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Today, Jainism constitutes a small but persevering and influential community of worshippers in India. Numbering only four million and being fairly confined within the country of India, Jains are nonetheless a significant force in the economic and social life in India. They are usually traders and businessmen and do not believe in violence of any kind.

Jainism began in the sixth century B.C., around the time of the origins of Buddhism and Islam. Vardhamana Mahavira is the founder of Jainism, but his birth, life, and death are surrounded by many legends. He was born in India around 599 B.C. to parents who were in the noble class. After spending his youth in palatial luxury, he left home at age 30 to seek salvation through self-denial. He cast aside his fine clothing, tore his hair, and gave away all his possessions. He wandered through towns and villages as a naked ascetic until at the age of 42 he found full enlightenment and became a jina, or "conqueror." As one who had attained enlightenment, he was also a tirthankara, one who was free from the effects of the mortal body, and impervious to hunger, need for sleep, and pain. He founded an order of around 4,000 monks and died at the age of 72.

Because of Mahavira’s Hindu upbringing, Jainism incorporates many basic tenets of that religion, such as reincarnation, karma, and nonviolence. The beliefs about karma, however, differ from Hindu beliefs somewhat. Jains believe that karma-matter is a substance that builds up in a person’s soul as they commit evil deeds. As the karma-matter builds, his/her soul sinks lower and lower on the scale of existence. Mahavira taught that the way off this "wheel" of existence and the path to true enlightenment was to release one’s attachment to worldly possessions and pleasures that cause build up of karma-matter. Therefore, extreme asceticism, or self-denial, is a fundamental belief in Jainism. The other fundamental tenet to Jainism is ahimsa, or respect for all life. Meditation is also vital in Jainism, for it is through meditation that one is able to release oneself from worldly attachments and gain the insights and enlightenment necessary to salvation.

Within two centuries after the death of Mahavira, Jainism had split into two main divisions. The Digambaras ("sky-clad") insist on the total nudity of their monks and seek to follow Mahavira’s example to the letter. The Svetambaras ("white-clad") allow their monks to cover their bodies with white robes or loin cloths. Other than these differences in dress, there is little difference in beliefs and doctrine. All Jain monks live a life of extreme self-denial after making vows of renunciation from worldly goods.

The monastic vows of a Jain monk can seem quite limiting, but it is within these narrow limits that many people find true enlightenment. Jainist monks have been known to filter their water to strain out all insects or even microscopic life. They do not pluck fruits or vegetables from trees or bushes, because they, too, are considered living entities. Some extreme Jains have even been known to use a small brush or broom to sweep the ground before them as they walk, so as not to inadvertently tread on any living creature, no matter how small.

Jains believe that each person and living entity is actually a spirit entity, or jiva, trapped in matter. Enlightenment or salvation comes when one has learned to free the jiva from the physical prison. Jains have a reverence for all life, and devoutly practice ahimsa, which means literally "noninjury."