The Quest for the Royal Road: Bhagwan Mahavira's Contribution to Indian Society

Published: 19.01.2016

Bhagwan Mahavira engaged in himself the eternal quest for Truth and propagated that Truth. But he was not merely the visionary of his age. A visionary belonging to his own age sees not only the temporal truth, but he also sees the truth that is true to all times. However, the visionary who thinks in terms of eternity, is a man of the age, but he also looks beyond the age in which he is born. The eternal Truth manifests itself in the context of every age, but also goes beyond it. Mahavira was born in the soil of India. He belongs to Indian society. His father was a member of the Lichchavi clan. All the prosperity and grandeur of the kingdom of Vaishali, which he ruled, was at his command. The society in which Mahavira was born and grew up, was called the Indian society in those days and today it is called the Hindu society. Two religious traditions were prevalent in that society-Vedic and Sramana. Mahavira got closely acquaintted with both these traditions and became a sramana at the age of thirty years. He performed long penances for twelve and a half years and went into deep meditation and sadhana. At the end of it all, he attained the state of kaivalya, the perfect liberation. He said, "Equanimity is religion. Attachment and malevolence are the roots of incogruities. All the problems pertaining to one's inner world have their roots in attachment and malevolence. Attachment and malevolence have a very big role to play even with regard to the problems in social and political fields. It is not possible to attain the state of equanimity without conquering one's attachment and malevolence. Any incongruity prevailing anywhere is irreligious. Any equanimity prevailing anywhere is religious.

Bhagwan Mahavira tested religion on this touch-stone and stood against all incongruities he found in society. Some learned people believe that Bhagwan Mahavira appeared before society as a reformer wherever he found incongruities in society. This conclusion is based on his activities and the religious inspiration he provided. But in my view, this is not the reality. He certainly opposed the conventional practices that caused incongruities, but he did not appear as a reformer in order to oppose them but the circumstances made his opposition to all these conventions inevitable. Majority of people in society believed in the caste of their birth. It was a principle which begot incongruities. If man is high or low merely on account of the caste in which he is born, a person of lowly origin would remain low inspite of his good conduct and a person of high origin would remain high inspite of his bad conduct. In such social order, endeavour and conduct become meaningless. Caste alone becomes the highest consideration.

The attitude of favouritism underlying this social order could not be favourable to the religion of equanimity. Man expects neutrality from religion. If that very religion taught people to live with attachment and malevolence, the purpose of religion was lost altogether. Mahavira did not reject prevailing castes. He did not ignore some psychological factors underlying the caste-system. He only changed the concept of the caste of birth and presented instead the caste to be determined by one's actions. According to this, the same person could be a Brahmin, a Kshatriya or anything else in a single life time. The son of a Kshatriya could be a Vaishya and the son of a Vaishya could be a Sudra. This system of determining caste by one's actions would be subject to change and there would be no scope of any feeling of touchability and untouchability to grow.

There are two main results of equanimity, non-violence and Unlimited accumulation of wealth.

The principle of non-violence aims at making one aware about his soul. Only that person can remain aware about his soul who knows the meaning of the soul and the Supreme Being. Such a person cannot behave incongruously with another person. On this very basis, Bhagwan Mahavira established the impropriety of animal sacrifice and described even compulsory violence "as violence. Violence can never be considered a valid proposition in the garb of religion.

Using vegetables as food is or may be unavoidable, eating non-vegetarian food is not unavoidable in life. That type of food even leads to the destruction of righteous tendencies. Bhagwan Mahavira awakened among the people a feeling that regarded the consumption of non-vegetarian food as undesirable and the attitude of opposing the consumption of non-vegetarian food came to dominate the Indian society.

Bhagwan Mahavira accorded a spiritual form to rituals. He presented the idea of nirvana in such strong terms that both the aspiration to attain celestial life hereafter and the use of violence for that purpose weakened. Violence does not merely mean killing. Hatred is also violence. Taking away freedom is also violence. In the social order of those days, Bhagwan Mahavira initiated women and Sudras in the sangh and installed them in position of honour and by making them the co-partners in the freedom enjoyed by other classes, provided a basis for human equality.

Violence on the plane of ideas was also prevalent in those days. Attacking those who held different views from one's own, establishing the invalidity of their views was the accepted practice even among religious sects. People belonging to one sect, made sarcastic remarks about those belonging to another sect. By promulgating the pluralistic philosophy, Bhagwan Mahavira persuaded the people that the attainment of Truth was possible only through co-ordination and relativity. Any idea presented from the one-sided point of view, cannot become Truth because it dissipates the whole Truth. This pluralistic philosophy replaced the narrow minded attitude with liberal thoughts and an all-inclusive point of view and harmony.

Society used to enjoy greater economic freedom two thousand five hundred years ago. The individual could earn as much money as he wanted. Taxes levied by the State were also few. Some people were extremely wealthy. At the same time, there were also people who lived in utter poverty. No social thinking with regard to economic disparities had yet developed. The ordinary people believed that those who were wealthy had performed good deeds in their previous births. Those who were poor had performed bad deeds in their previous births. They believed that everyone had necessarily to face the consequences of his own actions. Because of this conviction, the poor people did not have any angry feeling towards the rich people. That inequality was accepted even at the social level. But that belief did not stand the test on the'ground of equality. That was why Bhagwan Mahavira persuaded people to accept the principle of non-accumulation of wealth. He said, "Every house-holder should observe that vow and he who observes the vow, should definitely control accumulation of wealth." The purity of the means of acquiring wealth, limiting to accumulation and restraint on consumption-by linking these three together he gave such direction to religion which results in economic equality in practical life.

In the social organisation of that age, human beings were also held in possession like wealth. Man and woman used to be sold. The man who was sold became a slave who was under complete control of his master. Bhagwan Mahavira called this system improper both from the point of view of violence and non-possession and exhorted people to give up that practice. The abolition of the system of slavery, non-possession, human equality, freedom, equality, relativism, co-existence, etc. are the various aspects whose origin can be discovered in the words of Bhagwan Mahavira. He expressed his view in the language of the people which directly touched their hearts. The people accepted what he said, no deeply instilled sanskaras could be broken all at once. At the end of two thousand five hundred years, we feel today all the sparks in Bhagwan Mahavira's have today taken the form of a great flame and are bringing light not only to Indian society but to the entire human society.


Title: The Quest for the Royal Road
Acharya Tulsi
Publisher: Adarsh Sahitya Sangh
Edition: 2013
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Bhagwan Mahavira
  2. Brahmin
  3. Equanimity
  4. Kaivalya
  5. Mahavira
  6. Meditation
  7. Nirvana
  8. Non-violence
  9. Sadhana
  10. Sangh
  11. Soul
  12. Sramana
  13. Violence
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