Born and brought up in a Society informed with democratic ethos and in an age of great intellectual stir, social dissatisfaction, philosophical doubt and religious confusion, and deeply influenced by the ethical tradition of Parsva, Mahavira chose, when he was thirty, the life of an ascetic seeking after truth and enlightenment. After twelve years of penance and suffering and rigorous practice of spiritual detachment, he attained such knowledge as was perfect and absolute, and strove so much for its redemption that he came to be regarded a Tirthankara. Mahavira showed wonderful ability in the organization of his Sangha which consisted of the ascetic as well as the layman, men as well as women. He did not consider the layman as incapable of spiritual uplift, and., therefore, accorded an honorable place to him in the Sangha. The layman is as important a limb of the Sangha as the ascetic, and it is incumbent upon both to cooperate and push the Sangha forward towards spiritual uplift, Mahavira’s Sangha was open to all irrespective of caste, color and sex. Merit and not birth was the determinant of status in society. Ability and not sex was regarded as the criterion of admission into the higher order. Superstitious rituals and belief in the capacity of gods to help man were discarded. The existence of God as the Creator of the world was denied, and man was held responsible for his own fortune as well as misfortune, freedom as well as bondage. Sacrifice of the animal was replaced by the sacrifice of the brute self. Mahavira’s life is a symbol of the mortification of the flesh for the development of the Spirit. It is spiritual joy, and not heavenly pleasure, that is worth pursuit. Mahavira did not encourage acquisition of supernormal powers for the victimization of the weak. He prohibited the use of such powers even for self-protection. He disparaged racial inequity, economic rivalry and political enslavement. Mahavira took it upon himself to work out and propagate a veritable spiritual democracy in the form of Jainism. He delivered his message in the tongue of the people. He did not like the aristocratic aloofness and mystifying secrecy of the Brahmanical thinkers in matters religious and philosophical. There was no need of interpreter of the tongue of gods. There can be no mediator between man and God. Mahavira popularized philosophy and religion and threw open the portals of heaven to the down- trodden and the weak, the humble and the lowly. To him spirituality was not the property of the privileged few, but a valued possession of each and all. It is only in the form of human being that the spirit can realize itself. Gods are inferior to the man of conduct. They symbolize only a stage in the development of the spirit. The final development, however, is possible only in the human form. The idea of an ever-free omnipotent Creator God and His incarnation is exploded as a myth, and the responsibility of creation is put on the shoulders of those who inhabit and enjoy it. Conduct is judged by the spiritual law of ahimsa, perfect and absolute. The means is not justified by the end. It is perhaps with reference to these revolutionary ideals that a modern critic, informed with the faith in merciful God has characterized Jainism as “a religion in which the chief insisted upon are that one should deny God, worship man and nourish vermin.” Philosophy, with Mahavira, is not an intellectual system based on data supplied by psychological analysis, or a metaphysical speculation based on scientific investigation, but an all-comprehensive view based on spiritual realization wherein all other views find proper justification. These are in brief, the general features of the message of Lord Mahavira.
