Mahavira’s Contribution to the Mankind for All the Ages

Posted: 09.04.2016
Updated on: 16.12.2017

Mahavira's Contribution to the Mankind for All the Ages

Among the great religious teachers of the world, Mahavira was the earliest who contributed much for the good and welfare of the entire mankind of all the ages. Mahavira's advent took place when this world was seething with philosophical speculations with Socrates and Plato in Greece, Zoroaster in Persia and Confucius in China. In India, the Brahmanic philosophers were busy with their Upanishadic speculations, the Buddhists with their doctrine of Pratityasamutpada, the Ājīvikas with their doctrine of Fatalism (niyati); Pakudhakatyayan and other heretical teachers with their materialistic or semi- materialistic thoughts. The Brahmanic ritualism had already grown into a very complicated system with less and less of moral value, and the varnāsrama dharma had almost then out lived the period of its usefulness. In this critical period of social and religious degradation, Mahavira came as a savior six hundred years before the advent of Jesus, the Christ. This paper deals with the revolutionary social changes made by Mahavira for the entire mankind.

Karma as an Architect of Soul: Inculcation of Self-Reliance

Mahavira was the first great enlightened Teacher in the world, who proclaimed that man is the creator of himself, there is no creator-God. Man's karma is responsible for his ever continuous rebirths. Similarly, he proclaimed that man has to earn his own salvation, there is no savior, no God, no Almighty Power who can save and rescue him from the mire of repeated existences. Before the advent of the Mahavira, man considered himself to be dependent on some unknown power, and he blindly surrendered himself to that imaginary power. But the Mahavira was the first man to revolt against that blind faith by removing the veil of ignorance deeply rooted in the minds of men till the dawn of human civilization in the unknown past. It was the Mahavira who had the courage to deny the existence of any creator God, futility of rites and rituals and blind religious beliefs. He declared that man is the creator of himself and solely responsible for his own happiness and misery. If he can purify his own three level actions - bodily, vocal and mental, he is bound to overcome sufferings and realize the perfect bliss of emancipation.

According to the Jaina philosophy, the definition of God is as follows: God is that soul which attained its own pure nature (knowledge and intuition) after completely removing all the karmās.[1] The defining characteristic of Godhood is identical with that of liberation itself. To attain liberation is to attain Godhood. The meaning of the term Iśvara is powerful. So, the term Iśvara can very well apply to the soul that has become powerful by attaining its perfectly pure nature constituted of four characteristics, viz. infinite knowledge, infinite vision, infinite power and infinite bliss.[2] Thus, the undisputable nature of God is constituted of these four qualities. We must recognize that every living being is essentially pure and has the capacity for fully developing its own nature. In other words, every creature is God in potentiality and that becomes actual when developed to perfection. This potential God in each living being appears in its true light, i.e. as a full-fledged God with his four fold infinites.[3] To attain this state is to attain Godhood.[4]

Jains deny most definitely the existence of an imperishable, almighty who creates the universe, rules it and when he likes, destroys it. The acceptance of a creator and destroyer appears to them to be unjustified and self-contradictory and has to be rejected both from the point of logic and morality.[5] Jains refute the concept of God, as giver of the fruition of karmās. If one accepts this, then the partial behavior of God among the beings arises. If one says, God created this universe purposefully because of compassion, this logic is also not reasonable as we see cruelty in this world. If one says, God was alone, he wanted to be many, so the creation came into being, and this also seems illogical.

Jaina philosophers like Mahaprajña have deeply studied on these issues and gave reasonable solution through the theory of karma, which confirms the independent existence of each and every soul. Freedom of will is the first basis of karma. Secondly the moral responsibility of each and every action is on the individual itself. Thirdly every individual has a right to progress and change his destiny.[6] If one claims as per Jainism everything happens according to karma, then there will be no difference between the theism i.e. Iśvarvāda and Karmavāda. But Ācārya Mahaprajña says that the theory of karma is the theory of puruṣārtha or effort. One can't differentiate the two as they are twins,[7] found always together.

The concept of Saṁkramaṇa (change) proves that every individual through ones auspicious actions can change ones previous bound inauspicious karmās. If the concept of saṁkramaṇa was not prevailing in the karma theory, then all ethical practices like recitation of canons, performance of penance, observation of vows, practice of meditations will prove to be useless. We find various living illustrations in canonical texts where the soul through ones effort changed ones destiny. So acceptance of puruṣārtha and karma theory is equal to the non-acceptance of God or theism. Let me proceed to hint upon the awareness of compassionate Mahavira for the protection of animal rights through the revolt against the then practiced animal sacrifices.

