jain religion and teachings of bhagwan mahavir






Unique to Jain religion is the shramana tradition with its legendary glory of 24 Tirthankaras as ‘Path-finders”. Beginning with Rishabhdev or Adinath, who was the founder of Jainism, and ending with Vardhamana Mahavir, there have been in the present cycle of eternal time twenty-four Tirthankars. They were born like any other human being, but it is through their intense effort, penetrating spirit of enquiry, introspection, meditation, arduous penance and total detachment from worldly life that they gained omniscient knowledge and unraveled the mystery of the universe and the existence of life. Their teachings have constituted the living doctrine of Jainism comprehensively elucidated, refined and consolidated by Mahavir.

Tirthankars are also called ARIHANT or JIN. ARI means enemies and HANT means destroyer. The enemies are the four Ghati (destructive) karmas namely

(2nd – 3rd Century AD)



Jnanavarniya (knowledge obstructing) karmas, Darshanavarniya (perception obscuring) karmas, Mohaniya (deluding) karmas and Antaraya (obstructing) karmas. These karmas are called Ghati or destructive because they deviate from the true nature of the soul. When these karmas are destroyed, the state of infinite knowledge (Anant or keval Jnana), infinite perception (Anant or keval darshan), and infinite conduct (Anant charitra), and infinite energy (Anant virya) is attained.

The Tirthankars acquire the above mentioned unique attributes called ‘Atishaya’ on attaining enlightenment (Omnicience). Additionally they are celestially endowed by eight other attributes (Pariharyas) reflecting their divine aura. They are Simhasan (divine seat), Bhamandal (halo), Chamar (angels waiving fans), Chhatras (three tier divine umbrella), Ashoka tree (under which Tirthankars sit in Samosharan), Pushpavrushti (auspicious shower of flowers), Dev-dundubhi (celestial heralding), and Divya-dhwani (celestial music accompanying Tirthankar’s sermons.

Having attained enlightenment after renunciation followed by intense introspection, meditation and arduous penance, they took to preaching what they had practiced. In short, the message was that if one wants lasting happiness and bliss, one has to become soul-centric and self-reliant and through one’s own dedicated efforts seek liberation of one’s soul from overpowering materialistic attachments. There is no God sitting in heaven to bestow mercy or perform miracles. Jainism believes that every soul has the potential to upgrade itself through its own efforts to the status of a divine soul (Parmatma). The miracle lies in the steady upliftment and purification of one’s soul following the path shown by Tirthankars- the perfected human beings.

When Tirthankars attain Nirvana, they become formless completely liberated souls called Siddhas. In addition to the four ghatti karmas (destructive karmas) already shed on the eve of becoming Tirthankars, the remaininbg four aghati karmas (non-destructive karmas) are shed to become Siddhas. These are Nam (body determining), Gotra (status determining), Vedaniya (feeling producing), and Aayushya (life spanning) karmas.

The eight attributes of Siddhas are Anant gyan (infinite knowledge), Anant darshana (infinite perception), Avyabadha sukha ( eternal bliss), Anant charitra (perfect conduct), Akshay stithi (immortality), Arupitra (formlessness). Aguru laghutva (formless- neither heavy nor light), and Anant Virya (infinite energy).

Spread over many centuries, the 24 Tirthankars, each in his turn, conveyed through “SHRUT” (oral or word of mouth) tradition their elaboration, interpretation and elucidation of the Jain doctrine in the context of the times and the circumstances in which they practiced and preached their religious philosophy. Very aptly it was called “SHRAMAN “ tradition – a tradition anchored on voluntary and totally dedicated self-discipline, self-effort, self-study and self-realization. The shramana tradition was set in motion by the Tirthankars establishing in their times a Jain Sangha (four-fold Jain order) comprising Sadhus, Sadhavis, Shravaks (male householders) and Shravikas (female householders).

This turned out to be a harmoniously integrated organizational framework, which has been carried forward by renowned Acharyas as heads of respective religious congregations and learned spiritual leaders endowed with 38 attributes in the interregnum between Tirthankars, and more particularly in the last 2600 years since the time of Bhagwan Mahavir, the 24th and the last Tirthankar in the present time cycle. Post-Mahavir period has been witness to the Jain community getting divided into Digambar and Shwetamber traditions, with differences in rituals and modes of worship, as well as scriptural heritage. Even among these two sects sub-sects have developed.

Yet it is remarkable that on most basic fundamentals of Jain philosophy, there is unanimity. What seems to divide the community is far less important than what unites it in terms of Jainism’s core principles. As will be elaborated in the chapter on Jain scriptures, renowned Acharyas of all sects have enriched the religious tradition through their scholarly commentaries of original Jain scriptures bearing the heritage of Mahavir.

It is interesting that all the 24 Tirthankars, who preached total non-violence in thought, conduct and expression were born in the warrior class (Kshatriyas) in royal ruling families in the lap of luxury and surrounded by all trappings of power, wealth and command. Yet they chose to forsake them in a spirit of total renunciation to seek true enlightenment.

