Mahavira (वर्धमान महावीर) or Mahavir (the "Great Hero" -- Also, Vardhamana (increasing) or Niggantha Nathaputta -- 599 BC - 527 BC) was the 24th, and last, Jainist Tirthankara.
Born a prince (and a member of the Hindu Kshatriyas), Mahavira eventually became an ascetic -- renouncing all private property (including clothes) and rejecting his noble heritage. Mahavira was a contemporary of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha. The teachings of Mahavira, focusing upon the notion of ahimsa, would later inspire Mohandas Gandhi.
Overview of Mahavira's life
Mahavira was born, on the thirteenth day under the rising moon of Chaitra, in what is now Bihar, India. According to the Gregorian calendar, Mahavira was born in April. His birthday is celebrated as Mahavir Jayanti. He died at Pava . He was known as "Vardhamana" (increasing) because it is said that his family's wealth grew after his conception.
Being the son of King Siddartha and Queen Trisala , he lived the life of a prince; but at the age of thirty, he left his family, gave up his worldly possessions (over the course of a year), and spent twelve years as an ascetic. At one point, it is said that Mahavira had more than 400,000 followers.
Awakening and enlightenment
Spending the next twelve and half years in deep silence and meditation, Mahavir took on the discipline of conquering his desires, feelings, and attachments. He carefully avoided harming or annoying other living beings including animals, birds, and plants. He also went without food for long periods. His enduring calm and peaceful character against all unbearable hardships presence the influence of his title, Mahavir (meaning very brave and courageous), given to him by his peers. During this period, his spiritual powers fully developed and at the end he realized perfect perception, knowledge, power, and bliss. This realization is known as keval-jnana or the perfect enlightenment.
Mahavir spent the next thirty years travelling on bare foot around India preaching to the people the eternal truth he realized. The ultimate objective of his teaching is how one can attain total freedom from the cycle of birth, life, pain, misery, and death, and achieve the permanent blissful state of one's self. This is known as the absolute freedom, Moksha.
From this awakening, Mahavir explained that from eternity, every living being (soul) is in bondage of karmic atoms, that are accumulated by good or bad deeds. Under the influence of karma, the soul is habituated to seek pleasures in materialistic belongings and possessions, which are the deep rooted causes of self-centered violent thoughts, deeds, anger, hatred, greed, and such other vices. These result in further accumulation of karmas.
Mahavir preached that right faith (samyak-darshana), right knowledge (samyak-jnana), and right conduct (samyak-charitra) together is the real path to attain the liberation of one's self. At the heart of right conduct for Jains lie the five great vows:
- Nonviolence (Ahimsa)- not to cause harm to any living beings
- Truthfulness (Satya)- to speak the harmless truth only
- Non-stealing (Asteya)- not to take anything not properly given
- Chastity (Brahmacharya)- not to indulge in sensual pleasure
- Non-possession/ Non-attachment (Aparigraha)- complete detachment from people, places, and material things
Jains hold these vows at the center of their lives. These vows can not be fully implemented without the acceptance of a philosophy of non-absolutism (Anekantvada) and the theory of relativity (Syadvada, also translated "qualified prediction"). Monks and nuns follow these vows strictly and totally, while the common people follow the vows as far as their life styles will permit.
In the matters of spiritual advancement, as envisioned by Mahavir, both men and women are on an equal footing. The lure of renunciation and liberation attracted women as well. Many women followed Mahavir's path and renounced the world in search of ultimate happiness.
Thus, the principles of Jainism, if properly understood in their right perspective and faithfully adhered to, will bring contentment and inner happiness and joy in the present life. This will elevate the soul in future reincarnations to a higher spiritual level, achieving Perfect Enlightenment, reaching its final destination of Eternal Bliss, ending all cycles of birth & death.
Mahavir attracted people from all walks of life, rich and poor, kings and commoners, men and women, princes and priests, touchable and untouchable. He organized his followers, into a four fold order, namely monk (Sadhu), nun (Sadhvi), layman (Shravak), and laywoman (Shravika). This order is known as Jain Sangh.
Lord Mahavir's sermons were orally complied by his immediate disciples in Agam Sutras. These Agam Sutras were orally passed on to the future generations. In course of time many of the Agam Sutras have been lost, destroyed, or modified. About one thousand years later the Agam Sutras were recorded on Tadpatris (leafy paper that was used in those days to preserve records for future references). Swetambar Jains have accepted these Sutras as authentic version of His teachings while Digambar Jains use them as a reference.
At the age of 72 (527 B.C.), Lord Mahavir attained Moksha and his purified soul left his body and achieved complete liberation. He became a Siddha, a pure consciousness, and liberated soul, living forever in a state of complete bliss. On the night of his Enlightenment, people celebrated the Festival of Lights (Dipavali) in his honor. This is the last day of Hindu and Jain calendar year known as Dipavali Day.
Jainism existed before Mahavir, and his teachings were based on those of his predecessors. Thus, Mahavir was more of a reformer and propagator of an existing religious order than the founder of a new faith. He followed the well established creed of his predecessor Tirthankar Parshvanath. However, Mahavir did reorganize the philosophical tenets of Jainism to correspond to his times.
A few centuries after Mahavir's great liberation, the Jain religious order (Sangha) grew more and more complex. There were schisms on some minor points, although they did not affect the original doctrines as preached by Mahavir. Later generations saw the introduction of ritualistic complexities which almost placed Mahavir and other Tirthankars on the thrones of Hindu deities.
Mahavira made religion simple and natural, free from elaborate ritual complexities. His teachings reflected the internal beauty and harmony of the soul.
Mahavir taught the idea of supremacy of human life and stressed the importance of the positive attitude of life.
Mahavir's message of nonviolence (Ahimsa), truth (Satya), non-stealing (Achaurya), celibacy (Brahma-charya), and non-possession (Aparigraha) is full of universal compassion. He said that, "A living body is not merely an integration of limbs and flesh but it is the abode of the soul which potentially has perfect perception (Anant-darshana), perfect knowledge (Anant-jnana), perfect power (Anant-virya), and perfect bliss (Anant-sukha)." Mahavir's message reflects freedom and spiritual joy of the living being.
Mahavir emphasized that all living beings, irrespective of their size, shape, and form how spiritually developed or undeveloped, are equal and we should love and respect them. This way he preached the gospel of universal love.
Mahavir rejected the concept of God as a creator, a protector, and a destroyer of the universe. He also denounced the worshiping of gods and goddesses as a means of material gains and personal benefits.
- "Once when he sat [in meditation]...they cut his flesh...tore his hair...picked him up and...dropped him...the Venerable One bore the pain." (from the Akaranga Sutra )