Life Of Mahavira Essay Topics

This article is about the Jain Tirthankara. For the Jain mathematician, see Mahāvīra (mathematician).

"Mahaveera" redirects here. For the 1988 Bollywood film, see Mahaveera (film).

Not to be confused with Mahavihara.

24th Jain Tirthankara

Statue of Mahavira at Shri Mahavirji, Rajasthan

Other namesVīr, Ativīr, Vardhamāna, Sanmati, Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta
Venerated inJainism
Height7 cubits (10.5 feet)
Age72 years
Personal information
Bornc. 497 BCE(historical)
c. 599 BCE(traditional)
Kundagram, present-day Vaishali district, Bihar, India
Diedc. 425 BCE(historical)
c. 527 BCE(Svetambara)
c. 510 BCE(Digambara)
Pawapuri, present-day Bihar, India

LordMahavira (Bhagavān Mahāvīra), also known as Vardhamāna, was the twenty-fourth Tirthankara (ford-maker) of Jainism. In the Jain tradition, it is believed that Mahavira was born in the early part of the 6th century BC into a royal family in what is now Bihar, India. At the age of thirty, abandoning all worldly possessions, he left his home in pursuit of spiritual awakening and became an ascetic. For the next twelve and a half years, Mahavira practiced intense meditation and severe austerities, after which he is believed to have attained Kevala Jnana (omniscience). He preached for thirty years, and is believed by Jains to have died in the 6th century BC. Scholars such as Karl Potter consider his biographical details as uncertain, with some suggesting he lived in the 5th century BC contemporaneously with the Buddha. Mahavira died at the age of 72, and his remains were cremated.

After he gained Kevala Jnana, Mahavira taught that the observance of the vows ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (chastity), and aparigraha (non-attachment) is necessary to spiritual liberation. He gave the principle of Anekantavada (many-sided reality),Syadvada and Nayavada. The teachings of Mahavira were compiled by Gautama Swami (his chief disciple) and were called Jain Agamas. These texts were transmitted through oral tradition by Jain monks, but are believed to have been largely lost by about the 1st century when they were first written down. The surviving versions of the Agamas taught by Mahavira are some of the foundational texts of Jainism.

Mahavira is usually depicted in a sitting or standing meditative posture with the symbol of a lion beneath him. The day he was born is celebrated as Mahavir Janma-kalyanak (popularly known as Mahavir Jayanti), and the day of his liberation is celebrated by Jains as Diwali. In 1975, which was the 2,500th anniversary of the Nirvana (or Moksha) of Mahavira, monks of the various sects of Jainism assembled to resolve their differences and arrive at some commons points of agreement about the history and philosophy of Jainism.

Titles and names[edit]

According to Paul Dundas, a professor of Sanskrit known for his publications on Jainism, the earliest layer of Jain literature such as the Acaranga Sutra mentions neither Vardhamana nor Mahavira, nor any equivalent of "fordmaker". Also, according to Dundas, the term Jina is rare in early Jain texts.

The first book of Sutrakritanga uses the name Mahavira. The early Jain and Buddhist literature that has survived into the modern era uses other names or epithets for Mahavira. These include Nayaputta, Muni, Samana, Niggantha, Brahman, and Bhagavan. In early Buddhist Suttas, he is also referred to by the names Araha (meaning "worthy"), and Veyavi (derived from the word "Vedas", but contextually it means "wise" because Mahavira did not recognize the Vedas as a scripture).Buddhist texts refer to Mahavira as Nigaṇṭha Jñātaputta.Nigaṇṭha means "without knot, tie, or string" and Jñātaputta (son or scion of Natas), refers to his clan of origin as Jñāta or Naya (Prakrit).[14] The Jain text Kalpasutras states that he is also known as Sramana because he is "devoid of love and hate".

According to later Jain texts, Mahavira's childhood name was Vardhamāna ("the one who grows"), because of the increased prosperity in the kingdom at the time of his birth.[16] According to the Kalpasutras, he was called Mahavira ("the great hero") by the gods because he stood steadfast in the midst of dangers and fears, hardships and calamities. Mahavira is also called a Tirthankara.