Cosmic Parshwanath 18th Century AD, Jodhpur (Rajasthan)

Jain scriptures give vivid life details of all the Tirthankaras including incidents from their previous birth, their royal parentage, significant events of their lives, birth, marriage, renunciation, enlightenment and finally nirvana. Each Tirthankar has a distinct name, color, symbol or emblem (lanchana) by which he is identified. It is also clear that all the Tirthankars hailed from north India, particularly from the region that is presently Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The units of time being different in Jain texts from the ones used presently (days, months, years etc.), it is difficult to ascertain the precise time period of each Tirthankar in terms of presently prevalent time measurements. However, through collation of data renowned scholars have been able to determine definitive time frame for two or three Tirthankaras, notably Arishtnemi, the 22nd Tirthankar, Parshvanath, the 23rd Tirthankara, and ofcourse Mahavir, the 24th Tirthankara. Mahavir lived from 599 BCE- 527 BCE, and achieved Nirvana at the age of 72. His predecessor Parshvanath is slated to have lived from 877 BCE-777 BCE. It was the erudite German Jain scholar Hermann Jacobi who established the historical authenticity of Lord Parshvanath, who lived 250 years prior to Lord Mahavir. The royal ancestors of both Mahavir and Gautam Buddha were followers of Parshvanath.

Jain literature vividly describes how various Tirthankars traveled far and wide on foot to spread the Jain doctrine. The proof of it is found in the many surviving ancient Jain temples all over India with ancient beautifully and delicately sculptured images of various Tirthankars together with their identifying symbols. The symbols are mostly other living beings or natural elements, and go to establish the outlook of the Tirthankars towards oneness of all life, and the divine interdependence between humans, other living beings and forces of nature.

The following table concerning the 24 Tirthankars is very illuminating in terms of their birth place, place of Nirvana, respective emblem and the number of Ganadhars (principal disciples), who carried forward their teachings to the successive generations in the well-set Shrut tradition.

S. No. Name Emblem Birth place Nirvana place Gana-dhars
1. Rishabhnath Bull Ayodhya Ashtapad 84
2. Ajitnath Elephant Ayodhya Samet Shikhar 90
3. Sambhavanath Horse Shravasti Samet Shikhar 105
4. Abhinandannath Monkey Ayodhya Samet Shikhar 103
5. Sumatinath Ruddy Goose Ayodhya Samet Shikhar 116
6. Padmaprabhu Red lotus Kaushambi Samet Shikhar 111
7. Suparshvanath Swastika Varanasi Samet Shikhar 95
8. Chandraprabhu Crescent moon Chandrapuri Samet Shikhar 93
9. Pushpadanta Crocodile Kakandi Samet Shikhar 88
10. Shitalnath Shrivatsa tree Bhadrikapuri Samet Shikhar 81
11. Shreyansnath Rhinoceros Simhapuri Samet Shikhar 77
12. Vasupujya Swami Buffalo Champapuri Champapuri 66
S. No. Name Emblem Birth place Nirvana place Ganadhars
13. Vimalnath Boar Kampilya Samet Shikhar 55
14. Anantnath Bear or hawk Ayodhya Samet Shikhar 50
15. Dharmanath Thunderbolt Ratnapuri Samet Shikhar 43
16. Shantinath Deer Hastinapur Samet Shikhar 36
17. Kuntunath Male goat Hastinapur Samet Shikhar 35
18. Aranath Fish Hastinapur Samet Shikhar 30
19. Mallinath Water pot Mithila Samet Shikhar 28
20. Muni Suvrat Swami Tortoise Rajgrahi Samet Shikhar 18
21. Nami nath Blue lotus Mithila Samet Shikhar 17
22. Neminath (Arishtanemi) Conch Dwarka Mount Girnar 11
23. Parshvanath Serpent Kashi Samet Shikhar 10
24. Mahavir Swami Lion Kshatriyakund Pava Puri 11

Jains celebrate with elaborate ritual five major events from the life of a Tirthankar. They are (i) the Garbha kalyanak ( Conception event), (ii) the Janma kalyanak (Birth event), (iii) Diksha kalyanak (Initiation event), (iv) Kevaljnan kalyanak (Omnicience event), and (v) Nirvan kalyanak (salvation event). Of the 24 Tirthankaras, Rishabhnath, Shantinath, Neminath, Parshvanasth and Mahavir are the most extensively idolized and the most widely worshipped Tirthankaras.

Digambar tradition holds that women cannot become Tirthankar, since they cannot fully take to absolute Aparigraha mahavrat in view of the need to cover the body. As has been narrated before, Digambar ascetics are sky clad, and so are the idols of all Tirthankars. Shwetambar tradition interprets the Aparigraha mahavrata in a relatively flexible manner. Their monks wear the minimum cloth pieces in white primarily to cover their bodies and not as any form of attachment or possessiveness. In keeping with this they maintain that Mallinath, the 19th Tirthankar was a lady.

