2.1 LIFE SKETCH OF BHAGWAN
Jain tradition speaks of twenty-four Tirthankars
(ford-makers across the stream of existence), each of whom preached the
doctrine to his own age. Of these, the first was Bhagwan
Rishabhadev who preached the religion of nonviolence
(ahimsa dharma) prior to the advent of the Aryans in India. The last of
these was Bhagwan Mahavir, who lived from 599 B.C. to 527 B.C. He revealed
the doctrine of nonviolence as preached by Bhagwan Rishabhadev. Gosala
Makkhaliputta, the head of the Ajivika sect, and Gautama Buddha, the
founder of Buddhism, were
The parents of Mahavir belonged to the lay following of
Bhagwan Parshvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar, who was the son of King
Ashvasen and Queen Vama of Varanasi. Parshvanath lived as a householder
for thirty years, then became an ascetic, and after performing penance for
eighty-four days, attained
enlightenment (omniscience). He lived for a full hundred
years and attained nirvana on Mount Sammedashikhar, some 250 years before
Mahavir was born on the thirteenth day of the bright
fortnight of Chaitra, the first month of the Indian calendar,
corresponding to March 30, 599 B.C., in a suburb of
Vaishali called Kundgram, now known as Basukund. His parents were
Siddhartha, a wealthy nobleman, and Trishala, a sister
Chetak, an eminent Lichchhavi prince of Vaishali.
Mahavir's original name was Vardhamana. His more popular name Mahavir was
bestowed on him later. He is frequently referred to as "the venerable
Mahavir became a monk at the age of thirty. He practiced
severe asceticism (tapaschariya) throughout his life, abandoning his
clothing and wandering as a sky-clad (Digambar) monk. His ways of
meditation, days of austerities, and mode of behavior
furnish a beautiful example for monks in religious life.
His spiritual pursuit lasted for twelve years. During the period of
penance, Mahavir met several monks to enrich his spiritual experience.
In 557 B.C., after twelve years of austerities and
meditation, on the tenth day of the bright half of Vaishakha, the second
month of the Indian calendar, Mahavir attained omniscience (absolute
knowledge). Henceforth, he began his career as a path-maker and a
For the next thirty years, Mahavir, the wandering
ascetic, preached the doctrine of eternal truth. He wandered for
eight months of the year and spent four months of the
rainy season (Chaturmas) in some large town such as Champa, Vaishali,
Rajagriha, Mithila and Shravasti. He attracted people from all walks of
life, rich and poor, kings and commoners, men and women, princes and
priests, touchables and untouchables. Many famous contemporary kings and
nobles thronged to listen to his spiritual discourses and became his
On the fifteenth day of the dark half of Kartik, the
eighth month of the Indian calendar, in 527 B.C., at the age of
seventy-two, Tirthankar Mahavir attained Nirvana at a
place called Majjhima Pava, the present Pavapuri in the Patna district of
the Indian state of Bihar. On the night of his salvation, the kings and
heads of the two clans, the Mallas and the
Lichchhavis, assembled and celebrated the Festival of
Lights (Deepavali) in his honor.
2.2 SOME SIGNIFICANT POINTS
From what has been stated above, certain significant
points emerge about the life and teachings of Bhagwan Mahavir.
(1) Jainism existed before Mahavir and his teachings
were based on those of his predecessors. Thus, unlike Buddha, Mahavir was
more of a reformer and propagator of an existing religious order than the
founder of a new faith. He followed the well-
established creed of his predecessor Tirthankar
Parshvanath. However, Mahavir did reorganize the philosophical tenets of
Jainism to correspond to his times.
(2) Mahavir was a brilliant personality. He occupies a
unique place among the greatest men of the world, He was an oasis in the
arid desert of confusion about the ultimate goal of human life. He was a
philosopher as well as a Tirthankar. As a philosopher, he made his
enquiries in order to solve the problem of life. As a Tirthankar, he gave
a new revelation to the Dharma preached by his predecessors. Mahavir
adopted two steps to unravel reality:
One, he reconciled his realization of the inner
world with the realm of reason.
Two, he made enquiries into the nature of life and of
existence through his own personal observations,
knowledge and experience.
(3) Mahavir was undoubtedly a product of the best of
Aryan culture. Besides the inherited philosophy of his predecessors, he
was also inspired by other Indian schools of thought. The contemporary
ideals of freedom from worldly misery and the thought of transmigration
profoundly affected his thinking. This led him to the goal of integrated
personality through the conquest of human weaknesses. The kindred forces
which were united against the Brahminical religious traditions, gave birth
to the theory of renunciation and self-realization (Nivritti Marg).
Mahavir was at the forefront of this ferment at the intellectual,
spiritual and social levels. Further, he
visualized relativism (Syadvada) which means that
isolated and opposite objects are bound in one harmonious stream. Thus,
scrupulous exhaustiveness became the main characteristic of his approach.
The spiritual power and moral grandeur of Mahavir's
teachings impressed the masses. He made religion simple and natural, free
from elaborate ritual complexities. His teachings reflected the popular
impulse towards internal beauty and harmony. Mahavir made Jainism the
focal point for the students of other schools of thoughts as well.
(4) Mahavir emphasized the need of a comprehensive
outlook - the multiplicity of viewpoints (Anekantavada). For him,
there was no question of exaltation or domination of
anyone's spiritual or ideological contribution. In his view, a
dissenting opinion was a natural human tendency. The
wisdom, however, lies in harmonizing the dissensions.
(5) Mahavir was quite successful in eradicating from
human intellect the conception of God as creator or protector. He also
denounced the worship of God (and of gods and goddesses) as a means of
salvation. He taught the idea of supremacy of human life and stressed the
importance of the positive. His message of nonviolence (ahimsa), truth (satya),
non-stealing (achaurya), celibacy (brahmacharya) and non-possessiveness (aparigraha)
is full of universal compassion. He said that a living body is not merely
an integration of limbs but it is the abode of soul which potentially has
infinite perception (anant darshan), infinite knowledge (anant jnana),
infinite power (anant virya) and infinite bliss (anant sukha). Mahavir's
message reflects freedom and spiritual joy of soul.
(6) In matters of spiritual enfranchisement, as
envisioned by Mahavir, both men and women were on an equal footing. The
lure of renunciation and liberation attracted women as well. Many women
followed Mahavir's path and renounced the world in search of spiritual
(7) Like Buddhism, Jainism also received royal
patronage. The king of Magadh, Shrenik, and Mahavir's maternal uncle,
Chetak, among others, were devoted to Mahavir. However, the acceptance of
Mahavir's teachings by the masses was the most important factor.
In short, Mahavir contributed to the process of unifying
India and developing its collective conscience by integrating Aryan and
pre-Aryan elements into a composite culture and
In a few centuries after Mahavir's nirvana, Jain
religious order (Sangha) grew more and more complex. There were schisms on
some minor points although they did not affect the original doctrines as
preached by the Tirthankar. Later generations saw the introduction of
ritualistic complexities which almost placed Mahavir and other Tirthankars
on the throne of deities.
Mahavir's indifference to the worship of God was
overshadowed by the role normally assigned to God in other religions.