Historical Mahavira[edit]

According to the Kalpasutra, Mahavira was born at Kundagrama in present-day Bihar, India. This is assumed to be the modern town of Basu Kund, which is about 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Patna, the capital of Bihar. However, it is unclear if the ancient Kundagrama is the same as the current assumed location, and the birthplace remains a subject of dispute.[19] Mahavira renounced all his material wealth and left his home when he was twenty-eight by some accounts, or thirty by others, then lived an ascetic life and performed severe austerities for twelve years, and thereafter preached Jainism for a period of thirty years. The location where he preached has been a subject of historic disagreement between the two major sub-traditions of Jainism – the Svetambaras and the Digambaras.

Though it is universally accepted by scholars of Jainism that Mahavira was an actual person who lived in ancient India, the details of his biography and the year of his birth are uncertain, and continue to be a subject of considerable debate among scholars. The Jain Śvētāmbara tradition believes he was born in 599 BC and died in 527 BC, while the Digambara tradition believes 510 BC was the year he died. The scholarly controversy arises from efforts to date him and the Buddha, because both are believed to be contemporaries according to Buddhist and Jain texts, and because, unlike for Jain literature, there is extensive ancient Buddhist literature that has survived. Almost all Indologists and historians, state Dundas and others, accordingly date Mahavira's birth to about 497 BC and his death to about 425 BC. However, the Vira era tradition that started in 527 BC and places Mahavira in the 6th century BC is a firmly established part of the Jain community tradition.

The 12th-century Jain scholar Hemachandra placed Mahavira in the 5th century BC. According to Kailash Jain, Hemachandra made an incorrect analysis that, along with attempts to establish Buddha's nirvana date, has been a source of confusion and controversy about Mahavira's year of nirvana.[24] Kailash Jain states the traditional date of 527 BC is accurate, adding that the Buddha was a junior contemporary of the Mahavira and that the Buddha "might have attained nirvana a few years later".[25] The place of his death, Pavapuri (now in Bihar), is a pilgrimage site for Jains.

Biography per Jain traditions[edit]

See also: Panch Kalyanaka

According to Jain texts, 24 Tirthankaras have appeared on earth in the current time cycle of Jain cosmology. Mahavira was the last Tirthankara of Avasarpiṇī (present descending phase or half of the time cycle).[note 1] A Tirthankara (Maker of the River-Crossing, saviour, spiritual teacher) signifies the founder of a tirtha, which means a fordable passage across the sea of interminable cycles of births and deaths (called saṃsāra).[30]


See also: Mahavir Jayanti

Belonging to Kashyapa gotra, Mahavira was born into the royal Kshatriya family of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala of the Ikshvaku dynasty.[note 2] This is the same solar dynasty in which Hindu epics place Rama and the Ramayana, and in which the Buddhist texts place the Buddha, and the Jains attribute another twenty-one of their twenty-four Tirthankaras over millions of years.

According to the Digambara Jains, Mahavira was born in 582 BC. According to the Svetambara Jain texts, he was born in 599 BC. Mahavira's birthday, in the traditional calendar, falls on the thirteenth day of the rising moon in the month of Chaitra in the Vira Nirvana Samvat calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, this date falls in March or April and is celebrated by Jains as Mahavir Jayanti.

The Kalpasutra, a popular text in Jainism, cites Kundagrama as the place where he was born. This site is believed by tradition to be near Vaishali, a great ancient town in the Gangetic plains. The identity of this place in the modern geography of Bihar is unclear, in part because people migrated out of ancient Bihar for economic and political reasons. Dundas states that, according to the "Universal History" in Jain mythology, Mahavira had undergone many rebirths before his birth in the 6th century. These rebirths included being a hell-being, a lion, and a god (deva) in a heavenly realm in Jain cosmology just before his last birth as the 24th fordmaker. His embryo was first formed in a Brahman woman, but his embryo was then transferred by the divine commander of Indra's army, Hari-Naigamesin, to the womb of Trishala, the wife of Siddhartha.[note 3] The embryo transfer legend is accepted by adherents of the Svetambara tradition but not by adherents of the Digambara tradition.