The roots of Jainism can be traced out in that floating mass of Sramana literature which developed side by side with the ancient Vedic and had, according to Dr. Maurice Winternitz, the following characteristic features: “It disregards the system of casts and asramas, its heroes are, as a rule, not gods and Rsis, but kings or merchants or even Sudras. The subjects of poetry taken up by it are not Brahmanic myths and legends, but popular tales, fairy stories, fables and parables, It likes to insist on the misery and suffering of Samsara, and it teaches a morality of compassion and Ahimsa, quite distinct from the ethics of Brahmanism with its ideals of the great person who sacrifices and generous supporter of the priests and its strict adherence to the caste system.” “Jainism together with Sankhya Yoga” according to Dr. Hermann Jacobi, “is the earliest representative of that mental revolution which brought about the close of the Vedic and inaugurated the new period of Indian culture which has lasted through the middle ages almost down to the present time.” We can clearly discern in the formative period, nay, throughout the development, of our culture, two distinct forces perpetually struggling for supremacy and evolving a more and more rational culture. Of these two forces, one attracts us to the spiritual life by insisting on misery and suffering, while the other strives to keep us attached to the duties and responsibilities of social life. The advent of Mahavira and the Buddha represents a period of supremacy of the former over the later. This period was, of course, preceded by a long period of philosophical ferment and religious unrest. There was strenuous search for the ideal. Two distinct ways of thought, Brahmanic and Sramanic were struggling for supremacy and were influencing each other. It was impossible that one should supersede the other. But they evolved a system, which had a strong note of asceticism and was predominantly Sramanic. This was embodied in the Caturyama dharma of Parsva and finally developed by Mahavira into what is called Jainism, Buddhism too is a similar, though decidedly later, growth with a wonderfully rational outlook: The investigations about the antiquity of Jainism are by no means complete. We look to an intense research for more enlightenment.
We have discussed at some length the story of Gosala’s companionship and final separation with Mahavira. The story of his last encounter with Mahavira has also been related. We have shown the non-tenability of the fanciful opinion of some scholars that Mahavira was a disciple of Gosala for some time. Our conclusion is that Mahavira and Gosala did not have a teacher and disciple relationship at all. Mahavira and Gosala were just two associates in a common concern, two: Sadhakas who lived together for six years in asceticism. Later on there sprang up acute differences of opinion between the two. They separated from each other and became irreconcilable opponents, fighting out their differences generally through their followers. After six months from the separation with Mahavira, it is said, Gosala acquired supernormal powers, proclaimed himself a Jina, and founded the order of the Ajivikas. It is also probable that the order of the Ajivika was already there and Gosala only assumed its leadership proclaiming himself the last Jina. The implication of the doctrine of ‘seven re-animation’s’ advocated by Gosala is not very clear; most probably Gosala referred to the six past leaders of the order, and considered himself to be the seventh and the last. The problem is to be studied afresh, and there is every possibility of fruitful result. There is, however, no ambiguity about the central doctrine of Gosala. he was an uncompromising fatalist. For him there was no such thing as freedom of will, all things being caused by destiny which was unalterably fixed. This contrasts strongly with Mahavira’s ideal of nirvana as something to be achieved by toil and labor, and not something to be presented by destiny in due course. There is neither scope nor necessity for voluntary efforts in the system of Gosala. We do not know whether the Ajivika order served him for long in its original shape, although a reference to an Ajivika order is found in an inscription of as late as the thirteenth century A.D.
The Jaina doctrine of knowledge is assuredly a valuable contribution to the epistemological thought. Knowledge is inherent in soul and depends for its expression upon the dis-entanglement of the soul from the forces that vitiate its intrinsic capacities. The Kasayas of attachment and aversion are held responsible for the obstruction of the capacity to know, and it is by the total destruction of these Kasayas that the soul achieves ‘the blaze of omniscience’. Absolute annihilation of knowledge is impossible, and the knowledge is not at its minimum in the one-sensed organism. Perfection is achieved not by adding one knowledge to another, but by removing the cause of imperfection, which consists in the Kasayas. Ignorance is only an incidental effect of a more fundamental cause, namely, the Karma that blurs the right intuition.
The Karma doctrine is another glorious achievement of the Jaina thinkers. Karma is a substantive force, a sort of infra-atomic particles which have the peculiar property of developing the effects of merit and demerit. “As heat can unite with iron and water with milk, so Karma unites with the soul.” Life is a struggle between spirit and matter. The material body is to be subdued by matter. Evolution means evolution of the body. The body is the instrument of expression, and so the perfection of the spirit is synchronized with the perfection of the body. What controls the universe is the law of Karma. The world is made, not by gods and angels, but by the Karma of the spirits. The history of man is determined by his own voluntary choice. Man enters the world of his own creation and fashions it according to his own designs. He can transcend the inherited limitations by his will and action, and become the architect of his own future. The theory of fourteen states in the ascent to the state of Final Liberation is the logical consummation of the doctrine of Karma.
