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mahĀvĪra : the messiah of mercy


Vardhamān Mahāvīra –

Born a prince in the principality of Kṣatriyakuṇḍagrāma of the republic of Vaiśāli, Vardhamān Bhagvān Mahāvīra was the apple of the eyes of His parents – Noble king Siddhārtha of the Jñātṛ lineage and his charming queen consort, Triśalā, the beloved daughter of famous king Ceṭaka of Videha. He became the twenty–fourth and the last Tīrthaṅkara (Prophet Propounder of the Jaina faith).

Birth –

He was born on the midnight of the thirteenth of the bright half of the lunar month of Caitra in the year 599 BC when the moon was in conjunction with the Uttarā–fālguni constellation. There are a number of incidents associated with His birth. Some of them are equally believed by both the Śvetāmbara and the Digambara traditions and on some there are differences of opinions between the two. However, they are as follows: –

1. As a Tīrthaṅkarato be he was endowed with the three perceptions – Sensory, Scriptural and Clairvoyant – since his conception in the mother’s womb.

2. His mother to be had the vision of fourteen divine and auspicious dreams1, which only the mothers to be of the Tīrthaṅkaras and the Cakravartins have. These fourteen dreams were – 1. The white elephant, 2. The ox–bull, 3. The Lion, 4. The goddess Lakṣmī, 5. The flower–garland descending from the heavens, 6. The Moon, 7. The Sun, 8. The flowing flag, 9. The golden pot filled with clean water, 10. The lotus pond, 11. The sweet water sea, 12. The lotus shaped heavenly spacecraft (Vimāna), 13. The pile of precious gems and 14. The smokeless fire.

3. As soon as He was conceived, the gods showered great wealth and filled king Siddhārtha’s treasury with precious metals and gems.

4. Since his conception the republic started prospering in every way and the parents decided to name the child as ‘Vardhamān’.

5. The Śvetāmbara tradition believes that Vardhamāna’s soul was first conceived by Devānandā, a Brahmin lady, the wife of Ṛṣabhadatta, a learned Brahmin scholar. When Śakra, the heavenly king, realised that a Tīrthaṅkara must be born of noble parentage such as the kings and the queens only, he asked his lieutenant Hariṇagameśī god to interchange the foetus in the womb of Devānandā with that in the womb of queen Triśalā. The order was duly carried out and Vardhaman Mahāvīra was, thus, born of the royal womb.

6. While Vardhamān was still in his mother’s womb, he thought that his foetal movements might cause discomfort to his mother and he stopped moving. The mother, however, thought differently and interpreted the lack of movement by the foetus as foetal death and became very much distressed. Realising the intensity of mother’s affection and attachment for even an unborn child, the Prophet to be vowed that he would not accept monastic ordination as long as his parents lived.

Chidhood And Education –

Vardhamān was a very handsome, healthy, intelligent, accomplished and an extraordinarily brilliant child who was rather serious by nature and very quick to learn. At the age of eight he was sent to the professors of arts and crafts (Kalācārya and Śilpā–cārya), who were very happy to have him as a pupil and taught him all that they knew with great enthusiasm and alacrity. Vardhamān quickly learnt all that they had to teach and became proficient in worldly as well as divine knowledge.

Mahāvīra Mahāvīra –

In his childhood itself Vardhamān was quite bold and fearless. Some events that brought his this quality to the fore and earned him the title of Mahāvīra that stuck to him for all times to come, were as follows: –

1. Once when Vardhamān was playing in the garden with his friends, a fierce serpent wound itself on the trunk of the tree on which they had climbed. The children were frightened and started crying. However, Vardhamān quickly got down and fearlessly catching the serpent from its tail left it at a safe distance.

2. Once a mad elephant loosened itself and started creating havoc in the streets. People panicked and started running helter–skelter. Vardhamān confronted it bravely and skilfully subdued it. Everyone praised him for his bravery.

3. Once a villainous magician adopted the form of a child and started playing with the group that was playing ‘pick a back’. As soon as Vardhamān rode his back, the magician started growing taller and taller. The other hildren panicked but not Vardhamān, he keeled him by pressing the magician hard on his vital points and forced him to bag his pardon for his villainy.

