The origins of Jainism are obscure. Its philosophical roots go back to old currents of religious and metaphysical speculation in ancient India. During the 5th century BCE, Mahavira became one of the most influential teachers of Jainism. Mahavira, however, was most probably neither the founder of Jainism, which reveres him as their prophet, nor the author of their religion. He appears in the tradition as one who, from the beginning, had followed a religion established long ago. Parsva, the traditional predecessor of Mahavira is the first Jain figure for whom there is reasonable historical evidence. He might have lived somewhere in the 9th–7th century BCE. Followers of Parsva are mentioned in the canonical books; and a legend in the Uttaradhyayana sutra relates a meeting between a disciple of Parsva and a disciple of Mahavira which brought about the union of the old branch of the Jain church and the new one. Jains traditionally trace their history through twenty-four propagators of faith known as tirthankara (fordmakers). The lineage of these tirthankara begins with Rishabha and ends with Mahavira. Amongh these, the last two tirthankara are historical personalities the first twenty-two tirthankara are more of legendary mythical figures. Glasenapp, writes that first century after the year 1000 BCE would be the higher limit to the origin of Jainism.

Indus Valley Roots

Scholars such as Prof. Buhler, H. Jacobi, J.G.R. Forlong, Dr. Hornell, Pt. Sukhalalji, Prof. Vidyalankara, and others believe that Jainism is the earliest known religious systems prevailing in India among the non-Aryan races which belonged to Indus valley civilization.

Buddhist Records

In Majjhima Nikaya, Buddha tells "Thus far, SariPutta, did I go in my penance? I went without clothes. I licked my food from my hands. I took no food that was brought or meant especially for me. I accepted no invitation to a meal." These being in conformity with a Jain Monk's conduct, Mrs. Rhys Davis has observed that 'Buddha started his religious life as a Jain"


After the death of Parsva, his disciple Subhadatta became the head of the monks. Subhadatta was succeeded by Haridatta, Aryasamudra, Prabha and lastly Kesi. Jain scriptures have records of a dialogue between Mahavira's disciple and kesi; kesi along with his community accepted Mahavira as a tirthankara and merged with him as a result.

The tirthankara are said to have attained perfect knowledge, known as keval jnana. After Mahavira, one of his disciple Sudharma Svami is said to have took over the leadership. He was the head of Jain community till 515 BCE. After his death, Jambuswami, a disciple of Sudharma Svami became the head of the monks. He was the head till 463 BCE. Sudharma Svami and Jambu Svami are also traditionally said to have attained keval jnana. It is said that no one after Jambu Svami has attained it till now.

After Sudharma svami, a succession of five sutrakevalis, i.e. those who were well versed with scriptures, who headed the monks of the Jain community. Bhadrabahu was last sutrakevali. After Bhadrabahu, there were seven (or eleven) leaders.[ The knowledge of the scriptures was gradually getting lost with each one of them.


Traditionally, the original doctrine of Jainism was contained in scriptures called Purva. There were fourteen Purva. These are believed to have originated from Adinath, the first tirthankara. There was a twelve year famine two centuries after the death of Mahavira, the last Jain tirthankara. At that time, Chandragupta Maurya was the ruler of Magadha and Bhadrabahu was the head of Jain community. Bhadrabahu went south to Karnataka with his adherents and Sthulabhadra, another Jain leader remained behind. During this time the knowledge of the doctrine was getting lost. A council was formed at Pataliputra where eleven scriptures called Angas were compiled and the remnant of fourteen purvas were written down in 12th Anga, Ditthivaya by the adherents of Sthulbhadra. When followers of Bhadrabahu returned, there was a dispute between them regarding the authenticity of the Angas. Also, those who stayed at magadha started wearing white clothes, which was unacceptable to the others who remained naked. This is how the Digambara and Svetambara sects arose, the Digambara being naked whereas the Svetambara were white clothed. According to Digambara, the purvas and the angas were lost. In course of time, the canons of svetambara were also getting lost. About 980 to 993 years after the death of Mahavira, a council was held at Vallabhi in Gujarat. This was headed by Devardhi Ksamashramana. It was found that the 12th Anga, the Ditthivaya, was lost too. The other Angas were written down. This is a traditional account of schism. According to Svetambara, there were eight schisms (Nihvana).

According to Digambara tradition, Gandhara knew fourteen Purva and eleven Anga. Knowledge of Purva was lost around 436 years after Mahavira and Anga were lost around 683 years after Mahavira. The texts that do not belong to Anga are called Angabahyas. There were fourteen Angabahyas. The first four Anga bahayas, Samayika, chaturvimasvika, Vandana and Pratikramana corresponds to sections of second Mulasutra of svetambara. The only texts of anga bahyas which occurs in svetambara texts are Dasavaikalika, Uttaradhyayana and Kalpavyavahara.

