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TRADITION OF TIRTHANKARA
As the Jinas possessed the supreme knowledge, they are called the Kevali-Jinas, i.e. the Jinas who attained the Kevala-jnana, that is, the infinite knowledge. These Kevali- Jinas are also of two kinds, viz., samanya-kevali and Tirthankara-kevali. While the samanya-kevalis are those Jinas who are mainly concerned with their own salvation, the Tirthankara-kevalis are the Jinas who after the attainment of Kevala-jnana, i.e. the infinite knowledge are not only concerned with their own salvation but are also concerned with showing the path of liberation to all. These Tirthankara-kevalis are generally known as Tirthankaras, because they are builders of the ford which leads human beings across the great ocean of existence. The term Tirthankara literally means: Tarati samsara- maharnavam yena nimittena tat Tirtham-Tirtham karoti iti Tirthankarah.
That is, the contrivance which helps us to cross the great ocean of worldly life is known as Tirtha and the person who makes the Tirtha is termed as a Tirthankara. Hence the Tirthankaras are the personages who delineate the path of final liberation or emancipation of all living beings from a succession of births and deaths.
As per Jaina tradition there were 24 such Tirthankaras, i.e. Great Guides, in the past age, there have been 24 in the present age, and there will be 24 in the future age. In this tradition the names of 24 Tirthankaras, i.e. Great Preachers, of the present age are:
Thus the tradition of Tirthankaras in the present age begins with Rsabha, the first Tirthankara, and ends with Mahavira, the twenty-fourth Tirthankara. Naturally, there is a continuous link among these twenty-four Tirthankaras who flourished in different periods of history in India. It, therefore, means that the religion first preached by Rsabha in the remote past was preached in succession by the remaining twenty-three Tirthankaras during their life-time for the benefit of living begins.
As seen above Mahavira is the twenty-fourth Tirthankara in this line of Tirthankaras. As Mahavira happens to be the last Tirthankara he is regarded by the common people as the founder of Jaina Religion. Obviously this is a misconception. Now the historians have come to accept the fact that Mahavira did not found Jaina religion but he preached the religion which was in existence from the remote past.