Ahimsa – the ultimate winner


The Life of Mahavir

[MAJOR PRESENTATION at the United Nations Chapel, New York (U.S.A.) on 25th April 2002 on the occasion of the Inter-Faith Celebration of the 2600th Janma Kalyanak of Bhagavan Mahavir.]

It is a remarkable coincidence. We are celebrating the 2600th birth anniversary of Jain prophet Mahavir at the United Nations Chapel under the auspices of leading Inter-Faith organizations of the City of New York. This is symbolic of the fact that Mahavir belongs to the entire humanity and not just to any particular religion.

United Nations Building stands where there used to be at one time a slaughterhouse radiating the message that violence must go and non-violence must prevail to strengthen the foundations of world peace and co-operation.

It is only appropriate that United Nations receives Mahavir’s spiritual vibrations emanating today from this historic church. Mahavir has been the most outstanding Messiah of peace and non-violence in the last 25 centuries. Effect of military victories lasts but a few years. The impact of Mahavir’s message of reverence of all life and compassion has already lasted over 2500 years.

Jain scripture Sutrakrtangasays:

Hatthisu erevanamahu nae, siho miganam salilana ganga,k Pakkhisu va garule venudeve, niwanavadiniha nayaputte.”

(Just as among elephants Airavata is supreme, among animal lion, among river Ganga, among birds Garuda, the son of Venudeva, similarly Mahavir is supreme among those preaching emancipation.)

Twenty four spiritual leaders (Tirthankars) after attaining enlightenment have guided the evolution and elaboration of Jain religion well over 5000 years starting with Rishabhadeva, the first Tirthankar who lived in the pre-Vedic times of Indian history. Mahavir, the 24th Tirthankar who lived from 599 B.C. to 527 B.C. is the most widely known. It is interesting that invariably the Tirthankars have been from Royalty and warrior classes, who came to abhor violent conflicts and became detached from worldly bondages in search of inner peace and contentment.

Mahavir’s life span of 72 years was a spectacular amalgam of inherited legacy, inborn intuitive inspiration, remarkable talent, unremitting resolve, deep insight and revolutionary spirit.

Let us go back in time to trace Mahavir’s background and process of evolution from an ordinary mortal to a spiritual master. Jain mythology narrates in vivid details how Mahavir had to go through innumerable incarnations ranging from human, animal and other life forms. Jain scriptures give a vivid account of how in the cycle of birth and death, he suffered for his ill deeds and gained from his rational conduct in each incarnation. Finally, in his last birth as Prince Vardhaman, he achieved enlightenment and became a Tirthankar.

In one of his previous incarnations, he has been described as Marich, a grandson of Rishabhadeva, the founder of Jainism.

In his first 30 years, Mahavir enjoyed all royal comforts since he was the son of King Siddhartha of Kundagram and his mother Queen Trishala was the daughter of King Chetak of the renowned. United Lichhavi Republic. At this time, as historical records indicate, Vaishali, the Capital of Lichhavi Republic was oozing with wealth, opulence and prosperity with its 7777 mansions. There were palaces with gold, silver and brass domes, 7777 entertainment centers and gardens, many water fountains, streams and other luxurious comforts.

When Queen Trishala conceived Mahavir, she saw unusual 14 dreams (as per Shvetambar tradition) and 16 dreams (as per Digambar traditions). The dreams were taken as forerunners of the birth of a great soul who would be in perfect communion not only with his own self but also with other life and natural environment around him. The dreams were an elephant, a white bull, Goddess of wealth, a lion, full moon, two fragrant garlands, rising sun, golden pitcher filled with water, large and beautiful lotus-lake, milk-ocean, celestial chariot, heap of jewels and smokeless fire. Digambar tradition adds two more dreams.

In his childhood, Mahavir was called Vardhaman. The name Vardhaman was given to him because his parents noticed that since his birth, the family and the kingdom added to their progress, prosperity and happiness. When saints visited the Royal Palace and saw young Vardhaman, they were impressed by his serenity and equanimity and named him as Sanmati. His acts of courage, valour and bravery in overpowering ferocious animals earned him the title of Veer, Ativeer and finally Mahavir. He was also called Jnatraputra and Vaishalik.

From his early years, the seed of detachment had taken root. Gradually, the urge to renounce all material bondages grew in his mind as he felt the need to probe the real truth about life and its purpose. Digambar tradition maintains that Mahavir did not marry, while the Shvetambar tradition maintains that Mahavir married Princess Yashodhara who showed sympathetic understanding of his growing detachment particularly in the last two years prior to his leaving the palace.

