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Indian boys dressed in costumes sit on a truck during a procession for Mahavir Jayanti, in New Delhi, India,Thursday, April 5, 2012. The holiday celebrates the birth anniversary of Lord Mahavira, who created the defining rules of Jainism.

India is generally known as the land of Hindus, who form a majority of more than 80 percent. But actually, like the United States, India represents one of the most religiously complex and diverse regions of the world, being homeland to four important religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.

Jainism was founded by a contemporary of the Buddha, the great sage Vardhamana (599-527 B.C.), who is generally known by his title "Mahavira," which means "Great Hero."

According to Jain cosmology, the world was created perfect but has steadily decayed ever since. Throughout the course of human history 24 spiritual heroes or "ford-makers" ("tirthankaras") have revealed the "ford" (think of the fording of a river) or "path to liberation" and salvation for humankind.

The last and greatest of these was Mahavira. Born in northern India to an aristocratic Hindu family, Mahavira renounced the world at age 30 to become a wandering seeker for salvation (a "sadhu"). After 12 years of severe fasting, meditation and asceticism, Mahavira obtained a complete knowledge of spiritual reality and truth. The remaining 30 years of his life were spent in teaching and in forming his new religious community.

Although originally a Hindu, Mahavira rejected Hindu castes, sacrifices and scriptures. The controlling principle of Jain religion and ethics is the idea of nonviolence ("ahimsa"). Thus, Jains must avoid any act of violence, even in the mind. According to Mahavira, "all things living, all things breathing, all things whatever, should not be slain or treated with violence or insulted or injured or tortured or driven away."

The vegetarianism often associated with India derives in part from Jainism. Indeed, so strict is the Jain view of nonviolence to any living thing that extremely ascetic Jains, believing plants are living spiritual beings, abandon eating altogether, starving themselves to death as the final act of spiritual purification and perfection. They would rather die than harm any living thing.

Jain communities are divided into two groups, lay and monastic. While ordinary Jains follow the basic ethical teachings of Mahavira, elite Jain monks strive for ultimate spiritual perfection by taking the Five Great Vows: harm no living thing; speak and think only the truth; do not take what is not given (living by alms); chastity; and renunciation of the material world.

Just as the vow of nonviolence leads some Jains to the extreme of ritual starvation, the vow of renunciation leads others to abandon all possessions, including their clothing. These "sky-clad" ("Digambara") Jains therefore go naked. The vow of renunciation of the Svetambara ("white clad"), however, allows them to retain a simple white robe.

A sky-clad ascetic was once asked "Why don't you wear clothing?" to which he answered, "I want to show people that you can be happy even if you own absolutely nothing" — a sentiment few in the materialist West could agree with or even understand.

Although the vast majority of Jains (about 5 million total) live in India, there is a small community in the United States (perhaps 100,000) who have a temple in Phoenix (see www.jcgp.org). Nonetheless, despite their relatively small numbers, the ancient teachings of Mahavira have had a fundamental, though indirect, impact on our nation.

When in the 1960s Martin Luther King was considering what methods to use to attain civil rights for black Americans, his choice of nonviolent civil disobedience was in part influenced by Gandhi's successful nonviolent rebellion against British rule in India some 20 years earlier. Gandhi, of course, had derived his ideas of nonviolence from the ancient Indian religious traditions, and the father of Indian nonviolence was Mahavira. Indirectly, then, the course of the American civil rights movement was decisively influenced by the teachings of a 2,500-year-old Indian ascetic and mystic. This represents a classic example of a remarkable phenomenon in the history of religions — the fact that religious beliefs can transcend culture, language, time and space, transforming the world we live in across thousands of years and thousands of miles.

"Practical men," John Maynard Keynes once said, "who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." Likewise, even many unbelievers have been influenced more than they know by religious thinkers whose names they probably wouldn't recognize.

Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, is editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and a blogger for Patheos. William Hamblin is a professor of history at BYU and co-author of "Solomon's Temple: Myth and History." Their views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.