Though Mahavira Jaina was the founder of the historical Jainism, the jaina traditions maintained that there were 23 Tirthankars or prophets of that faith before the birth of Mahavira.
Mahavira thus is regarded as the twenty-fourth Tirthankara of the Jainas. It is said that the first of those prophets was Rishabha, and the last Tirthankara before Mahavira was Parsvanath.
The lives of the earlier Tirthankaras are unknown to history. Parsvanath, however, lived nearer to historical times and there-more, some accounts of him are available to history. But he, too, is said to have died 250 years before Mahavira, after living a full life of hundred years.
Parsvanath was the son of Asvasena, a Kshatriya king of Banaras. At the age of 30, he abandoned home in search of truth, and got his enlightenment after hard penance. He collected a large number of disciples to whom he preached his doctrines. The followers of his faith were asked to take four great vows, namely, to give up violence or injury to life, to be ever truthful, not to take property of others, and not to possess property of one’s own.
His successor to the faith, Mahavira, added the fifth vow, namely, to maintain celebacy, or Brahmacharya. Parsva believed in the eternity of all matter. Mahavira” also believed in that. This leads some historians to suggest that Parsvanath was the real founder of the Jaina faith. Mahavira Jina, however, gave that faith its real and historical form, and made it a great religion. He was the last Tirthankara or ‘the Ford-maker across the stream of existence’.
Mahavira Jaina: His Life:
The original name of Mahavira was Vardhamana. He was born in a village named Kundagrama near the ancient city of Vaisali. His father Siddhartha was the chief of a Kshatriya clan, famous as Jnatrikas. His mother was princess Trishala, sister of the ruler of Vaisali, Chetaka. She was also related to some other royal families of that time. This shows that Vardhamana was born in a highly aristocratic family of fame and wealth.
The date of the birth of Vardhamana Mahavira is controversial. According to one calculation, he was born in 618 B.C. and died in 546 B.C. after a life of 72 years. According to another calculation, he was born in 540 B.C. and died in 468 B.C. Though some other dates are also suggested, the date of Mahavira’s death in 468 B.C. is accepted as a more probable date.
It is based on a tradition recorded by the famous Jaina monk Hemachandra that Chandragupta Maurya came to the throne after 155 years of Mahavira’s death. But, this calculation also creates difficulties when related to other historical events. The dates of Mahavira thus remain yet doubtful.
It is enough to know, that Mahavira belonged to sixth century B.C., was a contemporary of Buddha, and according to Buddhist sources, he died before Buddha. Vardhamana started his life like others. In his youth he married Yoshoda. A daughter was born to him. But the worldly attractions did not make him worldly-minded. At the age of 30, after the death of his parents, he renounced the world and became a monk.
He took to a life of extreme penance and a wandering monk. In search of truth he struggled for long twelve years. He subjected his body to all kinds of pain while moving from place to place. According to a description in a Jaina text: “He wandered naked and homeless. People struck him and mocked at him. Unconcerned, he continued in his meditations. In Ladha, the inhabitants persecuted him and set dogs on him.
They beat him with sticks and with their feet, and threw fruits, clods of earth and potsherds on him. They disturbed him in his meditations by all sorts of torments. But like a hero in the forefront of the battle, Mahavira withstood it all. Whether he was wounded or not, he never sought medical aid. He took no kind of medicaments; he never washed, did not bathe and never cleaned his teeth. In winter, he meditated in the shade; in the heat of the summer he seated himself in the scorching sun. Often he drank no water for months. Sometimes he took only every sixth, eighth, tenth or twelfth meal and pursued his meditations without craving”.
Such was the life of hardship that Vardhamana passed through. Finally, in the thirteenth year of his penance, he got enlightenment or the supreme knowledge or the Kevala Jnana. With that he became the Jaina or the Conqueror, Mahavira or the Great Hero and Kevalin or the All Knowing. After gaining the supreme knowledge Mahavira Jina preached his faith for long thirty years. He travelled far and wide and visited such places as Mithila, Sravasti, Champa, Vaisali and Rajagriha. Kings and commoners heard his doctrines with devotion. Among the rulers, kings Bimbisara and Ajatasatru paid him their respects.
It is known from the Jaina sources that he came as far as Kalinga and preached his doctrines from the Kumari Hill (the Udayagiri Hill near Bhubaneswar) to the people of Orissa. Everywhere, the common people as well as the kings listened to him. He was venerated as a great prophet. While wandering and preaching his gospels tirelessly, Mahavira Jaina died at the age of 72 at a place named Pava near the city of Rajagriha. His remarkable life was an example of austerity, purity and morality. To an India of spiritual hunger, Mahavira presented great doctrines to awaken men’s mind to a higher religious level.