Mahavir was around 30 years old when he took to the path of renunciation. The moment Mahavir stepped out of the Royal Palace, the true mission of his life commenced. It culminated in bringing to the entire humanity a universal vision of non-violence, compassion, fraternity and tolerance in judicious mix with the virtue of Kshama (forgiveness).

After silent and deep meditation lasting over 12 years, he achieved Keval Jnana (Omniscience) and was transformed into a divine Tirthankar. He emerged as a profoundly rational and detached personality radiating bliss and inspiring soul-energy. During the long years of meditation and contemplation, he bore with patience, tolerance and forgiveness, all the insults, violent attacks and abuses heaped on him. Acharya Samantabhadra eulogizing Mahavir says:

He bows with deep respect before Vardhaman Jinendra who has cleansed his soul of all Karmic impurities and in whose in-depth wisdom and enlightenment are mirrored all the three worlds with their universal spaces.”

Jain scripture “Kalpa Sutra” vividly describes Mahavir’s victory over self after over 12 years of continuous meditation, contemplation and rigorous disciplining of his mental, physical, psychological and intellectual faculties.

With supreme knowledge, with supreme uprightness, with supreme valour with supreme dexterity, with supreme patience, with supreme contentment, with supreme insight, the Venerable one meditated for 12 and a half years in self-contemplation and proceeded on the supreme path to that final liberation which is the fruit of truthfulness, restraint and good conduct.”

On attaining “Keval Jnana”, Mahavir Swami became devoid of all ego and was full of love and compassion for all. He acquired humility of the most ennobling kind even while he became equipped with newfound insight and wisdom. He set the example that religion is to be practiced through sincere devotion and self-restraint. Mere observance of rituals is never enough.

In a truly universal sense, Mahavir became a SARVODAYA TIRTH”. He evolved himself into a perfectly groomed and spiritually transformed personality radiating fulsome development of soul-power, which could serve as a beacon light to others for grasping the meaning of true happiness and the way of attaining it with sincere effort. His message was:

He who looks upon the creatures of the Earth – big and small – as his own self comprehends this immense world. Among the careless, he who restrains his self is enlightened.”

His first Sermon (Samavasaran)on the banks of river Rijukula (in Bihar) became a unique occasion, which brought together in an open nature assembly, men, women, children, birds, animals and other life forms. His language exuded spiritual vibrations to the surrounding air, space, vegetation and water.

For the next 30 years, he toured all over India extensively on foot and delivered his sermons in the spoken languages (Prakrit and Apabhramsh) of the masses. His popularity soured because he was serene, direct, convincing and preached after self-practice of restraint, denial and penance. His message to humanity was that if he could attain this level of bliss, so could any one do it through soul-disciplining regimen, rational action, thought and expression.

For moving towards emancipation, he recognized no barriers of caste, creed, sex, colour or ethnicity. He stood for social equality and fought against slavery practice. The example of accepting food (Ahara) from enslaved Chandana, securing her freedom and elevating her to exalted status in his Sangh by recognizing her talent, perseverance and devotion is an ideal example of Mahavir’s conviction.

Mahavir revolutionized the preaching about Ahimsa, Aparigraha and Anekant and brought it closer to the day-to-day realities of the lives of common folks. His religion was not confined to any ivory tower, but was accessible to all. His concept of spiritual democracy was reflective of his belief that no one section of the community, howsoever strong, powerful or knowledgeable could have monopoly of interpreting religion dictated by their own ego-centric interests.

In a significant manner, Mahavir’s non-violence oriented Jainism became a reformation movement to correct distortions that had, over the years, developed in the practice of Hindu religion in the form of violent rituals, animal sacrifices during worship, rigid and exploitative caste system and much orthodoxy and blind belief in so-called miracles and mercies of the Almighty. Mahavir preached:

In happiness or suffering, in joy or grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self. We should, therefore, refrain from inflicting upon others such injury as would be undesirable to us and to develop equanimity towards all living beings and elements of nature in this universe.

Mahavir brought fresh vigour, originality of approach and well-conceived strategy to propagate Jainism as an ethical way of living and pursuing attainment of true and lasting happiness and contentment. His organizational flair was superb and he was able to attract to his fold erudite scholars, ruling monarchs and public from all strata of society, Brahmins, warriors, traders, fishermen, farmers, artists, poets and indeed people from all walks of life. So great was his impact that later historians mistakenly described him as the founder of Jain religion.

