Jainism is an ancient religion from teaches that the way to liberation and bliss is to live a life of harmlessness and renunciation. The aim of Jain life is to achieve liberation of the soul. The essence of Jainism is concern for the welfare of every being in the universe and for the health of the universe itself.
Jains believe that animals and plants, as well as human beings, contain living souls. Each of these souls is considered of equal value and should be treated with respect and compassion. They are strict vegetarians and live in a way that minimises their use of the world’s resources.
Jains believe in reincarnation and seek to attain ultimate liberation – which means escaping the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth so that the immortal soul lives for ever in a state of bliss. Liberation is achieved by eliminating all karma from the soul. The three guiding principles of Jainism, the ‘three jewels’, are right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. The supreme principle of Jain living is non violence (ahimsa). Jains are divided into two major sects; the Digambara (meaning “sky clad”) sect and the Svetambara (meaning “white clad”) sect.
Jainism has no priests. Its professional religious people are monks and nuns, who lead strict and ascetic lives.
Lord Mahavira was the twenty-fourth and last Jain Tirthankara according to the Jain philosophy.
A Tirthankara is an enlightened soul who is born as a human being and attains perfection through intense meditation.
For a Jain, Lord Mahavira is no less than God and his philosophy is like the Bible. Born as Vardhamana Mahavir, he later came to be known as Bhagvan Mahaveer.
At the age of 30, Vardhamana left his home in pursuit of spiritual awakening, and for the next twelve-and-a-half years, he practiced severe meditation and penance, after which he became omniscient. After achieving Kevala Jnana, he travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent to teach Jain philosophy for the next 30 years.
Lord Mahaveera was born Prince Vardhamana to King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala of the Ikshvaku Dynasty. He was born in 599 B.C. on the thirteenth day of the rising moon during the month of Chaitra in the Vira Nirvana Samvat calendar. Most historians agree that he was born in Kshatriyakund in the Kingdom of Vaishali which is in modern day Bihar.
As a child Vardhamana was quiet but brave. He displayed acts of great courage several times during difficult situations. Being a prince he was brought up amidst much luxury yet nothing affected him. He led a very simple life. Following his parent’s instructions, he married Princess Yashoda, at a very young age and the couple had a daughter, Priyadarshana. The Digambara sect of Jainism believes that Vardhamana refused to get married when his parents insisted.
When Vardhamana was 28, his parents passed away and his elder brother Nandivardhana succeeded their father. Vardhamana craved freedom from the worldly attachments and sought his brother’s permission to renounce his royal life. His brother tried to dissuade him from his resolve but Vardhamana was adamant, practicing fast and meditation at home.
At 30 years of age, he finally abandoned his home and embraced the ascetic life of a monk on the tenth day of Margsirsa. He gave away his possessions, put on a single piece of cloth and uttered “Namo Siddhanam” (I bow down to the liberated souls) and left all his worldly attachments behind.
Penance and Omniscience
Mahavira spent the next twelve and a half years pursuing a life of hard penance to drive away his basic attachments. He practiced complete silence and rigorous meditation to conquer his basic desires. He assumed a calm and peaceful demeanor and sought to overcome emotions like anger.
He discarded his clothes and put himself through immense hardships. He practiced a philosophy of non-violence against all living being. He moved from place to place, often observing fasts and sleeping for only 3 hours each day. During his twelve years of penance he travelled through Bihar, western and north Bengal, parts of Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. After experiencing 12 years of hard penance, a tired Mahaveera is said to have fallen asleep for a few moments when he experienced a series of 10 strange dreams. These dreams and their significance have been explained in Jain Scriptures as follows:
- Defeating a Lion – signifies destruction of ‘moha’ or worldly attachment
- A bird with white feathers following him – signifies attainment of purity of mind
- A bird with multicolored feathers – signifies attainment and propagationof multifaceted knowledge
- Two gem strings appear in front – symbolizes preaching a dual religion, an amalgamation of principles from a monk’s life and duties of a common man.
- A herd of white cows – symbolizes a group of devoted followers who will serve
- A pond with open lotuses – symbolizes presence of celestial spirits who will propagate the cause
- Crossed a waxy ocean swimming – symbolizes freedom from the cycles of death and rebirths
- Sun rays spreading in all directions – symbolizes attainment of Kevala Jnana (Omniscience)
- Encircling the mountain with your bluish intestines – symbolizes the universe will be privy to the knowledge
- Sitting on a throne placed on summit of the Mount Meru – symbolizes people revering the knowledge being taught and placing Mahaveer in a place of respect.
On the tenth day of the rising moon during the month of Vaisakh, 557 B.C., Mahavira sat under a Sal tree on the banks of river Rijuvaluka (modern day river Barakar), and attained the Kevala Jnana or omniscience. He finally experienced perfect perception, perfect knowledge, perfect conduct, unlimited energy, and unobstructed bliss. He became a Jina, the one who is victorious over attachment.
