History of Jainism
Jainism doesn't have a single founder. The truth has been revealed at different times by a tirthankara, which means a teacher who 'makes a ford' i.e. shows the way. Other religions call such a person a 'prophet'.
As great omniscient teachers, Tirthankaras accomplished the highest spiritual goal of existence and then teach others how to achieve it.
In what Jains call the 'present age' there have been 24 tirthankaras - although there is little evidence for the existence of most of these.
A tirthankara appears in the world to teach the way to moksha, or liberation.
A Tirthankar is not an incarnation of the God. He is an ordinary soul that is born as a human and attains the states of a Tirthankar as a result of intense practices of penance, equanimity and meditation. As such, the Tirthankar is not defined as an Avatar (god-incarnate) but is the ultimate pure developed state of the soul.
Tirthankaras were not founders of any religion, but great omniscient teachers who lived at various times in man's cultural history. They accomplished the highest spiritual goal of existence and then taught their contemporaries the way to reach it by crossing over to the safe shores of spiritual purity.
Each new tirthankara preaches the same basic Jain philosophy, but they give the Jain way of life subtly different forms in order to suit the age and the culture in which they teach.
In what Jains call the present age there have been 24 tirthankaras
The 24 tirthankaras during this present age are:
Adinatha, Ajita, Sambhava, Abhinandana, Sumati, Padmaprabha, Suparshva, Chandraprabha, Suvidhi, Shital, Shreyansa, Vasupujya, Vimala, Ananta, Dharma, Shanti, Kunthu, Ara, Malli, Muni Suvrata, Nami, Nemi, Parshva and Mahavira.
Svetambara Jains believe that tirthankaras can be men or women, and say that Malli began her life as a princess; but Digambra Jains believe that women can't be tirthankaras and that Malli was a man.
There is some historical evidence for the earthly existence of the 23rd tirthankara, Parshva, who lived about 250 years before Mahavira.
In his time four of the five Jain principles of non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, and not owning things were part of Jainism. Chastity was added by the next tirthankara, Mahavira
Mahavira is regarded as the man who gave Jainism its present-day form; although this is true only in the widest sense. He is sometimes wrongly called "the founder of Jainism".
Mahavira, regarded as the man who gave Jainism its present form
Mahavira is only this world's most recent tirthankara (and will be the last one in this age). It may be more useful to think of him as a reformer and populariser of an ancient way of life rather than as the founder of a faith.
Early life of Mahavira
Mahavira was originally born as Vardhamana in north east India in 599 BCE (that's the traditional date but some modern scholars prefer 540 BCE, or even later).
He was a prince, the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, who were members of the kshatriya (warrior) caste and followers of the teachings of Parshva.
Mahavira becomes an ascetic
When Prince Vardhamana reached thirty years of age, not long after the death of both his parents, he left the royal palace to live the life of an ascetic, or a sadhana (one who renounces all worldly pleasures and comforts).
He spent twelve and a half years subjecting himself to extremely long, arduous periods of fasting and meditation.
Eventually his efforts bore fruit, and Vardhamana attained Kevalnyan, enlightenment, and therefore was later called Mahavira (the name is from maha, great, and vira, hero).
Mahavira the teacher
From that day forward Mahavira taught the path he had discovered to other seekers. His teaching career lasted until his physical death in 527 BCE (according to Svetambara texts), when he was 72 years old. After a final period of intensive fasting he attained moksha, the final liberation from all rebirth.
Mahavira added the principle of chastity to the four Jain principles already given by Parshva (no violence, no lying, no stealing, no possessions).
According to tradition Mahavira is said to have established a community of 14,000 monks and 36,000 nuns before he died.
But he certainly did create a large and loyal monastic/ascetic/mendicant community inspired by his teaching. One of his immediate disciples, Jambu, was the last person in this age to achieve enlightenment.
Over the next centuries the Jain community grew and spread to central and western parts of India.
Jainism began to lose strength as Hinduism grew in the early part of the last millennium, and by the middle of the 19th century it was seriously weakened.
Jainism was revived in the 19th century by a number of Svetambara reformers, most notably Atmaramji (1837-96). In the 20th century the Digambara movement was revitalised through the work of Acarya Shantisagar.