Vardhaman Mahavira was the 24th and last Tirthankara of Jainism. He flourished about 250 years after the death of parsva.
He was born in Kundagrama a suburb of Vaisali (modern Muzaffarpur district in Bihar) in 599 B.C. (according to some in 540 B.C.).
His father Siddhartha was the head of a Kshatriyadan called the Jantrikas and his mother Trisala was a sister of Chetaka, an eminent Lichchhavi Prince and ruler of Vaisali.
As Bimbisara, the King of Magadha had married Chellana, the daughter of Chetaka, Mahavira was related to the royal family of Magadha. He was a very learned person and received education in all branches of knowledge. He married to Yasodhara and had a daughter named Priyadarshini who was married to Jamali. Jamali became the first disciple of Mahavira and the leader of the first sehism of the Jaina Church.
Mahavira led the life of a house holder. After the death of his father he left the wordly life at the age of thirty in search of truth. For 12 years he kept on wandering from place to place. He did not stay for more than a day in a village and for more than five days in a town. After discarding clothes he practised penance and austerities for 12 years.
During one of his visits to Nalanda he met a saint called Gosala Makkhaliputta. Gosala was so impressed by the knowledge of Mahavira that he became his disciple and lived with him for six years. Gosala had differences with Mahavira on the doctrine of rejuvenation and left him to establish a new religious order called “Ajivikas”.
After continuous and severe Penance for twelve years, on the tenth day of Vaisakha, outside the town of Jimbhikgram, he attained perfect knowledge or “Kaivaly” at the age of 42 while meditating under a sal tree beside the river Rijjupalika. For his final deliverance from the bonds of pleasure and pain Vardhamana became known as Mahavira on the great hero and Jina or the conqueror. He was also known as “Kevalin”. His followers or disciples were known as ‘Nirgranthas” (free from fetters or bonds). The doctrine preached by him was known as Jainism.
Mahavira spread Jainism far and wide. He delivered his first sermon at Vipulachala near Rajagriha where 11 Brahmins became his disciples. He preached eight months in a year and spent four months of rainy season in some famous town. For thirty years he preached Jainism in Champa, Vaisali, Rajagriha, Mithila and Sravasti. With the spread of his fame, he began to receive royal patrorage.
He regularly visited King Bimbisara and Ajatasatru of Magadha who were devoted to him. King Chandra Pradyota of Avanti embraced Jainism. He passed away at Pava at the ripe age of seventy-two in 527 B.C. (to some 468 B.C.). He was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. He accepted the teachings of Parsva as the basis of Jainism.
Doctrines of Jainism:
Mahavira laid great stress on a pure and austere mode of living. He prescribed a threefold path for leading a pure and austere life namely, Right belief, Right knowledge and Right conduct. This threefold path is called as Tri-ratna (three jewels). By following this threefold path a man could attain Siddha-Sila, i.e., liberation from karma and transmigration.
Since the supreme goal of life is the attainment of salvation, one has to avoid all kinds of evil deeds or karmas. Mahavira prescribed some ethical code both for a house holder and a monk.
Accordingly one has to take five vows namely:
(1) Ahimsa (non-injury)
(2) Satya (speaking truth)
(3) Asteya (non-stealing),
(4) Aparigraha (non-possession),
(5) Brahmacharya (non-adultery).
It is said that only fifth doctrine was added by Mahavira to the first four doctrines preached by Parsva.
Moksha (Attainment of salvation):
The chief aim of Mahavira’s teaching is the attainment of moksha or the liberation of soul from earthly bondage. According to Jainism, man’s personality comprises material and spiritual natures. The former is perishable whereas the latter an eternal and evolutionary. Due to Karma the soul is in a state of bondage.
This bondage is created by passions and desires accumulated through several births. It is by the disintegration of the Karmik forces that the liberation of the soul is possible. By practising tapos, meditation and severe austerities, and fresh Karmas are formed and already deposited Karmas are shaken away.
Side by side with the decay of the Karmas the essential qualities of soul expressed more and more and the soul shines brightly which ultimately represents Moksha and then the soul merges in endless happiness or becomes paramatman, the Pure Soul, with infinite knowledge, power and bliss.
Mahavira put great emphasis on Ahimsa. In Jainism, ahimsa is the standard by which all actions are judged. A householder has to observe small vows (anuvrata). For him the practice of ahimsa requires that he has not to kill any animal life. An ascetic person has to observe great vows (Mahavrata).
For him ahimsa requires utmost care to prevent him from knowingly or unknowingly being the cause of injury to any living substance. Living matter (jiva) not only includes human beings but insects, plants etc. The killing of living matter increases one’s own karma and delays one’s liberation from the cycle of rebirths.
The jains drink water after straining and filtering it so that some lives are saved. Likewise, the Jains do not light a lamp or cook food during night so that the insects may not burn to death. They do not take dinner after sun-set and also use cloth mouth cover (mukhavastrika) to save the lives floating in the air. Thus the concept of ahimsa is practiced rigorously.
Denial of the Existence of God:
Mahavira did not believe in the existence of god. He rejected the theory that the God is the creator and sustainer of the Universe. Man’s liberation from suffering does not depend upon the mercy of any god. Man is the architect of his own destiny. One can escape the evils of life by following an austere life of purity and virtue. Instead of God, the Jains worship twenty-four tirthankars.
