The life of Vardhamana Mahavira – 24th Tirthankara of Jainism

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The life of Vardhamana Mahavira – 24th Tirthankara of Jainism

Known by different names like Vardhman, Veer, Ativeer, Mahaveer, and Sanmati, the life of Mahavira witnessed an era when an increasing number of people chose to abandon their normal lives and embark on a life of roving mendicancy. Even he chose to forsake a life of luxury and become an ascetic. Mahavira was taken in a parade to a vast park, where he disembarked from a palanquin, plucked out his hair in five handfuls, and removed all of his decorations and clothing, according to several sources. Some sources suggest that he stayed naked after that, while others believe the gods granted him a particular piece of clothing that he wore until it got snagged on a thorny bush and he spent the rest of his life naked because he didn't notice it was gone. The two narratives differ in an apparently insignificant aspect, yet they indicate a major doctrinal difference between the Digambara, or sky-clad, and the Svetambara, or white-clad, Jain traditions. The first tradition contends that nudity is required to fully fulfill the mendicant vow of nonattachment, whilst the second disagrees, claiming that basic white mendicant garb does not violate the vow. Due to the magnitude of such disparities in biographical stories, it is arguably more correct to speak of two religious’ biographies of Mahavira rather than one, despite the fact that they largely correspond.

Jainism: History, Society, Philosophy, and Practice

Mahavira literally means "great hero" in Sanskrit. Vardhamana Jnatrputra, a man who was most likely born in the sixth or fifth century BCE in the city of Kundagrama in what is now the Indian state of Bihar, was given this prestigious title. Mahavira is sometimes referred to as the founder of Jainism in Western literature. However, he is only one in a series of people known as jinas or Tirthankaras, human beings of human parents who achieve omniscience through their own efforts and teach the path to liberation to other living beings, according to the Jain faith. The word "Jina" literally means "victory" or "conqueror," and it refers to a person who overcomes Karman by rigorous austerity and the control of anger's impulses. The followers of jinas are called Jainas or Jains, a designation that has been used for the religious community of mendicants and laity, established on the basis of the teachings of the jinas since the early centuries CE until today.

Jainism and Jaina Culture in India

A synonym for Jina is Tirthankara, which literally means “maker of a ford,” referring to a person who establishes a religious community that operates as a tirtha or “ford” across the river of rebirths. According to the Jain doctrine, Tirthankaras can be born in different parts of the so-called middle cosmos, populated by human beings. The particular part of the middle cosmos where we live is said to successively undergo cycles throughout which living conditions such as morality, happiness, spirituality, longevity, and stature gradually decline and then improve again. Tirthankaras are born in the intermediate stages between the lowest and the highest points of these cycles. Mahavira was the most recent and the last in the line of twenty-four Tirthankaras of the current period of decline. Jains believe all Tirthankaras teach about the same things: the entrapment of living beings in the cycle of rebirths and the means of deliverance from it. In view of this, there is no reason for followers to elevate the doctrine of one particular Tirthankara above others since all Tirthankaras are understood as transmitting the same eternal truth, rather than formulating a novel religion. Reflecting the uniformity of Tirthankara figures, even their biographical accounts are somewhat formulaic and record the occurrence of similar events throughout their lives. The description of the final human lives of Tirthankaras normally covers the five auspicious events of conception, birth, renunciation, omniscience, and liberation. However, along with the first Tirthankara, the most recent Tirthankaras of the current period of decline are still brought to mind and revered more readily. The narratives of their lives, such as the biographies of Mahavira, are accordingly preserved in more detail than those of some other Tirthankaras.

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The stories of Tirthankaras' life serve to ground components of doctrine and practice in the achievements of Tirthankaras, as well as to provide a template for the route to enlightenment and freedom that other living beings can follow. They play an important role in Jain religious life, with certain groups reenacting the most fortunate events in the lives of Tirthankaras during festivals. Mahavira's birth, for example, is commemorated every year in early spring during Mahavira-Jayanti, a festival commemorating Mahavira's birth.

