By Jayaram V
The sixth century B.C.E. carries a great significance in the
history of the world because it witnessed the birth of many great
spiritual teachers in various parts of the world, from Israel to
China, who heralded a new age of great spiritual movements and profound
One of them was Vardhamana Mahavira, who redefined the ascetic
way of life and gave a new impetus to the ancient Indian tradition
of Jinas, which was at least a thousand years old by the time he
So committed he was to the ascetic path and so true he was to
its ideals that he was probably the ideal for the monks whom Alexander
saw during his brief sojourn into the fringes of the Indian subcontinent.
Mahavira's birth also coincided with a great spiritual awakening
in the Indian subcontinent characterized by numerous ascetic movements,
which challenged the old order and offered various alternatives
to alleviate human suffering and achieve salvation.
The Buddhist text, Suttanipatta records at least 63 of them.
Among them were believers in karma and individual actions (kriyavadis),
fatalists (akriyavadis), agnostics (ajnanavadis) and moralists (vinayavadis).
In this tumultuous period of great spiritual churning, Mahavira
stood out prominently propagating the ancient path trodden by the
Jinas for centuries, beginning with the first Tirthankara, Vrishabha,
which was not only hard to practice, but offered no comfort to the
practitioners until they attained the final goal of liberation.
It was also the time Buddhism was on the rise, while Hinduism was
reasserting itself by discarding outdated practices and embracing
new philosophies, divinities, and sectarian movements.
In these circumstances, Vardhamana was born at Kundanagrama,
near modern Patna, in a Kshatriya family of Jnatrikas, also known
as Vajjis. Although there are different opinions regarding his year
of birth, consensus opinions favors 599 B.C.C., which was approximately
32 years before the birth of the Buddha (567 BC).
His father's name was Siddharatha, who was either a feudal lord
or a local chieftain who served King Cetaka of Vaisali, a small
principality in the Magadha region (which corresponds to north Bihar.
His wife and Mahavira's mother, Trisala, was a Licchavi princess
and sister of Chetaka.
The family was connected to Bimbisara, the powerful ruler of
Magadha, through his wife, Chellana, who was a daughter of Chetaka.
Chetaka was also connected to four other kings of his time through
his daughters to whom he gave them in marriage, namely King Udayana
of Sindhu-Sauvira, King Dadhivahana of Champa, King Satnaikar of
Kausambi and King Pradyota of Avanti.
Thus, although Mahavira's father was not a king, he hailed from
a very influential royal family, and Mahavira grew in opulence,
in a protected and secluded environment, enjoying the comforts and
privileges his birth entailed. Probably his father had some expectations
from him in worldly life. Hence, he was named Vardhamana, meaning
growing in vigor, fame and wealth. He also had a brother named Nandivardhana,
who was destined to play an important role later in his life.
The Jain texts narrate many incidents related to his childhood,
pointing to his physical and mental abilities. Because of the courage
and strength he displayed as a child, he earned the name Mahavira,
meaning a great warrior. As a child he also imbibed the basic philosophical
notions of Jainism which his parents practiced as followers of Parsvanatha.
Up to the age of 30, Mahavira spent his life in the comforts
of a royal household. The fortunes of his family also grew after
his birth. However, from an early age, Mahavira seemed to have developed
a distaste for the state matters and luxuries of life and spent
his time mostly in contemplation and meditation. Jain scriptures
portray him as having developed clairvoyant powers (avadhi jnana)
and scriptural knowledge (sruta jnana) from birth, a common trait
expected of all the Tirthankaras born before him.
There are conflicting accounts about his marriage. According
to the Svetambara texts, he was married to Yasoda and had a daughter
named Priyadarsana through her. The Digambaras believe that Mahavira
took ascetic vows early in life and never married.
