Teachings of Mahavira

Posted: 10.11.2010
Updated on: 02.07.2015


The author of the following article was a scholar of Indology, focused on Buddhist studies. Supposable, the short essay was the result of his first serious encounter with Jaina records. In 1949, more than ten years after writing that article, he published his book Some Jaina Canonical Sutras.

The article was published in Jainacharya Shri Atmanand Janma Shatabdi Smarak Grantha (Jainacharya Shri Atmanand Centenary Commemoration Volume), edited by Mohanlal Dalichand Desai, Bombay 1936, pp. 144-149.

Teachings of Mahavira

The writer is a scholar in Buddhist literature. He has from that point of view seen three Jaina Āgamas and gave an account of his impressions in this article.

Mahāvīra the last Tirthankara of the Jains, was one of the greatest religious reformers of India. He was undoubtedly the most notable scion of the Jnātrika clan. He had a tremendous influence over the millions of Indians. He has been described in a Buddhist book as the head of an Order, of a following, the teacher of a school, well-known and of repute as a sophist, revered by the people, a man of experience, who had long been a recluse, old and well-stricken in years.[1]

A detailed biography of this great religious reformer will fill a volume and is beyond the scope of the present paper. We are concerned here to touch only a few salient features of his noble teachings treasured in the Jaina Sūtras, The teachings of Mahāvīra and Buddha are mainly the same. Mahāvīra gave some instructions to the lay people and monks, which we have noted here as far as can be gathered from the Jaina Sutras.

Mahāvīra points out that four precepts and self-privation are the recognised roads to the blissful state of the soul. Every act of killing is a cause of demerit whether the act be intentional or not. The Jains took exception to the Buddhist view regarding this point (vide Sūtrakṛtāṅga, Jaina Sūtra, II, 414-417). The soul and the world are both eternal giving birth to nothing new. This is how Mahāvīra points out the ontological significance of eternalism. According to him the real object of experience as a whole can never be cognised and described by appropriate symbols.

According to Mahāvīra, one should abstain from killing beings, theft, falsehood, sensual pleasures, spiri­tuous liquor and those who do not renounce these, go to hell. A person will suffer the consequences of whatever may preponderate as between an act and forbearance from it. That is to say, if the period during which a man abstains from cruelty and homicide is of longer duration than the period during which he kills animals, he will not go to hell. [2]

According to him the soul which has no form is conscious (Cf. Sumaṅgalavilāsinī 119).

Mahāvīra further points out that a person should always be meek and should not be talkative in the presence of the wise. He should acquire valuable knowledge. A wise man should not be angry when reprimanded. He should not associate with mean men. A sage should wander about free from sins. Company of women should be discarded. Self should be subdued. Teacher should be politely approached. An intelligent pupil should rise from his seat and answer the teacher's call modestly and attentively. The pious obtain purity and the pure stand firmly in the law. Delusion, pride, deceit and greed should be avoided. Monks or householders who are trained in self-control and penance and who have obtained liberation by the absence of passion go to the highest region. Those who are ignorant of the truth are subject to pain.

A person of pure faith always realises the truth. Those who have attachments for this world suffer. An ignorant man kills, tells lies, steals foreign goods, and is desirous of women and pleasures. The sinners go to the world of Asuras and to the dark place. They will be born in hell. Stupid sinners go to hell through their superstitious beliefs. One should not permit the killing of living beings. He should not commit sins in thoughts, words and acts. The pleasures are like a venomous snake. The pleasures are like the thorn that rankles, pleasures are poison. He who possesses virtuous conduct, who has practised the best self-control, who keeps from sinful influences and who has destroyed his karma will obtain mukti.

According to Mahāvīra, meditation means abstaining to meditate on painful and sinful things. One should with a collected mind engage in pure meditation on the law. He further points out that misery ceases on the absence of delusion, delusion ceases on the absence of desire, desire ceases on the absence of greed, and greed ceases on the absence of property. According to him there are eight kinds of karma. A wise should know the different subdivisions of karma and should exert him­self to prevent and destroy them. (Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, Lectures 1 to 36).

There are three ways of committing sins by one's own activity, by commission and by approval of the deed. By purity of heart one reaches Nirvāṇa. Misery arises from weaker deeds. A wise man should abstain from overbearing behaviour. A very learned or a virtuous man or a Brāhmana or an ascetic will be severely punished for his deed when he is given to actions of deceit. A sage should always vanquish his passions. He should expound the law correctly. He should not neg­lect even the smallest duty. A wise man should abandon worldliness. He who abstains from cold water, and who does not eat food out of the dish of a householder, possesses right conduct. Those who are not subdued by the wicked pleasures know meditation to be their duty.

The virtuous men regard pleasures as equal to diseases. One should not kill living beings in the threefold way, being intent on his spiritual welfare and abstaining from sins. Nirvāṇa consists in peace. Cruel sinners commit bad deeds and will sink into the dreadful hell which is full of dense darkness and great sufferings. Those who are wicked, kill beings for the sake of their own pleasures. Deceivers practise deceits in order to procure themselves pleasure and amusement. Sinful undertakings will at the end bring miseries. Sinners acquire karma arising from passion and commit many sins. The virtuous exert themselves for liberation. A pious man should eat little, drink little, and talk little. He should also exert himself being calm, indifferent and free from greed. The sinners are destined to suffer great violent, painful and intolerable agonies in hells. Wise men teach the true law.

