The tale of Mahavira traditionally states that (much like Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism) he grew up in an affluent lifestyle, however it is believed at the age of twenty eight he refuted all material objects and his lifestyle, to live as a wandering ascetic to find enlightenment on how to break free of the Hindu cycle samsara (death and rebirth). Eventually Mahavira achieved full enlightenment while he wandered India fasting, debating, philosophising and studying on how to overcome the bad karma (consequence of all acts that are done willingly) tying him to samsara. At the core of Jainism is the belief and ritual reflected in this tale, the unique response to questions posed in relation to the perception of the universe, life after death and the meaning of life.
An individual seeks knowledge on how the universe was created, to get a greater understanding on the future and present. This knowledge can be obtained and translated in different forms of beliefs. For Jains this knowledge is obtained through the belief that the universe is symbolised as a turning wheel of samsara. Like a wheel the universe has no beginning and is destined to a repetitive cycle of ‘rise and falls.’ Within this wheel are cycles reflecting destiny of humanity. These cycles are predetermined however the destiny of each individual is mainly self-determined. This belief assists Jains to grasp at a wider understanding of the future and present in terms of actions and faith as they know that their destiny is upon themselves however the destiny of everyone is laid out.
The nature of this self-determined path relates to the core of one of the most crucial reflections of humankind: is there life after death? This question is responded in the Jain belief of reincarnation and karma. Within the universe there are two substances jivas (with souls) and ajivas (without souls). Jains believe that there is an infinite number of jivas and that each are stuck in the cycle of the wheel and samsara. The jiva consists of pure knowledge and understanding, however when the soul is transferred into a physical body at birth, it becomes corrupted by material things. The influence that these material things exert upon the jiva effect the karma and thus effect the physical existence of the being in the next life. There are five levels of earthly existence. At the fifth level and the highest are human beings and the members of the animal kingdom, the spirit has all five senses. At the fourth level are the most active insects, the soul has four senses- touch, taste, smell and sight. At the third level are the less active insects, the soul has three senses- touch, taste and smell. At the second level are worms and molluscs, the soul has only two senses- touch and taste. At the first level and the lowest level are the elements earth, air, fire and water and the whole of the plant kingdom, the soul only can rely upon one sense-touch. This intricate belief of the samsara and karma is unique to Jainism and provides an individual with a sense of meaning and to an extent reassurance within their daily lives, as it provides a rejoinder to the reflection of life after death.
However, with the Jain belief of an eternal cycle of reincarnation of the jiva, so too do they believe that they are the endless witness’ of human suffering and death. Here another aspect of