Whatever may be the truth, Mahavira was not cutout for continuing
his father's profession. However out of respect for his parents,
he waited until they passed away when he was 28. Then at the age
of 30 with the consent his remaining family members, and handing
over the family matters to the care of his brother Nandivardhana,
he renounce worldly life and entered the ancient ascetic path followed
by the Tirthankaras who were born before him.
For the next 12 years he wandered from place to place leading
a life of severe austerities and spending his time mostly in remote
forests and hilly regions often inhabited by dangerous tribes. Unlike
the Buddha, he followed the textbook version of Indian asceticism,
never compromising on his ideals and never withdrawing from the
path he chose to follow.
According to the descriptions available in the texts, after leaving
his home and renouncing his householder's life, he went to a grove
named Khandavana in the outskirts of his home town and became a
Sramana, or a wandering monk, by taking ascetic vows under an Asoka
tree nd shedding his family name.
Since he was a Tirthankara, who was born with a purpose, he had
no guru to initiate him or guide him. He initiated himself and guided
himself, drawing support from within himself and reaming truly alone
(kevalam) in word and deed.
After he began his life of renunciation, he suffered numerous
hardships, insults and injuries. Immediately after taking the ascetic
vows, he fasted for a few days and plucked off his hair strand by
strand to mark his renunciation. He gave some of his clothes to
a poor Brahmana and discarded the rest when they were entangled
in thorns and torn. He remained naked and without possessions for
the rest of his life.
For the rest of his life, he did not carry bowl or a staff. When
people gave him food, he ate it from the palm of his hands. He wandered
alone and stayed wherever he could find a place. Because of his
appearance, at times he faced hostility from the local people. At
a place called Ladha, people harassed him setting upon him dogs,
throwing stones, beating him with sticks and heaping insults.
However, despite these incidents, Mahavira kept his calm and
remained steadfast in meditation and keeping his vows. As he progressed,
he became completely detached and indifferent to the dualities of
life, free from attraction and aversion and other accompanying mental
weaknesses. He never took medication for any illness he suffered
during this period. He never bathed or cleaned his teeth or cared
to observe the social norms. At times he fasted for days without
food and water.
Ignoring his own physical discomforts, he wandered continuously,
never staying at the same place for more than a day, except during
the rainy season, when he changed his schedule. He did it selflessly
to avoid harming and hurting the tiny creatures that appeared after
rains in large numbers. The Jain monks are continuing this tradition
even now. They remain at one place during the rainy season and keep
wandering during the rest of the year. A similar practice was followed
by the Buddha also.
Mahavira lived in this manner for twelve years and attained omniscience
in the thirteenth year, at the age of 42. The Jain texts recorded
the event stating that it happened on the tenth day of the bright
half of the month of Vaisakha when he sat in meditation near a Sal
tree "on the northern bank of the River Rujupalika outside the town
of Jrimhikagrama," in a field owned by a villager named Samaga.
He attained the highest knowledge, the all knowing awareness, and
became free from duality (kevalin), the all knowing one (jina) and
the qualified one (arhat).
He would spent the next thirty years of his life, spreading his
message to interested seekers and helping and organizing an Order
of ascetics who committed themselves to his path and work for their
salvation. He also converted some members of his family, especially
from his mother's side to his teachings, and received patronage
from some. It is interesting that in the lifetime of Mahavira, more
women, nearly twice the number of men, joined him and took ascetic
A great deal of Mahavira's success goes to his organization ability.
He was a natural leader, although he was not prone to speak to people
unless needed. He organized his organized his growing congregation
of followers into four groups, monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.
To guide them and help them he appointed 11 chief disciples or Gandharas.
