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Philosophical Foundations Of Jainism (An Introduction): [01] Bhagvān Mahāvīra - Life and His Message

Published: 09.08.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

"Bhārat" as is India known since time immemorial, had two kinds of political systems 2500 years ago. While there was monarchy in dynasties like Magadha, Baṅga, Kaliṅga, Vatsa, Awanti and northern Kośal, some others like Vaiśālī, Kapilvastu, Kuśinārā and Pāwā were ruled democratically and known as - Licchavi, Śākya and Malla Republics respectively. The king was supposed to be the incarnation of god in the monarchy, whereas in the democratically ruled states, he was a chosen one from among the representatives of people.

Lord Mahāvīra was born to the parentage of Kṣatriya Siddhārtha and Kṣatriyāṇī Triśalā on 'Caitra Śuklā Trayodaśī, (30th March) 599 BC at a place called Kṣatriyakuṇḍ -grāma, which was,a suburb of Vaiśālī Republic. Very little is known about his early life. At the age of 28, he lost his parents. Lord Mahāvīra then expressed his desire for becoming a 'Śramaṇa' (ascetic). But his elder brother Nandivardhan and his uncle Supārshwa counselled him to wait for some more time. Lord Mahāvīra was in great 111 lemma as he did not relish living a 'Gṛhastha' (householder's) life. But he could not disregard the wishes of his family elders. He stayed with the family for next two years, but internally he practised aloofness from all 'Vāsanās' (desires) and worldly temptations. It is called 'Videha Sādhanā' (i.e. even though possessed of body, to remain detached to it). He who does not feel attachment to material things in life can live like an ascetic despite being surrounded by attractions of the physical world.

Lord Mahāvīra remained absorbed in the state of pure consciousness, where there is no feeling of the physical body or for that matter no taste whatsoever in what one eats. He observed complete silence during this period of two years that he stayed with his family. He then formally renounced the household life and broke all his worldly attachments. He, who submerges his personal interests into the wider interests of the humanity, has to leave the world of relationships and tread lonely in order to achieve his objectives. Lord Mahāvīra renounced his abode in Kṣatriyakuṇḍagrāma and went to the nearby forest where he got himself initiated into the monkhood - as a 'Śramaṇa'.

Sādhanā (The Path of Spiritual Practice) for Twelve Years

The first vow of his asceticism was to abandon all clothings, so as to be able to bear all kinds of weather and climatic extremities. He soon conquered the urges for food, thirst and sleep. He became fearless by totally eradicating the concern for his own life. This enabled him to progress towards his goal of perfecting non-violence, friendliness to all and attainment of the resultant peace. He who has ceased to harbour any concerns for his own body would not cherish violence, retaliation, or ill-feelings towards anyone.

Over a period of time, as his concentration in Sādhanā became Intense, virtues like equanimity, truth, conquest over libido and detachment to the worldly matters manifested themselves In the 'aura' around his personality. Once, while he was practicing meditation in the precincts of Kaṅkhal Āśram, a cobra popularly called 'Chanḍa Kauśika' attacked him and bit him profusely. But Lord Mahāvīra did not budge from his posture and due to his faith in non-violence and friendliness, he succeeded in changing the bestial nature of the reptile and pacified his rage. There were many such instances in Lord Mahāvīra's life that tested him during his period of Sādhanā. Once he was falsely charged for stealing cattle and brutally thrashed by people. Another such instance was, when a lewd woman accosted him to allure him from his vow of celebacy. But the Lord never succumbed to such temptations.

The basic feature of Lord Mahāvīra's Sādhanā was equanimity. He perceived that the root cause of all sorrow is man's own actions, which are due to the influence of attachment and aversion (Rāga-Dveśa). Equanimity can be achieved only by remaining aloof from Rāga-Dveśa. The Lord remained on fast during most of his Sādhanā-period of twelve years. He had no clothings, he was bitten by insects and attacked by wild animals, but he never lost his faith in 'Ahiṃsā' and Samatā equanimity in all situations. This way he completed his Sādhanā for becoming a 'Videha' i.e. he who has achieved complete annihilation of the feelings pertaining to the body and has attained 'Samatā' (equanimity) in all situations. Thus he became a 'Kevalīn' - (Omniscient). His knowledge was pure as it was acquired out of his own deep perceptions and not through mere intellect or other sensory systems of the body. On accomplishment of his Sādhanā, the Lord propounded his Doctrine relating to the nature of Truth. He explained that in the then popular language known as - 'Prākṛta', which the common folk spoke and understood in those days.

