Like other religions born on Indian soil, Jainism considers that living beings are caught up in the world of transmigrations (saṃsāra) which leads them to die and be reborn, bound as they are by the effects of their past acts (karma). The ultimate goal is to achieve deliverance (mokṣa), which alone will end this infernal cycle. But Jainism rejects the authority of any revelation, represented in Hinduism by the Vedas, as well as the idea of a creator god. The model it considers as its ideal is that of human beings, perfect embodiments of asceticism and sole source teachers. It is the Jina or "Victors" from whom the religion takes its name, while its followers are the "jaina", or, in French, the "jains". The teaching, initially oral, gave rise to a multilingual and multifaceted manuscript tradition that nourishes preaching for various audiences.

Its principal teacher was Mahāvīra, who lived in the 6th-5th centuries BCE. Born into a princely family, he chose to leave life in the century for renunciation, gradually attained Omniscience, and surrounded himself with disciples who promulgated his teaching. Since then, Jainism has been alive in India with a few million followers (0.5% of the total population) and an active diaspora, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries. Jains have always been a minority in Indian society. In particular, they have lived and continue to live in daily contact with Hindus, to the extent that some Jains do not identify themselves as such in censuses. But the social and economic role they have played and continue to play in some parts of India (North India, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnatak) has made them influential elites. Complexes of temples with elaborate architecture are one of the visible signs of their presence in the territory (Shatrunjaya, Shravana Belgola, Mount Abu, Ranakpur, etc.).

Since Jainism has existed as an organised movement, it has offered humans two models of life: that of the 'lay devotees', men and women (śrāvaka and śrāvikā) who live in society, with profession and family, while respecting the principles and practices enacted for them, and that of ascetics, monks and nuns (sādhu and sādhvī), who 'left home' (about 1200 today). After the founding act of ordination or initiation (dīkṣā), they join the collective life of monastic orders, itinerant except during the monsoon. Devotees and ascetics form the 'fourfold community' (caturvidhasaṃgha).  Both are closely knit and interdependent. The former provide for the needs of the latter, who beg for their food daily and, in an exchange relationship, provide teaching and advice. The monastic life is the ultimate ideal, as it implies in principle the abandonment of ties and possessions, and is not accessible to all because of its difficulties; but the life of a Jain devotee is just as crucial to the survival of the tradition.

The Jain tradition is known above all for its particularly fine analysis of living beings: it classifies beings according to the number of their sensory faculties, from one to five, and thus includes among them earthly, aqueous, igneous and aerial bodies, and plants. This conception justifies non-violence (ahiṃsā) and has as its main consequence the practice of strict vegetarianism.

Present over such a long period of time and in places as different as Gujarat and Karnatak, Jainism could not remain a monolithic movement. It is riddled with sectarian divisions, reforms and innovations. The earliest division is the one that gradually led to the separation between śvetāmbara and digambara (proven in the 5th century AD). The names of the two groups underline the point around which the opposition crystallises, relating to the dress of the religious: the former are 'dressed in white', the latter 'dressed in space' (digambara), i.e. naked. Nudity is equivalent to total detachment. However, it is impossible for a woman to go naked. According to the digambara, one cannot obtain deliverance from the cycle of rebirth as a woman. On the other hand, śvetāmbara and digambara do not recognise the authority of the same scriptures. All these theoretical differences, without preventing the two groups from calling themselves Jains, explain the sometimes conflicting relationships. Within the śvetāmbara and the digambara themselves, numerous subdivisions have emerged since the medieval period (12th century). In the field of religious practice, the main difference in viewpoint lies in the role assigned or not to the image. Although the Jina are not gods in the usual sense, they are the object of respect and devotion of the faithful (pūjā) in the temples dedicated to them.  Depicted seated in a meditative position or standing with their arms at their sides, most often sculpted in marble, they occupy the cella of the temple, naked and bare among the digambara, adorned with gold and silver ornaments among the śvetāmbara known as Mūrtipūjak. The latter term is used to differentiate them from another group, the Sthānakavāsin, who, since the 15th-16th centuries, have spoken out against the worship of images, advocating an inner and visually unmediated devotion and, as a result, rejecting the institution of the temple as such.


Publié en janvier 2022