Jainism against Animal Sacrifices

Jainism advocates the equality of all the six levels of souls and the welfare of all the living beings. Jaina seers believed in the concept of spiritual advancement for animals too. The Aupapatika Sutra and other texts indicate that instinctive animals possessing five senses such as Elephants, Frogs, Snakes and Lions can behave like human lay Jains, as they have:

  • A discriminating capacity for good and evil.
  • A capacity to remember their past lives.
  • A capacity to acquire clairvoyant knowledge.
  • The instinct for the desirable and avoidance of the undesirable.
  • The capacity to perform fasting, penance and self-control and change their behavior.
  • The capacity to hear religious scriptural sermons etc.

Jaina scriptures contain stories of an Elephant Meghaprabha,[8] the Cobra Candakaushik[9], the Dardur Frog[10] who worshipped, and a Lion listening to the sermons[11] in an earlier birth of Mahavira. Jainas believe that animals can behave like the human laity, spiritually and improve their future rebirth. The Jaina scriptures claim that there are more animals, following the life of the Jaina laity in the universe, than humans. Hence Jainism stresses the importance of animal welfare and shows compassion towards them. One finds a respect for animals in practical life in all members of the Jaina community. With the co-operation of the Kings, Nobles and Millionaires, who become his followers, the Mahavira banned the sacrificial rites of poor and innocent animals. Being influenced by the noble teachings of the Mahavira, even the renowned Brahmins of his time did not advocate animal sacrifice. It is clearly written in the Acārānga Sūtra, the first text of Āgam literature that animals too possess equal consciousness as per Jaina perspective from the existential point of view like human beings. Tirthankar Mahavira 2600 years back itself claimed that the life of least developed beings must be duly respected. An outstanding aphorism of Ācāranga which highly depicts the oneness of the soul i.e. 'Tumaṃsi nāma Sacceva Jaṃ, hantavvaṃ ti mannasi, tumamsi nama sacceva Jam ajjāveyavvamti mannasi,[12] that is "whom you want to kill is no one else rather than yourself, That which you want to satisfy is yourself, That which you want to torture is yourself." Such a oneness of souls in all the levels of beings if recognized then I am sure that violations of basic rights of all the beings can be safeguarded. In the world of today, a fresh problem needs fresh thinking and emergence of new principles for their solution. The scripture under study proclaims the effects of ambitious mentality of modern society to enjoy the pleasures of the world at the cost of other beings. The Jaina motto of 'Parasparopagraho Jeevānām [13]as quoted in the Tattvartha Sutra, which highlights that all living organism, however big or small, irrespective of the degree of their sensory perception, are bound together by mutual support and interdependence.

Many kings were highly convinced by the Mahavira that sacrifices could be performed even without killing animals. It was the Mahavira, who first of all propagated the idea, that life is dear to all living beings,[14] even the tiniest creature that crawls under our feet, we being sensible beings have got no right to take the life of others. We should extend living kindness (mittī me savva bhūyesu)[15] to all the living beings. In this conception of universal amity, lies the spirit of universal brotherhood. History will speak that this very spirit of the Mahavira's maitri and tolerance could break all the barriers separating man from man, country from country and nation from nation, in all the ages. Maitri means, a disposition not to cause any suffering to any living from mind, body and speech for the practical realization of the ideal of ahimsa. Thus the Mahavira's teachings of Non-violence towards all beings are very much relevant in the contemporary world. Along with the propagation of Animal rights he opened the doors of liberation and spiritual practices even for the women.

The Equal Position to Women: Open Outlook of Mahavira

Mahavira's attitude towards womenfolk was also very liberal. He saw the innate, good of both men and women and assigned to them their due place in his  śāsana (Religious Order). In his religious order, sex was no barrier to attaining saint-hood  and ultimately the liberation. He had great regard for women. He said that both man and woman are eligible to attain emancipation after destroying the passions and karmās. He declared, "There are many virtuous women namely solaha satiya who are famous for their purity and chastity. Jaina women had similar duties to men in performing religious rites and rituals and were allowed to read and study the scriptures whereas in Vedic culture and religious society, women and śūdras were considered as inferior, debarring them from the initiation rites and wearing the sacred thread, a symbol of higher caste.[16] Moreover women and manual workers (śūdras) were not allowed to listen to sacred scriptures. Tirthankara Mahavira gave full freedom to one and all, including women and the śūdras, to observe common religious practices. He gave an equal opportunity to everybody, irrespective of his class, caste, or birth, or sex, to practice religion according to one's capacity. On the other hand, Mahavira liberally initiated the nuns in his order, which is double in number when compared with the monks. In his order, there were only 14,000 monks but there were 36,000 nuns.[17] In the same way, the numbers of laywomen is 3,18,000, which is more than the number of 1,59,000 laymen.[18] He propounded that the difference, which we see in the world is due to the past karmās and each soul whether male or female through ones pious efforts can change ones destiny.  

