Life and Teachings of Mahavira
Life of Lord Mahavira
Mahavira, the last of the Jain Tirthankaras or Ford-makers was born at Kundagrarna in the suburbs of Vaisali in and about 540 B.C. His father was Siddhartha, the head of the Janatrika clan and his mother was Trisala, sister of the Lichchavi chief Chetaka. Originally Mahavira’s name was Vardhamana. When he attained Supreme Knowledge he came to be known as Mahavira.
Penance and Attainment of Siddhi
Mahavira was married to Yashoda. He had a daughter named Anojja or Priyadarsana by her. After the death of his parents Mahavira felt the uselessness of the life of a house-holder.
Mahavira embraced the life of a monk at the age of 30. Mahavira lived an ascetic life for 13 months and practiced rigorous penance. He abandoned his clothing’s. After discarding cloths and garments, Mahavira practiced penance and austerities for 12 years. At the age of 42 he attained the Supreme Knowledge and became a Kevalin. He was known as Mahavira or Great Hero.
The Jaina tradition describes that Mahavira attained his Siddhi or Supreme Knowledge while he was sitting under a Sala tree on the bank of the river Rijupalika near the village Jimbhikagrama.
Relation between Mahavira and Gosala
Another important event of Mahavira’s life was his relations with Gosala Mankhaliputta, the head of the Ajivaka sect. It is said that Gosala became a disciple of Mahavira and lived with him for six years. Later on Gosala left him for his difference with Mahavira on the doctrine of reincarnation. Sixteen years later, they met again and quarreled again.
Though the relation between the doctrines of Gosala and those of Mahavira are not definitely known, yet, there are some common points among them. This may be due to mutual exchanges of ideas among them. The Jaina rules of diet might have been borrowed from the code of the Ajivikas laid down by Gosala. Mahavira might have discarded garments due to influence of Gosala.
The Missionary Life of Mahavira
After the attainment of Supreme Knowledge, Mahavira lived the life of a wandering teacher and preached his doctrines to the people. He used to preach eight months in a year and pass four months of rainy season in some town. Mahavira preached in Champa, Vaisali, Rajgriha, Mithila and Sravasti.
As his fame spread, he began to receive loyal patronage. Bimbisara, the king of Magadha was devoted to Mahavira. Ajatasatru might have some inclination for Mahavira’s creed. After preaching his doctrines to people of different parts of India, Mahavira died at the age of 72 at a place called Pava in Patna district of Bihar. The Lichchhavis the Mallas mourned the death of this great teacher by burning lamps as a symbol of Mahavira’s spirit.
Jainism before Mahavira and the Role of Parsva
In the 6th century B.C. side by side with Buddhism, there flourished the creed of Jainism. Although Vardhamana Mahavira is regarded as the founder of Jainism, Jaina traditions give the idea that Jainism existed long before Mahavira. There were 23 teachers of Jainism before Mahavira. Mahavira was only the last or the twenty-fourth Tirthankara or illustrious teacher of Jainism.
We have no information about the early twenty two teachers. The Twenty-Third Tirthankara or teacher, Parsva or Parsva Nath or Paresh Nath is a historical figure. According to the Kalpasutra of Bhadrabahu, Parsva was a Kshatriya. He was the son of Asvasena, the king of Benaras. Parsva was married to Prabhabati, daughter of king Naravarman. He lived for some years, the life of a householder amidst luxury and pomp. But he grew tired of this life and embraced the life of an ascetic, at the age of 30. He performed deep meditation for 83 or 84 days and attained Enlightenment or Kevala jnana. Hence-forth, he lived the life of a religious preacher and died at the age of 100 years at Mount Sammeta in Bengal. This event happened in the 8th century B.C. about 250 years before the advent of Mahavira.
Teachings of Parsva
Some important doctrines of Jainism were laid down by Parsva, the Twenty-Third Tirthankara. Parsva believed in the eternity of matter. Only samyama or self-control could destroy Karma or results of the deed done. Penance could totally destroy it. Parsva announced four vows for liberation, viz., non-injury and non-killing; avoidance of falsehood; non-stealing and non-attachment. Parsva also allowed his followers to wear white garments which probably accounts for the growth of the Svetambara sect.
Influence of Parsva’s Teaching on that of Mahavira
Parsva was the fore-runner of Mahavira in the preaching of Jainism. It is therefore natural that some of his teachings influenced the ideas of Mahavira. From various Jaina Canons, it is known, how the parents of Mahavira turned to be followers of Parsva. How the disciples of Parsva entered into disputations with the disciples of Mahavira.
It is reasonably suggested that the doctrines of Parsva which were similar to that of Mahavira were not mentioned in Parsva’s name. They were ascribed to the name of Mahavira. Only those points of Parsva’s teachings which differed from that of Mahavira were mentioned-in Parsva’s name in the Canons.
Teaching of Mahavira
Most of the important principles of Jainism were received by Mahavira as legacies from his predecessors. The principles and ideas of Jainism were being preached even before Mahavira. It does not appear that Mahavira preached a new creed. He was more a reformer of existing Jaina religion than the founder of a new faith. He should, however, be credited for the rapid spread of Jainism among the masses.
Mahavira’s credit lies in regulation and codification of unsystematic rules into a regular code, with certain additions and alterations. He adopted Parsva’s ideas of eternity of matter and the doctrine of self-control or samyama and penance for liberation from Karma. He also accepted Parsva’s doctrine of the four vows and added to it a fifth vow, viz., and the vow to observe chastity.
While Parsva asked his followers to wear white garments, Mahavira asked his followers to discard garments in order to be free from all earthly bonds. This ultimately led to the growth of the Digamabara sect.
Lord Mahavira asked his followers to purify their soul and free it from worldly bondage. Mahavira also enunciated that by following Three-fold Path of Right belief, Right knowledge and Right conduct (Tri Ratna), a man could attain Siddha-Sila i.e., liberation from Karma and transmigration of soul.
Mahavira pointed out that penance; physical hardship helped one to realize the truth. Even death by starvation was recommended by him.
Also read: Main Teachings of Jainism
Mahavira rejected the authority of God, the efficacy of the Vedic rites and that of the mantras.
He advocated the doctrine of non-violence or Ahimsha in extreme form. He attributed life to plants, animals, metals and water and urged non-injury to them.