The 6th Century BC was an epoch-making century so far as the quest for spirituality and Truth was concerned. A good number of legendary persons like Lord Mahāvīra, Buddha (in India), Laotse, Confucius (in China) Pythagorus (in Greece) had been born in this century. They lived in the distant parts of the globe but their quest led them towards the same eternal Truth, which is not conditioned by any particular place or time.

In the 9lh century BC, Lord Pārśvanāth, another very prominent Jain Tīrthaṅkar had lived. He preached that "Truth is relative." This was the time when 'Upaniṣadas' were being 11 imposed and they were trying to describe the truth by saying 'Neti Neti' - i.e. it is beyond description. This was being debated till Lord Mahāvīra emerged a couple of centuries latter. Lord Mahāvīra' s view was that no absolute rule or dogma can be made about Truth. Latter Buddha said - "The truth is not a structured phenomena, which can be described in words."

In Lord Mahāvīra's view, the Truth can encompass even mutually contrasting possibilities. In the material world, there is always coexistence of diametrically opposite possibilities i.e. 'utpāda' (origination) and 'vyaya' (extinction). For example, birth and death all go together. Truth can be realised only when fragments of truth are perceived in harmony. When seen through 'Abheda' (the synthetic) point of view, only the substance appears true. But if we look at it from 'Bheda' (the analytic) point of view, the changing modes are also true.

Lord Mahāvīra synthesized 'Dharma' (righteousness) and the 'Darśana' (philosophy), which is a product of rational thinking. He himself had perceived the truth, over which his philosophical doctrine was founded. He practised it assiduously for development of his 'Chetnā' (consciousness). The Lord said that mere knowledge, mere devotion or mere action in isolation, cannot lead to 'Mokṣa', the deliverance or emancipation of the soul. When knowledge (Gyāna), faith (Darśana) and conduct (Ācaraṇa) are integrated, they are able to relieve us from all the sufferings of life.

In practice, we see that our conduct is often not compatible with our knowledge. Even though we know certain truths, we do not act accordingly. II is the faith which binds knowledge and action together. It brings us closer to knowledge and then conduct automatically follows what knowledge has revealed. However, there seems to be come confusion on this point. Generally, people think that we should have faith in that about which we do not-have credible knowledge. What Lord Mahāvīra said was quite opposite to it. He said—"Have faith only in that which you know and understand." Faith will then result in the integration of knowledge and actions. You can not develop faith without knowledge. The faith is there only when you know a thing for certain and then the faith translates the knowledge into action easily.

Lord Mahāvīra forthrightly rejected the belief that any 'Śastra' (religious scripture) is God's word. He said that knowledge is acquired only by one's own experience or through pure perception. There is no 'God', distinct from our 'Soul' which itself is capable to transform itself into the 'God-hood', when it becomes free from all bondages. He said, "Truth has to be one's perception; it cannot be based on a description given in any book."

Lord Mahāvīra is known as 'Anekātmavādī' i.e. "believer in spiritual pluralism." According to him, there are infinite number of souls or living beings in the world, operating totally independent of each other. All have their own individual consciousness and they are not fragments of any composite single soul or the Supreme Reality. No doubt these diverse souls manifest themselves in different forms - some in human, others in sub-human form and so on. Even in humans, there is natural diversity. They have different colours, as is seen among people living in different geographical areas. In Lord Mahāvīra's time - the Indian society followed a classification based on 'Varṇa' (Genesis) and Karma (occupation) viz. - Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya and Śūdra. Even though souls, when born as a living being in a particular species, are all equal, it was due to the flattened ego of the upper strata of society that they regarded the others ignoble or low. Lord Mahāvīra saw this folly in the social order and revolted against it. He exposed its arbitrariness. He preached the message of cultivating friendliness towards all, "You may have differences with others on account of certain natural traits, outlook or tastes. But you should cultivate forbearance and patience to enable you to make peace with every one, as, in reality, no one is absolutely different from you. No one is high or low on account of his birth."

