Jain tradition speaks of twenty-four Tirthankars (ford-makers across the stream of existence), each of whom preached the doctrine to his own age. Of these, the first was Bhagwan

Rishabhadev who preached the religion of nonviolence (ahimsa dharma) prior to the advent of the Aryans in India. The last of these was Bhagwan Mahavir, who lived from 599 B.C. to 527 B.C. He revealed the doctrine of nonviolence as preached by Bhagwan Rishabhadev. Gosala Makkhaliputta, the head of the Ajivika sect, and Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, were

Mahavir's contemporaries.


The parents of Mahavir belonged to the lay following of Bhagwan Parshvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar, who was the son of King Ashvasen and Queen Vama of Varanasi. Parshvanath lived as a householder for thirty years, then became an ascetic, and after performing penance for eighty-four days, attained

enlightenment (omniscience). He lived for a full hundred years and attained nirvana on Mount Sammedashikhar, some 250 years before Mahavir.


Mahavir was born on the thirteenth day of the bright fortnight of Chaitra, the first month of the Indian calendar,

corresponding to March 30, 599 B.C., in a suburb of Vaishali called Kundgram, now known as Basukund. His parents were

Siddhartha, a wealthy nobleman, and Trishala, a sister of

Chetak, an eminent Lichchhavi prince of Vaishali. Mahavir's original name was Vardhamana. His more popular name Mahavir was bestowed on him later. He is frequently referred to as "the venerable ascetic Mahavir".


Mahavir became a monk at the age of thirty. He practiced severe asceticism (tapaschariya) throughout his life, abandoning his clothing and wandering as a sky-clad (Digambar) monk. His ways of meditation, days of austerities, and mode of behavior

furnish a beautiful example for monks in religious life. His spiritual pursuit lasted for twelve years. During the period of penance, Mahavir met several monks to enrich his spiritual experience.


In 557 B.C., after twelve years of austerities and meditation, on the tenth day of the bright half of Vaishakha, the second month of the Indian calendar, Mahavir attained omniscience (absolute knowledge). Henceforth, he began his career as a path-maker and a religious teacher.


For the next thirty years, Mahavir, the wandering ascetic, preached the doctrine of eternal truth. He wandered for

eight months of the year and spent four months of the rainy season (Chaturmas) in some large town such as Champa, Vaishali, Rajagriha, Mithila and Shravasti. He attracted people from all walks of life, rich and poor, kings and commoners, men and women, princes and priests, touchables and untouchables. Many famous contemporary kings and nobles thronged to listen to his spiritual discourses and became his disciples.


On the fifteenth day of the dark half of Kartik, the eighth month of the Indian calendar, in 527 B.C., at the age of

seventy-two, Tirthankar Mahavir attained Nirvana at a place called Majjhima Pava, the present Pavapuri in the Patna district of the Indian state of Bihar. On the night of his salvation, the kings and heads of the two clans, the Mallas and the

Lichchhavis, assembled and celebrated the Festival of Lights (Deepavali) in his honor.




From what has been stated above, certain significant points emerge about the life and teachings of Bhagwan Mahavir.


(1) Jainism existed before Mahavir and his teachings were based on those of his predecessors. Thus, unlike Buddha, Mahavir was more of a reformer and propagator of an existing religious order than the founder of a new faith. He followed the well-

established creed of his predecessor Tirthankar Parshvanath. However, Mahavir did reorganize the philosophical tenets of Jainism to correspond to his times.


(2) Mahavir was a brilliant personality. He occupies a unique place among the greatest men of the world, He was an oasis in the arid desert of confusion about the ultimate goal of human life. He was a philosopher as well as a Tirthankar. As a philosopher, he made his enquiries in order to solve the problem of life. As a Tirthankar, he gave a new revelation to the Dharma preached by his predecessors. Mahavir adopted two steps to unravel reality:


One, he reconciled his realization of the inner

world with the realm of reason.


Two, he made enquiries into the nature of life and of

existence through his own personal observations, knowledge and experience.


(3) Mahavir was undoubtedly a product of the best of Aryan culture. Besides the inherited philosophy of his predecessors, he was also inspired by other Indian schools of thought. The contemporary ideals of freedom from worldly misery and the thought of transmigration profoundly affected his thinking. This led him to the goal of integrated personality through the conquest of human weaknesses. The kindred forces which were united against the Brahminical religious traditions, gave birth to the theory of renunciation and self-realization (Nivritti Marg). Mahavir was at the forefront of this ferment at the intellectual, spiritual and social levels. Further, he

visualized relativism (Syadvada) which means that isolated and opposite objects are bound in one harmonious stream. Thus, scrupulous exhaustiveness became the main characteristic of his approach.


The spiritual power and moral grandeur of Mahavir's teachings impressed the masses. He made religion simple and natural, free from elaborate ritual complexities. His teachings reflected the popular impulse towards internal beauty and harmony. Mahavir made Jainism the focal point for the students of other schools of thoughts as well.


(4) Mahavir emphasized the need of a comprehensive outlook - the multiplicity of viewpoints (Anekantavada). For him,

there was no question of exaltation or domination of anyone's spiritual or ideological contribution. In his view, a

dissenting opinion was a natural human tendency. The wisdom, however, lies in harmonizing the dissensions.


(5) Mahavir was quite successful in eradicating from human intellect the conception of God as creator or protector. He also denounced the worship of God (and of gods and goddesses) as a means of salvation. He taught the idea of supremacy of human life and stressed the importance of the positive. His message of nonviolence (ahimsa), truth (satya), non-stealing (achaurya), celibacy (brahmacharya) and non-possessiveness (aparigraha) is full of universal compassion. He said that a living body is not merely an integration of limbs but it is the abode of soul which potentially has infinite perception (anant darshan), infinite knowledge (anant jnana), infinite power (anant virya) and infinite bliss (anant sukha). Mahavir's message reflects freedom and spiritual joy of soul.


(6) In matters of spiritual enfranchisement, as envisioned by Mahavir, both men and women were on an equal footing. The lure of renunciation and liberation attracted women as well. Many women followed Mahavir's path and renounced the world in search of spiritual advancement.


(7) Like Buddhism, Jainism also received royal patronage. The king of Magadh, Shrenik, and Mahavir's maternal uncle, Chetak, among others, were devoted to Mahavir. However, the acceptance of Mahavir's teachings by the masses was the most important factor.


In short, Mahavir contributed to the process of unifying India and developing its collective conscience by integrating Aryan and pre-Aryan elements into a composite culture and



In a few centuries after Mahavir's nirvana, Jain religious order (Sangha) grew more and more complex. There were schisms on some minor points although they did not affect the original doctrines as preached by the Tirthankar. Later generations saw the introduction of ritualistic complexities which almost placed Mahavir and other Tirthankars on the throne of deities.

Mahavir's indifference to the worship of God was overshadowed by the role normally assigned to God in other religions.