Mahavira (599 BCE–527 BCE), also known as Vardhamana, was the twenty-fourth and last tirthankara of Jainism.
He is believed by Jains to be the most recent of these 24 Jinas. Jinas are liberated beings who help others achieve liberation through acting as a teacher and role model.
Mahavira’s historical existence is not in doubt, but what is in doubt are his times of birth and death. Recent scholarship has found that Buddha, of whom Mahavira was a contemporary, may have lived at a somewhat later date than originally thought, perhaps in the fourth century BC. It is therefore possible that Mahavira's dates are later than generally thought.
Mahavira was born into a royal family in what is now Bihar, India. His parents were King Siddartha of Kundalapura and Queen Trishala, sister of King Chetaka of Vaishali.
Both his parents were strict followers of Jainism. At the time of Mahavira’s birth, new thinkers were questioning the stratified caste system with brahmins (priests) at the top. The Jains had also rejected animal sacrifice. For Jains in particular, a central tenet of their faith was a renunciation of violence in all its forms and a concern for all forms of life.
The name "Mahavira" is a Sanskrit word meaning Great Warrior. One of the reasons for this name is – and I quote – that ”during his boyhood, Mahavira brought a terrifying serpent under control”. I have absolutely no proof for this, but I think this is symbolic. The serpent is ‘serpent energy’ which means he was able to control energy flows from an early age. The implication is that he may have had a kundalini experience and learned how to control kundalini energy.
At the age of 30, Mahavira abandoned all the comforts of royal life and left his home and family to live an ascetic life.
He suffered great hardships, even going without clothes [or again this may be symbolic – nakedness]. There is a graphic description of the hardships and humiliation he faced in the Acaranga Sūtra. Here is another account:
The Venerable Ascetic Mahavira for a year and a month wore clothes; after that time he walked about naked, and accepted the alms in the hollow of his hand. For more than twelve years the Venerable Ascetic Mahivira neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; he with equanimity bore, underwent, and suffered all pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men, or animals.
In the eastern part of Bengal he suffered considerable distress, as boys pelted him with stones and people humiliated him.
Remembering that these accounts were written after his death and are around 2,500 years old, one can still get a feel for the life he led. For over twelve and a half years, he practiced intense meditation, and used techniques designed to foster humility and charity. In effect his aim was to squash the ego completely.
Mahavira's moksha. Circa 1472 painting from Kalpasutra
Henceforth the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira was houseless, circumspect in his walking, circumspect in his speaking, circumspect in his begging, circumspect in his accepting (anything), in the carrying of his outfit and drinking vessel; circumspect in evacuating excrements, urine, saliva, mucus, and uncleanliness of the body; circumspect in his thoughts, circumspect in his words, circumspect in his acts; guarding his thoughts, guarding his words, guarding his acts, guarding his senses, guarding his chastity; without wrath, without pride, without deceit, without greed; calm, tranquil, composed, liberated, free from temptations, without egoism, without property; he had cut off all earthly ties, and was not stained by any worldliness: as water does not adhere to a copper vessel, or collyrium to mother of pearl (so sins found no place in him); his course was unobstructed like that of Life; like the firmament he wanted no support; like the wind he knew no obstacles; his heart was pure like the water (of rivers or tanks) in autumn; nothing could soil him like the leaf of a lotus; his senses were well protected like those of a tortoise; he was single and alone like the horn of a rhinoceros; he was free like a bird; he was always waking like the fabulous bird Bharundal, valorous like an elephant, strong like a bull, difficult to attack like a lion, steady and firm like Mount Mandara, deep like the ocean, mild like the moon, refulgent like the sun, pure like excellent gold'; like the earth he patiently bore everything; like a well-kindled fire he shone in his splendour.
After twelve and a half years of this rigorous life of self deprivation, Mahavira achieved Kevala Jnana or enlightenment.
For the next 30 years Mahavira travelled all over Bharata (which was larger than today's India) to teach what he had learnt.
Mahavira is often depicted in the centre of a samavasarana, where gods, men and animals come together in peace to hear him preach. Jain temples are conceived as replicas on earth of these celestial assembly halls.
His philosophy has eight cardinal (law of trust), three metaphysical and five ethical principles. These are:
- First principle - Ahimsa or non-violence in speech and action. Mahavira taught that every living being has sanctity and dignity of its own and it should be respected. In simple words, the maximum possible kindness should be shown to every living being.
- Second principle - Satya or truthfulness. One should speak the truth
- Third principle - Asteya or non-stealing which states that one should not take anything if not properly given.
- Fourth principle - Bramhacharya which stresses steady but determined restraint over the 'yearning for sensual or sexual pleasures'. Love as opposed to lust
- Fifth principle - Aparigraha or non-possession, 'non-attachment' which equates to reducing desires.
Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing Mahavira preaching (left) and discoursing (right)
Mahavira taught that the pursuit of pleasure is an endless game, so we should train our minds to curb individual cravings and passions. That way one achieves contentment and equanimity of mind, and spiritual balance.
One should voluntarily limit acquisition of property in order to promote social justice and fair distribution of basic resources. The strong and the rich should not try to suppress the weak and the poor by acquiring limitless property and resources, which result in unfair distribution of wealth in society and hence poverty. This was to be true at every level, from individuals to businesses to countries.
Any attempt to try to enforce these five qualities by an external and legal authority was likely to lead to hypocrisy or secret criminal tendencies. So the individual, society or culture should exercise self-restraint, to achieve social peace, security and an enlightened world.
Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing Mahavira giving alms
According to Jainism, Mahavira attained moksha in 527 BCE. "Mahavira attained nirvana at the age of 72." And at the age of 72, Mahavira died. His followers believe his purified soul left the body and achieved complete liberation. He was cremated at Pawapuri where today stands a Jain temple named Jalmandir.
Books of teachings
The texts containing the teachings of Mahavira are called the Agamas. The agamas were initially memorised, only later were they written down. As centuries passed some of the texts were forgotten, and others were misremembered. Then came a particular disruption around 350 BCE when a famine killed off many Jain monks, and with them the memory of many Jain texts.
The Digambara sect believes that during this famine all the Agamas were lost; the Svetamabara sect believes that the majority of these texts survived. This is one of the most important differences between the two groups in Jainism.
Although Mahavira was not the founder Jainism, his words are of especial importance because they: represent a series of beginningless, endless and fixed truths.
Books on the life of Mahavira
There are various Jain texts describing the life of Mahavira. The most notable of them is the Kalpa Sūtra of Bhadrabahu. The first Sanskrit biography of Mahavira was Vardhamacharitra by Asaga in 853 CE.
Volume 22 of the Sacred Books of the East, Part One of the Hermann Jacobi translation of the Jaina Sutras, includes the Akaranga and Kalpa Sutras.
- The Akaranga Sutra outlines rules for Jain monks. Most notably it describes steps which monks must take to avoid harming other living beings, including the microscopic life forms which the ancient Jains believed pervaded the universe.
- The Kalpa sutra contains a biography of Mahavira, as well as other founders of the religion, and a list of the successive Jain leaders.
A number of the pictures on this page are from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which has the manuscripts themselves.
Page from a Kalpasutra
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