Jain texts state that, after Mahavira was born, the god Indra came from the heavens, anointed him, and performed his abhisheka (consecration) on Mount Meru. These events are illustrated in the artwork of numerous Jain temples and play a part in modern Jain temple rituals. The Kalpa sutras describing Mahavira's birth legends are recited by the Svetambara Jains during annual festivals such as Paryushana, but the same festival is observed by the Digambaras without the recitation.

Early life[edit]

Mahavira grew up as a prince. According to the second chapter of the Śvētāmbara text Acharanga Sutra, both of his parents were followers and lay devotees of Parshvanatha.[16] Jain traditions do not agree on whether Mahavira ever married. According to the Digambara tradition, Mahavira's parents wanted him to marry Yashoda but Mahavira refused to marry.[note 4] According to the Śvētāmbara tradition, he was married to Yashoda at a young age and had one daughter, Priyadarshana, also called Anojja.

Jain texts portray Mahavira as a very tall man, with his height stated to be seven cubits (10.5 feet) in Aupapatika Sutra. In Jain mythology, he was the shortest of the 24 Tirthankaras, with earlier teachers believed to have been much taller, with the 22nd Tirthankara Aristanemi, who lived for 1,000 years, stated to have been forty cubits tall (60 feet).


See also: Jain monasticism

At the age of thirty, Mahavira abandoned the comforts of royal life and left his home and family to live an ascetic life in the pursuit of spiritual awakening. He undertook severe austerities of fasting and bodily mortifications, meditated under the Ashoka tree, and discarded his clothes. There is a graphic description of his hardships and humiliation in the Acharanga Sutra. According to the Kalpa Sūtra, Mahavira spent the first forty-two monsoons of his life at Astikagrama, Champapuri, Prstichampa, Vaishali, Vanijagrama, Nalanda, Mithila, Bhadrika, Alabhika, Panitabhumi, Shravasti, and Pawapuri. He is said to have lived in Rajagriha during the rainy season of the forty-first year of his ascetic life. This is traditionally dated to have been in 491 BC.[61]


See also: Kevala Jnana and Samavasarana

After twelve years of rigorous penance, at the age of forty-three Mahavira achieved the state of Kevala Jnana (omniscience or infinite knowledge) under a Sāla tree, according to traditional accounts. The details of this event are mentioned in Jain texts such as Uttar-purāņa and Harivamśa-purāņa. The Acharanga Sutra describes Mahavira as all-seeing. The Sutrakritanga elaborates the concept as all-knowing and provides details of other qualities of Mahavira. Jains believe that Mahavira had the most auspicious body (paramaudārika śarīra) and was free from eighteen imperfections when he attained omniscience. The Śvētāmbara believe that Mahavira traveled throughout India to teach his philosophy for thirty years after gaining omniscience. The Digambara, however, claim that after attaining omniscience, he sat fixed in his Samavasarana, giving sermons to his followers.


The Jain texts state that Mahavira's first disciples were eleven Brahmins who are traditionally called the eleven Ganadharas.Gautama was their chief. Others were Agnibhuti, Vayubhuti, Akampita, Arya Vyakta, Sudharman, Manditaputra, Mauryaputra, Acalabhraataa, Metraya, and Prabhasa. Mahavira's disciples are said to be led by Gautama after him, who later is said to have made Sudharman his successor. These eleven Brahmin–Ganadharas, as the early followers, were responsible for remembering and verbally transmitting the teachings of the Mahavira after his death, which came to be known as Gani-Pidaga or Jain Agamas.

According to the Jain tradition, Mahavira had 14,000 muni (male ascetics), 36,000 aryika (nuns), 159,000 sravakas (laymen), and 318,000 sravikas (laywomen) as his followers. Some of the royal followers included King Srenika (popularly known as Bimbisara) of Magadha, Kunika of Anga, and Chetaka of Videha. Mahavira initiated the mendicants with the Mahavratas (Five vows). He delivered fifty-five pravachana and answered thirty-six unasked questions (Uttaraadhyayana-sutra).


See also: Jain councils

The Mahavira's teachings were gradually lost after around 300 BC, according to the Jain tradition, when a severe famine in the Magadha region of ancient India caused a scattering of the Jain monks. Thereafter, attempts were made by Jain monks to gather again, co-recite the canon, and re-establish it in its entirety. These efforts identified differences between recitations of the Mahavira's teachings, and an attempt was made in the 5th century AD to reconcile the differences. However, the reconciliation efforts failed, with Svetambara and Digambara Jain traditions continuing with their own incomplete, somewhat different versions of the Mahavira's teachings. In the early centuries of the common era, Jain texts containing Mahavira's teachings were written down in palm leaf manuscripts.

