The conflict between himsa and ahimsa dates from the beginning of man's history, but it was, perhaps, never before so poignant as at present. There is also no doubt that it was the first awakening of the 'ahimsic' attitude in the soul of the uncivilized, barbarous, primitive man which marked his transformation from a veritable brute into a humane being. The moment he began to realize the truth and justice of the precepts 'live and let live and 'do unto others as you would have others do unto you' angered the dawn of human reason, culture and civilization. The endeavor to translate these wholesome precepts into practice gradually humanized the brute in man.
The brute could, however, not be completely annihilated; it still lurked and lived. The attraction of gross materialism; the desire to indulge in unrestrained sensual pleasures and the greed to acquire and possess more and more power and pelf tended to awaken the brute in man and goad it into fury. And, in the face of this inhuman fury, humanity has often found itself paralyzed. It was, therefore, left to the great teachers who, renouncing even the very idea of mundane pleasures, devoted themselves heart and soul to the eradication of inhuman tendencies from human society and helped it to regain itself. Again and again, in different fumes and lands, such masters have been born to help mankind.
Among these, the Jaina Tirthankaras of ancient India were the foremost in showing to suffering humanity the 'ahimsa' way of life and peaceful coexistence, not only by precept but by their own practice and conduct. Beginning with Lord Rishabhadeva, twenty-four such Tirthankaras gave in their respective fumes this message of peace and good-will to the world. The last in this series of great teachers was Vardhamana Mahavira (599-527 B.C.). He was a senior contemporary of the Buddha who always spoke with respect of the Nigantha-Nataputta (Mahavira). Both these masters were the last great exponents of the Shramana or Arhat current of ancient Indian culture, which had 'Ahimsa' for its fundamental creed.
Bhagwan Mahavira, the greatest apostle of ahimsa and one of the greatest benefactors of mankind, was born on the 14th day of the bright fortnight of the Indian month of 'Chaitra' 599 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, at Kundagram a suburb of Vaishali (in Bihar). His father, Siddhartha, was the republican head of the Jnatrika clan, and his mother, Trishala, was the daughter of the Lichchavi chief Chetaka, the head of the Vajjian confederacy of republics, with his chief city as Vaishali. Thus Vardhamana Mahavira was a scion of a highly respectable 'kshatriya' family, born and nurtured in a free republican atmosphere. From his very childhood, he revealed in various ways signs of true greatness. His extremely compassionate heart combined with a highly spiritual bent of mind made him live the life of a householder with but reluctance and indifference. In the midst of luxury he lived the detached life of a Yogi. At last, at the age of thirty he gave up all worldly possessions and left home to lead the life of a wanderer in search of truth. For twelve years he practiced severe austerities in order to purge his soul of all impurities and to make himself a perfect man. At the end of that period, thanks to this long process of self-purification, he became an Arhat or Jina. And, for the remaining thirty years of his life, like the foregoing twenty-three Tirthankaras, last of them being Parshvanath (877-777 B.C.), he journeyed on foot the length and breadth of the country and with untiring energy incessantly showed to the suffering humanity the Path of liberation both by example and precept. At the age of 72 in the last watch of the night of the 14th day of the dark fortnight of the Indian month of Kartika, in 527 B.C. he attained Nirvana at Pava.
Like the foregoing twenty-three Tirthankaras, Mahavira was a master propagator of the Jaina creed and is credited with the reorganization of the Jaina order. At the same time he was one of those great teachers of marking through whom the problem of the perfection of man came to be recognized as the highest achievement for progressive humanity. All the rules of religious life, which he enjoined, were intended to be practical aids in the attainment of the perfection of the self. He did not preach to others what he had not practiced himself. The path of his was patients, forbearance, self-denial, forgiveness, humanitarianism, compassion and consideration, in short, of sacrifice, love and kindness.