Prince Mahāvīra –

Mahāvīra Vardhamān grew into a fine young man but he was given to deep thought and kept to himself thinking and reflecting over things that others found of little interest. He thought about the pain and misery of the world at large and the pitiable plight of the worldly living beings. He wanted to devote his life to finding ways and means to mitigate the miseries and to discover a way of life that could make everyone happy. His parents and the elder brother, Nandivardhan, however, had different plans for him and got him married to a beautiful princess Yaśasvatī.1

Soon he was a father of an extraordinarily beautiful daughter whose name was Priyadarśanā. However, his mood did not undergo any substantial change and he remained aloof and withdrawn from mundane pleasures. The time flew and soon he was twenty–eight when his parents passed away. He thought that the time was then ripe for him to leave the worldly life and to become a monk. He was, however, persuaded by his brother to wait for another two years, which he agreed.

Monk Mahāvīra –

At the age of thirty Vardhamān Mahāvīra left the princely life and accepted monastic self–ordination and became a monk. Immediately he also gained the unlimited telepathic perception. He plucked his hair in five handfuls disrobed himself of all clothes save a divine body wrap devotedly presented by Devendra the king of heavenly gods.2

This piece of cloth, too, was discarded by him when it got entangled in the thorny bushes. Mahāvīra left his home–town and toured the countryside observing most severe penance and mostly devoting his time to intense meditative

contemplation. He went about like this for a period of twelve and a half years during which time he observed complete silence, speaking only to enquire about the route, or to seek permission to stay or to answer someone’s questions. He also toured the part of the country inhabited by uncivilised and wicked tribesmen who subjected him to unbearable physical torture such as beating, etc. Once some cow–heard even drove pegs in his ears. He bore all those afflictions with courage and fortitude. At the end of this period, his penance and meditation bore fruit. He destroyed the four types of destructive karma and gained enlightenment.

Omniscient Tīrthaṅkara Mahāvīra –

Having destroyed the four destructive karma, Mahāvīra became perfectly undeluded, gained omniscience, omnivision and realised his full spiritual potential. When the news of His enlightenment reached the highly learned Brahmin priests – Indrabhūti, Vāyubhūti, Agnibhūti, etc, they decided to challenge Him. Eleven of them came and had a change of heart as soon as the Lord removed their lingering doubts about the real form of the soul etc. They became His very first and principal disciples (Gaṇadharas). Omniscient Lord Mahāvīra now started preaching and established a four–fold religious order comprising monks, nuns, as well as lay male and female followers. This order is known as ‘Tīrtha’ or the ford to go across the ocean of mundane existence and, therefore, the Lord Prophet is known as ‘Tīrthaṅkara’ or the establisher of Tīrtha. Vardhamān Mahāvīra, thus became the twenty–fourth and the last Tīrthankara of the descendant phase of the current time–cycle. His teachings were on time honoured lines but he gave a new insight with which to interpret the existing knowledge. His very first sermon was regarding the nature of reality, which was continuously changing yet constant. When he said, “The reality about things and beings is that they are born, they are destroyed and they are constant.” This seeming contradiction was resolved when he explained thatfor everything the matter remains the same but its modes change all the time. When one mode gives way to another, the former is destroyed while the latter is born. This new insight into the reality of things enabled His principal disciples to interpret their learning with a new perspective and compose the twelve primary cannons and the fourteen pre–canons.

Messiah Of Mercy –

Mahāvīra’s teachings were based on only one principal premise – non–violence towards all the living beings how–so–ever big or small, developed or undeveloped, one–sensed or five–sensed, intelligent or unintelligent. All the precepts that He gave were designed to ensure this perfect non–violence in thought, words and deeds, and in action, order or approval. He maintained that all living beings wanted to live, none wanted to die; all of them loved pleasure and shunned pain. Therefore, our actions might be such as to ensure that we did not kill any creature, did not cause any hurt to any of its ten kinds of vitality and treated all of them with utmost care and compassion. He preached, “We must seek friendship with all and animosity towards none. We must not only live ourselves but let others live as well”. His merciful disposition and the feeling of universal love were so potent that His very presence could calm the most poisonous serpent, Caṇḍakauśika, that was famous for its poisonous hiss and was known to kill at sight.

He saw that the soul in its purest form was an abode of infinite knowledge, infinite vision, infinite prowess and eternal bliss and preached a three–way path to gain spiritual emancipation, on attaining which all these qualities of the soul are realised. He maintained that this was the most natural state of the soul, which was disturbed by the karmic encumbrance that could be shed by right endeavour (conduct) in the light of right–vision and right–knowledge. He preached that right–vision was nothing but the ability to see things as they are in an undeluded state of mind. Right–knowledge was the knowledge that was interpreted in the light of the right perspective gained through right–vision and that the mental, physical and vocal activities in accordance with the right–knowledge and right–vision was the right–conduct. He preached a two–tiered code of conduct. One for the clergy was more severe and stringent and left no room for any violation. The other, for the laity was less so and catered to their need for leading householders’ lives. He said that all the vows – major or minor – were to support one view that we must be as non–violent as possible. We must refrain from untruth and theft because they hurt others while we resort to them for meeting our selfish ends. Celibacy is advisable for it prevents us from indulging in many a sinful deed. We must renounce possessions as far as possible and completely overcome attachment for them, for it is one of the most potent cause of violence and thereby of keeping the soul shackled in mundane bondage.

