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LORD MAHAVIRA

 

LORD MAHAVIRA

 

PUBLISHER�S NOTE

 

THE RELEVANCE OF THE TEACHING OF LORD MAHAVIRA IN THE PRESENT WORLD (INTRODUCTION)

  CONTENTS
 

THE AGE OF MAHAVIRA

  EARLY LIFE OF MAHAVIRA
  ASCETIC LIFE OF MAHAVIRA
  ENLIGHTENMENT
  JAINA ATHEISM
  PROPAGATION OF THE DOCTRINE
  RIVAL SECTS
  CONCLUSION
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THE AGE OF MAHAVIRA


 

 

Character of the Age:

 

6th century B.C., the age in which Mahavira was born, was a period of great intellectual stir practically all over the world. Greece, Persia and China as well as India- all centers of important civilizations- experienced ferment in the realm of thought. The advent of Socrates and his distinguished pupils and contemporaries in Greece, of Zoroaster in Persia, and of Lao Tse and Confucius in China marked a revolution in the thought of those countries in just the same way as the coming of Mahavira and the Buddha meant the advent of philosophical rationalism in our own country.

 

In Indian society this age was in many ways a period of transition and uncertainty. The state of society which is revealed in the religious literature of the Jainas and the Buddhists is quite different from that which is depicted in the Epics of the later Vedic literature and is, of course, fundamentally different from that depicted in the Vedas. From the simple and on the whole republican social organization of the Vedic times the country and been passing through a process of gradual statification until by the time of the birth of Mahavira caste distinctions and priestly oligarchy had become a source of enormous social irritation and a means of popular exploitation. The simple religion of nature worship implied in the hymns of the Rigveda had similarly been developing into a curious combination of theoretical monotheism and practical worship of a multiplicity of gods and divine satellites with an admixture of elaborate rituals and superstition. This development was disturbing to the equanimity of the thinking part of the population, and already there had grown up a school of mediators who discarded the rituals and pantheistic worship under priestly auspices and retired to forests for meditation and contemplation of the truth, thus giving rise to a form of philosophical pantheism. In economic life agriculture was still the main occupation of the people and the village (gram) the unit of administration and the center of all activities, but the period was marked by a transition to cottage industrialism and a remarkable growth of trade and commerce. Politically, a new type of republican and tribal kingdom was arising, which was rapidly assuming a monarchical form of government and imperialistic designs in the sense of territorial conquests. The whole life of the community was in short undergoing fundamental transformation. The geographical outlook of Indo-Aryans, limited for a long time to the Gangetic valley, had extended to the eastern and southern regions. The art of writing had got diffused among men and women, and because of the development of commercial contacts with foreign lands the mental horizon of the people had greatly broadened. These changes had their impact on the social, religious, economic and political conditions of the country, and this needs to be examined in some detail.

 

Social Conditions:

 

Society in 6th century B.C. had definitely come to be organized on the basis of caste. Historians are not always agreed on the origin of the caste system in India. When the Aryans came to India, it seems quite certain that they were a homogenous mass of people and were not divided into distinct castes or even classes. The formation of classes did not occur until after their settlement over extensive territories in the Gangetic plains, and it took place in the age of the later samhitas, but not in the form of a rigid caste system at first. There are passages in Sruti literature which indicate quite clearly that the knowledge of Vedic texts and ceremonies rather than the fact of birth in a Brahmana family, qualified a person to be a Brahmana. The development of caste rigidly can be traced through the period of latter samhitas, the Vajasaneya Samhita for instance prefers a Brahmana for priestly duties descended from three generations of Rsis. Such rules are evidence of a deliberate attempt to make caste system more and more static. But as yet those essential features, the prohibition of inter dining and inter-marriage, which are the special characteristics of caste system today, had not developed in their fulness, nor had the Brahmana yet attained and unquestioned position of supremacy, the Ksatriya being able to contest it with him at every step. In establishing the supremacy of the Brahmanas the most important part was played by the sacrifice (yagya), the ritual.

 