According to the Āchārāṅga Sūtra a wise man should not act sinfully towards earth, nor allow others to act so. He should not act sinfully towards animals, nor allow others to do so. He should not act sinfully towards the aggregate of six kinds of life. He should neither himself commit violence by various acts, nor order others to commit violence by such acts, nor consent to the violence done by somebody else. He should adopt the true faith and stand in the right place. A hero does not tolerate discontent and lust. He is not attached to the objects of the senses and not careless. A wise man who knows the world and has east off the idea of the world should prudently do away with the destructions to righteousness. A liberated man conquers wrath, pride, deceit, greed and passion. He should avoid wrath, pride, deceit, greed, love, hate, delusion, conception, birth, death, hell, animal existe­nce and pain. A man who exerts himself and is of a steady mind without attachment, unmoved by passion and having no worldly desires, should lead the life of an ascetic.

The Jains who do not believe in a supreme God declare that karma accumulates energy and automatically works it off without any outside intervention; karma is latent in all actions. When the soul by means of austerities and good actions has got rid of agnana or igno­rance, it attains omniscience. The Jains divide karma according to its nature, duration, essence and content. Karma is intimately bound up with the soul. The Jains believe that once an atma has attained the highest state, it is absolutely indifferent to what is taking place on earth and will never again undergo rebirth. They think of mokṣa as a bare place of inaction reached by those who through suffering and austerity, have completely killed all their individuality and character and have finally snapped the fetters of rebirth.

Mahāvīras great message to mankind was that birth is nothing, that caste is nothing and that karma is everything and on the destru­ction of karma, future happiness depends.

According to Mahāvīra, a monk should avoid untruth, sinful speech, and should not be deceitful. Nothing sinful, hurtful and meani­ngless should be told. He should sally forth and return at the right time. He should collect alms freely given. He must learn and conquer 22 troubles e.g. hunger, thirst, cold, heat, nakedness, erratic life, women, abuse, corporal punishment, dirt, ignorance etc. He should try to get distilled water. He should not walk beyond the prescribed time remem­bering the teachings of Jina. He should meditate on the law. He should not be angry if abused. He will be a true Samaṇa if he continues to search for the welfare of his soul. Loss of comforts should not be lamented for. He should cast aside all fetters and all hatred.

Pious ascetics get over the impassable saṃsāra. A houseless monk should not desire women. Monks should go to the highest place after annihilation of their karma. A true monk is one who does not care for his life, who abandons every delusion, who always practises auste­rities and avoids men and women. A monk should not take from the householder bed, lodging, food, drink, etc. He who practises self-discipline meditates on his soul, wise, hardy, calm and does not hurt anybody, is a true monk. He should not occupy places for sleep or rest frequented by women. He should take up a detached lodging not freque­nted by women to preserve his chastity. The pious monk should abstain from ornaments. A monk should be steadfast, righteous, content, restra­ined and attentive to his duties. Birth is misery. Old age is misery and so are disease and death. Nothing but misery is the saṃsāra, in which men suffer distress. A monk should be impartial towards all beings in the world and careful to speak truth. He should keep the severe vow of chastity. Mental and bodily penances should be practised. An ascetic will by means of his simplicity enter the path of Nirvāṇa. A monk should destroy doubts; passion should be subdued. Those who truly believe in the subject of exertion in righteousness taught by Mahāvīra, put faith in it, give credence to it, accept it, practise it, comply with it, study it, understand it, learn it, and act up to it, have obtained perfection, enlightenment, deliverance, final beatitude and have put an end to all miseries. A monk should not tell stories. He should be free from attachment. He should wander about for the welfare of his soul putting aside all undertakings. He will abstain from untrue speech and will not take that which is not freely given to him. He who vigorously practises austerities avoids anger and pride. He should be modest. He should know correctly the sacred texts. He should practise austerities and understand all details of the law. He should conform himself to the opinions expressed by the Jinas and wander about till he reaches final liberation (cf. Sūtrakṛtāṅga).

A monk or a nun on a begging tour should not accept alms which are impure and unacceptable. He or she should not attend any festivity. Food placed on a platform or any such elevated place should not be accepted. Food placed on vegetable or animal matter, unripe, wild rice, sediments of liquor, raw plants and raw substances should not be accepted. There are rules regarding the bath of a monk or a nun, pilgrimages undertaken by them, modes of speech, begging of clothes etc.He or she should not accept clothes which are full of living beings but should accept clothes that are fit, strong and lasting. There are some rules regarding begging for a bowl. A monk or a nun should not accept a bowl which a layman has bought. He or she should not accept very expensive bowl, made of tin, silver, gold, brass, mother of pearl etc. He or she must have to observe certain rules if they desire to go to a sugarcane plantation or to a garlic field. He or she should not go to any place where there are many temptations. From the Uvāsagadasāo (lecture 1) we learn that Mahāvīra addressing Ānanda, one of his staunch followers, spoke to him that a Jain monk must know and avoid five typical offences against the law of right belief, abstention from gross ill-usage of living beings, abstention from grossly lying speech, abstention from gross taking of things not given, limiting one's own desires, keeping uposatha (sabbath), right distribution of alms etc.

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