The Jain tradition stems from Buddhism. The founder of Jainism, Mahavira, born around 599 B.C.E., was a senior contemporary of Gautama Buddha. He is considered by Jains to be the greatest religious leader and is called the jina (victor). The followers of Mahavira came to be called Jain(a)s, meaning followers of the Victorious One. Since the period of Mahavira's reformation within India, the tradition has continued to flourish in the Indian subcontinent, unlike the Buddhist tradition that faded out in India. There are about 4 million Jains today in India, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Jain principles were taught by Mahavira, the final teacher in a series of enlightened individuals. The teachings of the Jain tradition are eternal, with no beginning and no end. The teachings are always there, and will continue to prosper and show people the path of their religion. No single Jain founding figure has been recorded, but there is a line of great teachers who reveal the teachings of Jainism to each successive era, with the greatest and most profound being Mahavira. The teachers of the Jain tradition are called Tirthankaras, meaning "crossing makers" who lead people to cross over into their new enlightened selves. The Tirths hold special status because they have achieved liberation or Kaivalya and are able then to teach the Jain path to others. Within Jainism there have been 24 Tirths; Mahavira being the last Tirth to appear in the current cycle of time. Through Mahavira, Jainism takes its present form. Mahavira is significant to the Jain tradition because he was a Tirthankara, he achieved Kaivalya, reestablished Jain teaching, and established the fourfold order of Jains (monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen).
Mahavira also established the three jewels of Jainism: (1) being right in faith (samyak darsana), which implies a moment of spiritual insight, the truth from a right viewpoint; (2) right knowledge (samyak jnana), which implies that one is led down the path by right knowledge and right conduct; and (3) right conduct (samyak caritra), which consists of the five vows or Mahavrata. The first vow is Ahimsa, which means the path of nonviolence; the second is Satya, which is truthful speech; the third is Asteya, which means no stealing; the fourth is Brohmacharya, which is avoiding sexual misconduct; and finally, Aparigraha is the detachment from worldly things.
Jains categorize all things into two categories: alive and not alive. Jiv means to be alive, and a person's soul is alive (humans, animals, plants, and vegetables are deemed Jivas). Ajiva is dead, such as matter, space, time, and motion. Together Jivas and Ajiva are eternal and coexist together in harmony. Dharma to Jains is the most important principle in the world. It is the main cause for all happiness. It comes from human beings, and through it human beings attain what is good. This principle coexists with the doctrine of Ahimsa, for humans are to enjoy and respect life not to pollute it through violence.
Karma to Jains literally means action or the fruits of one's actions. It is a substance that adheres to the soul of Jiva and obscures its truest nature. Karma as a substance binds the Jiva to this world at birth, released at death or through Kaivalya. One must work to remove the obscuring substance of karma from the Jiva. Once the Jiva is freed from karmic bonds, it is liberated and becomes enlightened. Destroying karma is to cease karma-generating activities. There are many ways to do this, but the most often practiced way is through asceticism. Ascetics renounce their belongings, wealth, fame, and then can perform the austerities that are necessary for liberation. Annihilation of all of one's karma is the ultimate goal or Kaivalya.
The central teaching of Jains is belief in Ahimsa, or nonviolence. The phrase that can be found on Jain pamphlets and documents accurately details their belief in Ahimsa: Ahimsa paramo dharmah: "Nonviolence is the highest form of religious conduct." Their commitment to this belief is carried out to all forms of life here on earth. Dedication to belief, diet, manner and times of eating, movements, travel, choice of careers, and modes of conducting business are a reflection on how deeply Jains value the doctrine of Ahimsa.