Nirvāṇa, death[edit]

Jains believe Mahavira attained omniscience at the age of 42, under a Sala tree on the banks of River Rijupalika near Jrimbhikagrama. He preached, then died at the age of 72. The Jain Śvētāmbara tradition believes his death occurred in 527 BC, while the Digambara Jain tradition believes this happened in 510 BC. His jiva (soul) is believed in all Jain traditions to be in Siddhashila (abode of the liberated souls).

According to Jain texts, Mahavira's nirvana[note 5] (death) occurred in the town of Pawapuri (Bihar). His life as a spiritual light and the night of his nirvana is remembered by Jains as Diwali on the same night that Hindus celebrate their festival of lights. On the night that Mahavira died, his chief disciple Gautama is said to have attained omniscience.

The accounts of Mahavira's death vary among the Jain texts, some describing a simple death but others describing grandiose celebrations attended by gods and kings. According to the Jinasena's Mahapurana, the heavenly beings arrived to perform his funeral rites; in others he is described, at age 72, to be giving his final preaching over six days to a large crowd of people. Everyone falls asleep, only to awaken to find that he has disappeared, leaving only his nails and hair, which his followers cremate.

Today, a Jain temple called Jal Mandir stands at the place of Mahavira's nirvana (moksha).[81] Jain artwork in temples and texts depicts the final liberation and cremation of Mahavira, sometimes symbolically shown as a miniature pyre of sandalwood and a piece of burning camphor.

Previous births[edit]

Mahavira's previous births are discussed in Jain texts such as the Mahapurana and Tri-shashti-shalaka-purusha-charitra. While a soul undergoes countless reincarnations in the transmigratory cycle of saṃsāra (world), the births of a Tirthankara are reckoned from the time he determined the causes of karma and developed the Ratnatraya. Jain texts discuss 26 births of Mahavira before his incarnation as a Tirthankara. According to the texts, Mahavira was born as Marichi, the son of Bharata Chakravartin, in one of his previous births.

Ascetic lineage[edit]

Mahavira has been mistakenly called the founder of Jainism. Jains believe that there were 23 teachers before the Mahavira, and they believe that Jainism was founded in far more ancient times than that of the Mahavira, whom they revere as the 24th Tirthankara. The first 22 Tirthankaras are placed in mythical times. For example, the 22nd Tirthankara Arishtanemi is believed in the Jain tradition to have been born 84,000 years before the 23rd Tirthankara named Parshvanatha. Mahavira is sometimes placed within Parshvanatha lineage, but this is contradicted by all Jain texts, which state that Mahavira renounced the world alone.

Jain texts suggest that Mahavira's parents were lay devotees and followers of Parshvanatha. However, the lack of details and mythical nature of the legends about Parshvanatha, combined with medieval-era Svetambara texts portraying Parsvites as "pseudo-ascetics" with "dubious practices of magic and astrology" have led scholars to debate the evidence for Parshvanatha's historicity. Regardless of scholarly speculations, according to Dundas Jains believe that Parshvanatha lineage influenced Mahavira. Parshvanatha, as the one who "removes obstacles and has the capacity to save", has been a highly popular icon and his image the greatest focus of Jain devotional activity in temples. Of the 24 Tirthankaras, the Jain iconography has celebrated Mahavira and Parshvanatha the most since the earliest times, with sculptures discovered at the Mathura archaeological site that have been dated to the 1st century BCE by modern dating methods.

According to Moriz Winternitz, Mahavira may be considered as a reformer of a pre-existing sect of Jains called Niganthas (fetter-less) that is mentioned in early Buddhist texts.