Indian religions lay stress on asceticism and life negation, and Jainism does so in a special measure. Jainism prescribes even the abandonment of the body in case it fails to fulfill the demand of the spirit. This exposes Jainism to the charge that its ethics is negative and passive. The Jaina ethics will plead guilty to this charge. The motive behind ethical practices is that of purging the soul of selfish impulses so that it may realize itself. Spiritual strenuous, meditation, the freeing of the mind from hatred, anger and lust are emphasized. What appears to be passivity is intense concentration of consciousness where the soul lays hold immediately upon itself. Life affirmation is fraught with more dangers and pitfalls than those of life negation. If affirmation leads to progress, negation certainly leads to peace. World has suffered more at the hands of the progress-loving peoples than at the hands of the peace-loving nations. Jainism discourages aggressiveness, but never supports cowardice. Peaceful courting of death without hatred for the murderer is more praiseworthy than violent defense. The law of non-violence is regarded as the supreme law. Justice itself is judged by this law. Consistent application of this universal law of non-violence in practical life exposed Jainism to the ridicule of those who were satisfied merely with the theoretical extolling of the law. Its appeal to the rational minds, however, was great and gradually it gripped a considerable portion of the populace.
Our study of the position of the rival sects has been very brief. We have annexed a short note on Nihnavas in order to show the inherent strength of the organization of the Jaina Sangha to deal with internal dissentions.
Mahavira left the world, realized the truth, and came back to the world to preach it. There was immediate response from the people and he got disciples and followers. Eleven learned Brahmins were the first to accept his discipleship and became ascetics. They were the heads of Ganas, of ascetics. They were the heads of Ganas, of ascetics, and as such were called Ganadharas. They remained faithful to their teacher throughout their lives. Indrabhuti Gautama was the eldest disciple of Mahavira. He was very fond of his master, and had numerous interesting dialogues with him. Mahavira was never tired of answering questions and problems of various types, scientific, ethical, metaphysical, and religious. He had broad outlook and scientific accuracy. His answers were never vague or mystifying. He had firm conviction and resolute will. His tolerance was infinite. He remained unmoved, when two of his disciples were burnt to ashes before his eyes by Gosala, who was then preparing to strike Mahavira himself. But he would never surrender a single point in argument about spiritual conviction and ethical conduct. Right conduct is conduct according to right conviction. Right conviction is conviction based on spiritual realization. A man of right conviction and right conduct has fear from none and tolerance for all. Mahavira always surrendered his body, but never his spirit. Retention of the spirit demands surrender of the body. Suffering and penance are the conditions of freedom. Mahavira was a cold realist. He had not faith in warm idealism. He had immense faith in human nature, but he always insisted on vigilance against indolence, physical, moral and spiritual. He is reported to have once exhorted his favorite disciple Indrabhuti Gautama to always retain strenuosness in the following words: You have well- nigh crossed the great ocean. Why do you loiter on the shore? Make haste to pass on to the other side. Do not be indolent, O Gautama, for a single moment.’ Inward strenuosness and affirmation of spirit is sometimes associated with outward passivity and negation of life. This is not non-understandable. Life is an evil so long as it is rooted in desires. Negation of life rooted in desires is not an unsocial act. It is but reinstatement of the society in harmony with the laws of the spirit. It is self-contradiction on the surface for the sake of self-realization in the depth. In this sense, individualism is not incompatible with social progress. Mahavira was never indifferent to the well- being of his Sangha. He worked strenuously for and took interest in the most minute details of the organization. One is amazed to find in him this rare combination of absolute negation of desires and immense interest in action. Mahavira was neither a ‘delicate mystic’ nor an ‘energetic prophet.’ He was a thoroughgoing rationalist who would base his action on his conviction, unmindful of the context of established custom or inherited tradition. This is the keynote of the personality of Lord Mahavira.