Lord Mahavira is an ancient and globally revered personality whose profound spiritual teachings find resonance and relevance even in these times. Lord Mahavira, popularly known as Bhagvan Mahaveer, adorns a significant position in history as a blessed soul who revived Jainism, popularized its concepts and encouraged people to focus on a life of noble deeds to ensure a good Karma and subsequently freedom from the endless cycle of rebirths.
Lord Mahavira is not the founder of Jainism, but rather the twenty-fourth and the last Jain Tirthankara. In Jainism, a Tirthankara is a soul who has attained spiritual enlightenment in its human form through rigorous meditative practices. Each Tirthankara is revered as God and there are grand temples across India dedicated to the Tirthankaras.
Lord Mahavira is depicted in a sitting or standing meditative posture, with the symbol of a lion beneath him. He is among the most famous of Tirthankaras whose insightful teachings, especially on Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satya (truth), have influenced personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi and shaped the history of the world.
Birth, Childhood and Early Life
Born in 599 BCE on a full moon day to King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, Lord Mahavira belonged to the famed Ikshvaku dynasty. His birthplace is believed to be Kshatriyakund located in the ancient empire of Vaishali in present day Bihar. He was named Prince Vardhamana Mahavira.
Even before his birth, there were indications that he would attain great fame. As per Jain scriptures, Queen Trishala had a series of fourteen dreams when she was pregnant with Vardhamana. These dreams alluded to how the unborn child would spread the light of spiritual wisdom. These dreams are often depicted as carvings or paintings in major Jain temples around the world.
King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala were ardent followers of Parashwanatha – a prominent spiritual teacher of the time, and the 23rd of 24 Tirthankaras of Jainism. Although surrounded by a life of riches and luxury, Vardhamana preferred a simple life and was never lured by the temptations of worldly pleasures. Jain scriptures relate that Vardhamana was introvert yet patient, kind and brave, displaying exceptional courage in challenging situations.
As per the traditions of those times, Vardhamana got married to Princess Yashoda in his teenage years. Soon, they were blessed with a daughter whom they named Priyadarshana. The Swethambara sect of Jainism believes that Vardhamana consented to get married as per the wishes of his parents. However, the Digambara sect holds the opinion that Vardhamana who believed celibacy to be a virtue refused to give in to the wishes of his parents.
Renunciation and Enlightenment
After the death of his parents and the ascension of his brother Nandivardhana to the throne, Vardhamana, who was 28 years at the time, yearned to detach himself from material luxuries and seek true wisdom. Although his brother tried to talk him out of renouncing the royal life, Vardhamana remained steadfast in his decision and began intense meditational practices and extended sessions of fasting. When he was 30, Vardhamana completely renounced his palace, royal titles, family and worldly attachments, setting out on the grueling life of a wandering monk.
The ensuing twelve and half years witnessed Vardhamana’s spiritual evolution. He subjected himself to long spells of severe meditation and complete silence to overcome worldly desires and gain complete control over emotions such as anger and frustration. Consequently, he developed a calm and kind mindset, believed in not hurting any living thing, abandoned his clothing and continued travelling widely across North India.
One night in 557 BCE, as Mahavira sat in meditation on the banks of the river Barakar under the shade of a Sal tree, he finally received enlightenment or Kevala Jnana. He experienced the state of perfect bliss, radiant energy, immense knowledge and true perception of what it feels to be one with the cosmic power.
According to Jain scriptures, he received enlightenment through a series of dreams that indicated his complete control over worldly pleasures, achievement of a pure state of mind, his future role in spreading spiritual knowledge, his imminent following of devotees and the much sought after moksha from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
Spiritual Journey and Spread of Jainism
After attaining enlightenment, the next step obviously consisted of spreading the wisdom among people. Although Mahavira’s first sermon did not succeed in attracting many followers, the second sermon held in the city of Pava marked the revival of interest in Jainism with many people transforming into his followers. It was after this session that eleven Brahmins embraced Jainism and later became renowned as his chief disciples.
These eleven chief disciples attracted more followers from all walks of life – both men and women. Lord Mahavira regarded men and women as possessing equal spiritual capacities. Women who wanted to renounce worldly life and embrace a life of spirituality and simplicity were therefore welcomed into the community. Mahavira’s teachings attracted people from all strata of the society including the poor and the untouchables. At the peak of his popularity Lord Mahavir headed a spiritual community of fourteen-thousand monks, thirty-six-thousand nuns and millions of common people.
Mahavira dedicated the rest of his life to spreading Jainism. His sermons in local languages attracted huge gatherings. Unlike most ascetics of the time who exhorted their devotees to pray to Gods and Goddesses and present offerings to attain salvation, Mahavira maintained that it was important to focus on one’s karma to achieve freedom from rebirths. Mahavira stated that all his disciples had to follow basic vows such as Ahimsa (non-violence towards all living beings), Satya (to always speak the truth), Asteya (not to steal anything), Brahmacharya (to maintain chastity) and Aparigraha (not to be attached to people, things or places).
After his final sermon in Pavapuri in 527 BC, Mahavir attained Nirvana at the age of 72. As per the Digambara belief, a Jain Tirthankara who attains Nirvana leaves behind only his hair and nails while his mortal remains dissolves into the air. Therefore, most Jain texts contain narrations of Lord Mahavir disappearing after his Nirvana, leaving behind just his nails and hair.
Mahavira’s sermons were encapsulated by his disciples into a compilation known as Agam Sutras and the wisdom in it was propagated among the masses by oral narration. These teachings served as the foundation for the emergence for a new sect of Jains who would come to be known as Digambaras. This particular sect can be easily identified by their practice of nudity that represents complete detachment from worldly desires.
Inspirations from Life of Lord Mahavira
The teachings of Mahavira are primarily centered around attaining freedom from the endless cycle of rebirth by adopting a better way of life, speech and thought. Noble deeds help individuals accumulate good karma that sets them on a path of spiritual liberation.
One of Mahavira’s most enduring lessons is his emphasis on Ahimsa as a prime virtue. It is interesting to note that his concept of Ahimsa was not limited to humans. He taught the world that living beings of every size and form are representations of the cosmic power and therefore must be treated with dignity.
According to Mahavir’s philosophy, a person who hurts another living being or even speaks or thinks ill of any living being will incur bad karma that will adversely affect his future life and subsequent rebirths. The philosophy urges people to improve their deeds to enhance their quality of life and cleanse their souls to achieve spiritual liberation.
Lord Mahavira’s lessons will continue to resonate with mankind and his compassionate spirit will guide followers to discover the true meaning of existence. His profound philosophies are highly relevant in these turbulent times, highlighting the spiritual significance of an ancient soul who strived to guide people on the path of righteousness, ahimsa and spiritual bliss.