Royal patronage

The information regarding the history of Jainism is uncertain and fragmentary. Jains consider the king Bimbisara (c. 558–491 BCE), Ajatasatru (c. 492–460 BCE) Udayi of the Haryanka dynasty as a patron of Jainism.Jainism also flourished under the Nanda Empire (424–321 BCE). Tradition says that Chandragupta Maurya (322–298 BCE), the founder of Mauryan Empire became disciple of Bhadrabahu during later part of his life. However, such accounts of Jain relationship with kings do not conform to the data available in other sources sometimes and hence are dubious.

Ashoka (273–232 BCE), the grandson of Chandragupta was inspired by buddhist ideologies. There is a reference to Jains in the eddicts of Ashoka where the duties of dhammamahatma (law-authorities) are dealt with. The inscription reads:

Piyadasi, who is loved by the gods spoke thus: My supervisors of law are dealing with many connected with mercy, also with those which concern the ascetics and those which concern the house holders. They deal with the religious brotherhoods as well. I have made arrangements so that they will deal with the matter of Sangha (of the Buddhist community); similarly, I have made arrangements so they will deal with the Brahmans and also with the Ajivikas; I have also made arrangements that they deal with the Niganthas (Jainas); I have made arrangements so that they will deal with (all) the religious brotherhoods.

Ashoka's grandson Samprati (c. 224–215 BCE), is said to have converted into Jainism by a Jain monk named Suhasti according to the tradition. He lived in a place called Ujjain.[29] It is believed that he erected many Jain temples, and the temples whose origins are forgotten were often ascribed to him in later times.[30]

Emperor Kharavela of Mahameghavahana dynasty, though religiously tolerant, is said to have patronized Jainism. Inscriptions found in Udayagiri mentions that he erected a statue of the Adinath, the first tirthankara and made cave-dwellings for monks.[31]

During Chandragupta's reign, Bhadrabahu moved to karnataka to survive a twelve-year-long famine. Sthulbhadra, a pupil of Bhadrabahu, stayed in Magadha. Later, when the disciples of Bhadrabahu returned, they found that those who stayed back started wearing clothes.[32] They found this as being opposed to the Jain tenets which, according to them, required complete nudity. Those who wore clothes are known as svetambara where as the other were known as digambara. According to Svetambara, they are the original Jains and the Digambara sect came out c. 83 CE. According to Digambara, they are the original and the svetambara sect came out c. 80 CE.

According to a story, Gardabhilla (c. 1st century BCE), a powerful king of Ujjain, abducted a nun called Sarasvati who was the sister of a Jain monk named Kalaka. The enraged monk sought the help of the Indo-Scythian ruler Saka Sahi who defeated Gardabhilla and made him a captive. Sarasvati was repatriated, although Gardabhilla himself was forgiven. Vikramaditya, the son of Garadabhilla, drove away the saka ruler and is considered by Jains as a patron of their religion. He was a pupil of a famous Jain monk called Siddhasena Divakara. The rule of Vikramaditya was ended by Gautamiputra Satakarni (also known as Salivahana) according to the tradition. He was also a great patron of Jainism.Mathura was an important Jain centre during the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE and inscriptions from the 1st and 2nd century CE shows that the schism of Digambara/Svetambara had already happened.

Vallabhi council was formed at 454 CE to write the scriptures of Jainism. The digambara sect completely rejects these scriptures as not being authentic. King Vanaraja (c. 720–780 CE) of cavada dynasty was raised by a Jain monk Silunga Suri. Mularaja, the founder of Calukaya dynasty constructed built a Jain temple, even though he was not a Jain. During the reign of Bhima (1022–1064), a Jain layman Vimala built many temples above mount Abu. A famous Jain monk Hemacandra (Born c. 1088 CE) was initiated at the age of eight by monk Devacandra. He was a prime figure; responsible for propagation of Jainism in Gujarat.[38] He converted king Kumarpal of the Solanki dynasty. However, Ajaypala, nephew and successor of Kumarpala was a Saivite. He subjucated Jains.

Mihirakula ended the Gupta kingdom c. 480 CE. He was considered as an opponent by the Jains because he created policies to subjucate Jainism.

Huien Tsang, a traveller, (629–645 CE) notes that numerous Jains in Vaisali near Rajagraha, Nalanda, Pundravardhana. He considers Kalinga to be major seat of Jainism during his time.

The king of kannauj Ama (c. 8th century CE) was converted to Jainism by Bappabhatti, a disciple of Siddhasena Divakara.[39] Bappabhatti also converted a friend of Ama, named Vakpati. Vakpati is the one who composed the famous prakrit epic named Gaudavaho.