That Mahavir had an instantaneous appeal is illustrated by the composition of his Chaturvidh Sangh (the four-fold order). The Sangh got off to a tremendous start when renowned Brahmin Vedic scholar Indrabhooti Gautam became his principal Ganadhar along with ten others, each one of whom brought with him 500 pupils. The order grew to a large number with 14000 monks, 36000 nuns, 159000 laymen and 318000 laywomen followers in his own lifetime in the sixth century B.C.

A large number of ruling monarchs also embraced Jain religion. Among them were prominent rulers like King Chetak of Vaishali, King Siddhartha of Kundagram, King Shrenik Bimbisar of Magadh, King Udayan of Sindhu-Sauveer, King Shataneek of Vatsa, King Dasharath of Dasharna, King Jeevandhar of Hemagund (Karnataka), King Vijayasen of Polashpur, King Ajatshatru of Champa, King Jeetshatru of Kalinga, King Udiyodaya of Shoorsen, King Jaya of Kampilya, Prince Ardak of Iran and so on.

Mahavir emerged as a bold and courageous advocate of non-violence not as a religious ritual or custom but as a way of life for individuals as well as community. The conflict-weary and bloodshed-fatigued rulers as well as their public saw in Mahavir a Saviour because he brought the message not of hostility, rancour and revenge but tolerance, harmony and peaceful co-existence.

Mahavir stands out as the one who gave a dynamic thrust to the Jain philosophy in a highly imaginative, systematic and organized manner. He enunciated Jain philosophy in its unique four-in-one combination of a religion of non-violence, a religion of environment, a religion of peace and a religion of detachment.

His message of “Ahimsa Paramo Dharmaha” acquired an eternal appeal as a wide ranging culture for human beings and a sure recipe for preserving and enhancing ecological equilibrium of the universe. More than ever before, Mahavir’s teachings have a soul-awakening relevance in contemporary times when humanity is battling with human-created tensions and conflicts and natural disasters and catastrophes. Mahavir preached:

The instinct of self preservation is universal. Every animate being wants to live and avoid untimely death. Nobody likes suffering. Therefore, do not inflict suffering on anybody. This is non-violence; this equality.”

The greatness of Mahavir was that he practiced first and preached later. While engaging in his spiritual practices, he experienced suffering, torture and adversities with patience and forgiveness. Out of this, he discovered the road to true bliss. He was born and brought up in the lap of royal comforts. He forsook them voluntarily and without the least regret and resolutely took to the life of hard penance, contemplation and meditation with unbounded enthusiasm and conviction in order to cleanse his soul of its ego-pollution. He conquered anger by forgiveness, pride by humility, deceit by straight-forwardness and greed by contentment. His eternal message has been:

I forgive all living beings; may all living beings forgive me. I cherish friendship towards all and harbour enmity towards none.”

Mahavir was both an introvert as well as an extrovert. He has emerged in the history of the universe as a living example of not only victory over self, but also of an ardent advocate of preserving and enriching the divine web of interdependence between human beings, all other life forms, and the nature of around us. Building both inner and outer environment with compassion and large heartedness was the sheet anchor of his life’s mission and became the legacy of love and piety for humanity.

Mahavir stood for building a society that would follow the inspiring discipline of Ahimsa, Anekant and Aparigraha. He preached for restraint in consumption, renunciation of acquisitiveness and judicious control of desires. Only then would an individual or the society as a whole would develop a nobler quality of life for self as well as others. It is interesting that the 12 vows he prescribed for Shravaks (votaries) include prominently limitation on one’s needs in the following ways:

1. Upbhog-paribhog vrat – the vow of limiting the quantities of commodities one will use.

2. Digvrat– the vow of limiting the area of traveling

3. Parigrahapariman – The vow of curbing the acquisitive and possessive instinct.

Thus, in the present day worldwide context, his teachings have significant relevance for controlling the unbridled march of consumerism and increasing attachment to limitless material comforts. These are core elements for strengthening the ethical content and direction of life and promoting peaceful existence with others imbued with the spirit of mutual trust and healthy interdependence.

After 30 years of continuous and unremitting effort to propagate Ahimsa, Anekant, Syadvad and Aparigraha, at the age of 72, Mahavir had his last meditation at Pavapuri on the banks of a serene and tranquil lake in utterly peaceful natural surroundings. He attained Nirvana most peacefully and blissfully in the early hours of the fifteenth day of the dark fortnight of Kartik month in 527 B.C. His Nirvana has since been traditionally celebrated by Jains now for over 25 centuries as Diwali or the festival of light.

Mahavir never wanted to be worshipped; he wanted to be followed. Let us, therefore, follow his teachings and endeavour to realize them within our respective capacities to become nobler human beings, more responsible ecology-conscious world citizens and increasingly detached souls.


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