Vardhaman Mahavira



Mahavira (599 – 527 BC, though possibly 549 – 477 BC) is the name most commonly used to refer to the Indian sage Vardhamana (Sanskrit, “increasing”) who established what are today considered to be the central tenets of Jainism. According to Jain tradition, he was the 24th and the last Tirthankara. He is also known in texts as Vira or Viraprabhu, Sanmati, Ativira, and Gnatputra. In the Theravada Buddhist scriptures he is referred to as the Niggantha Nathaputta – ‘the naked ascetic of the Jñatr clan.’

Birth of Prince Vardhaman

In a place called Kundalpur belonging to the ancient kingdom of Vaishali (in modern day Bihar, India), Mahavira was born to King Siddartha and Queen Trishala on the 13th day under the rising moon of Chaitra {April 12 according to the Gregorian calendar). While still in his mother’s womb it is believed he brought wealth and prosperity to the entire kingdom, which is why he was also known as Vardhaman. An increase of all good things, like the abundant bloom of beautiful flowers, was noticed in the kingdom after his conception. Tradition states that after his birth, Indra bathed him in celestial milk with rituals befitting a future Tirthankar and he was returned to his mother, Trishala. Many Jains believe that Vardhaman was actually conceived by the Brahmin Devananda but was transferred to the womb of Trishala by Indra because all Tirthankars had to be born into the Kshatriya caste.

Queen Trishala had 14 auspicious dreams before giving birth to Vardhaman, signs foretelling the advent of a great soul. These symbols were

  1. Elephant
  2. Bull
  3. Lion
  4. Laxmi
  5. Garland of Flowers
  6. Full Moon
  7. Sun
  8. Large Flag
  9. Silver Urn
  10. Lotus Lake
  11. Milky Sea
  12. Celestial Airplan
  13. Gems
  14. Smokeless Fire

Vardhaman’s birthday is celebrated as Mahavir Jayanti, the most important religious holiday of Jains around the world. Mahavir Jayanti is celebrated with prayers, decorations, processions and festivity.

Early Years

As King Siddartha’s son, he lived as a prince. However, even at that tender age he exhibited a virtuous nature. He started engaging in meditation and immersed himself in self-contemplation. He was interested in the core beliefs of Jainism and started to get further away from worldly matters.

12 years of Spiritual Pursuit

At the age of thirty, Mahavira renounced his kingdom and family, gave up his worldly possessions, and spent twelve years as an ascetic. During these twelve years he spent most of his time meditating. He gave utmost regard to other living beings, including humans, animals and plants, and avoided harming them. He had given up all worldly possessions including his clothes, and lived an extremely austere life. He exhibited exemplary control over his senses while enduring the penance during these years. His courage and braveness gave him the name Mahavira. These were the golden years of his spiritual journey, at the end of which he achieved Keval Gyan. He was now a person of infinite harmony, knowledge and self-control.

Later years

Mahavira devoted the rest of his life to preaching the eternal truth of spiritual freedom to people around India. He traveled barefoot and without clothes, in the hardest of climates, and people from all walks of life came over to listen to his message. At one point, Mahavira had over 400,000 followers. Mahavira’s preaching and efforts in spreads of Jain philosophy is considered the real catalyst to the spread of this ancient religion throughout India and into the mainstream.

In 527 BCE at age 72, he left his body in the area known as Pawapuri on the last day of the Hindu and Jain calendars, Dipavali. Jains celebrate this as the day he attained liberation and enlightenment, Moksh.

Jains believe Mahavira lived from 599-527 BCE, though some scholars prefer 549-477 BCE.

Awakening and enlightenment

After renouncing his kingdom, he spent the next twelve and half years in deep silence and meditation and disciplined himself by conquering his desires, feelings, and attachments. He carefully avoided harming or disturbing other living beings, including animals, birds, and plants. He went without food for long periods. His enduring calm, peaceful demeanour against hardships and his dedicated search for what is real, led others to call him Mahavira (a Sanskrit word, meaning ‘great hero’). During this period, he attained keval-jnana, or perfect enlightenment, that is when spiritual powers are fully developed and perfect perception, knowledge, power, and bliss completely realized.

Mahavira spent the next thirty years travelling around India preaching about the eternal truth. His ultimate objective was to show how to attain total freedom from birth, life, pain, and death, and such temporary joy or misery, and achieve permanent bliss, recognize one’s self, or Moksha, Sanskrit for “liberation”.

Mahavira’s philosophy

As diction comprises eight parts of speech, Mahavira’s philosophy has eight principal cardinals – three metaphysical and five ethical. The objective is to elevate the quality of life. These independent principles reveal exceptional unity of purpose, and aim at achieving spiritual excellence by ethically sound behavior and metaphysical thought. Mahavira’s metaphysics consist of three principles – Anekantavada, Syadvada, and Karma; and his Panchavrats, five codes of conduct – Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. He talks of Tri-ratnas – three gems, which are the means and the goal.

Mahavira preached that from eternity, every living being (soul) is in bondage of karmic atoms accumulated by good or bad deeds. Under karma, the soul seeks temporary and illusory pleasure in materialistic possessions, which are the deep rooted causes of self-centered violent thoughts, deeds, anger, hatred, greed, and other vices. These result in further accumulation of karmas.

To liberate one’s self, Mahavira taught the necessity of right faith (samyak-darshana), right knowledge (samyak-jnana), and right conduct (samyak-charitra’). At the heart of right conduct for Jains lie the five great vows:

  • Nonviolence (Ahimsa) – not to cause harm to any living beings;
  • Truthfulness (Satya) – to speak the harmless truth only;
  • Non-stealing (Asteya) – not to take anything not properly given;
  • Chastity (Brahmacharya) – not to indulge in sensual pleasure;
  • Non-possession/Non-attachment (Aparigraha) – complete detachment from people, places, and material things.

As taught by Mahavir, Jains believe these vows cannot be fully implemented without accepting the philosophy of non-absolutism (Anekantvada) and the theory of relativity (Syadvada, also translated “qualified prediction”). Monks and nuns follow these vows strictly, while common people follow them as far as possible.

For spiritual advancement, Mahavira stated both men and women are equal and that both may renounce the world in search of moksh or ultimate happiness.

Mahavira attracted people from all walks of life, rich and poor, men and women, touchable and untouchable. He organized his followers into a fourfold order, namely monk (Sadhu), nun (Sadhvi), layman (Shravak), and laywoman (Shravika). This order is known as Chaturvidh Jain Sangh.

Lord Mahavira’s sermons were orally compiled by his immediate disciples in the Agam Sutras. These Agam Sutras were orally passed on to future generations. In the course of time, many Agam Sutras have been lost, destroyed, or modified. About one thousand years later the Agam Sutras were recorded on Tadpatris (leafy paper used in those days to preserve records for the future). Swetambar Jains accept these sutras as authentic teachings while Digambar Jains use them as a reference.

Jainism existed before Mahavir, and his teachings were based on those of his predecessors. Thus, Mahavira was a reformer and propagator of an existing religion rather than the founder of a new faith. He followed the well established creed of his predecessor Tirthankar Parshvanath. However, Mahavira did reorganize the philosophical tenets of Jainism to correspond to his times.

A few centuries after Mahavira’s death, the Jain religious order (Sangh) grew more and more complex. There were schisms on minor points, although they did not affect Mahavira’s original doctrines. Later generations saw the introduction of rituals and complexities that some criticize as placing Mahavira and other Tirthankars on the throne similar to those of Hindu deities.

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