Jainism began in India and is one of the oldest religions of the world. Its origins date back to 3000 BCE. Jain history can be viewed as a cycle. A period of rising called an Utsarpini in which human and natural conditions improve followed by a period of decline or Avasarpini in which things gradually get worse, weaken and corrupt. During the period of decline twenty-four persons are born who are unlike others of their time. When they see the suffering and misery in the world they renounce it and lead a path to perfection. They are called Crossing Makers or Tirthankaras and are born for the improvement of all living things. Their job as Jinas or Conquerors is to teach people how to follow the noble path of the Three Jewels or Triranta --right faith, right conduct and right knowledge." Jains do not believe in god but rather use the Tirthankaras as guides for their daily lives.
Mahavira (599-527 BCE) is perhaps the most important figure of Jainism. He is the last Crossing Maker of the present declining era. He was born ion India to the warrior caste but he left home as a young man to become a monk. He fasted and meditated for twelve years. gradually he feed himself from the concerns of the world. I doing so he gained enlightenment. From this point on, as a Jina or Conqueror, he began preaching and teaching. This process of first gaining enlightenment then teaching is the process by which the twenty-four spiritual guides have helped Jainism evolve. Mahavira gained many followers. This is how Jainism spread. Today there are about ten million Jains around the world, but most live in India.
The Jains believe in rebirth of the soul. That means they believe that when a living being dies the soul is born in another body. Eventually Jains hope to break free of the cycle of birth and rebirth and gain salvation. By leading a good life, Jains believe they will have a better rebirth and move closer to salvation. The code of conduct for leading a good life is truthfulness, not stealing, not being possessive, non-violence, and chastity.
From the beginning, Jainism has been based on the concept of non-violence or ahimsa. Jains believe that every living thing, no matter how small, has a soul and should not be harmed. This is why Jains are strict vegetarians. This is also why you might see a very devout Jain sweeping the ground in front of him to avoid stepping on insects and wearing a mask of fabric over his/her mouth to avoid swallowing them.
Jain temples are beautiful structures to show the holiness of the sacred images inside. In each temple are twenty-four statues of the Tirthankaras. Worshippers stand in front of each statute and bow and pray. Then he or she pours an offering of the five nectars --milk, yogurt, butter, sugar and flowers -- over the statues.
Here are the words of Lord Mahavira as found in A Source Book for Earth's Community of Religions, p. 63.
Ahimsa Parmo Dharma
Nonviolence is the Supreme Religion
Know other creatures' love for life, for they are like you.
Kill them not; save their life from fear and enmity.
All creatures desire to live, not to die.
Hence to kill is to sin.
A godly man does not kill.
Therefore, kill not yourself, consciously or unconsciously, living organisms which move or move not, nor cause slaughter of them.
He who looketh on the creatures of the earth, big and small, as his own self, comprehendeth this immense world.
Among the careless, he who restraineth is enlightened.
A Jain prayer (taken from p. 64 of A Source Book for Earth's Community of Religions)
May I always have a friendly feeling towards all living beings of the world and may the stream of compassion always flow from my heart towards distressed and afflicted living beings.