Mahavir devoted his life towards spreading his Keval Jnana among people and gave discourses in local languages as opposed to in elite Sanskrit. His final discourse was at Pavapuri which lasted for 48 hours. He attained moksha shortly after his final discourse, finally liberated from the cycle of life, death and rebirth during 527 B.C. at the age of 72
Lord Mahavira was the last and 24thTirthankara of Jainism and is responsible for reordering the religion and introducing the Jain Sangha. Lord Mahavira considered men and women to be spiritual equals and that they both may renounce the world in search of Moksha. Lord Mahavira encouraged participation of people from all social standings, rich and poor, men and women, touchable and untouchable.
The ultimate goal behind practicing the teachings of Lord Mahavira is to attain freedom from the cycle of rebirth as human life is representative of pain, misery and vices. According to him, every living being suffers under the bondage of Karma, which is the accumulation of that being’s deeds. Souls seek pleasures in materialistic possessions that result into introductions of vices like self-centeredness, greed, anger and violence.
These result into accumulation of bad karma which does not allow souls to be liberated from the cycle. He preached that the real path leading to attainment of liberation from the cycle of Karma is through Samyak Darshana (right faith), Samyak Jnana (right knowledge) and Samyak Charitra (right character). Sermons of Lord Mahaveera were compiled in the Agam Sutras by his disciples and were passed on to the common people through oral recitations.
These scriptures prescribe 5 basic vows that should be observed by monks and common disciples alike. These five basic vows are:
- Nonviolence (Ahimsa) – not to cause harm to any living beings
- Truthfulness (Satya) – to speak the harmless truth only
- Non-stealing (Asteya) – not to take anything not properly given
- Chastity (Brahmacharya) – not to indulge in sensual pleasure
- Non-possession/Non-attachment (Aparigraha) – complete detachment from people, places, and material things.
Teachings and philosophy of Lord Mahavira laid down the foundation of a novel sect of Jainism known as the Digambaras, apart from the pre-existing Shwetambaras. The Digambaras believe that attaining moksha through a life of strict penance and by practicing nudity to symbolize freedom from worldly attachments.
The spiritual philosophy of Lord Mahavira encompasses eight cardinal principles – of them three metaphysical and five are ethical. Jains believe in the eternal existence of the Universe – neither it was created and nor can it be destroyed.
Mahavira thought that the Universe is made up of six eternal substances – Souls, Space, Time, Material Atoms, Medium of Motion and Medium of Rest. These independent components undergo changes to create the multifaceted reality that mortals exist in.
Lord Mahavira introduced the philosophy of Anekantvada (principle of non-absolutism) that refers to pluralism of existence. It teaches that truth and reality may differ when perceived from different points of views, and that no single view represents the absolute truth. This multifaceted reality is better explained with Syadvada or the Principle of Seven Fold Predictions. The principle of Partial Stand Points or Nayvada is also an offshoot of Anekantvada, reinforcing the Jain belief of existence of infinite points of view, each expressing a partial truth.
By the end of fourth century, there was a serious famine in the Ganges Valley leading to great exodus of many Jaina monks to the Deccan and South India along with Bhadrabahu and Chandragupta Maurya.
They returned to the Gangetic Valley after 12 years. The leader of the group, which stayed back at Magadha, was Sthalabahu. The changes that took place in the code of conduct of the followers of Sthalabahu led to the division of the Jainas into Digambaras(sky-clad or naked) and Svetambaras(white clad)
The First Council was held at Pataliputra by Sthulabahu in the beginning of the third century BC and resulted in the compilation of 12 Angas to replace the lost 14 Purvas.
The Second Council was held at Valabhi in the fifth century A.D. under the leadership of Devaradhi Kshmasramana and resulted in the final compilation of the 12Angas and 12 Upangas.
Other Important Facts
- Moksha or spiritual liberation is very important to the Jain community. Knowing that it is only possible with the right desire for it, coupled with doing good karma and refraining from bad karma, Jains lead an ideal life.
- Fasting is an intrinsic part of the Jain lifestyle. Thus, they reap the multiple benefits of fasting – detoxification leading to a healthy body, and that in turn, leading to a healthy mind.
- Shrimad Rajchandra, among the most prominent Jains, was the creator of Atmasiddhi. It was this Jain writer who influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s famous philosophy of satyagraha.
- Jainism is regarded as one of the most ancient religions of India. It had developed as early as the 6th century BC.
- The word Jain comes from the word “Jinas”, which means a spiritual conqueror who has reached perfection and liberation.
- Tirthankaras are the pioneers of Jain faith, who showed the followers the way to nirvana. In Jainism, there are 24 such spiritual leaders, the last being Mahavira, who lived from 599 BC to 527 BC.