  • Tiloya-paṇṇatti of Yativṛṣabha discusses almost all of the events connected with the life of Mahavira in a form convenient to memorisation.
  • Acharya Jinasena's Mahapurāṇa include Ādi purāṇa and Uttara-purāṇa. It was completed by his disciple AcharyaGunabhadra in the 8th century. In the Uttara-purāṇa the life of Mahavira is described in three parvans (74–76) in 1,818 verses.
  • Vardhamacharitra is a Sanskritkāvya (poem) describing the life of Mahavira written by Asaga in 853.[92]
  • Kalpa Sūtra is a collection of biographies of the Jain Tirthankaras, notably Parshvanatha and Mahavira.
  • Samavayanga Sutra is a collection of texts containing Lord Mahavira’s teachings.
  • Acharanga Sutra describes the penance of Mahavira.


Main article: Jain philosophy

Colonial-era Indologists, for a long time, considered Jainism and Mahavira's followers to be a sect of Buddhism because of the superficial similarities in their iconography, meditative and ascetic practices. However, as studies and understanding progressed, the differences between the teachings of the Mahavira and the Buddha were found to be so markedly divergent that the two gained recognition as separate religions.[clarification needed] Mahavira, states Moriz Winternitz, taught a "very elaborate belief in the soul" unlike the Buddhists who denied it[clarification needed], the ascetic practices in his teachings have been of a higher order of magnitude than those found in either Buddhism or Hinduism, and his emphasis on Ahimsa (non-violence) against all life forms is far greater than in all other Indian religions.

Jain Agamas[edit]

Main article: Jain Agamas

Mahavira's teachings were compiled by his Ganadhara (chief disciple), Gautama Swami. The sacred canonical scriptures comprised twelve parts. According to the Digambaras, ĀchāryaBhutabali was the last ascetic who had partial knowledge of the original canon. Later, some learned Āchāryas restored, compiled, and wrote down the teachings of Mahavira that were the subject matter of the Agamas.Āchārya Dharasena, in the 1st century CE, guided ĀchāryaPushpadant and Āchārya Bhutabali as they wrote down these teachings. The two Āchāryas wrote on palm leaves, Ṣaṭkhaṅḍāgama – among the oldest known Digambara Jain texts.

Five vows[edit]

Main article: Ethics of Jainism

Jain Agamas prescribe five major vratas (vows) that both ascetics and householders have to follow. These ethical principles were preached by Mahavira:[100]

  1. Ahimsa (Non-violence or Non-injury). Mahavira taught that every living being has sanctity and dignity of its own and it should be respected just as one expects one's own sanctity and dignity to be respected. Ahimsa is formalised into Jain doctrine as the first and foremost vow. The concept applies to action, speech, and thought.[101]
  2. Satya (Truthfulness) – Neither lie, nor speak what is not true, do not encourage others or approve anyone who speaks the untruth.[101]
  3. Asteya {Non-stealing) – Theft is explained as "taking anything that has not been given".
  4. Brahmacharya (Chastity) – Abstinence from sex and sensual pleasures for Jain monks, faithfulness to one's partner for Jain householders.[101]
  5. Aparigraha (Non-attachment) – For laypersons, the attitude of non-attachment to property or worldly possessions; for mendicants, not owning anything.

The goal of these principles is to achieve spiritual peace, better rebirth, or, ultimately, liberation. According to Chakravarthi, these teachings help elevate a person's quality of life. In contrast, states Dundas, the emphasis of Mahavira on non-violence and restraint has been interpreted by some Jain scholars to "not be driven by merit from giving or compassion to other creatures, nor a duty to rescue all creatures", but resulting from "continual self discipline", a cleansing of the soul that leads to one's own spiritual development and ultimately brings about spiritual release.

Of these precepts, Mahavira is most remembered in the Indian traditions for his teachings of ahimsa (non-injury) as the supreme ethical and moral virtue. Mahavira taught that the doctrine of non-injury must cover all living beings, and causing injury to any being in any form creates bad karma which affects one's rebirth and future well-being and suffering. According to Mahatma Gandhi, Mahāvīra was the greatest authority on Ahimsa.[113][114][115]


Main article: Jīva (Jainism)

Mahavira taught that the soul exists, a premise that Jainism shares with Hinduism but not Buddhism. According to Buddhism, there is no soul or self, and its teachings are based on the concept of anatta.[116] In contrast, Mahavira taught that the soul is permanent and eternal with respect to dravya (substance). Mahavira additionally taught that the soul is also impermanent with respect to paryaya (modes that originate and vanish).

