Jainism, in contrast to Hinduism, is based upon a founder and leader known as Mahavira. This name actually is an honorific title signifying “great man.” Tradition places the birth of Mahavira at 599 B.C. in northeastern India, which would make him a contemporary of Buddha. Tradition also relates that Mahavira was the second son of a rajah living in luxurious surroundings. He married and had one daughter.
When his parents died, Mahavira decided at the age of 30 to live a life of self-denial, pledging to deny himself the care of his body and not to speak for 12 years. After a short time, Mahavira put off the robe he wore and wandered naked through India receiving injuries from both man and beast. He wandered for 12 years until he reached enlightenment at the age of 42.
The Sacred Books of the East record, “During the thirteenth year, in a squatting position … exposing himself to the heat of the sun … with knees high and the head low, in deep meditation, in the midst of abstract meditation he reached nirvana, the complete and full, the unobstructed, infinite absolute” (F. M. Mueller, ed., Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 22, Oxford: Krishna Press, 1879-1910, p. 201).
After reaching enlightenment, Mahavira stopped living by himself and took on disciples, preaching his new-found belief. So he continued to live until the end of his life, at which time he was said to have over 14,000 monks in his brotherhood (Maurice Rawlings, Life-Wish: Reincarnation: Reality or Hoax, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1981, p. 63).
Jainism and Belief in God
Mahavira was vehemently opposed to the idea of acknowledging or worshipping a supreme being. He once said:
A monk or a nun should not say, “The god of the sky!” “The god of the thunderstorm!” “The god who begins to rain!” “May rain fall!” “May the crops grow!” “May the king conquer!” They should not use such speech. But, knowing the nature of things, he should say, “The air” “A cloud is gathered, or come down” “The cloud has rained” This is the whole duty (E M. Mueller, ed., op. cit., vol. 22, p. 152).
Later Jainism, however, did acknowledge and worship a deity: Mahavira himself became their object of worship.
Deification of Mahavira
Although Mahavira denied that any God or gods existed to be worshipped, he, like other religious leaders, was deified by his later followers. He was given the designation as the 24th Tirthankara, the last and greatest of the savior beings. Mahavira was regarded as having descended from heaven without sin and with all knowledge.
He descended from heaven … The venerable ascetic Mahavira descended from the Great Vimana (palace of the gods) (Ibid., pp. 189, 190).
Having wisdom, Mahavira committed no sin himself… He meditated, free from sin and desire (Ibid., p. 86, 87).
He possessed supreme, unlimited, unimpeded knowledge and intuition (Ibid., p. 257).
Jainism and Christianity
Jainism is a religion of legalism, for one attains his own salvation only through the path of rigid self-denial. There is no freedom in this religion, only rules. In contrast to this system which teaches salvation in the Hindu sense of the word (through self-effort), the biblical salvation sets one free through Jesus Christ, who said:
If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:36, NASB).
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light (Matthew 11:28-30, NASB).
The faith Jesus taught alleviates the burdens of people, while Jainism only adds to them. Any concept of God in a personal sense is missing from Jainism. Mahavira and early Jainism rejected the idea of the existence of a supreme being. Although prayer and worship were not advocated by Mahavira himself, after his decease Jainism took to worshipping Mahavira and the Hindu deities. The Bible condemns the worship of any other god apart from Yahweh.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2,3, NASB).
The doctrine of ahimsa, which is central to the Jain belief, is impossible to practice fully since there is no way to avoid killing millions of micro-organisms every time even a glass of water is drunk. This in turn should produce bad karma and thereby make any salvation virtually impossible.
Furthermore, there is no established source of authority for Jain beliefs in light of existing disputes over which of the various books are to be considered authoritative. These books did not even take any permanent form until 1,000 years after the death of Mahavira.
Contrast that with the evidence for the authority of the biblical documents, especially the New Testament. Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, wrote this about the New Testament:
“The interval between the dates of original composition (of the New Testament) and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established” (Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology, New York: Harper and Row, 1940, pp. 288, 289).
The failure of Jainism to advance much beyond certain areas of India speaks to the fact that it does not meet universal human need. This can be contrasted to Jesus Christ, whose impact is universal.
Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God and there is no other (Isaiah 45:22, NASB).
Jesus sent his disciples out with these words:
Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15, NASB).
… you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and
Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8, NASB).
Griffith Thomas sums up the universal appeal of Christianity: “Other religions have had their ethical ideal of duty, opportunity, and even of love, but nowhere have they approached those of Christ, either in reality or in attractiveness or in power. Christ’s message is remarkable for its universal adaptation. Its appeal is universal; it is adapted to all men from the adult down to the child; it makes its appeal to all times and not merely to the age in which it was first given. And the reason is that it emphasizes a threefold ethical attitude toward God and man which makes a universal appeal as nothing else does or perhaps can do. Christ calls for repentance, trust and love” (Griffith Thomas, Christianity Is Christ, Chicago: Moody Press, 1965, p. 35).