Mahavira's Life and Teachings

Posted: 09.07.2012
Updated on: 30.07.2012

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The life and teachings of Bhagwan Mahavira is a glorious chapter of infinite compassion as the he promoted universal welfare. He was the benefactor, unequaled guide to mankind for leading right path of life and to establish universal peace and solidarity.

There are twenty four Tirthankaras, also known as Jinas, meaning Self Conquerors in Jainism. Among them the first Bhagwan Rishabha is universally regarded as the foremost teacher of philosophy. He was the originator of human culture and first organizer of human society. A tirthankara is one who has established the holy path of sanctity and serenity for the purpose of self-realization or 'tirtha', one who guides the aspirant to cross the ocean of sufferings, one who is the symbol of purity, self-sacrifice, renunciation, austerity and universal love. He has totally won over all sense organs and emancipated his soul from all Ragas and has reached the transcendental state of omniscience.

In the line of 24 Tirthankaras, Bhagwan Mahavira was the last. Therefore, to say that Bhagwan Mahavira was the founder of Jainism is not correct.

About 2602 years ago in 599 BCE Bhagwan Mahavira descended on this world from celestial regions taking birth as the son of King Siddharth in Kshatriyakund Gram suburb of Vaishali kingdom. It was on the thirteenth night of the bright fortnight of the month of Chaitra that Queen Trishala gave birth to this great soul.

Ever since Mahavira entered into his mother's womb there was a steady increase in affluence and prosperity in the kingdom of his father Siddharth and that is why he was named Vardhaman.

Mahavira was brought up in the midst of princely comforts but he did not like to lead a worldly life. His soul was hankering after the higher truth, which could bring a permanent solution to the problems. He therefore wanted to renounce the world but the tradition has it that he did not like to cause slightest grief to his parents and he decided to leave the household after their death. But his elders would not permit him to renounce the world even after his parents were no more and hence he deferred his initiation further by two years.

At the age of thirty, Bhagwan Mahavira renounced the world and became a Monk. He recited the words. 'I bow down to all the liberated souls' and entered the monastic order. His whole career thereafter was marked by severe penances. During this period of 12 years he observed fasts of various denominations and durations ranging from two days to six months continuously. During the entire period of 12 years, he would have taken food hardly for 350 days. He spent the entire period enduring all obstacles, sufferings and pains and entertained feelings of forgiveness towards his persecutors. He wandered from place to place practicing austerities, self-control, continuous forbearance, renunciation and contentment and reflecting on the path of liberation.

He had multifarious experiences during all these 12 years. He endured many hardships and calamities with patience. He gave up wearing apparel, use of utensils and took food in his bare palms.

He was a monk who renounced everything. He walked in the streets, villages and towns. He did not care for the scorching heat or cold nor for hunger or suffering. He was pelted with stones, assaulted with sticks, dogs were set after him and he was abused. But he marched on without a word of protest. As a stranger he was sometime caught by the city guards mistaken for a spy. Some times dacoits and thieves, when caught red-handed, tried to implicate Mahavira in their crime for their own safety and Mahavira, lost in contemplation and meditation, would not answer any question addressed to him. His silence brought him many hardships. During these 12 years, Mahavira wandered from place to place. He resolved not to stay with any one when his stay proved unpleasant to others. He also decided not to take help from others. He sought shelter in groves, gardens, deserted houses, desolate places and shrines dedicated to popular deities.

After a prolonged exertion in the form of deep meditation and severe austerities for over 12 years, on the 10th day of bright fortnight of the month of Baisakh Sud in the 13th year he attained perfect knowledge, kevala jnana, self-enlightenment elevating himself to the state of an arihant, the Jina, kevali, all knowing, all seeing, the omniscient, world teacher of universal truth, supreme wisdom and infinite compassion. Before attaining perfect knowledge, he was wandering alone and keeping silence. But from then onwards he went about preaching religion from place to place with his large following. He adopted the language of the masses. His first sermon was before the eleven great scholars from Magadh, Videha, Kosala, Vatsa, etc. who all gathered with thousands of their pupils to attend the ritual of sacrifice (Maha Yagna). All of them were convinced by the doctrine of Anekantavad (multiple view points) and became the followers of Bhagwan Mahavira. Among his followers were kings, queens, tribal chieftains, princes, princesses, merchants, farmers potters and low-class people.

