Jains believe that each Jina reveals the truth to human beings at different times of spiritual need and thus there is no founder as such of the Jain religion. The first 22 Jinas are known only from legend. The existence of the last two, Pārśvanātha – Lord Pārśva – and Māhavīra, can be historically verified.
The most recent Jina, Māhavīra, is traditionally believed to have lived from 599 / 582 to 527 / 510 BCE. However, modern scholarship dates him as having lived later, from 497 to 425 BCE. Mahāvīra is often viewed as a reformer of certain tenets set out by his predecessor, Pārśva.
Just as other religions have different groups within them, so Jainism has several sects, which disagree on certain aspects of doctrine or practice. The two main sects take their names from the appearance of their mendicants.
The monks of the Digambara – ‘sky-clad’ in Sanskrit – sect go naked because they believe that all the Jinas and their male ascetic followers were nude as part of their vow of renunciation. This involves renouncing all possessions, including clothing. Female Digambara ascetics wear white robes and are thus technically inferior to monks.
Monks and nuns in the Śvetāmbara – ‘white-clad’ in Sanskrit – sect wear white clothing.
The difference of opinion over whether the vow of non-possession includes clothing led to the split of the Jain community into these two major sects early in the Common Era. The other chief differences between the two sects are:
Within the Digambara sect there are the smaller sects of Bīsa-panthin, Terāpanthin and Tāraṇ-panthin. The two newer subsects of the Kavi-panthin, who are followers of Rājacandra, and Kānjī-svāmī-panthin arose in the 20th century.
There are three primary categories of Śvetāmbara Jains – the Mūrti-pūjaka, Sthānaka-vāsin and Terāpanthin. The first group is the largest and consists of several subsects that arose from the medieval period onwards:
Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
The teachings of the Jinas were originally passed on through the spoken word. Māhavīra’s disciples memorised his words and their followers had to commit to memory what they were told and so on. Eventually the teachings were written down but the various Jain sects have disputed what makes up the scriptures – or even that any have survived – for centuries.
The Śvetāmbara sect accepts 45 or 32 texts as their canon, depending on their subsect. The sect of the Digambaras believes that all the original scriptures were lost and has a set of texts that were written by later mendicant leaders. These texts are treated as holy scriptures.