It is the ego of those having power and prosperity that makes them consider others as inferior. There is, in fact, an intrinsic unity among mankind and therefore, peaceful co-existence between the diverse groups of mankind is the only way to sustain peace in the world.

Morality, Philosophy and Religion

The natural outcome of philosophy is observance of righteousness in conduct i.e., morality. In the natural course, intrinsically the chain starts from philosophy and on to Dharma and then ultimately ends in morality. But outwardly it appears to be in the reverse direction. Lord Mahāvīra looked at it from the inner perspective. He said, "Only one who develops the right faith/view can become a 'Vratī' (who purifies his conduct by taking vows of abstinence from evils)." His "Ahimsa Vrata" (vow of non-violence) should reflect in his spirit of friendliness to all. A "Satyavratī” (observer of the vow of truth) would not be a cheat. An "Achaurya Vratī" (observer of the vow of non-stealing) would be honest in his dealings. A "Brahmacharya-Vratī" (observer of the vow of continence) would abstain from the consumption of luxurious goods and observe continence. An "Aparigrahi Vratī" (observer of the vow of non-possession) would put limits to his desires and urge for accumulation of wealth. Lord Mahāvīra said that Dharma cannot be devoid of morality and that it has to reflect itself in a person's behaviour towards society as a whole. According to him, "Dharma" manifests itself in the world only through.1 pure soul and this purity can be achieved only through morality.

Basic Tenets

The basic tenets of religion preached by Lord Mahāvīra, viz., the 'Tattva' (Metaphysics). 'Dharma' (Righteousness) and ' Vyavahāra' (Ethics) are quite relevant even today. The philosophy based on his teachings can be highlighted through the following broad principles.

Anekānta (Non-absolutism) and Syādvāda (Doctrine of Relativity)

(a) Perception or reality with a multi-angular view - is known as the doctrine of "Anekānta" and when the same is explained in relative terms, it is known as "Syādvāda".

(b) Knowledge has no boundaries. There would always be something more to know, and therefore, one should never insist that what is known is the ultimate truth.

(c) Truth being a relative phenomena, all the alternative formulations should always be considered together.

Non-violent Revolution

The practice of Ahiṃsā makes a person free from attachment and aversion. It is equanimity towards all. When such a feeling manifests itself explicitly into actions of an individual or a community, non-violence becomes a revolutionary force. Lord Mahāvīra underlined the following for achieving that objective:

(a) Don't kill any being.

(b) Don't harbour enmity towards anyone, it is bound to start a chain of reaction.

(c) Cherish the spirit of friendliness towards all.
Lord Mahāvīra vehemently spoke against the custom of slavery, which was prevalent in his times. He said don't deprive the unprivileged as also the women of their individual freedom. He denounced the caste-system that was taking roots in the Indian Society. It is degradation of the humanity, he proclaimed.

(d) The Lord revolted against rituals, which prescribed animal sacrifices in order to gain reincarnation in the 'Heaven'. Instead, he said that the ultimate objective of humankind should be to attain salvation of the soul, so that one gets eternal peace. Any kind of violence, according to him, would lead oneself to suffering.

(e) Lord Mahāvīra cautioned against waging of wars as a solution to the conflicts. He said - don't attack anyone, even the animals which are killed for hunting as a sport or for food.

Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness)

'Aparigraha' means—not to develop attachment for any physical thing and never to crave for possessing it exclusively for oneself. 'Aparigraha' is part and parcel of the virtue of Ahiṃsā. One should not deprive others from having their share of things. In practical terms that means:

(a) One should not develop attachment to one's mortal body or for any other material objects of this world.

(b) One should use proper restraint in consumption of goods and avoid unrestrained desire to amass wealth for himself.

(c) One should not ever try to grab what belongs to others by robbing them or through their exploitation.

Pauruṣa (Self-exertion)

(a) Man himself is the maker of his own destiny. The Jain doctrine of karma propounds that the self (ātmā) itself is responsible for whatever action it does. Every action of his soul results either in binding of new karma-pudgala (i.e. cluster of karmic matter In the form of very fine sub-atomic particles or obliterating the effect of already bound karma-pudgala). Binding is of two types: auspicious and inauspicious, which respectively result in pleasure and pain when karma-pudgala come into rise, and give their fruition. It is the right type of self-exertion that results in annihilation of hound inauspicious karma-pudgala, and binding of new auspicious karma-pudgala. Ultimately, stoppage of actions results in inhibition of bondage of new karma-pudgala.