Denial to Veda:
Mahavira rejected the authority of Vedas. According to him all Vedic gods and goddesses were imaginary and they were to misguide the society. He criticized the Vedic rituals and Brahmana supremacy. He recommended a very ethical code of life for the attainment of moksha.
Mahavira asked his followers to practise extreme asceticism and self destruction. He laid great stress on extreme asceticism by practising penances, fasting and torturing the body. In order to follow a more austere life he asked his followers to discard clothes. All these practices add strength to the soul for spiritual progress.
Jain philosophy is called the ‘Theory of may be” or “Syadvad”. According to ‘Syadvad’ any question about a matter can be answered in seven ways. Mahavira explained the question by citing the example that the question is—”Is there a soul”?
Can be answered in seven ways, namely:
(i) “It is”
(ii) “it is not”
(iii) “It is and it is not”
(iv) “It is un-predicable”
(v) “It is and it is not un-predicable”
(vi) “Is not and is un-predicable”
(vii) “It is, it is not and it is un-predicable”.
He propagated this concept of reasoning in. the society. There is a sense in which there is a soul, and there is also a sense in which no soul exists and a third sense one cannot describe soul and so on.
Rise and Spread of Jainism:
Jainism spread to different parts of India during the life time of Mahavira and also after his death. Several factors are responsible for its rise and spread.
Responsibility of Mahavira:
Mahavira was responsible for the spread of Jainism. He moved from place to place and preached his teachings. His simple way of life, penance and austerity attracted people towards him.
Use of Simple Dialect:
Mahavira used common dialect in place of Sanskrit to spread his religion. Vedic Scriptures were written in Sanskrit which was the language of the intellectuals. But Mahavira prechded his religion through the language of the common people like Magadhi, Prakrit and Colloqual languages. So the people were drawn towards it and accepted the religion.
The royal patronage also worked as a patent factor for the spread of Jainism. The kshatriya kings were displeased with the Brahmana supremacy. So they embraced Jainism. The rulers of Eastern India patronized Jainism. The rulers of Magadha, Ajatasatru and his successor. Udayin patronized Jainism. Due to the efforts of Chadragupta Maurya Jainism spread rapidly in Karnataka.
In the fourth century B.C. and 1st century B.C. Jainism spread to Kalinga. In Kalinga it received the patronage of King Kharavela of Chedi dynasty. The southern dynasties like the ChaluKyas, Rastrakuta, Ganga etc. patronized Jainism. In later centuries it penetrated into Malwa, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Even now-a-days, these areas are inhabited by the Jains, mainly engaged in trade and commerce.
Role of Jaina Monks:
The role of jaina monks also helped in the spread of Jainism. By visiting several places, holding scholastic discussions exhibiting their personal examples of simplicity could exert great influence upon the people. In 4th century B.C. in South India. Jaina Saint Bhadrabahu spread Jainism. He had accompanied Emperor Chandragupta Maurya to Sravanvelgola in South, where the latter breathed his last.
The jaina assembly at Pataliputra, convened by Sthulabhadra in 300 B.C. after Bhadrabahu’s departure for the south, compiled the teachings of Mahavira into twelve “Angas”. In 512 B.C. another assembly was convened under the chairmanship of Nagaijuna which codified all principles and “Angamas” of jainism into Anga, Upanga, Mula and Sutra. Due to the efforts of jaina monks, jainism spread throughout India.
Role of Jaina Writers:
Lastly, the jaina writers also played a very significant role in popularizing this religion. The writings of Gunabhadra, Haribhadra, Hemachandra and Ravikirti could win the hearts of people for accepting Jainism. These factors were responsible for the spread of Jainism in India. Jainism was confined only to the four walls of India. In India Ujjain, Mathura, Malwa, Gujarat, Rajputana, and some districts of south became the great centres of Jainism.
Decline of Jainism:
Several factors worked behind the decline of Jainism in India.
Lack of Royal Patronage:
The liberal days of royal patronage had passed away. The great rulers like Bimbisara, Ajatasatru, Udayin, and Kharavela had extended royal patronage to Jainism. But later on Buddhism eclipsed Jainism. The rulers like Ashoka, Kanishka and Harsavardhan had embraced Buddhism and worked hard to spread this religion.
Lack of Efforts:
The jaina workers lacked missionary zeal. They were not enthusiastic in spreading the religion in villages and towns.
Severity of Jainism:
The practice of severe austerities of jainism worked as a potent factor in bringing about its downfall. The jainas practise rigorous asceticism and self- mortification. Mahavira himself practiced physical hardships to realize the truth. But these severe practices were disliked by the people and they alienated themselves from it.
Factionalism in Jainism:
The great schism which took place after the death of Mahavira was another cause of the decline of Jainism. The followers of Bhadrabahu advocated to follow the teachings of Mahavira while the followers of Sthulabhadra wanted to tone down the severity of Jainism.
This rift led to a division among the Jains. Now they were divided into “Digamvara” and “Swetamvara”. The former group went on naked and strictly followed Mahavira’s teachings while the latter group wore white dress and discarded Mahavira’s teachings. This division weakened Jainism.
Spread of Buddhism:
The rise of Buddhism worked as a powerful factor for the decline of Jainism. Buddhism was very simple. Buddha was opposed to extreme hardship and prescribed a “Middle Path”. Even a house holder could follow it. So it posed a threat to Jainism. Moreover, due to the rise of Vaishnavism, Saivism and Saktism, the process of the decline of Jainism became quick.