Jain literature also prominently mentions the widely-held belief that all the mothers of various Tirthankars had 16 (Digambar tradition) and 14 (Shwetambar tradition) dreams after conception indicative of the great soul which was going to be born as reflected in the auspicious signs. Thus Mahavir’s mother saw in her dream a white elephant, a white bull, a white lion, Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi sitting on a lotus throne, two fragrant garlands, full moon, sun, two golden pots, two fish (Digambar list) or flag (Shwetambar list), lotus pond, ocean, jewel-studded throne (Digambar list), celestial plane, cobra (Digambar list), pile of precious stones, and fire without smoke.

Once again these dreams also link symbolically human destiny intertwined with other living beings, auspicious natural objects and items of prosperity. The dream signs also indicate that the new-born would be as strong as an elephant, as ernest as a bull, as powerful as a lion, graceful like the lotus and other flowers, deep as an ocean, and auspicious as a golden pot

It is interesting that out of the 24 Tirthankaras, as many as 20 attained nirvan at Sammed Shikhar in Bihar, which has become one of the most prominent places of Jain pilgrimage. Jain Tirthankars traveled on foot all over the country. The existence of ancient Jain temples with their idols in north, east and west and south India testify to this. Jain art and architecture belonging to different periods of history is found in almost all parts of India and testifies to the widespread prevelence of Jain religion throughout India, In particular the states of Bihar, U.P., Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh abound in places of pilgrimage associated with Tirthankars.

Among the most prominent of pilgrimage centers (Teertha Kshetras) are Sammed Shikhar, and Pavapuri in Bihar, Hastinapur near Delhi, Girnar, Nakoda Parshvanath, Shankheshwar Parshvanath, Palitana (Shatrunjaya), Morvi and Shri Taranga Teerth in Gujarat, Dilwara temples at Mt. Abu, ancient temples at Ranakpur, Jaiselmer, Keshariyaji in Rajasthan, Shravanbelgola, Helebid, Hampi, Bellery in Karnataka, Khajuraho, Nainagiri, Khandargiri, Chanderi, Deogarh, Sonagiri, Kundalpur, Thuvonji in M.P., Ajanta and Ellora caves, in Maharashtra, Khandgiri and Udayagiri caves and the Kharwel temples in Orissa. All these ancient temples together with idols are examples of captivating architectural and, sculptural tradition and command attention as ancient cultural centers of Jain religion.

Jain Temple, Dilwara, Mount Abu (10th Century AD)

Victoria and Albert museum and the British Museum in London, the Dahlem museum in Berlin and the Museum of Art in Los Angeles in U.S.A., in particular, are host to priceless collection of idols of Jain Tirthankars as well as Jain art.

Jainism has presented to the ordinary person the godhood represented by the idol of Tirthankaras- the perfected and enlightened human beings. It is this ideal of religion which can be easily understood by the common man. Renowned Jain scholar-author Professor A. Chakravarti maintains that probably the Jains were the earliest to build temples and to instal idols representing the Tirthankaras.Temple worship is the logical result of the Jain contemplation of Godhood . The image installed in the temple being the representation of Omnicient Arihant or Tirthankar. It is in the shape of a man engaged in yogic contemplation either sitting or standing. Such a representation of omniscient human personality naturally avoids any abnormal or mythic ideas.

Vedic religion of early Aryans was not associated with temple worship. It came to be adopted by later puranic Hinduism, particularly in South India. Jain sacred literature describes Ashtapad temple built in Mt. Kailash in the Himalayas to mark the nirvana of the first and the founder Tirthankar of Jain religion, namely Rishabhnath. The temple was built by his son Emperor Bharat, in whose name India came to be called Bharat from ancient times.As narrated in an inscription found on the rock in Hathikumpha Hill, Emperor Kharvella built a Jain temple during the third century B.C. installing the idol of Lord Rishabhnath.

Prof. Padmanabha Jaini observes, “We must understand Jain image worship as being of a meditational nature. The Jina is seen as an ideal, a certain mode of soul, a fate attainable by all living beings. Through personification of that ideal state in stone or marble, the Jains create a meditative support, as it were, a reminder of the lofty goal and the possibility of its attainment.”

Even after the split of the Jain society into two sects-sky-clad Digambars and white-robed Shwetambars, the practice of temple worship was kept up, but with a change in the form of the idols of Tirthankars. In Digambar temples, the idols are in sky-clad form. In Shwetambar temples, they are adorned with gold, silver and other ornaments as well as decorated eyelids signifying grandeur of the omniscient Lord and reverential awe of the worshiper who perceives them as kings of the universe.

Notwithstanding such differing practices, both the sects emphasize the aspect of total renunciation from worldly life as a role model for the human society to be achieved in gradual and well-defined stages in the spiritual ladder. Sthanakvasis- a sub-sect of Shwetambar Jains do not practice idol worship. They merely build large prayer halls (sthanaks) where they go to pray and contemplate on the spiritual quality and attributes of Tirthankaras. This represents a complete anti-thesis towards the traditional temple worship, and puts emphasis on substantive ingredients of Jain philosophy.

(to be continued)