The jain canons may broadly be divided into two parts, the philosophical and the practical. The philosophical part contains ontology (a part of metaphysics dealing with the essence of things at the abstract level), metaphysics and psychology. The practical aspect relates to ethics and asceticism, monasticism and the life to be led by the laity.
Parsvanatha, who preached before Mahavira, had given four principles for a pure life. Those were, non-violence, truth, non-stealing, and non-possession. Mahavira Jaina added another principle namely Bramacharya or celibacy. According to him, these five qualities were necessary for leading a life towards perfection and to cross the stream of existence. Mahavira gave up all attachments towards wordly things. He even gave up the use of clothes.
Teaching of Mahavir Jaina:
Tri-Ratna-Mahavira laid the greatest emphasis on a truly good life of the human beings. According to him, the three absolute conditions for good life were the Right Faith, the Right Knowledge, and the Right Action. These principles of life were described as the Tri-Ratna or the three jewels.
For such a good life, man was required to discover his own soul which was ‘The highest, the noblest and the fullest manifestation of all the powers’.
But this remained hidden in the soul of man. The discovery of that power was the real purpose of life. The worship of God or gods, the use of Mantras or prayers, the sacrifices of animals or performance of many rituals were unnecessary for knowing the soul. It was by virtuous living and moral conduct that man could serve his soul’s purpose. Purification of soul was the supreme goal of life.
Mahavira did not bring God into his religious faith. While the universe was eternal, he did not find a creator behind it. Nor did he find the role of a creator to control and regulate the universe. According to him, all manifestations of power lay in the creation itself. The later Jainas came to believe that God might be just a ‘spiritual ideal’ which man could find in his own purified Atma.
When Mahavira did not give any importance to God, his religion kept no place for the priests to work between God and man. Thus came an opposition to the Brahminical supremacy in the spheres of religion. As the worship of Gods, offering of prayers, value of mantras, and the need of priestly class were denied, the Vedas and the Upanishads were also not given importance in the Jain thought.
Karma and Rebirth:
In Jainism, the faith in the theory of karma and rebirth was absolute. Man has to work in order to live. His soul therefore, is engaged in various work. Mahavira gave the maximum stress on Karma. He divided all existing things into two categories, the living and the non-living. All the living beings were described as the Jivas. Each Jiva in the body was the Atma.
Since the Jiva existed in physical or material form, it got bound to action or Karma. Man was thus bound to exist with mental, verbal and physical activities. Naturally, therefore, his Atma became subject to his Karma. It was this Karma which decided the future of the Atma. If man did not do the correct Karma through his mind, speech and body, he was bound to suffer the results of his karma.
The Karma was thus the eternal law. Bad or good karma would go by bad or good results. And, there was no escape from it. Man was bound to suffer punishment for sins through birth and rebirth. The unending cycle of rebirth would continue as long as man did not perfect his thoughts, words and deeds to get released from rebirths.
In this Karmic Law, there was no place for any God either to work as the saviour of man or as a giver of punishment. No amount of prayer or worship could save man from his Karma. God’s favour or forgiveness had no place in the Jaina thought. Responsibility was solely with man for his own future, good or bad. The Jaina thought gave a blow to the belief that man could escape his wrong works by pleasing or appeasing the Gods by prayers or worship, or by sacrificing animals, with the help of the priests.
Mahavira laid great emphasis on the right conduct of man. He wanted man to conquer two weaknesses, namely, attachment and aversion. Attachment led to selfishness and greed, while aversion led to hatred and anger. The highest standard of conduct meant the freedom from both.
Absolute faith in Ahimsa or the non-violence received the highest place in Jainism. The life of every living being was regarded as sacred. The smallest of the small creatures also possessed life as did the human beings. It was therefore a supreme sin that man should destroy the life of other creatures. As man himself does not want to be injured or killed, so also no creature would like to be injured or killed. According to Jainism, it was the duty of man to protect and preserve the life of every living creature. To Mahavira Jaina, the practice of Ahimsa was like the highest duty of every man.
Jainism carried non-violence to its extreme extent. The Jainas did not cook food after evening in fear that even the smallest of insects might fall into fire. No other religion paid so much respect to the living beings as did Jainism. Kindness towards all kind of life was cardinal feature of Jainism.
