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Title: Māhavīra  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Karma in Jainism
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


This article is about the Tirthankara of Jainism. For the Jain mathematician, see Mahāvīra (mathematician).
Not to be confused with Mahavihara.

Sculpture of Mahāvīra
Born 599 BCE
Died 527 BCE
Known for twenty-fourth tirthankara
Predecessor Parshva
Successor None

Mahavira (599 BCE–527 BCE[1]), also known as Vardhamana, was the twenty-fourth and last tirthankara of Jainism. He was born into a royal family in what is now Bihar, India. At the time of his birth, the whole town marked prosperity in term of agriculture, health, wealth and wisdom. It is for this reason that he was named as Vardhman (hindi : Vridhi) by his parents. At the age of 30 he left his home in pursuit of spiritual awakening (Diksha). For the next 12 and a half years he practiced intense meditation and severe penance, after which he achieved Kevala Jnana or enlightenment. He travelled all over India for the next 30 years to teach his philosophy which is based on ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha.

Mahavira attained nirvana after his physical death at the age of 72. He was one of the most popular propagators of Jainism, and he is regarded as a reformer of Jainism rather than its founder.

Early life

The exact place of birth of Mahavira is unknown. Historians have identified three places in Bihar as his possible birthplace: Basokund in Vaishali district, Lachhuar in Jamui and Kundalpur in Nalanda. Most modern historians agree that Basokund was his birthplace.[2] Traditionally, Kundalagrama in the ancient city of Vaishali is regarded his birthplace; however, its location remains unidentified.[3]

According to Jainism, Mahavira was born in 599 BCE.[4] Some historians identify Mahavira as a junior contemporary of Gautama Buddha, leaving his year of birth ambiguous.[5][6] but most of the historians and Jain followers agree that Mahavira was born in 599 BCE and place his date of birth on the thirteenth day of the rising moon of Chaitra in the Vira Nirvana Samvat calendar.[7][8] In the Gregorian calendar, this date falls in March or April.[9] Mahavira was born into the royal family of King Siddartha of Kundgraam and Queen Trishala, sister of King Chetaka of Vaishali.[10] His childhood name was 'Vardhamana'. Both his parents were strict followers of Pārśva.[11]

According to Śvētāmbara traditions, the embryo of Mahavira was transferred from a Brahmin woman, Devananda, to a Kshatriya woman, Trisala. This is described in the Acaranga and Kalpa Sūtras. In the Vyākhyāprajñapti, Mahavira acknowledges Devananda as his real mother.[12]

As a son of the king, Mahavira had all luxuries of life at his command. The name Mahavira is a Sanskrit word meaning Great Warrior. During his boyhood Mahavira brought under control a terrifying serpent and it is one of the reasons for the Mahavira.[13] Mahavira has many other titles and epithets, including Vira, Sanmati and Ñataputta. The ancient texts refer to Mahavira as Ñataputta[14] (son of Natas). This referred to his clan of origin, the Ñatta.

Jain traditions are not unanimous about his marital state. According to one tradition he was celibate and according to another he was married young to Yashoda and had one daughter, Priyadarshana.[15]

According to Jainism, Mahavira attained moksha in 527 BCE. Different dating has been proposed by recent scholars. Some Western scholars suggests that this date would have been around 425 BCE.[16]

Ascetic life and awakening

At the age of 30, Mahavira abandoned all the comforts of royal life and left his home and family to live ascetic life for spiritual awakening. He underwent severe penances, even without clothes. There is graphic description of hardships and humiliation he faced in the Acaranga Sūtra. In the eastern part of Bengal he suffered great distress. Boys pelted him with stones, people often humiliated him.[15]

The Kalpa Sūtra gives a detailed account of his ascetic life:[17]