To Mahavira, the metaphysical nature of the universe consists of dravya, jiva, and ajiva. The jiva gets attached and bound to samsara (wordly realms of suffering and existence) because of karma (activity).Karma, in Jainism, includes both actions and intent, and it colors (lesya) the soul; its particles stick to the soul and affect how, where, and what the soul is instantaneously reborn into after a being dies.

There is no creator God, according to Mahavira's teachings, and existence has neither beginning nor end. However, there are gods and demons in Jain beliefs, whose jivas are a part of the same cycles of births and deaths depending on the accumulated karmic particles. The goal of spiritual practice is to liberate the jiva from all karmic accumulation, and thus enter the realm of the siddhas who are never reborn again. Enlightenment, to Mahavira, is the consequence of a process of self-cultivation and self-restraint.


Main article: Anekantavada

Mahavira taught the doctrine of "many-sided reality". This doctrine is now known as Anekantavada or Anekantatva. This term does not appear in the earliest layer of Jain literature or the Jain Agamas, but the doctrine is illustrated in the answers of Mahavira to questions his followers asked. According to Mahavira, truth and reality are complex and always have multiple aspects. Reality can be experienced, but it is not possible to express it completely with language. Human attempts to communicate are Naya, or "partial expressions of the truth".[clarification needed] Language is not Truth, but a means and attempt to express Truth. From Truth, according to Mahavira, language returns and not the other way around.[125] One can experience the truth of a taste, but cannot fully express that taste through language. Any attempt to express the experience is syāt, or valid "in some respect" but still remaining a "perhaps, just one perspective, incomplete".[125] In the same way, spiritual truths are complex, with multiple aspects, and language cannot express their plurality, yet through effort and appropriate karma they can be experienced.

The Anekantavada premises of Mahavira are also summarized in Buddhist texts such as the Samaññaphala Sutta, wherein he is called Nigantha Nataputta.[note 6] The Anekantavada doctrine is another key difference between the teachings of the Mahavira and those of the Buddha. The Buddha taught the Middle Way, rejecting, in answer to questions, extremes of the answer "it is" or "it is not". The Mahavira, in contrast, accepted both "it is" and "it is not", with the qualification of "perhaps" and with reconciliation.

The Jain Agamas suggest that Mahavira's approach to answering all metaphysical philosophical questions was a "qualified yes" (syāt). A version of this doctrine is also found in the Ajivika tradition of ancient Indian philosophies.

In contemporary times, according to Dundas, the Anekantavada doctrine has been interpreted by many Jains as intending to "promote a universal religious tolerance", and a teaching of "plurality" and "benign attitude to other [ethical, religious] positions", but this is problematic and a misreading of Jain historical texts and Mahavira's teachings. The "many pointedness, multiple perspective" teachings of the Mahavira is a doctrine about the nature of reality and human existence, and it was not a doctrine about tolerating religious positions such as on sacrificing or killing animals for food, violence against disbelievers or any other living being as "perhaps right". The five vows for Jain monks and nuns, for example, are strict requirements, and there is no "perhaps". Beyond the renunciant Jain communities, while Mahavira's Jainism co-existed with Buddhism and Hinduism through history, according to Dundas, each were also "highly critical of the knowledge systems and ideologies of their rivals".


One of the historically contentious views within Jainism is in part attributed to Mahavira and his ascetic life where he never wore any clothes as a mark of disowning everything (interpreted as a consequence of the fifth vow of Aparigraha). The disputes triggered by this teaching of Mahavira are those related to gender and whether a female mendicant (sadhvi) can achieve spiritual liberation just like a male mendicant (sadhu) through Jain ascetic practices.

The main sub-traditions of Jainism have historically disagreed, with Digambaras (sky-clad, naked mendicant order) stating that a woman is by her nature and her body unable to practice asceticism, such as by living naked, and therefore she cannot achieve spiritual liberation because of her gender. She can at best, state the Digambara texts, live an ethical life so that she is reborn as a man in a future life.[note 7] In this view, she is also viewed a threat to a monk's chastity. In contrast, Svetambaras (white-clad, wear clothes) have interpreted Mahavira's teaching as encouraging both males and females to pursue a mendicant ascetic life with the possibility of moksha (kaivalya, spiritual liberation) regardless of gender.