Attachment: Violence Verses Non-attachment: Non-violence

Mahavira laid emphasis on the inner happiness of man. Material gains and prosperity of any possible length, however high, lofty and immense they might be, cannot bring a man his true inner happiness. They bring only temporary happiness to be immediately followed by more sufferings of any kind, viz. sufferings from disease, from the inconvenience of old age, from death, sufferings of separation from near and dear ones (priya-viyoga), sufferings from union with undesirable ones (apriya-samyoga), sufferings form the non-attainment and non-fulfilment of desires, sufferings form lamentation, grief, dissatisfaction, despair, and what not. As a son of the King Siddhartha, Mahavira was blessed with worldly possessions in plenty. But still he was not happy within, and therefore one day, he went from home to homelessness in search of real happiness. Throughout his career, after his great enlightenment he, therefore, admonished the people, saying: Exert yourself for your own happiness, exert yourself for your own salvation. No almighty power can save you and bring you perfect happiness, which you long for. You have to tread on and proceed step by step for reaching your own goal." He further advised his disciples not to accept his word as gospel truth out of regard for him, but to do so only after a thorough investigation of them, i.e. appanā sacca mesejjā.[19] Just as man accepts gold after cutting, burning and rubbing it, on a kind of touch stone.

Mahavira was not opposed to meeting the primary needs of the rapidly growing population, but his opposition was to the ideology of unrestrained ambitions. Humanity has not yet succeeded in finding a way of life that could satisfy the primary needs of all and simultaneously mitigate the inhuman cruelty, a by-product of excessive acquisition of wealth. So Mahapragya rightly said, solve the problem of possessiveness, the problem of violence will then automatically find its own solution.[20] The effect cannot be got rid of so long as the cause is in function. Violence is an effect, possessiveness is its cause. The root cause of the problem of violence is of tying up the sense of mineness with things. This philosophy of Ācārāṅga gave a new turn to the science of ethics and advanced thought in the direction of peace announcing 'Be a seer. Look at every event and bring about a change in your attitude to sensual objects. Do not enjoy objects like the person who doesn't seek truth. But bring about a complete change in your life style through attitudinal change.'[21] If this view of Mahavira is translated into reality, I think that unnecessary violence, reactive violence, physical, mental, emotional and intellectual violence at large can be avoided.

Establishment of Social Equality

Jaina and Buddhists belong to the sramanic stream of Indian religious thought, historically; they have opposed the rigid birth based caste system of the Vedic religion. Among the people who followed the Vedic culture, society was divided into four classes (varnas) namely brahmin, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śūdra, these were claimed to have emerged from the body of brahmana, the primeval puruṣa: the Brahmin from his mouth, the Kṣatriya from his arms, the vaiśya from his thighs and the śudra from his feet.[22] Moreover the Manusmṛiti depicts that the Brahmins considered themselves superior to the other classes as they performed the complex rituals and behaved as intermediaries of the Gods etc. Thus the society at that time was completely class-ridden in the sense that unusual importance was given to the Brahmin class to the detrimental of other classes and that nobody was allowed to change his class, which he had got on the basis of his birth in that class.

Jain tīrthaṅkaras opposed social divisions based on birth and reiterated that birth in the society is due to one's earlier karma. The social divisions should be based on work to facilitate the smooth functioning of the society, that's why he preached that man becomes brahmin, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śudra, through one's respective actions and not by birth..[23] He said, different work cultures will produce different ways of life, and everyone has a potentiality to move into higher or lower social groups. All have a capacity for higher spiritual development and since the time of Mahavira, people of differing varnas and Jāts, from many areas, have accepted the Jain religion, making the Jain society heterogeneous.

2600 years back Mahāvīra propounded the concept of 'āyatule payāsu' i.e. perceive equal consciousness in all the living beings. The application of this principle of equality in life is very essential to give a full stop to the various levels of exploitation occurring due to the narrow mind setup. Dividing the human race in the name of sex, caste, creed, colour, language, profession, gender, and religion is rejected by him at the very outset. Religion is really a dark phase of human history, which we all of us have witnessed in past. Mahāvīra laid great stress on the equality of all human beings. Stressing on action and not on birth as a determining factor of superiority was a radical step taken by Mahāvīra. He declared no hiṇe no airette[24] i.e. nobody is high or low, on the basis of birth, all are equal. There is only one race i.e. human race.[25] During his lifetime also, we notice that he was against any kind of casticism. He boldly condemned the caste system based on birth alone for the defects that had crept in it at that time. According to him, each soul has equal potentiality to become parmātmā, whether they are men or women, animal being or plant being, white or black, rich or poor, high or low.

