tonks, he said no, those belong to other tradition. I laughed and realized that even our tonks and the guides know the difference.

4. Diwali and Bhagwan Mahavir Nirvaan

Nearly all of India including some Jains believe that the festival of Diwali signifies Lord Rama’s coming to Ayodhaya. For Jains, Diwali is for the celebrations of Bhagwan Mahavir attaining Nirvaan too. Hardly any prominent leader and politician acknowledges this part of Jain history. Credit goes to President Obama in paying tribute to Bhagwan Mahavir during Diwali celebrations in the White House. Wish Jains too will emphasize this on Indian politicians.

5. What is Beyond Ahinsa?

Most of the Jains understand reasonably well and practice Ahimsa throughout their lives. In addition to Ahimsa, other very important Principles of Jainism are Anekantavada and Parsprop-graho-jivaanaam. I wonder how many Jains understand beyond just words these two major philosophical contributions of Jains to the world.

6. God in Jainism.

It is absolutely clear that Jainism does not accept the existence of God (Ishwar) and hence HE is being decider of one’s fate /destiny, benefactor, punisher and the creator, preserver and destroyer of this universe. Yet, if we listen and observe carefully, Jains act and speak as if God exists just like believers of other God centric faiths. Recently I noticed that words like divine grace and divine interventions, god willing, god’s grace by Jains have started appearing in print as well as in verbal forms. These kinds of beliefs and statements are in contradiction of karma theory as well.

7. Absence of Jains from Social Causes.

Jains are highly educated and affluent. They are smart, dynamic, and good businessmen. Jains should be passionate, activists and instrument of change. Bhagwan Mahavir was. We hardly find any Jain activists for any major societal causes (there are many). All the activists (that I know of) happen to be non-Jains. The unconditional respect for all forms of life implies that Jains should be in the forefront in the practice of Ahimsa in all its shapes and forms, both micro and macro level. Unfortunately, during the last 100 plus years, movements such as abolition of dowry, gender selection and abortion, end of life debates, human rights, animal rights, child labor, sweat shops, women’s rights and abuse, ethical and environmentally friendly investing, laws against animal torture and hunting, use of animals in sports and entertainment worker safety, occupational and health safety at work place, civil disabilities act, capital punishment, environmental protection, ecology, wars, nukes, clothing and furnishings such as leather, fur, killing of whales, abolition of slavery, human trafficking, race relations, equal and fair treatment and employment opportunities, bioethics, medical ethics, business ethics and legal ethics ( all based on and related to the practice of Ahimsa) etc have generally been started by Non Jains. Generally, Jains have been the beneficiaries but not the torchbearers for such movements and protests.

8. Other Concerns.

In addition to the above about which either we know little, have disagreements, or have no awareness and visibility, there are a host of other factors and concerns that come in our way of knowing our full identity. Let me name just a few more here. Other than Sammed Shikhar Ji and Pavapuri, we know very little of Jain temples in Bihar, Bengal, U.P. Uttarkhand, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and J&K. Hardly there are world class Jain institutions such as universities, colleges, research centers, news media, and hospitals in India. Other religions do. There are not probably more than 1000 books in English and only a handful in French on Jainism whereas Buddhism will have at least 100,000 if not more. I am not aware of any existing right now good and well recognized Jain history museum in India or anywhere else. Salutation and greetings are an identifier of a person and his/her ethnicity or religious affiliation. Most of religions have their own salutations and greetings like Ram Ram, Salam Vaelekum, Jai Swami Narayan, and Sat Sri akaal but I have found that very few Jains use Jai Jinendra and some will in fact resist its use. Has anyone compiled a comprehensive history of famous and visionary Jain saints and shravaks of all the Jain traditions, I am not aware of? Most of the Jains say that Jain religion is anadi (has been around for a very very long time) still I find references in articles and books written by Jains that Jainism was started by Bhagwan Mahavir. Jains in general lack a central global apex body like JAINA in North America. Of course, we all know that Hindus have Gita, Christians have Bible and Muslims have Quran but we Jain lack such a book of that stature in 1975, Saman Suttam was compiled by acharyas of all four traditions and released by Acharya Vinoba Bhave but Jains hardly know or refer to it.


We all know that Jainism is least known and most misunderstood. In addition, our own identities that can define us as Jains are vague and lack clarification. There are many versions of our identify. Already we are very miniscule small minority but with a very rich and shining history. Any religion, community or even a tribe should and will know its identity but we Jains are not there. If we want to join with other religions on the same table and be treated as equal, then we need to concentrate on areas that need to be addressed. Imagine someone asking us where Bhagwan Mahavir was born and replying that really, we don’t know. No other religion has that confusion. This is a call for action if we want not only to maintain but also to project to outside world our full and accurate identity. Purpose of this article is just that, i.e. to draw the attention of our leaders, movers, and shakers.
Jai Jinendra and Dhanyavad

About Author


Dr. Sulekh Jain

Dr. Sulekh Jain has a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and has done an MBA and has been an international consultant in technology. He is the founder and co-founder of many organizations and institutions in North America. He has travelled extensively to spread Jainism and has been at the forefront of many religious and social activities. He has to his credit several awards and honors.

co edited by CA Priya Madrecha

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