Rebirth and realms of existence[edit]

Main article: Saṃsāra (Jainism)

Rebirth and realms of existence are foundational teachings of Mahavira. According to the Acaranga Sutra, Mahavira comprehended life to exist in myriad forms, such as animals, plants, insects, water bodies, fire bodies, wind bodies, elemental forms, and others. He taught that a monk should avoid touching or disturbing any one of them including plants, never swim in water, nor light a fire or extinguish it, nor thrash their arms in the air as such actions can torment or hurt other beings that live in those states of matter.

Mahavira preached that the nature of existence is cyclic, where the jiva (soul) of beings is reborn after death in one of the triloka – heavenly, hellish, or earthly realms of existence and suffering. According to Mahavira, human beings are reborn, depending on one's karma (actions) as a human, animal, element, microbe, and other forms, on earth or in a heavenly or hellish state of existence. Nothing is permanent, everyone, including gods, demons and beings on the earthly realms, die and are reborn again based on their karma merits and demerits. It is the Jina who have reached Kevala Jnana who are not reborn again, and attain the Siddhaloka or the "Realm of the Perfected Ones".



The two major annual festivals in Jainism associated with Mahavira are Mahavir-Jayanti and Diwali. During Mahavir Jayanti , Jains celebrate the birth of Mahavira, 24th and last Tirthankara (Teaching God) of Avasarpiṇī. In Mahavir Jayanti, the five auspicious events (Kalyaans) of Mahavira's life are re-enacted.Diwali marks the anniversary of Nirvana or the liberation of Mahavira's soul, the last Jain Tirthankara of the present cosmic age. It is celebrated at the same time as the Hindu festival of Diwali. Diwali marks the New Year for Jains and commemorates the passing of their 24th Tirthankara Mahavira and his achievement of moksha.


The Birth of Mahavira, from the Kalpa Sutra, c. 1375–1400

Life and Teachings of Mahavira

Life of Lord Mahavira

Mahavira, the last of the Jain Tirthankaras or Ford-makers was born at Kundagrarna in the suburbs of Vaisali in and about 540 B.C. His father was Siddhartha, the head of the Janatrika clan and his mother was Trisala, sister of the Lichchavi chief Chetaka. Originally Mahavira’s name was Vardhamana. When he attained Supreme Knowledge he came to be known as Mahavira.

Penance and Attainment of Siddhi

Mahavira was married to Yashoda. He had a daughter named Anojja or Priyadarsana by her. After the death of his parents Mahavira felt the uselessness of the life of a house-holder.

Mahavira embraced the life of a monk at the age of 30. Mahavira lived an ascetic life for 13 months and practiced rigorous penance. He abandoned his clothing’s. After discarding cloths and garments, Mahavira practiced penance and austerities for 12 years. At the age of 42 he attained the Supreme Knowledge and became a Kevalin. He was known as Mahavira or Great Hero.

The Jaina tradition describes that Mahavira attained his Siddhi or Supreme Knowledge while he was sitting under a Sala tree on the bank of the river Rijupalika near the village Jimbhikagrama.

Relation between Mahavira and Gosala

Another important event of Mahavira’s life was his relations with Gosala Mankhaliputta, the head of the Ajivaka sect. It is said that Gosala became a disciple of Mahavira and lived with him for six years. Later on Gosala left him for his difference with Mahavira on the doctrine of reincarnation. Sixteen years later, they met again and quarreled again.

Though the relation between the doctrines of Gosala and those of Mahavira are not definitely known, yet, there are some common points among them. This may be due to mutual exchanges of ideas among them. The Jaina rules of diet might have been borrowed from the code of the Ajivikas laid down by Gosala. Mahavira might have discarded garments due to influence of Gosala.

The Missionary Life of Mahavira

After the attainment of Supreme Knowledge, Mahavira lived the life of a wandering teacher and preached his doctrines to the people. He used to preach eight months in a year and pass four months of rainy season in some town. Mahavira preached in Champa, Vaisali, Rajgriha, Mithila and Sravasti.