The Venerable Ascetic Mahavira for a year and a month wore clothes; after that time he walked about naked, and accepted the alms in the hollow of his hand. For more than twelve years the Venerable Ascetic Mahivira neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; he with equanimity bore, underwent, and suffered all pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men, or animals.
—Kalpa Sutra 117
Henceforth the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira was houseless, circumspect in his walking, circumspect in his speaking, circumspect in his begging, circumspect in his accepting (anything), in the carrying of his outfit and drinking vessel; circumspect in evacuating excrements, urine, saliva, mucus, and uncleanliness of the body; circumspect in his thoughts, circumspect in his words, circumspect in his acts; guarding his thoughts, guarding his words, guarding his acts, guarding his senses, guarding his chastity; without wrath, without pride, without deceit, without greed; calm, tranquil, composed, liberated, free from temptations, without egoism, without property; he had cut off all earthly ties, and was not stained by any worldliness: as water does not adhere to a copper vessel, or collyrium to mother of pearl (so sins found no place in him); his course was unobstructed like that of Life; like the firmament he wanted no support; like the wind he knew no obstacles; his heart was pure like the water (of rivers or tanks) in autumn; nothing could soil him like the leaf of a lotus; his senses were well protected like those of a tortoise; he was single and alone like the horn of a rhinoceros; he was free like a bird; he was always waking like the fabulous bird Bharundal, valorous like an elephant, strong like a bull, difficult to attack like a lion, steady and firm like Mount Mandara, deep like the ocean, mild like the moon, refulgent like the sun, pure like excellent gold'; like the earth he patiently bore everything; like a well-kindled fire he shone in his splendour.
—Kalpa Sutra 118

After twelve and a half years of rigorous penance he achieved kevalajñana.[15] The Acharangasutra describes Mahavira as all-seeing. The Sutrakritanga elaborates the concept as all-knowing and provides details of other qualities of Mahavira.[3]


For the next 30 years Mahavira travelled far and wide in India to teach his philosophy. His philosophy has eight cardinal principles – three metaphysical and five ethical. The objective is to elevate the quality of life.[18] Ahimsa or non-violence is the first of five ethical principles. Mahavira taught that every living being has sanctity and dignity of its own and it should be respected just like we expect to respect our own sanctity and dignity. In simple words, we should show maximum possible kindness to every living being. The second principle is Satya or truthfulness which leads to good neighborliness in society. One should speak truth and respect right of property of each others in society. One should be true to his own thoughts, words and deeds to create mutual atmosphere of confidence in society. Third principle is Asteya or non-stealing which state that one should not take anything if not properly given. Fourth principle is Bramhacharya or chastity which stress steady but determined restraint over yearning for sensual or sexual pleasures. Fifth and final principle is Aparigraha or non-possession, non-attachment which requires complete detachment from people, places and material property.

Mahavira taught that pursuit of pleasure is an endless game, so we should train our minds to curb individual cravings and passions. That way one does achieve equanimity of mind, mental poise and spiritual balance. One should voluntarily limit acquisition of property as a community virtue which results in social justice and fair distribution of utility commodities. The strong and the rich should not try to suppress the weak and the poor by acquiring limitless property which results in unfair distribution of wealth in society and hence poverty. Attempting to enforce these five qualities by an external and legal authority leads to hypocrisy or secret criminal tendencies. So the individual or society should exercise self-restrain to achieve social peace, security and an enlightened society. Mahavira attained Nirvana at the age of 72 in 527 BCE.[15][19]

Mahavira is usually depicted in a sitting or standing meditative posture with a symbol of a lion under him.


Mahavira’s previous births are discussed in Jain texts such as the Trisastisalakapurusa Charitra and Jinasena's Mahapurana. While a soul undergoes countless reincarnations in transmigratory cycle of saṃsāra, the births of a tirthankara are reckoned from the time he determined the causes of karma and developed the Ratnatraya. Jain texts discuss twenty-six births of Mahavira prior to his incarnation as a tirthankara.[20]

There are various Jain texts describing the life of Mahavira. The most notable of them is the Kalpa Sūtra of Bhadrabahu. The first Sanskrit biography of Mahavira was Vardhamacharitra by Asaga in 853 CE.[21]

Mahavira is linked to the first tirthankara, Rishabha, according to Jain legends. He was earlier born as the heretical grandson of Rishabha known as Marici.[22] During his time, many of his contemporaries claimed to be the 24th tirthankara. Some of these were Puran Kashyapa, Makhali Goshala, Ajit Keshkambli, Pakuda Kachchhayan and Sanjay Vellathiputta. However, none of them have any special place in jaina universal history except Mahavira.[23]


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