The doctrine of karma as preached by Mahavira was an epoch making revolution. By this doctrine, he first attempted to abolish slavery and vehemently protested against the degrading caste system, which was firmly rooted in the soil of India. He took a bold step against that system, an utter humiliation to humanity. He did not hesitate to preach boldly that, it is not by mere birth that one becomes an outcast or noble, but by one's own actions." Irrespective of caste or creed, rich or poor, all were really brothers as admitted to his Holy order and allowed to enjoy equal privileges.[26] We find in his Holy order, all classes of people, even fishermen, scavengers, barbers, potters, courtesans, along with the Brahmins and warriors. Harikeshbal was cāndāl (out caste), he embraced him and initiated him in his order. Mahāvīra laid a vision of casteless society on the basis of concept of ekka manussa jaai,i.e., Human race is one. When one ponders upon this issue deeply, one can recognize that this concept can solve many problems occurring today like violence based on regional difference in Mahārāstra, language difference in Sri Lanka, colour difference in the West, religious difference in Iran and Iraq, so on and so forth.

Thus it can be concluded that Tirthankara Mahavira by negating the sovergnity of God in rendering the fruition of one's actions and by preaching the theory of karma, self-reliance of one's actions on the basis of karmic mechanism. He gave the   equal freedom to five-sensed animals and to women to attain emancipation and to observe vows. He gave the good formula of attaining the peace through the change of possessive attitude. He made an epoch making revolution in the field of casticism by accepting the human race as one. He did not hesitate to preach boldly that, it is not by mere birth that one becomes an outcast or noble, but by one's own actions.", and established the social equality.



Primary Texts

Ācārāṅga Sūtra. Ed. Yuvācārya Mishrimalji 'Madhukar'. With Original Text, Hindi version, Notes, Annotation and Appendices. Beawar: Shri Āgam Prakashan Samiti.1998.

Ādipurāṇa of Jinsenācārya. Ed. Pannalal Jain. Vārāṇasi: Bhārtīya Jñānpītha 3rd edn. 1988.

Āvaśyaka Sūtra. Ed. Yuvācārya Madhukar. with commentary of Haribhadra. Bombay: Āgamodaya Samiti Siddhānta Saṃgraha.1916.

Tattvārtha Sūtraṁ of Umāswāmī. Ed. J.L. Jaini. Delhi: Barrister Champat Rai Jain Trust.1956.

Uttarādhyayana Sūtra. Ed. Muni Mishrimalji Maharaj. Trans. Muni Rajendra. Beawar: Āgam Prakāshan Samiti. 1991

Jñātādharmakathā Sūtra, Ed. Yuvacharya Mahaprajña. With Prakrit Text, Sanskrit rendering, Hindi translation, Comparative notes and Various appendines.  Ladnun: Jain Vishva Bhāratī Institute. Vol.-I, 1990, Vol.-II, 1993.

Kalpa Sūtra.  Of Shrut Kevali Bhadra Bahu.  Ed. Devendra Muni Shastri. Shivana: Sri Amar Jain Agam Shoda Samsthan.1968.

Ṛgveda saṃhitā of Srimat Sayanacarya. Poona: Vaidika Sanshodhan Mandala. 1941

Nayādhammakahāo. Ed. Yuvacharya Mahaprajna. Ladnun: Jain Vishva Bharati Prakashan. 1992.

Manusmṃti of Kulluka  Bhatta. Ed. Gopal Shastri Nene. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.1970.

Kalpa Sūtra of Bhadrabahu Svami. Trans.Kastur Chand. Delhi: Motilal Banarasi Dass.1979.

Gathā. Ed. Sadhvi Pramukha Kanakpraba. Guided by Yuvacharya Mahaprajñ a. Ladnun: Jain Vishva Bhāratī Institute. Ist edn.1993.

Tulsi, Ācārya. Jaina Siddhānta Dīpikā. Sardarsahar: Ādarśa Sāhitya Sangh.1950.

Secondary Books

Mahāprajña, Ācārya.  Jain Darśan: Manan Aur Mīmāṁsā. Ed. Muni Dulharāja. Churu.1995.

Chatterjee and Dutta.  An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. 1984.

Muni Shri Nyāyavijayaji.  Jain Philosophy and Religion. Vārāṇasī: MBS.1998.

Helmuth Glasenapp. Jainism: An Indian Religion of Salvation.Delhi: Motilal Banarasi Dass.1984.

Mahāprajña. Jain Darśana Aur Anekānta. Ed. Muni Dulharaj. Churu: Ādarśa Sahitya Sanga Publication.1994.

K.C. Jain. Lord Mahavira And His Times. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidasa. 1974.

Mahapragya. Economics of Mahavira. Delhi: Adarsh Sahitya Sangha.2004.

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