Mahavira, as his name indicates, was an embodiment of physical, moral and spiritual courage of the highest order, and the supreme lesson of ahimsa rings out from every chapter and verse of his life. He believed in non-violence not merely in bodily action but also in word and thought. He and after him, the Jaina saints who followed in his footsteps never tired of reawakening humanity to its duty towards itself as well as other living beings. Ahimsa, the first principle of higher life, is to be the rule of all conduct. Life is sacred in whatever form it may be found to exist. 'Jainist' culture stands for universal well-being and for universal brotherhood. Its aim is spiritual uplift and ultimate perfection of the soul; hence it enjoins on its followers the greatest self-control. It deprecates the action of those who for their selfish end, pleasure, wanton willfulness, or even by careless or rash conduct, hurt other's feelings or deprive them of their life-forces. To treat others as one's own self is Mahavira's principal teaching. Once this truth is realized all other questions are easily solved. The end can not always justify the means. Good cannot come out of evil. Violence cannot pave the way for peace and happiness.
According to Mahavira faith, every living being is endowed with a soul. All souls are alike and possess inherent goodness in them. Every one of them can attain the highest spiritual perfection, although it is dependent on the conditions of its bodily existence and on the environments it finds itself placed in; still in however limited a degree or however slowly, it can always aspire to and achieve the supreme spiritual evolution. If men come to realize this noble community of interest among all riving beings they are sure to lover one another and also sub-human life.
The path to this spiritual evolution, as practiced and propagated by lord Mahavira, consists in a harmonious combination of right faith, right knowledge and right conduct. The last chiefly consists in 'ahimsa' or non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, celibacy and non-covetousness or possession. Without the other four, ahimsa is meaningless. Everyone is at liberty to follow this noble path according to his or her capacity and circumstances. An aversion to covetousness, in other words, an ever-present wakefulness to keep down one's requirements and possessions, is a primary condition of the 'ahimsic' of life.
Thus gave Lord Mahavira to the suffering world his noble message of salvation, physical, moral and spiritual, about two thousand and five hundred years ago, and it is still true and practicable.
Mahavira had become poignantly aware of the fact that those in power always try to rob the weak of their happiness as well as of their means to become happy, and that this tendency to exploit is the outcome of a love of one's supposed notions of happiness resulting from bodily enjoyments. Everybody considers his own pleasures and convenience so important that he attaches no value to the happiness and convenience of others. He ever tries to believe and prove that in the struggle for existence it is only the fittest who survives, in other words, the weak should justify their existence by sacrificing their all in order to make the powerful the more so. According to this way of thinking, the weak has no right to live and the strong must necessarily feed upon him. These false and narrow notions of happiness create a gulf between man and man and between different classes of men. They give rise to class antagonism leading to violence and counter-violence and vitiate the whole atmosphere, which no longer remains congenial to liberty, equality, fraternity, peace and happiness.
This terrible aspect of 'Himsa' led Mahavira to perceive in Ahimsa the root of all piety, religiosity, duty and universal peace. He clearly saw that it is only through a perfectly 'Ahimsic' way of living that lasting peace in the world can be achieved. And in order to be able to follow the path of Ahimsa it was found necessary that one should exercise a perfect and rational control over his senses, curb his desires and do unto others what he would have others do unto him.
The most characteristic features of Mahavira's teachings are, therefore, firstly, that every human being irrespective of color, caste or sex is fully entitled to follow the path of liberation. Birth is no criterion for nobility but it is one's virtues by which he should be judged great or noble and only by those qualities, which tend to make life nobler or purer. To this end he initiated into his order persons from all castes and classes and from both the sexes and delivered his sermon in the common dialect of the masses.
Secondly, he laid the greatest emphasis on Ahimsa, which implied that one must abstain from injuring others by thought, word or deed and follow the golden rule of 'live and help others to live.'
Thirdly, one should try to be catholic in outlook and try to judge a thing from all possible view-points. One should always try to understand and appreciate the other man's point of view. Such a highly tolerant attitude can alone end all differences which otherwise might lead to terrible bloodshed.
Fourthly, a person reaps what he has sown. Everybody is fully responsible for his own actions and it is he who will enjoy the fruits of his good actions and suffer for his bad actions. He is the maker of his own destiny.
An intrinsic belief in the equality of men and a catholicity of outlook are the two great needs of modern world. Only by actively striving to live in a spirit of true co-existence resting on correct behavior and non-violence, can we perpetuate the memory of benefactors of mankind like Mahavira and bring peace and happiness to the suffering and erring humanity.