As his fame spread, he began to receive loyal patronage. Bimbisara, the king of Magadha was devoted to Mahavira. Ajatasatru might have some inclination for Mahavira’s creed. After preaching his doctrines to people of different parts of India, Mahavira died at the age of 72 at a place called Pava in Patna district of Bihar. The Lichchhavis the Mallas mourned the death of this great teacher by burning lamps as a symbol of Mahavira’s spirit.

Jainism before Mahavira and the Role of Parsva

In the 6th century B.C. side by side with Buddhism, there flourished the creed of Jainism. Although Vardhamana Mahavira is regarded as the founder of Jainism, Jaina traditions give the idea that Jainism existed long before Mahavira. There were 23 teachers of Jainism before Mahavira. Mahavira was only the last or the twenty-fourth Tirthankara or illustrious teacher of Jainism.

We have no information about the early twenty two teachers. The Twenty-Third Tirthankara or teacher, Parsva or Parsva Nath or Paresh Nath is a historical figure. According to the Kalpasutra of Bhadrabahu, Parsva was a Kshatriya. He was the son of Asvasena, the king of Benaras. Parsva was married to Prabhabati, daughter of king Naravarman. He lived for some years, the life of a householder amidst luxury and pomp. But he grew tired of this life and embraced the life of an ascetic, at the age of 30. He performed deep meditation for 83 or 84 days and attained Enlightenment or Kevala jnana. Hence-forth, he lived the life of a religious preacher and died at the age of 100 years at Mount Sammeta in Bengal. This event happened in the 8th century B.C. about 250 years before the advent of Mahavira.

Teachings of Parsva

Some important doctrines of Jainism were laid down by Parsva, the Twenty-Third Tirthankara. Parsva believed in the eternity of matter. Only samyama or self-control could destroy Karma or results of the deed done. Penance could totally destroy it. Parsva announced four vows for liberation, viz., non-injury and non-killing; avoidance of falsehood; non-stealing and non-attachment. Parsva also allowed his followers to wear white garments which probably accounts for the growth of the Svetambara sect.

Influence of Parsva’s Teaching on that of Mahavira

Parsva was the fore-runner of Mahavira in the preaching of Jainism. It is therefore natural that some of his teachings influenced the ideas of Mahavira. From various Jaina Canons, it is known, how the parents of Mahavira turned to be followers of Parsva. How the disciples of Parsva entered into disputations with the disciples of Mahavira.

Itis reasonably suggested that the doctrines of Parsva which were similar to that of Mahavira were not mentioned in Parsva’s name. They were ascribed to the name of Mahavira. Only those points of Parsva’s teachings which differed from that of Mahavira were mentioned-in Parsva’s name in the Canons.

Teaching of Mahavira

Most of the important principles of Jainism were received by Mahavira as legacies from his predecessors. The principles and ideas of Jainism were being preached even before Mahavira. It does not appear that Mahavira preached a new creed. He was more a reformer of existing Jaina religion than the founder of a new faith. He should, however, be credited for the rapid spread of Jainism among the masses.

Mahavira’s credit lies in regulation and codification of unsystematic rules into a regular code, with certain additions and alterations. He adopted Parsva’s ideas of eternity of matter and the doctrine of self-control or samyama and penance for liberation from Karma. He also accepted Parsva’s doctrine of the four vows and added to it a fifth vow, viz., and the vow to observe chastity.

While Parsva asked his followers to wear white garments, Mahavira asked his followers to discard garments in order to be free from all earthly bonds. This ultimately led to the growth of the Digamabara sect.

Lord Mahavira asked his followers to purify their soul and free it from worldly bondage. Mahavira also enunciated that by following Three-fold Path of Right belief, Right knowledge and Right conduct (Tri Ratna), a man could attain Siddha-Sila i.e., liberation from Karma and transmigration of soul.

Mahavira pointed out that penance; physical hardship helped one to realize the truth. Even death by starvation was recommended by him.

Also read: Main Teachings of Jainism

Mahavira rejected the authority of God, the efficacy of the Vedic rites and that of the mantras.

He advocated the doctrine of non­-violence or Ahimsha in extreme form. He attributed life to plants, animals, metals and water and urged non-injury to them.

Category: History of Ancient India, Religion in India

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