Mahavira was vitarag and to become vitarag one should conquer rag, dwesh, krodh, maan, maya, lobh and moha (i.e. attachment, aversion, anger, pride, deceit, avarice and delusion). Mahavira preached for 30 years and spread the gospel of ahimsa (non-violence). At the age of seventy two he attained Nirvana on the 15th day of dark fortnight of the month of Kartika. On that day every year Dipavali is being celebrated in the memory of the great soul.

He was a Jina, meaning thereby, one who has won over all retarding forces in life. Hence, the religious followers came to be known as Jains. Formerly, Jainism was known as Nirgrantha Dharma. Mahavira was famous as Nirgrantha because, he had freed himself from all the ties and entanglements, internal and external. Man is not dependent on any external agency, he is quite, independent and his own acts alone are responsible for this salvation. A man attains the ultimate when he becomes perfect by following prescribed ethical code.

Mahavira preached that the life of a human being was the Supreme not only to all the rest of the lower creatures but also to all the celestial beings. It is only the human being who can exert his own free will and attain emancipation.

Mahavira believed in the sanctity of life in whatsoever form it might be. Different kinds of creatures are embodiments of similar souls in varying spiritual gradations. Therefore, he laid emphasis on showing equal regard for all forms of life. Pain and pleasure are same for all. No one likes pain, injury or violence. Hence one should not cause pain to other creatures and one should always follow the path of ahimsa.

During the Maurya period more than 20 crores of Jains lived from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The influence of Jains over Tamil and Kannada literature is immense. Thirukural, the ancient Tamil ethics and Naladiyar are claimed as the works of Jains. The reference to the Adi Bhagwan in the first Kural is to the first Jain Thirthankara. A reference is also found in Yajurveda, Samaveda, Yogavashista and Sivapurana accepting the concept of Jina and of Rishabadeva.

In the spiritual sphere as in the other spheres of human being, there is a growing tendency towards unification. 'Triratna' embodies that tendency:

  • right faith,
  • right knowledge and
  • right conduct

in their combined form alone can lead a man to spiritual perfection: that is triratna.

Three cardinal principles advocated by Mahavira are ahimsa, aparigraha and anekantavada:

Ahimsa is not only non-violence but love and compassion for all beings. Ahimsa can be said to be the pivot of Jain ethics but it is impossible to be non-violent unless one practices at the same time the vows of truthfulness, chastity, non-possession, etc. One who is grossly selfish or a liar or lacks in morals or is addicted to drinks can never be non-violent.

Aparigraha (curtailing one's desires and possessions, commercial professional as well as domestic) has great significance for the present age. If a system wants to survive, it must have practical applicability for all times to come. Preachers of the doctrines of Mahavira, his followers and admirers, all of them have special responsibility in this age of economic inequality and unfair distribution of necessities of life. Everyone of us has a role to play if aparigraha is to have any meaning. When curtailment of desires and possession is not done voluntarily by self-restraint and self-discipline, it is brought about by force of socialism and communalism.

Anekantavada. The third principle is 'anekantavada' or 'syadvada' which means that truth is multiple and manifold. All categorical and dogmatic statements are therefore an outrage on truth. A global vision which comprehends within its orbits all sides and aspects of a thing, reconciles all apparent contradictions and wields its disparities into harmonies is the right vision. All partial statements of truth are only partly true and merely hypothetical in as much as they miss the complexity and manifoldness. To know the reality, to have the proper assessment of things and to overcome the confusion, one shall look at the things from points of view i.e. substance, place, time and condition (dravya, kshetra, kala and bhava).

According to Jain principles a house holder (grahasth) shall observe five vows by man, vachan and kaya (i.e. thought, deed and action). The vows are ahimsa (non- violence), satya (truth), asteya (not to commit theft), brahmacharya (chastity) and aparigraha. All the five principles, if observed honestly, can be helpful in solving all the problems of the universe and will bring peace, happiness and prosperity to all living beings.

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