Tirthankaras are subject to the reincarnation system as well, which means Mahavira had many distinct lifetimes before being born as Mahavira. Several sources, including Digambara and Svetambara, link one of his previous lives to Rsabha, the present period's first Tirthankara. They characterize Mahavira-to-be as Rsabha's heretical grandson Marici, who became a vagrant follower of his grandpa but relaxed his ascetic habits because they were too difficult for him to stomach. He shaved his hair instead of tearing it out; he wore shoes instead of walking barefoot, and he wore an umbrella instead of being subjected to the sun. On one occasion, upon being asked about the destinies of those present in their assembly, Rsabha predicted that despite his current behavior Marici would eventually be reborn not only as a chakravartin, or universal emperor but also as the twenty-fourth Tirthankara. Feeling joyful and proud after such a prediction, Marici carried on with his lax practice, thereby attracting a lot of inauspicious Karman. Moreover, when he fell ill and yearned for an attendant, he took on a student of his own, falsely telling him that both his and his grandfather’s religious paths were true. After his death, Marici underwent a number of other rebirths in the heavenly, human, infernal, and animal forms before assuming his final life-form as a human being who would become a Tirthankara. One of his most interesting rebirths was in the form of a lion, who one day happened to encounter two Jain monks. They taught the lion about nonviolence and urged him to refrain from injuring other living beings. Upon hearing their instruction, the lion decided to stop killing and, abstaining from all food, soon died. He was reborn as a heavenly being. The symbol of a lion has been representative of Mahavira in Jain art until today.

Mahavira (His Times and His Philosophy of Life )

Traditional dates for the birth of Mahavira are 599 BCE for the majority of Svetambaras and 582 BCE for Digambaras. Both traditions agree that Mahavira was born to a Kshatriya, or warrior caste, as he ought to have been since the Jain tradition has it that only members of this particular caste can become universal emperors, be it worldly or religious. However, according to the Svetambara sources, Mahavira was actually conceived by a Brahmin couple, mother Devananda and father Rsabhadatta. This incident is related to Mahavira’s past life as Marici. Because Marici felt overly proud about the prestige of his family and his future destiny, he attracted low-birth Karman. The ripening of this specific kind of Karman resulted in his being conceived by Brahmins, which in the Jain context are considered lower than the warrior caste. After eighty-two days, Sakra (Indra), king of the gods, who found this situation unsuitable for the future Tirthankara, appointed the commander of his heavenly army to transfer the embryo from the womb of Devananda to the womb of a Kshatriya woman called Trisala who was pregnant at the time. While Trisala received the embryo of Mahavira-to-be, her own embryo was taken to replace Devananda’s. This event of the embryo transfer does not feature in Digambara sources.

Glory of Jaina Tirthankaras

Both Svetambara and Digambara sources agree that while pregnant with the baby, Devananda and Trisala each had a series of dreams that were symbolic in announcing the birth of a future Tirthankara. The dreams featured various living beings or objects such as an elephant, a bull, a lion, the goddess of beauty called Sri, garlands of flowers, the moon, and the sun. During all these dreams, the baby Mahavira-to-be was perfectly still in the womb in order not to harm his pregnant mother, thereby already acting in accordance with the principle of nonviolence. He moved only when Trisala started dreading that he might not be well, and Svetambara sources maintain that upon realizing the great concern of his parents for him, he decided in the womb not to leave his home and become a wandering ascetic until they had passed away. Digambaras, however, claim that Mahavira did in fact leave his parents while they were still alive but first sought their approval for doing so.