He divided the monks, numbering about 14,000, into nine divisions
or ganas, each headed by one of his chief disciples. He placed the
nuns, numbering about 36,000, under the leadership of his cousin
and a senior nun, Candana. To guide the lay followers, Sravakas,
numbering about 159,000, he appointed his chief disciple, Sankha
Sataka, as their leader and guide. Finally, he entrusted Sulassa
and Revati with task of looking after the laywomen, numbering about
In organizing his community of ascetics or lay followers, Mahavira
showed no caste distinctions. He prescribed the same set of rules
for monks and nuns. He also made some changes to the basic Jain
doctrine by adding a fifth vow, the vow of chastity, to the four
vows prescribed by Parsvanath, namely, not to inure life, not to
lie, not to steal and not to possess any material things. Mahavira
also emphasized the importance of the three Jewels of Jainism, namely
right faith, right knowledge and right action. He kept a watch over
their spiritual progress, emphasizing the importance of spiritual
purity, nonviolence and ethical conduct.
Although Jainism was strictly an ascetic religion, by permitting
the lay followers to join the ranks he ensured that the Order would
never be short of monks and resources. The laity was the first step
where an individual had an opportunity to test the doctrine and
prepare himself or herself mentally for the rigorous life that awaited
each monk and nun. It offered a testing ground for those who were
not yet ready for the journey or those who needed some push and
During the thirty years of life he spent in propagating his teachings
and helping his followers on the spiritual path, Mahavira attracted
the attention of many rich merchants, financiers, kings, queens,
princes, and noblemen. His personal charisma, family background
and relationship with many royal families from his parents' side
also played a part in drawing them into his fold.
However, we are not certain how many kings actually converted
to Jainism, since both Buddhism and Jainism claim the patronage
of the same kings. According to the Buddhist text, Anguttara Nikaya,
Jainism became the state religion of the Licchavis and the Lichchavi
prince Abhaya converted to Jainism. The Mallas also maintained a
cordial relationship with him and probably practised Jainism.
After spending thirty years in spreading his teachings, Mahavira
finally left his body in 527 B.C. at the ripe age of 72, at a place
called Pava, which is now located near the present day Patna. It
is now considered as the most sacred pilgrim center by Jains. It
is said that he died in a palace of the king Shastipala of the Mallas
and when he died 18 confederate kings lighted lamps and kept the
illuminations as a symbol of the light and knowledge that he left
Vardhamana Mahavira is one of the greatest sons of ancient India
who was equal to the Buddha in stature and greatness, though lesser
known in the outside world. He lived an exemplary life and never
compromised on his principles. He was as strict with others regarding
ethical conduct as he was with himself. He represented the highest
sacrifice a human could make on the ascetic path. In his whole life
as teacher of monks, Mahavira never invited himself to anyone's
house as a guest. Unlike the Buddha, he avoided social interaction
with the outside world to the extent possible, unless such interaction
was necessary from a spiritual perspective to help someone on the
path to enlightenment. He also preached his followers in the local
vernacular language rather than Sanskrit so that his message would
reach out to the most ordinary men and women, not just the higher
India owes a great deal to this noble Soul who influenced the
attitude and thinking of Indians of subsequent generations, especially
concerning the practice of non violence, austerities, good conduct
and vegetarianism. Mahavira revived Jainism and attracted the attention
of many influential people and intellectuals of his time, which
contributed to the popularity of Jainism in various parts of India.
His teachings are preserved in the 12 Angas which are followed by
the Digambara Jains faithfully. His principle of nonviolence influenced
Gandhi, who was born and brought up in Gujarat, a region where Jainism
flourished for over 2000 years.
Suggested Further Reading
Jainism: The World of Conquerors, Volume 1
By Natubhai Shah, Published by Motilal Banarsidass Publishe.
Jainism, edited by Helmuth Von Glasenapp,
Pages displayed by permission of Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
Jainism and Indian Civilization edited by
Raj Pruthi., Published by Discovery Publishing House.
Jainism and Early Buddhism: Essays in Honor of Padmanabh S. Jaini,
edited by Olle Qvarnström, Padmanabh S. Jaini
Outlines of Indian Philosophy By M. Hiriyanna, Pages displayed
by permission of Motilal Banarsidass Publ.. Copyright.
Attribution: The images of Mahavira used in this article are
eitehr in public domain or licensed under the
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.