Jain religion and the teachings of bhagwan mahavir




(continued from chapter 6c)


Nirvana and complete liberation

At the age of 72, (527 B.C.), Mahavir attained Nirvana and his purified soul left his body and achieved complete liberation. He became a Siddha, a pure consciousness, a liberated soul, living forever in complete bliss. Mahavir attained Nirvan at Pavapuri in Bihar after delivering his last sermon (deshana). Jains celebrate it as Diwali, festival of lights. Since his Nirvan, Jalmandir with Mahavir’s footprints at Pavapuri has achieved great sanctity as a place of pilgrimage. It is said that his last sermon lasted for 48 hours in which he covered key aspects of Jain religious perceptions in 55 Adhyays (sections) in his final wrap up.

Bhagwan Mahavir, Patan, Gujarat

His teachings elucidated with clarity the 14 stages in the Jain spiritual path beginning from 1 to 5 stages as a path of steadily enhancing self-restraint and gradual detachment moving on eventually from stage 6 to 14 to become a religion of total liberation and bliss through perfected soul. Jain holy texts like Trsastisla Kalpurusa Charitra vividly describe the travels of Mahavir and how he inspired all strata of society wherever he went. Jain scriptures give details of his 13 Chaturmas (four month’s stay at one place during rainy season usually ordained for ascetics) between 569 B.C. to 557 B.C. before enlightenment and13 Chaturmas between 557 to 529 B.C. after achieving omniscience in different cities and towns of India.

Much later drawing inspiration from him, Mahatma Gandhi gave to the freedom movement a mass contact orientation, arousing the entire nation to come together in the peaceful and non-violent struggle for liberation from exploitative colonial rule.

An outstanding reformist

Mahavir gave the added-value orientation to Jainism of a reformist movement at a time when in the wider spectrum of Hindu society orthodoxy, dogmas, blind beliefs and violent sacrificial killings had become the vogue. He eloquently and ardently asserted the courage of non-violence as well as its practicality as an effective instrument to promote tolerance and fraternity. Far from being confrontational, his approach was one of synthesis, persuasive, logical and compassionate. He depicted religion as the purest form of piety and sublime love. He preached : conquer anger by forgiveness, ego by humility, deceit by straight-forwardness, greed by contentment and detachment, and possessiveness by generosity.

At a time when violence was escalating in religious rituals as well as power struggles among kingdoms, Mahavir clarified that to establish peace in the world, man should move away from the direction of conflict towards interdependence. The essence of his teachings was that in our lives there are much fewer moments of struggle or conflict and many more moments of mutual supportiveness, peaceful coexistence and cooperative endeavor.

Streamlining of Jain religion

Mahavir’s intense devotion, utter tenacity, unbounded enthusiasm, limitless energy, profound scholarship and enlightenment led to the streamlining of Jain religion. Personal equanimity and social equity were his twin fundamental tenets. Self-restraint and social discipline as well as tolerance and compassion were the key to his vision of social restructuring.

Responding to the crisis of spirit in that period, Jain religion emerged as an ethical way of life for all humanity instead of remaining confined within the narrow walls of a religious text. His sermons were full of deep wisdom, lucid expression and wide-ranging inspiration. Dr. L.M. Singhvi observes :

Mahavir was a great prophet and teacher who systematized the Jain doctrines and embodied them in a comprehensive constitution of the faith. He built the edifice of Jainism by renovation, modification, extension and synthesis. But most of all he infused new life and vitality in the Arhat tradition.”

Mahavir put great emphasis on the democratic nature of Jain religion. One did not have to be born as Jain to practice Jain religion. The religion was open to anyone to embrace it irrespective of caste, color, creed, sex or territorial location. Jain religion rejected the growingly rigid and increasingly discriminatory and exploitative caste system. Jainism was presented not as a narrow closed sectarian creed with set rituals and dogmas, but as a rational and ennobling way of life open for all humans to follow.

Mahavir proclaimed : “A person does not become a monk by merely tonsuring, nor a Bramhin by reciting mantras, nor a Muni by living in the forest, nor a hermit by wearing woven kusa grass apparel. One becomes a monk by developing equanimity, a Bramhin by celibacy, a Muni by knowledge and a hermit by austerity.

Visionary organizational flair

Mahavir infused fresh vigor into what had been dubbed as an austere religion followed by a small minority. He displayed highly effective organizational flair and attracted a large number of learned Sadhus and Sadhavi in his Sangha led by Indrabhuti Gautam (who had earlier been an authority on Vedic philosophy, but was won over in the discussions by Mahavir, and became his prime disciple (first among the 11 Ganadhars). Mahavir strengthened the organizational base of the religion by streamlining and strengthening his four-fold congregation (Chaturvidha Sangha) comprising on the one hand monks and nuns, and on the other lay men and women devotees. Among the monks and nuns, lay men and women from a variety of backgrounds from royal families, warrior classes, Brahmins, business community, farmers, craftsmen, fishermen and several others including from downtrodden classes. Among his followers were 38 Kings, out of whom as many as 11 became ascetics.

Mahavir emerged as an ardent supporter of the emancipation of women. He accepted food from poor Chandanbala ,victim of exploitative society. Her life was transformed by becoming sadhavi and rising to the post of Pravartini. The sadhvis in Mahavir’s Sangha were learned women like kali, Krsna, Devananda Brahmi, and Sundari. Sadhvi Yaksa and Arya Payani were literary figures, while Princess Auve of Chu was a renowned Tamil poetess.

Like all his predecessor Tirthankars, Mahavir presided over a totally unified Jain religion. In the spirit of Anekant philosophy, he respected differences in perceptions, but persuasively forged synthesis among them by emphasizing that what united them was far more important and basic than what may appear to divide them. The split into Digambar and Swetambar sects came about some 160 years after Mahavir’s nirvana, when Bhadrabahuswami was the head of the religious order. At that time there occurred a twelve year famine around 350 B.C.He along with his sangha of 12000 digambar ascetics left for the south with Emperor Chandra Gupta accompanying them as an ascetic as well.

The shramana sangha reached Sravanabelgola and further strengthened the already existing Jain religion there from earlier centuries. The huge monolithic statue of Bahubali at Sravanbelgola built in the 11th century is witness to the blossoming of Jain religion there. In the meantime shwetambar tradition took its roots with differing rituals in north India, and shwetambar saints took to the practice of putting on two pieces of white cloth to cover their bodies in contrast to sky-clad Digambar munis. However despite differing interpretation of the extent of detachment, both the sects share the common philosophical basis of Jainism with Mahavir’s teachings as the fountain source of inspiration and direction.

(end of Chapter 6)