The historicity of 24 Jain Tirthankars

The birth of the Tirthankara-to-be was joyously celebrated by human and heavenly beings. Immediately after he was born, Sakra, king of the gods, took the baby to the central cosmic mountain Meru, where he was given a ritual bath. Upon that he was named Vardhamana, “Increasing One” or “Prospering One” by his father for the reason that his family’s affluence, merit, and renown greatly increased while he was in his mother’s womb. Sakra gave him the name Mahavira, predicting that the child would be very brave. Mahavira’s youth was spent in a fairly similar manner to that of other well-situated boys from highborn families of his time. He was not only handsome and smart but also excelled among his peers in courage as well as physical endurance and strength. According to one story, Mahavira was playing with his friends when suddenly a furious elephant rushed toward them. His friends ran away in panic while Mahavira stayed calm, and when the elephant approached him, he grabbed it by the trunk and ascended it. In another story, a certain god who was teasing him and testing his courage took him high up into the sky on his shoulders, but fearless Mahavira struck the god and pulled his hair, which made the teaser immediately bring him down. Svetambara sources hold that when Mahavira grew up, he married a girl called Yasoda with whom he had a daughter. When Mahavira was twenty-eight years old, his parents passed away. As devout followers of the twenty-third Tirthankara, Parsva, they finished their lives by voluntarily fasting to death, which Jain tradition considers being a very auspicious way to end one’s life. After the death of his parents, Mahavira wanted to leave the comfortable aristocratic life in order to become a renunciant, following the example of Parsva, the Tirthankara before him, who renounced the worldly life after the death of his own parents. However, Mahavira’s family deterred his decision for another two years, when he finally got permission from his elder brother and the city authorities to leave the life of a nobleman. According to Digambara sources, however, Mahavira never married, having been reluctant to engage in worldly matters since he was a child. As noted, they also maintain that Mahavira started his wandering mendicancy while his parents were still alive.

Live And Let Others Live''- Life Lessons From Mahavira

Mahavira’s decision to leave the life of a householder was followed by a ritual of renunciation depicted earlier. With it, Mahavira started observing demanding ascetic practices, which followed his resolve to abandon concern for the body, relinquish all passions, and burn off Karman through arduous austerities. The strenuous ascetic lifestyle that he adopted was indicated in the renunciation ritual by pulling out his hair and, according to Svetambara sources, a two-and-a-half-day fast in complete isolation that preceded it. Various sources describe the austerities that Mahavira bore throughout the next years in great detail. He refrained from injuring even the smallest of creatures, letting them crawl all over him and even hurt him, and he calmly endured hardships when people assaulted him with sticks, fists, and clods, or cut his body and covered him with dirt. Speaking and sleeping little, he meditated in difficult conditions, such as under a hot sun during the summer and in the shade during the winter. He underwent long fasts, throughout which he consumed neither water nor food. Whenever he did eat, he ate bland food, and when he slept, he not only laid on beds that were uncomfortable but also deliberately awakened in order to disturb a sleep that might have otherwise been too long. After twelve years, six months, and fifteen days of observing such rigorous asceticism, he is said to have attained omniscience, that is, perfect knowledge of everything there is, which in Jainism guarantees the fulfillment of liberation in the same life this state of consciousness is reached. Thereby Mahavira embarked on a path of a Tirthankara.

Religion and Culture of The Jains

When describing Mahavira’s life after the attainment of omniscience, Digambara and Svetambara's sources diverge a little. Digambaras tend to depict Mahavira as no longer involved in any worldly activities and no more bound by ordinary human bodily weaknesses of hunger, thirst, sleep, sweat, fear, disease, and aging. They describe him as always sitting in a lotus position, purified of all imperfections and therefore shining like a crystal inside a hall that was produced by heavenly beings. In the hall, he taught the eternal truth to an assembly of listeners, which consisted of heavenly, human, and animal beings. However, it is emphasized that he actually did not speak but rather emanated a divine sound, which only his chief disciples understood and translated into scriptural form. Svetambaras, on the other hand, maintain that while in his body, even a Tirthankara must continue to conform to the basic physical principles. According to them, Mahavira, then, remained involved in worldly activities even after he attained omniscience, and moreover, when he taught in the assembly of followers, he spoke a human language. Svetambaras agree with Digambaras that Mahavira’s chief disciple's composed scriptures and by way of this, a tirtha, or a religious community of mendicants and laity that was led by the chief disciples, grew. Both communities agree that the followers of Mahavira took on the five ethical vows mentioned earlier.

Mahavira died at the age of seventy-two, according to both Svetambara and Digambara traditions, in what is now the town of Pavapuri near Patna (527 BCE for most Svetambaras and 510 BCE for Digambaras). Mahavira's death is also known as his moksa, or emancipation from the cycle of rebirths, because he is said to have departed his final embodied form and ascended to the topmost summit of the cosmos, where he will reside for all eternity. According to legend, Mahavira's society included 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 laymen, and 318,000 laywomen when he died. This was the beginning of the Jain communities, which still exist today.

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