Mahavira gave the highest place to Ahimsa or non violence in human behaviour. As every living being wanted to be happy and no living being wanted to be killed or injured, the highest aim of life should be to respect the life in others, however small or insignificant be the creature. “This is a concept of far-reaching implications”, says a learned scholar on Jainism, A.N. Upadhayay. “Every living being has as much right to live happily as a man has. There are gradations in the range of the animate world; and they have to be understood, respected and protected in the light of the overall application of this Law.
This Ahimsa or non-injury is the fundamental law of civilised life and rational living. It is the basis of all moral instructions in Jainism”. The concept of non-violence in its extreme form was indeed the most significant part of Mahavira’s teaching. This led a famous Western historian, Albert Schweitzer to say: “The laying down of the commandment not to kill and not to damage is one of the greatest events in the spiritual history of mankind…… So far as we know, this is for the first time clearly expressed in Jainism”.
Jainism rose as a new religion. Side by side, it challenged many existing evils of the Brahmanic faith. Mahavira Jaina was one of the greatest reformers of ancient India. He raised his voice against many social and religious systems of his time. In an age when religion mainly meant worship of many deities, practice of meaningless ceremonies, and sacrifice of animals, Jaina drew the attention of man towards higher spiritual goals. According to him, sins of life cannot be washed away by worship or prayers. Man can avoid sins by a virtuous conduct.
By denying worships and prayers, Jaina gave a blow to the supremacy of the priestly class. The Jainas did not believe in the Vedas. They denounced blind beliefs and superstitions. While preaching the value of non-violence, they condemned the practice of animal sacrifice.
Jainism believed in human equality. As such, the Jainas, criticised the caste system.
The rise and spread of Jainism, resulted in a new socio-religious consciousness among the people. Its impact on the Indian society and culture became deep and wide.
Jaina laid great stress on the virtue of Aparigraha. It means severe restraint on man’s instinct of acquisitiveness. Man’s desire for sexual pleasures and for accumulation of wealth is like an endless game of life. The ideal of Aparigraha was intended to put an end to individual passions and desires. What was true of an individual was also true of a society or a group or a race. To give up possession and property was a spiritual exercise of the highest order. Indirectly, it also could lead to an enlightened society of human equality.
Mahavira Jaina asked his disciples to try to realise the supreme Truth. The measures he prescribed for that realisation were rather too hard. Apart from leading a life of austerity, morality, purity and virtue, they were asked not to possess, not to acquire, not to desire, and not to do any injury or harm to any creature or even to anything.
Side by side, he taught to put one’s body to pains to realise its nothinglessness and to show no attachment of the Atma for this physical form. Even, voluntary death by starvation was prescribed. A life of celibacy was recommended, and the disciples were asked to give up clothes and live naked.
The purpose of such extreme suffering was to prepare for the supreme knowledge or the Kevalin, and thereby to escape the painful cycle of birth and rebirth. The destruction of the Karma was necessary to escape the results of the Karma.
The teaching of Mahavira in this regard is described in the following way:
“Whatever an individual experiences, whether it be happy or painful or neutral feeling, all have been caused by previous actions. And thus from the cancelling of old actions by tapas, and by abstaining from doing new actions, there is no influx into future life; by this non-influx, Karma is destroyed, and so ill is destroyed, and so feeling is destroyed, and so all pain will become worn away”. The liberated soul from the Karma and the rebirth was to reach the eternal abode of bliss, the Siddha Silu, from where there was no return.
Spread of Jainism:
The teachings of Mahavira Jaina created great impact on the mind of contemporary men. Jainism as a religion at first began to spread in Kosala, Magadha, Anga and Videha. Gradually it spread in western India, Rajasthan and in some parts of south India. Kings like Ajatasatru showed favour to that new faith. The Lichchhavi people accepted the faith with great devotion. Later on, Jainism found powerful royal patrons like Emperor Kharavela of Kalinga.
The teachings of Mahavira were first preserved in form of sacred texts called Purvas. Sometime after, those texts were compiled in shape of twelve Angas.
Because of its hard rules, Jainism could not become a religion of the masses. Its followers also got divided into two branches in course of time. Those who followed Mahavira’s doctrines faithfully and gave up wearing clothes, became famous as the Digambaras. Those who put on clothes came to be known as the Swetambaras.
Though Jainism did not spread far and could not become a popular religion, yet it survived through ages and continues till today as an important religion of India. Its achievements in fields of literature, philosophy, art and architecture were wonderful. To the making of the Indian culture, the Jainas made immense contributions.