Jainism purports to be the system of belief promulgated by Vaddhamana, better known by his epithet of Maha-vira (the great hero), who was a contemporary of Gotama, the Buddha.
Maha-vira was not an originator; he merely carried on, with but slight changes, a system which existed before his time, and which probably owes its most distinguishing features to a teacher named Parswa, who ranks in the succession of Jinas as the predecessor of Maha-vira.
Parswa is said, in the Jain chronology, to have been born two hundred years before Maha-vira (that is, about 760 B.C.); but the only conclusion that it is safe to draw from this statement is that Parswa was considerably earlier in point of time than Mahavira.
The latter have only as yet been traced, and that doubtfully, as far back as the 5th century after Christ; the former are almost certainly the same as the Niganthas, who are referred to in numerous passages of the Buddhist Pali Pitakas, and must therefore be at least as old as the 6th century B.C. In many of these passages the Niganthas are mentioned as contemporaneous with the Buddha; and details enough are given concerning their leader Nigantha Nata-putta (that is, the Nigantha of the Jnatrika clan) to enable us to identify him, without any doubt, as the same person as the Vaddhamana Maha-vira of the Jain books.
The most distinguishing outward peculiarity of Maha-vira and of his earliest followers was their practice of going quite naked, whence the term Digambara.