Life of Vardhamana Mahavira
Vardhamana Mahavira, the
twenty-fourth and last Tirthankaras of the Jains is the most important
figure in the history of Jainism. It was he who consolidated the Jain
Church and laid such a firm foundation for it that it has existed almost
unchanged for more than twenty-five centuries. As already mentioned, his
name, Nigantha Nataputta, occurs in the early Buddhist records. Since
these sources are independent, they establish the historicity of Mahavira.
The Buddhist records do not give any details about the life of Mahavira,
except to state that he was a leader of the Nigantha sect. The Buddhist
also record the time of his death.
The Jain sources also do not give any particulars about his life as a
teacher. The events before his birth, such as the dreams his mother had
when he was conceived are described in great detail, but few details are
given about him after he was born. At the age of thirty Mahavira became an
ascetic, and wandered about for twelve years. But of Mahavira's life as a
teacher for nearly thirty years until his death at the age of 72, the
sources are reticent.
The life of Mahavira as we can gather from the Svetambaras sources is as
Mahavira was Kshatriya of the Jnatri clan and a native of the (Kshatriya)
Kundagram, a suburb of the town of Vaishali (near Patna). He was the
second son of Siddhartha and Trishala, a highly connected lady. In fact
Trishala was the sister1 of king Chetaka of Vaishali whose daughter
Chellana was married to Shranik Bimbisara king of Magadh. Mahavira's
family tree can be drawn up as follows.2
Suparshva----Siddhartha Trishala or----Cetaka Subhadra
Videhadatta king of Vaishali
King of Magadha
Kunika or Ajatashatru
Founder of Pataliputra
VARDHAMAN married to YASHODA
Anojia or Priyadarshana married to Jamali
The Svetambaras say that the soul of this Tirthankara had first descended
into the womb of the Brahman Devananda. There after his fetus had been, by
the order of Shakra (Indra) removed thence to the womb of Trishala who
actually gave birth to Mahavira. One may rightly ask how people came to
know of this incident of the transfer of the fetus. According to the
Svetambaras it was Mahavira himself who revealed this to his disciples
when Devananda once came to see him. This is how it is described in the
(The Brahman Rishabhadatta and his wife Devananda went on pilgrimage to
Mahavira). Then milk began to flow from the breast of Brahman woman
Devananda, her eyes filled with tears, her arms swelled inside her
bangles, her jacket stretched, the hairs of her body stood erect, as when
a Kadamba unfolds itself in response to a shower of rain; thus she gazed
at the holy monk Mahavira without averting her eyes. "Why master, " said
the venerable Gautam to the holy monk Mahavira, "does the Brahman woman
gaze... (Thus).... without averting her eyes?" "Hear, Gautama" Said
Mahavira, "The Brahman Woman Devananda is my mother, I am the son of the
Brahman woman Devananda. That is why the Brahman woman Devananda gazes at
me with tender love, the cause of which is that I first originated in
All the five important events in the life of Mahavira, his conception,
birth, renunciation of home life, attainment of supreme knowledge, and
death occurred when the moon was in conjunction with the asterism
Uttaraphalguni. His parents who were pious Jains (i.e. worshippers of
Parshva4) gave him the name Vardhamana. (Vira or Mahavira is an epithet
used as a name). He married Yashoda and by her had a daughter Anojja (also
known as Priyadarshana). His parents died when he was 30 years old; and
his elder brother Nandivardhana succeeded of his father in whatever
position he had held. With the permission of his brother and other
authorities, he carried out along cherished resolve and became monk with
the usual Jain rites. Then followed 12 years of self-mortification.
Mahavira wandered about as a mendicant friar bearing all kinds of
hardships; after the first 13 months he even discarded clothes. At the end
of this period dedicated to meditation and travels, he reached the state
of omniscience (kevala) corresponding to the bodhi of the Buddhists.
We have some details of Mahavira's itinerary during the twelve years that
he roamed about in eastern India before he reached the state of
omniscience. Mahavira's life during these twelve years was spent in great
difficulties. Sometimes he was taken for a thief by the villagers.
Sometimes he and Goshala, his companion for six or seven years were
suspected to be spies. The details of his journeys during these twelve
years are given in Jinadasa's churni to the Avashayaka Sutra. This churni
according to Schubring cannot be dated earlier than the 7th century AD,
but it is generally taken to be more or less reliable.
Within a few days of Mahavira's renunciation of the world, he went to a
village called Kummara. He stood there in meditation for sometime. One
cow- herder took him to be a thief and wanted to hit him, and Mahavira had
to leave the village. Mahavira spent the first rainy season of his ascetic
life in Atthiyagama.
During the second year, while Mahavira was crossing the river Suvannakula,
his garment was caught in the thorns on the bank of the river. From this
time onwards he remained naked. Mahavira passed his second rainy season in
a weaver's shed in Nalanda near Rajagriha. Here Makkhali Goshala met him
and became his companion. The two of them left for Kollaga. The third
rainy season was passed by Mahavira and Goshala in Champa.
