Mahavira was a spiritual teacher and a key figure in the growth of Jainism. He advocated a spiritual path focused on ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truth). Mahavira taught that adherence to these basic principles, combined with meditation and the practice of brahmacharya (chastity) would enable a seeker to attain spiritual liberation. Mahavira was born in India and was a near contemporary of Siddhartha the Buddha. Like the Buddha, he sought to reform existing religious practises and widen spirituality to everyone, without the caste distinction of Hinduism. Jainism is a small but influential religion with just an estimated 3.5 million adherents.
Mahavira was born as Vardhamana around 468BC (though there is uncertainty over exact date). His most likely birthplace was located near Bihar, India. He grew up a prince to a royal family. The Svetambara tradition of Jainism says that Mahavira was married to Yashoda and they had one daughter. Other traditions of Jainism contend he did not agree to marry.
In his late 20s, Vardhamana gave up his family life to take up austerities and the life of a monk. He devoted himself to prayer, meditation and an austere life. For 12 years, he practised meditation and spiritual discipline as a brahmacharya (celibate lifestyle). His diet was extremely meagre and would frequently fast. He also renounced all material objects. He only ate what he was given in alms, which he begged for once a day. Sometimes the food was too rich or damaging to his health, but he always took what he was first accepted. Mahavira also took a vow of ahimsa, which he pursued without exception. If insects crawled over his body and bit him, he wouldn’t even flick them off his body.
Through the intensity of his spiritual experiences, he attained a state of spiritual liberation and realisation. However, his austerities and renunciation of material objects gave him an unkempt appearance. He often received the hostility and scorn of people who did not appreciate his appearance and monastic lifestyle. But, if he was insulted or scolded, he would not seek to defend himself but patiently accepted his fate with equanimity. Mahavira felt that spiritual experience taught the interconnectedness of an individual with the whole world. Ahimsa wasn’t just about morality but an awareness, the rest of the world is part of our extended self.
When Mahavira was 42, he felt he had attained his goal of spiritual realisation. In Jain tradition, it is known as Kevala Jnana (omniscience, or infinite knowledge). After this age, he began to teach other spiritual seekers.
Mahavira taught in Prakrit, which was the common language. He spoke in simple parables and practical teachings. This was in contrast to the usual religious teachings which were restricted to Sanskrit and often heavily dependent on spiritual scripture. Mahavira was not learned in all the Sanskrit scriptures, but he spoke in a practical language and said that everyone had the capacity to pray and meditate, and it was not just the preserve of monks and Brahmin scholars. Mahavira’s dearest disciple was Indrabhuti Gautama. Indrabhuti used to be a proud Sanskrit scholar, but after meeting Mahavira, he realised that his spiritual knowledge and spiritual realisation was infinitely greater than his own book knowledge. He became deeply devoted to his Master.
Mahavira’s teachings reflected his own personal spiritual practise. He emphasised the importance of avoiding harm to any creature. Not only did he advocate a vegetarian diet, but took ahimsa to its full conclusion and taught that all beings, including insects, should not be harmed. Mahavira also taught the real ahimsa is not just avoiding physical harm, but even in our thoughts, we need to avoid causing negative vibrations.
Because of the sensitivity to killing even the smallest creatures, Jains have often avoided agriculture on the grounds it often leads to the death of small creatures. Jains have tended to gravitate towards commerce and trade as alternative occupations. Although a small percentage of the Indian population, they have tended to be well educated and played a leading role in the intellect and spiritual life of India. Mahatma Gandhi was strongly influenced by Jain teachings, and he made ahimsa a key component of his personal and political philosophy.
Mahavira taught the doctrine of reincarnation, stating that souls would continue to be reborn until all our karmas had been worked off and the soul achieved realisation. To this end, followers should seek to accumulate good karmas – such as service to others and especially monks, and avoid bad karmas – lying, stealing. In Jain texts, the 26 previous incarnations of Mahavira are listed. Also, although Mahavira taught the philosophy of karma, he stressed that we were not victims of our fate and past karmas, but always have the opportunity to transcend our preordained fate through prayer and meditation.
Mahavira was also very particular about avoiding sensual pleasures – for monks he advocated a strict brahmacharya and modesty in eating. Fasting is seen as a way to accumulate merit. After setting up a monastic order for men, Mahavira later agreed to initiate women, which at the time was not the accepted spiritual norm. His first female disciple was Chandana, the daughter of a king killed in battle.
Mahavira also criticised the existing Hindu caste system, arguing that all humans were equal before God. However, over time, some Jain communities did develop a degree of class distinction – perhaps inevitable from its close proximity with Hinduism. In Jainism, there are two main types of adherents. The monastic order, who renounce the material world and devote themselves to spiritual practice. The second type is households who live and work in the world, and marry. Requirements for households is less than for monks.
One story from his lifetime illustrates the challenges he experienced from those who became jealous of his popularity. During his lifetime, many people wished to be initiated as become his disciples. One disciple Goshal became embittered with his former teacher and left to set himself up as a Guru. He practised austerities to develop occult power. When Mahavira travelled to the same village as Goshal, Mahavira mentioned to the villagers that Goshal had a false realisation. This infuriated Goshal so he sought to attack Mahavira with occult power sending tejoleshya or a deadly heat. However, as it hit Mahavira, it also rebounded into Goshal. Both Mahavira and Goshal were in great pain, and Goshal cursed Mahavira that he would die in six months. Mahavira calmly said,
“I am sorry, but you will die in seven days and I will live sixteen more years.”
Mahavira’s and Goshal’s disciples witnessed this scene, and they saw that Mahavira’s purity and spiritual realisation had protected him from Goshal’s curse. However, Mahavira suffered burning sensations in his body for many years. His body also suffered from his poor diet and spiritual austerities.
Like many spiritual figures of that age, Mahavira did not write texts which survived. The early Jain teachings were passed on in the oral tradition and written down at a later stage. This has led to uncertainty over some dates and teachings and conflicting accounts. Much of what we know about Mahavira also comes from Buddhist texts.
In 468 BC, aged 72, Mahavira offered his final sermons – he preached more than 110 sermons — the final one lasting no less than 48 hours. He then passed away in a state of nirvana – the final moksha or liberation. After his death, his followers began lighting small candles to commemorate the physical passing of Mahavira’s light. This tradition is still maintained in the Hindu festival of Diwali.
Mahavira was also a contemporary of Zoroaster in Persia and Confucius in China. The 6th Century BC saw great figures in many parts of the world.