Mahavira Vardhamana to whom Jainism owes its establishment as a religion probably lived from 540 to 468, B.C.
According to Jaina tradition there were altogether twenty-four Tirthankaras that is, ford-makers or prophets, Mahavira being the twenty-fourth.
The religious sect which came to be known as Jainism after the name of Mahavira Jina seems to have been in existence from some time before the advent of Mahavira.
The twenty-third Tirthankar Parsvanath was a historical person and was the real founder of the sect which later came to be known as Jaina. As Mahavira had conquered human passions he was called Jina i.e. Conquerer, and from the epithet Jina the religion came to be known as Jainism.
Mahavira, whose name was originally Vardhamana, was the son of Siddhartha the tribal Chief of Kundapura. His mother was Trisala. Siddhartha was a Kshatriya by caste and Trisala was connected by blood relationship with the royal dynasties of Magadha and Vaisali. Although the date of the birth of Mahavira is not known for certain, yet it is doubtless that he was a senior contemporary of Gautama Buddha.
Our knowledge about the early life of Mahavira is meagre. From the Svetambara Jaina traditions it is known that he married a princess named Yasoda and having lived the life of a householder till the age of thirty, he renounced the world. He spent six years as a Digambar i.e. naked mendicant given to extreme austerity and penance but could not attain Divine knowledge.
He then became a disciple of Gossala Mankhaliputta and spent long six years with him in rigid practice of penance but with no effect. After which he started meditation independently on the bank of the river Rijupalika in eastern India. After one year, that is, in the thirteen year of his renouncing the world he obtained Supreme Knowledge or Kaivalya and became a Kevalin that is, he became omniscient and conquerer of passions.
He came to be variously known as Jina that is, conquerer of passions, Nirgrantha, that is, one who is free from bondage of the world. He preached Jainism for long thirty years in Magadha, Mithila, Anga, Kosala etc. and died at the age of seventy two in Pawapuri. It is said that he was very closely known to Bimbisara.
The real founder of Jainism was Parsvanath. He had left four tenets namely, non-violence, non- lying, non-stealing and. non-attachment- Mahavira added continence to the above four tenets. Mahavira carried the tenet of non-attachment to the extreme and recommended giving up everything, even clothes.
Those who followed this recommendation came to be known as Nirgranthas or Digambar Jainas. In the third century B.C. there arose among the Jainas a sect known as the Svetambara who wore cloth. Later on the Digambar Jains also began using cloth although the name of the sect remained Digambar as before.
The highest ideal before the Jainas is to attain Siddhasila i.e. blissful abode or Nirvana which meant freedom of the soul from rebirth and its attendant sorrows and miseries. According to Jainism one has to practice three-fold virtues for attaining Nirvana. These are good behaviour, honest work and real wisdom.
The Jainas while believe in rebirth of the soul, do not believe in the divine character of the Vedas. Violence to life in any form is strictly prohibited in Jainism. They extend the principle of nonviolence to stones, metals, trees etc. since they believe that these also have life. The Jainas do not believe in the existence of God, to them a perfect human soul is divinity. According to them good work, austere life and continence can lead to improvement of the soul and when the soul become perfect by following all that Jainism enjoins, the soul will attain Nirvana, which is their ideal.
From the Jaina traditions it is learnt that the teachings of Mahavira had been preserved in fourteen Purvas that, is volumes. In the fourth century B.C. a terrible famine stalked the whole of south Bihar. A large number of the Jainas left for Mysore under the leadership of Bhadrabahu. The fourteen Purvas must have been lost during this exodus.
Those who remained in Bihar summoned a religious convention at Pataliputra in order to re-introduce Jainism in Bihar where it was almost non-existent then. The decisions arrived at the meeting were put in twelve volumes and are known as Angas. In the fifth or the sixth century A.D. another religious convention was summoned at Gujarat where the entire Jaina religious principles and tenets were compiled under the heads Anga, Upanga, Mula and Sutra.
Jainism at first was limited to south Bihar only but gradually it spread to west and south India. The Maurya Emperor Chandragupta became a Jaina and in old age left for Sravana Belgola where he died of fasting and penance. This we have from the Jaina literature Rajbalikathe. Bhadrabahu’s going to Mysore with a large number of Jainas and Chandragupta Maurya’s leaving for Mysore in the old age are good grounds for the belief that Jainism also had spread to south India by the fourth century B.C.