He preached non–violence and universal friendship that translated itself into kindness and compassion for all. He was the true ‘messiah of mercy’.

Revolutionary Mahāvīra –

Mahāvīra was a revolutionary in the true sense of the term. His message was far ahead of its time. He preached equality at a time when the society was in the grip of untouchability. He fought caste–system and maintained that it is the actions of a person and not the accident of his birth that determine his caste. One is a Brahmin if one’s actions are righteous; one is a Kṣatriya if one protects the others; one is a Vaiśya if one trades with honesty and one is a true servant if one serves faithfully.

He had the courage of His convictions and stood up to condemn the violence that marred the religious ritual offerings in which the animal–sacrifice was rampant. He gave the clarioncall that nothing beneficial could result from bad and sinful deeds like killing innocent animals in the name of religion and that the perpetrators of such violence would certainly be condemned to suffer the miseries of hells.

At a time when intellectual strife was at its pinnacle and various religious philosophies, plunged in the darkness of their absolutist views, were at loggerheads with each other, each trying to prove others false, Lord Mahāvīra presented His unique gift of enlightened Non–absolutist view (Anekāntavāda) that paved the way for appreciation of the others’ views in relation to their respective frames of reference.

Lord Mahāvīra could appreciate the changing needs of time and the changing human nature and tailored his creed to suit the needs of time. While twenty–two Prophets before him preached only a four vowed ethics, He could summon the courage to break from tradition and preached a five vowed code and convinced the learned followers of Lord Pārśvanātha, the twenty–third Tīrthaṅkara, that the time then needed the fifth vow of celibacy to be explicitly taken rather than implicitly understood. All of them appreciated the need and accepted the five–vowed faith of Mahāvīra.

No wonder, then, that His creed found followers in large numbers amongst all classes of the society and kings and knaves alike became His followers. Śreṇika Bimbisāra, the king emperor of Magadha, the most potent potentate of the time, became His follower and many more followed. His monastic order was open to all the four castes of noble Brahmins and Kṣatriyas and not so noble Vaiśyas and Śūdras. He had the courage to accept the untouchable eaters of carrion, like Harikeśibala, into His fold and convert them into highly accomplished monks that became venerated by gods, demigods, kings and laymen alike.

Liberated Mahāvīra –

Mahāvīra preached His gospel for thirty years for the benefit of the humanity, divinity, animal kingdom and the rest of the living world. His message of universal love and non–violence reverberated in the four corners of the country as well as in the heavens above.

At seventy–two, He was still spreading His gospel far and wide but time now came for His departure from the mundane existence, the event for which all living beings crave – liberation.

He was staying for the rainy season at Pāvā, when His four non–destructive types of karma were also exhausted and His spirit was ready to leave behind the confines of a body and was knocking at the doors of perfectly pure incorporeal existence. It wanted to go and make an abode on the Siddhaśilā in the uppermost part of the universe beyond which there is nothing but the infinite expanse of the non–universal space. At midnight on the fifteenth of the dark half of the lunar month of Kārtika, in the year 527 BC, the nirvāṇa call came and leaving the order established by Him in the able hands of His able principal disciple, Sudharma, He breathed His last to be one amongst the supremely accomplished, perfectly pure souls the Siddhas. The Jains celebrate this day as Dīpāvalī till date.

The following verse candidly sums up His supreme accomplishment: –

Vīraḥ sarva suarāsurendra mahitaḥ, Vīraṁ budhā saṁsṛtā ™

Vīreṇābhihataḥ svakarmanicayaḥ, Śrī Vīrāya nityaṁ namaḥ™™”

(Meaning – “Daily obeisance to Vīra by whom His own karmic accumulation has been completely annihilated and so Hehas become venerated by all the gods and their kings and whose praise is sung by the learned.”)

What follows in this work is a brief exposition of the precious precepts preached by such enlightened and omniscient Lord Prophet Bhagvān Vardhamān Mahāvīra.


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  1. This is the Śvetambara belief; the Digambara tradition believes that Mahāvīra did not marry and was ordained a monk as a celibate. []
  2. The Digambara tradition believes that no such piece of cloth was retained by Him. []