The early Vedic age was one of creative impulses. It was marked by �a charming appreciation of all that is good and sublime in nature, leading to outburst of individual enthusiasm in inspiring stanza addressed to various divinities.� The theology of the later Vedic literature did not much differ from the theology of the hymns, but the religious spirit had undergone a change. The creative age had changed into an age of criticism, and inspiration naturally yielded place to formalism. Of this formalism the priestly class now devoted its whole attention to find out the hidden and mystic meaning of the rites and ceremonies. The ceremonies were multiplied until they comprehended both domestic and other great sacrifices. The domestic ceremonies embraced the whole course of a man�s life, right from the conception in the mother�s womb up to death, or rather beyond it, for several ceremonies refer to the departed souls. The well known forty samskaras or sacraments, although finally drawn up at a later period, reflected the conditions of the age before the birth of Mahavira. These sacraments included twenty-six Grhya-rituals (1) Garbhadhan, the rite to cause conception: (2) Punsvan, the rite to secure the birth of a male child; (3) Simnthotryan, the parting of the pregnant wife�s hair by the husband; (4) Jatkarm, the rite for the new-born child; (5) Namkaranr, the ceremony of naming the child; (6) Atrprashan, the first feeding of the child with solid food; (7) Choodakarm, the tonsure of the child�s head; (8) Upnyan, initiation ceremony; (9) to (12) the four vows undertaken for studying the different Vedas; (13) Smavartan, the completion of studentship; (14) Sehdharmcharinreesanyog, marriage; (15) to (19) five great daily sacrifices to the Gods, manes, men, goblins and Brahmana; (20) to (26) the seven Pakyagya small sacrifices-which had to be performed mostly by the householder himself, and fourteen major rituals-the seven kinds of Haviryagya and seven kinds of somyagya in which three sacred fires were kindled, to which offerings of cake, grain, milk, honey, etc., were made. In the Samayajnas even animals were killed. To this list could be added numerous other sacrifices, like the vratya-stoma, the Rajasuya, the Asvamedha, and the Purusamedha. Some of these sacrifices were informed by a new spirit of symbolism and spirituality, evident for instance in the building of the altar, and lasted from twelve days to a year or years.

 

The elaboration of these rituals led to the growth of Brahmanism, or the hierarchy of Brahmanas; and with Brhmanism came the rigidity of the caste system. Under rigid caste system, in which a man�s caste was determined by the fact of birth, the Brahmanas became parasites living on the resources of the industrial classes without doing anything worthwhile to compensate the other classes. The Ksatriya class which had always been active evolving philosophical system and which had stood for experience as against the Brahmanic emphasis on intellect, felt the inequity and injustice of this position and revolted against it. Mahavira and the Buddha freely denounced the arbitrary distinctions of caste and proclaimed the equality of all human beings, and in doing so they were giving an effective expression to the innermost feeling of the masses.

 

With the growing rigidity of the caste system, the position of women had also deteriorated. During even the later Vedic age there were exceptional cases of women attaining a high position in society and in the learned world. The stories of Gargi and Maritreyi mentioned in Brihdaranryak Upanisad are remarkable examples of this. But by the 6th century B.C. the position had become deteriorated. With the increase in royal power, Indo Aryan chiefs had become polygamous. Women were denied the right of inheriting property, and a father had the right to divide his property among his sons according to his will. On the death of her husband, a widow passed on to his family like his property. The prevailing attitude towards women is apparent in the initial reluctance of the Buddha to admit them into his religious order. A little later, Megtasthenes also said that �the Brahmans do not communicate a knowledge of philosophy to their wives.� But Mahavira and the Buddha took a highly rational attitude in this matter; both permitted the inclusion of women into their sanghas, and this step marked a revolutionary improvement of their status in society.

 

Religion and Philosophy

 

In the domain of religion and philosophy, 7th and 6th centuries B.C. were a period of great confusion and doubt. The period was marked by growing orthodoxy on one side and extensive revolt against it on the other. The Buddhist literature mentions as many as sixty-three different philosophical schools, all presumably non-Brahmana, existing at the time of the Buddha; Jaina literature, which is more analytical in its approach, mentions an even larger number of such heretical doctrines.

 

The religion of the early Aryans had been simple nature-worship. Its simplicity stands in striking contrast to the later elaboration of the religious side of life by the priests. The objects of worship were the great phenomena of nature, conceived as alive and usually represented in anthropomorphic shape like dyo: (the Heaven), Prithvee (the Earth), Surya (the Sun), Usha (the dawn), Agnee (the Fire) and Som (the well-known sacrificial drought). In the late tenth book of the Rgveda, beginning of philosophy made its appearance; the multiplicity of Gods was questioned and the unity of the universe asserted. As the center of culture shifted from the west to east, new gods- originally perhaps of the aborigine-like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, came to be included in the Hindu pantheon, the original Vedic gods were thrust into the background, and as a result a change occurred in the spirit of religion and in the spirit of worship. The borrowed gods belonged to a system which was nurtured under a different conception of godhead from that underlying the Aryans nature-gods; they had to be dreaded and appeased by the performance of sacrifices and not approached in confidence, but once propitiated they were supposed to help their worshippers against their enemies, open or hidden. Their gods were terrific, and so the propitiatory ritual became weird and mystic. Originally the post-priest of the Rgveda was content to invite the gods, in the fullness of his heart, to partake of his offerings; now the priest becomes more anxious to secure a monopoly of the God to himself and to his patrons and to avert him and his grace from his rival worshippers. So the technique of sacrifice became enormously elaborated and obscured, religion became formalized and completely divorced from ethics.