was not some imaginary being. He was a real
man, and we know, with reasonable certainty, that his
life on earth ended just over 2500 years ago, in 527 B.C. We
know details of his life. He was born in 599 B.C. into a
family of the kshatriya, or knightly, caste.
His father, Siddhartha, was a prince or lord, and his
mother, Trisala, also came from a noble family. His birthplace
is believed to have been near the modern city of Patna, in
Bihar in north-eastern India.
Although generally referred to as Mahavira (which
means' great hero'), his original name was Vardhamana. Until
his late twenties he doubtless led a life not very different
from that of any other young man in his level of society.
his parents were followers of the religious teachings of
Parsva, the 'fourfold teaching', chaturyama dharma
, abstinence from violence, theft, untruth and acquisitiveness. We
should nowadays call them Jains. Parsva, who had lived some
250 years before Mahavira, is recognize as the twenty-third
or prophet of Jainism. It was shortly after his
parents' death that Vardhamana, or Mahavira, decided at
the age of thirty to renounce a worldly life. He gave
up all his possessions, even his clothes, and lived for the
next twelve years a life of great hardship, training himself
to endure the pains and discomforts of the body until he
became indifferent to them. The wandering ascetic, seeking
knowledge alone in the wilder places, or in company with
fellow seekers for truth, was (and still is) an accepted
figure on the edge of Indian society. The sixth century B.C.
was an era of intellectual ferment, an exciting period for a
young man of enquiring spirit, when various groups were
searching beyond the bounds of the rather rigid religious
orthodoxy of the time. The best-known individual, at least in
historical perspective, was the Buddha, a near contemporary of
Mahavira. Some of the earlier Western scholars who encountered
Jainism did not distinguish it from Buddhism (for there are
some similarities, as well as very marked differences) and
even confused the persons of Mahavira and the Buddha.
Mahavira persevered with this austere lifestyle, marked
by long spells of fasting and other penances, and by deep
last, during one period of meditation by the side of a river,
he came to a comprehension of the whole nature and meaning of
the universe. This total knowledge, omni science, kevala
jnana; is very important to Jainism. Most of us have had
the experience, at some time, of puzzling over something we do
not quite understand, when, suddenly, almost as though a cloud
clears, we get a flash of understanding and we see the
solution to our problem. Can we imagine this flash of
understanding spreading out, clearing the clouds over not just
our small problem but all the problems of the universe, giving
us an understanding of the whole nature and workings and
meaning of the universe? This is what happened to Mahavira.
And it can happen, and has happened, to other people as well.
This total knowledge does not come easily: for Mahavira, as we
have seen, it was the result of years of austerity and
was the fourth of
the five great events of Mahavira's life which are celebrated
by Jains today: his conception, birth, renunciation, and now
enlightenment. The fifth great event, nirvana or came thirty years later.
these thirty years Mahavira, strengthened by his knowledge,
spread his message among the people. He spoke in the language
of the region, Ardha Magadhi
, not in the classical Sanskrit of the scholars,
and the oldest Jain scriptures are preserved in that language.
Some people, men and women, were inspired to give up all
possessions and become monks and nuns. Others were unable to
go that far but followed Mahavira's teachings without giving
up their homes and families and work.
taught a scientific explanation of the nature and meaning of
life and a guide as to how we should behave to draw this real
nature and meaning into our own life. We must start with three
things. First, we must have RIGHT FAITH , we must believe in
truth. Second, we
must have the RIGHT KNOWLEDGE, we must study to understand
what life is all about. Third, we must follow RIGHT CONDUCT,
the conduct which our faith and knowledge show us to be
correct. These are the 'three jewels', ratna- traya. of. Jainism.
FAITH is perhaps the hardest of all. Nobody can tell us what
we can believe, but we can look at the message of Mahavira and
believe that he really did know what he was talking about and
that his message makes sense.
message contains the basis of RIGHT KNOWLEDGE. Life is a
puzzle. Where did we come from before birth? Where do we go
after death? Nobody's life is completely and totally happy,
but why do some people have lives of great misery and others
have much joy? Mahavira teaches us that this is not the result
of the whims of some distant god. No, each one of us is what
we have made ourselves by our actions in this life and in
previous lives. Every individual (and not only humans, but
animals and plants) is basically a pure spirit or soul (jivajiva is the Jain word for it) which is capable of
complete knowledge and complete freedom.
But by our actions and thoughts we have, as it were,
covered this pure spirit with the gross material of karma
which obscures our knowledge and limits our freedom and ties
us down to one life after another. Although we may have a lot
of happiness in life we also, all of us, have a great deal of
unhappiness. We want to know the way in which we can get rid
of the restrictions of karma and gain the state of complete
knowledge and glorious freedom which is known as
Although this may be a very long, very slow process for most
of us, over countless lives, Mahavira teaches us how to make a
start in freeing ourselves from the restrictions and miseries
we come to RIGHT CONDUCT. Strength of passions is the worst
thing, passions of violence and desire and possession. The
most important principle which runs through the whole of
Mahavira's attitude of life is
. This is usually translated as 'non-violence', but
it goes beyond that and really means the greatest possible
kindness to all living things. This is the first and
fundamental rule which we should try to follow, to get rid of
violence in all our actions and even in our thoughts. Yes, in
our thoughts as well, for violent thoughts can be potentially
as harmful as violent deeds.
teachings, if faithfully followed, have two results.
Firstly, they produce a better society for every
creature to live in, and secondly, they enable the individual
to improve his or her own inner feelings and character. So, following
on from ,
we are taught to be truthful and honest, to create both
individuals and a society in which lies and theft, and general
insecurity, are absent. Lies and theft are the result of our
passions and possessiveness. True peace and harmony in society
and in the individual are possible only if we can restrain our
passions and desires. So Mahavira tells us to reduce our
longing for the things of the world, for material possessions
and for sexual activities. We can never have real peace of
spirit so long as we are constantly seeking more and more
possessions and pleasures.
then are the five rules of conduct which Mahavira taught,
non-violence, truthfulness, no stealing, non-acquisition and
control of sexual desires. It is a hard program and not
everybody can follow it all at once. So Mahavira set up a
society in which some people, monks and nuns, try to follow
his program as far as is humanly possible. Others, ordinary
lay people, men and women, do not give up their homes and jobs
and families, but they try as far as possible in the
circumstances of daily life to follow the five rules of
conduct. While the monk or nun can take precautions to avoid
harm even to the tiniest
living creature, the rule of non-violence must mean
something less for ordinary people caught up in the ordinary
business of our lives. A monk or nun can give up all
possessions and seek no more: for most of us non-acquisition
must mean trying to reduce our craving for possessions and the
pleasures of the world. Monks
and nuns can go very much further than married men and women
in subduing their attachment to sex.
taught his message for thirty years until his life on earth
ended and he passed on to that state of complete freedom and
bliss and peace which we call moksha. For most of us
moksha is a very long way
away. But he taught us how we can approach it ourselves by
rules which lead to inner peace and harmony inside ourselves
and outward peace and harmony in human society. He taught more
than that, a democratic organization in the society which he
set up, with all men and women playing their part and with no
barriers of class or caste. He also taught tolerance and an
appreciation that things can be seen from more points of view
than one. Above all he taught that we ourselves produce our
own fate by our own actions and emotions: we should not look
outside for some god to praise or blame or ask for favors.
When we honor Mahavira we do not ask him for present help, but
we meditate on his example and teachings and seek to draw the
real meaning of these into our own life and spirit.
is the essence of Mahavira's teachings. Jainism is one of the
world's oldest religions: the modern Jain may well see it as
scientific, practical and fitted for the modern world.