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Detail of a statue of Mahavira at Shri Mahavirji, Rajasthan.

Mahavira: Abandoning Luxury to Revive Jainism

“A living body is not merely an integration of limbs and flesh but it is the abode of the soul which potentially has perfect perception (Anant-darshana), perfect knowledge (Anant-jnana), perfect power (Anant-virya), and perfect bliss (Anant-sukha).”
-Mahavira as quoted in ‘Jainism and Indian Civilization’ (2004) by Raj Pruthi.

Mahavira (which means ‘Great Hero’) was an ancient Indian religious leader, the founder of Jainism (though Jains claim that their religion is eternal, and that Mahavira was a reformer of Jainism), and the 24th Tirthankara (which means ‘Crosser of the Stream of Samsara’). Mahavira is believed to have lived during the 6th century BC, and therefore was likely to have been a contemporary of the historical Buddha. Like the founder of Buddhism, Mahavira was also born into the Kshatriya class, and grew up as a prince. Later on, however, he renounced the world, and became an ascetic.

After attaining kevala, which is the stage of omniscience or highest perception (known alternatively as enlightenment), Mahavira became a teacher so as to guide others to kevala. Mahavira is also believed to have attained moksha, which is the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, after his physical death at the age of 72.

Painting of Mahavira (small painting, Rajasthan Dated 1900) from personal collection of Photos of Jules Jain. (Public Domain)

Painting of Mahavira (small painting, Rajasthan Dated 1900) from personal collection of Photos of Jules Jain. ( Public Domain )

The Early Life of Lord Mahavira

According to tradition, Mahavira was born around 599 BC into a royal family in the modern northeastern Indian state of Bihar. Mahavira was originally called Vardhamana (which means ‘increasing’ or ‘growing’), which is said to have been a reference to the growth of the wealth in his kingdom following his conception.

Mahavira’s father was Siddhartha, the ruler of a clan (either the Nata or the Jnatri), whilst his mother was either a Brahmin by the name of Devananda, or a Kshatriya by the name of Trishala / Videhadinna / Priyakarini, depending on the Jain tradition one consults. According to Jain belief, after Mahavira was born, he was taken by Indra, the king of the gods in Hinduism, to be bathed in heavenly milk, and the rituals befitting a future Tirthankara were performed for him.

Harinaigameshin Brings the Embryo of Jina Mahavira to Queen Trishala, Folio from a Kalpasutra (Book of Sacred Precepts). (Public Domain)

Harinaigameshin Brings the Embryo of Jina Mahavira to Queen Trishala, Folio from a Kalpasutra (Book of Sacred Precepts). ( Public Domain )

As he was the son of a clan leader, Mahavira grew up in luxury. This changed, however, when he reached the age of 30, as he renounced this way of life. According to one Jain tradition, Mahavira was a bachelor all his life. According to another, he was married and had a daughter, though he renounced family life as well when he became an ascetic.

Life as an Ascetic

For the next 12 and a half years, Mahavira meditated, fasted, and subjected his body to the natural elements, including animals and insects. He also took care to avoid sinful actions, especially harming or annoying other living beings. Mahavira’s actions were aimed at conquering his desires, feelings, and attachments.

24th Tirthankara Mahavira Bhagwan Vardhamana Nigantha Jainism. (Ms Sarah Welch/CC BY SA 4.0)

24th Tirthankara Mahavira Bhagwan Vardhamana Nigantha Jainism. (Ms Sarah Welch/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Mahavira succeeded in his endeavors, and finally achieved kevala. Mahavira did not stop there, however, and began to teach others so that they too may achieve enlightenment for themselves. Tradition states that the teachings of Mahavira are based on those taught by Parshvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara. Jains believe that Mahavira was not the founder of their religion, but rather was responsible for systematizing Jain doctrine, as well as its mythological, cosmological, and metaphysical belief system.

Mahavira’s Teachings

In addition, Mahavira established the rules of religious life for Jain monks, nuns, and the laity. Jain tradition asserts that a community of 14,000 monks and 36,000 nuns was established by Mahavira before his death. Nevertheless, he also stressed that each individual is responsible for his / her own salvation.

Mahavira adoration in a manuscript, c. 1825 AD. (Public Domain)

Mahavira adoration in a manuscript, c. 1825 AD. ( Public Domain )

At the heart of Mahavira’s teachings are the five vows ( mahavratas) – non-violence ( ahimsa), truthfulness ( satya), non-stealing ( asetya), chastity ( brahmacharya), and non-possession / non-attachment ( aparigraha).

Jain emblem with "Five Vows"- (जैन/CC BY 3.0)

Jain emblem with "Five Vows"- ( जैन/CC BY 3.0 )

Ahimsa was one of Mahavira’s teachings that had a lasting impact on the philosophy of India. Whilst Jain monks and nuns are obliged to follow these vows strictly, the laity are encouraged to follow them as best as they are able to. These vows were meant to aid Mahavira’s followers on their path to enlightenment. Mahavira is believed to have died in 527 BC in Pava, Bihar, at the age of 72. He is also believed to have attained moksha, and therefore was freed from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

Mahavira's Nirvana or Moksha. Note the crescent shaped Siddhashila (a place where all siddhas reside after Nirvana). (Public Domain)

Mahavira's Nirvana or Moksha. Note the crescent shaped Siddhashila (a place where all siddhas reside after Nirvana). ( Public Domain )

Top Image: Detail of a statue of Mahavira at Shri Mahavirji, Rajasthan. Source: Dayodaya/ CC BY SA 3.0

By Wu Mingren

References

Beliefnet, Inc., 2018. Who Was Mahavira and What is a Tirthankara?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/projectconversion/2011/11/who-was-mahavira-and-what-is-a-tirthankara.html

Carroll, B. J., 2015. Who is Mahavira?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.world-religions-professor.com/mahavira.html

New World Encyclopedia, 2008. Mahavira. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mahavira

Shah, P. K., 2018. Lord Mahavir and Jain Religion. [Online]
Available at: https://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/mahavira.html

Shah, U. P., 2018. Mahavira. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mahavira-Jaina-teacher

The BBC, 2009. Mahavira. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/jainism/history/mahavira.shtml

Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016. Jainism: The story of Mahavira. [Online]
Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/j/jainism-the-story-of-mahavira/

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