Jainism is regarded as the oldest ascetic religious tradition in the world. Like Buddhism it traces its origins back to the Sramana movements in modern-day Bihar and Nepal in the 6th century B.C. and has been continuously practiced since then. The other Sramana movements, including Buddhism, died out.
Jainism was a Brahmin school that emerged around the same times as Buddhism. Buddhism and Jainism had a profound impact on Indian and Hindu culture. They discouraged caste distinctions, abolished hereditary priesthoods, made poverty a precondition of spirituality and advocated the communion with the spiritual essence of the universe through contemplation and meditation.
The origins of Jainism have been traced to Palanpur, a small town in Western India. It was reportedly founded about 30 years before Buddhism as as attempt to reform the less appealing aspects of Hinduism, namely the caste system. The Jain memorial mound in at Mathur is believed to be the oldest structure in India. There are old Jain temples in Kaligamalai, Ahmedabad, Ellora, Ajmere and Mount Abu.
Both Jainism and Buddhism “outlawed caste distinctions, abolished hereditary priesthood, made poverty a precondition of spirituality and advocated the communion with the spiritual essence of the universe through contemplation and meditation.” Both Jainism and Buddhism posited that existence was basically an unhappy cycle of death and rebirth and the goal of both religions was to break free from this cycle through meditation and discipline. They also both rejected the Hindu customs of sacrifice and appeasement of the gods.
By the first century A.D., the Jain community evolved into two main divisions based on monastic discipline: the Digambara or “sky-clad” monks who wear no clothes, own nothing, and collect donated food in their hands; and the Svetambara or “white-clad” monks and nuns who wear white robes and carry bowls for donated food. The Digambara do not accept the possibility of women achieving liberation, while the Svetambara do. Western and southern India have been Jain strongholds for many centuries; laypersons have typically formed minority communities concentrated primarily in urban areas and in mercantile occupations. In the mid-1990s, there were about 7 million Jains, the majority of whom live in the states of Maharashtra (mostly the city of Bombay, or Mumbai in Marathi), Rajasthan, and Gujarat. Karnataka, traditionally a stronghold of Digambaras, has a sizable Jain community