Prince Vardhamana, who later inherited the name Mahavira (“Great Hero”) after attaining enlightenment, was born in 599 BCE, although some historians place his birth later and contemporaneous with the Buddha.
Mahavira was born to King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala of the Ikshvaku Dynasty. He was a religious reformer and is regarded by Jains to be the most recent of 24 enlightened teachers (tirthankaras) in the current era (Jains believe that each era lasts for millions of years and recurs in an infinite cycle of ages). Mahavira established the rules of religious life for Jain monks, nuns, and laity, and is remembered for his particularly extreme ascetic lifestyle and advocation of non-violence (1).
Most of what we know about Mahavira’s life comes from legendary accounts included in Jain scriptures. According to the Shvetambara sect of Jainism, Mahavira married and had a daughter and later, upon becoming an ascetic, wore just one garment for more than a year. He later went naked as he had no possessions. Mahavira renounced material comfort and left his palace to live as a wandering ascetic, which occurred soon after the death of his parents. Mahavira devoted himself to fasting and meditation, and lived in villages, workshops, and around cremation and burial grounds. During this time, he developed his concept of ahimsa (non-violence), which taught respect for all living things and the avoidance of violence to any kind of life. Jains believe that after twelve years of living an extreme ascetic lifestyle, Mahavira reached enlightenment and then became a great teacher (2). He had a profound religious experience beneath a tree at the side of the river Rijuvaluka (modern-day river Barakar in Eastern Indian). This enabled him to come to a full comprehension of the nature and meaning of the universe, which is known to Jainists as keval jnana, the highest stage of perception.
Reaction to Brahmanism and Teachings
Mahavira came from a Kshatriya (warrior caste) family, and, much like the Buddha himself, his views were a reaction to and rejection of Brahmanism, which was the religion based upon the Hindu scriptures, Vedas, and Upanishads. Mahavira opposed the cultural and ritual domination of the Brahmins. The Brahmins divided society up into rigidly delineated castes in which they were the highest and claimed religious authority by virtue of their supposed innate purity. Mahavira opposed this and the Vedic sacrifices that involved the killing of animals. Because of the popularity of the doctrine of continual rebirth, which linked animals and humans in the same cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, unnecessary killing had become objectionable to many people. According to Jain scriptures, Mahavira then taught his knowledge to the common people, and although his first preaching was unsuccessful his second one resulted in the conversion of a group of Brahmins. He taught that people needed to renounce the world in search of liberation (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth. For Mahavira, life is representative of pain, suffering, and misery under the dictates of karma, and the goal is to liberate oneself from these. To liberate oneself from this cycle one has to fully embrace the three jewels of Samyak Darshana (right faith), Samyak Jnana (right knowledge), and Samyak Charitra (right character).
Mahavira gained a following from monks and nuns who went on to grow the Jain religion across central and western India. He left the responsibility of passing on the teachings to two of his disciples, Sudharman and Indrabhuti Gautama, both of whom are regarded as the founders of the historical Jain monastic community. A third disciple, Jambu, is thought to be the last person of the current age to gain enlightenment. From this moment forth the Jain community grew quickly with some Jain sources numbering adherence to roughly 50 000 at the time of Mahavira’s death (14 000 monks and 36 000 nuns). For several centuries Mahavira’s teachings were handed down by word of mouth and there were likely a series of councils hoping to preserve the Jain scriptures. A major schism arose between the Shvetambara (“White-Robed”) and Digambara (“Sky-Clad”) sects concerning appropriate monastic practice. The Shvetambara argued that monks and nuns should wear white robes, but the Digambara disagreed and claimed that monks (but not nuns) should be naked because to care what others thought was evidence of a lack of detachment from the world. This was followed by other theological disputes such as over whether or not the soul can attain liberation from a female body, which the Digambaras deny.
1. Core, J. 2002. “Singing the Glory of Asceticism: Devotion of Ascetism in Jainism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70(4): 719-742.
2. Flugel, Peter. 2012. Jainism Early History. p. 975.