While Mahavira and Goshala were traveling through Coraga Sannivesa they
were suspected to be hostile spies, and thrown into well. They were
however recognized by two female followers of Parshva and were released.
They passed the fourth rainy season in Pitthichampa.
The next year of their ascetic lives was very difficult for Goshala and
Mahavira. Goshala was apt to mock at people and therefore, was beaten up
by them many times. They also traveled to Ladha (south-west Bengal) in
this year and were ill-treated by the people. They spent the fifth rainy
season in Bhaddiya.
In their travels in this year the two were again taken as spies at a place
called Kuviya Sannivesa. They were later released by the intervention of
two sisters called Viyaya and Pragalbha. At this time Goshala refused to
move in the company of Mahavira, saying that since he was made to bear
insults every now and then he would prefer to travel alone. They parted
company for the time being, but after about six months, when Mahavira was
in Salsisygama, Goshala joined him again. They passed the sixth rainy
season in Bhaddiya.
They passed their seventh rainy season in Alabhiya. In the next year
Goshala was again beaten-up by the people for his mocking behavior. At one
time while the two were in Lohaggala, a place described as the capital of
king Jiyasattu, the royal servants took them to be enemy spies and tied
them up. Later they were set free by Uppala who is said to have arrived
there from Atthiyagama. The eighth rainy season was passed by Mahavira and
Goshala in Rayagiha (Rahagriha).
From Rahagriha, Mahavira and Goshala proceeded to Ladha and traveled in
Vajjabhumi and Subbhabhumi where Mahavira had to undergo all sorts of
torture. These have been described in detail in the Acharonga Sutra. An
extract is as follows:
"He traveled in the pathless country of the Ladhas in Vijjabhumi and
Subbhabhumi; he used there, miserable beds and miserable seats. In Ladha
(happened) to him many dangers. Many natives attacked him. Even in the
faithful part of the rough country the dogs bit him, ran at him. Few
people kept off the attacking, biting dogs. Striking the monk, they cried
"Chhuchchhu" and made the dogs bite him. Such were the inhabitants. Many
other mendicants, eating rough food in Vijjabhumi, and carrying about a
strong pole or a stalk(to keep off the dogs), lived there. Even thus armed
they were bitten by the dogs, torn by the dogs. It is difficult to travel
They passed the ninth rainy season in this country.
In the tenth year while the two were in Siddhatthapura, Goshala finally
severed all connections with Mahavira, and went to Savatthi. Mahavira then
traveled alone for the rest of the year and passed his tenth rainy season
The exact reason why Mahavira and Goshala parted company is not clear.
Perhaps the reason was that Goshala did not care much for chastity and
this Mahavira did not like. We have in the Sutrakritanga a statement which
Goshala, made to Ardraka, a disciple of Mahavira. "As your Law makes it no
sin for Mahavira to surround himself by a crowd of disciples, so according
to our Law an ascetic, who lives alone and single, commits no sin if he
uses cold water, eats seeds, accepts things prepared for him, and has
intercourse with women."
Goshala spent the last days of his life in Shravasti in the house of a
potter woman called Halahala.
It was perhaps after seeing this sort of behavior that Mahavira thought it
prudent to make the vow of Brahmacharya as one of the necessary conditions
of monk-hood, and added it to the list of the four vows of Parshva.
The eleventh year of Mahavira was one of his most difficult years. At
Tosali he was taken for a robber and hit hard. Then he went to Mosali
where he was arrested as a robber but was released by king's court. When
he went back to Tosali the people tried to hang him but he was rescued by
a Tosali Kshatriya. The whole of the year was a period of torture and
humiliation. He passed his eleventh rainy season in Vesali.
The nest year was of comparative peace. Mahavira passed his twelfth rainy
season in Champa.
From Champa Mahavira reached Jambhiyagama, and then journeyed to
Mendhiyagama. Then he proceeded to Chammanigama where a cowherd is said to
have thrust iron nails into his ears. Mahavira arrived at Majjhima Pava in
this condition where the nails were removed from his ears. From here he
traveled towards Jambhiyagama, where on the northern bank of the river
Ujjuvaliya, in the farm of the householder Samaga, under a Shala tree, in
the north-east of Veyavatta shrine, after a period of 12 years 6 months
and 15 days, Mahavira attained omniscience (kevala) on the bright tenth
day of Vaishakha.
After Mahavira attained Kevala, a Samavarsana (religious conference) was
held on the bank of the river Ujjuvaliya, but it is said that the first
preaching of Mahavira remained unsuccessful. Then after traversing twelve
Yojanas, Mahavira is said to have returned to Majjhima Pava where the
second Samavarsana was convened in the garden of Mahasena. Here, after a
long discussion on various religious and philosophic points, Mahavira
ordained eleven learned Brahmans.7