(b) No one - neither a king nor any other temporal head - is incarnation of the God. In fact, the concept of incarnation of God in any form is untenable.

(c) All religious books or scriptures are products of realisation by humans, their thoughts and perceptions. So they have limitations. None i s God' s word.

(d) The universe (which is in existence from beginningless time and would continue to exist for endless time) is regulated by the cosmic laws which are self-propelling. It is not regulated by the will of any so-called imagined God.

(e) The Jain Philosophy holds that the universe is composed of six real substances as under:

1. Dharma (Auxiliary cause of motion)

2. Adharma (Auxiliary cause of stationariness or rest)

3. Ākāśa (Space)

4. Kāla (Time)

5. Pudgala (Matter and physical energy)

6. Jīva (Conscious being)

The first five of the above substances are ajīva (devoid of consciousness) while the last one only is jīva.

The Lord has explained the interaction of jīva and karma-pudgala through the following concepts:

1. Puṇya (Meritorious karma-pudgala)

2. Pāpa (De-meritorious karma-pudgala)

3. Āśrava (Cause of the influx of the karma-pudgala)

4. Saṃvara (Stoppage of the influx of the karma-pudgala)

5. Nirjarā (Separation of the karma-pudgala from the soul)

6.Bandha (Bondage of karma-pudgala with the soul)

7.Mokṣa (Emancipation of the soul from the karma-pudgala)

Dharma Sangha (Religious Order)

Lord Mahāvīra prescribed the following guidelines so as to ensure smooth functioning of the Jain monastic religious order:

1. Sharing with fellow-disciples will lead one to mokṣa.

2. Be gracious to accommodate the unprivileged.

3. Educate those who are initiated into the path of Dharma.

4. Be ready to serve all, particularly those who are suffering.

5. Be neutral and just in dealing with contentious issues. That is the only way to resolve problems.

Dharma (Righteousness)

1. The real test of the auspicious dharma (leading to mokṣa) is that it is based on non-violence, penance and self-restraint. 2. The dharma which harbours lust, attachment, wealth and power is poisonous for the society; in fact, it is not dharma.

3. There is no place for violence or sacrificial rituals in dharma.

4. Everything that the religious texts or sectarian institutions say is not the embodiment of true dharma. So use proper discretion of your own before putting faith in any of the so-called religions and choose your own path. A corrupt and fallen soul cannot hide his own true self by clothing himself with any particular attire or dress, or by becoming a member of any well-known religious sect.

5. The real dharma would always lead you to the lasting peace. It is best engrained in the conduct that is guided by the right knowledge and not by the force of mere logic or scholarship.

6. Disciplining the self is the first step to create a social order. So the Lord said that the process of regulating the social order should start from disciplining your own self.

Attainment of 'Nirvāṇa'

Lord Mahāvīra breathed his last in 527 BC, while sitting in the 'Paryaṅkāsana' (a Yogic posture of sitting cross-legged, practising meditation on the soul,) on the 30th day (dark night) of the month of Kārtika (November). That day has become the "Jyoti Parva" (the yearly festival of "Dipāvalī"  i.e., Illumination) as was then celebrated by the Republics of 'Malla' and 'Lichhavi'.


This is an edited version of the author's work:
Jain I Darshan ke Mool Sutra
Translated by Prof. M. P. Lele under the guidance of Muni Mahendra Kumar ji and Muni Dulahraj ji, Senior disciples of Acharya Mahprajna.

© Adarsh Sahitya Sangh. New Delhi Published by:
Kamlesh Chaturvedi
Adarsh Sahitya Sangh
210, Deendayal Upadhyay Marg
New Delhi - 110002 (India) Printed at:
R-Tech Offset Printer Delhi-110032

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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Achaurya
  2. Adharma
  3. Ahimsa
  4. Ahiṃsā
  5. Ajīva
  6. Anekānta
  7. Aparigraha
  8. Bandha
  9. Bhārat
  10. Body
  11. Buddha
  12. Caraṇa
  13. Concentration
  14. Consciousness
  15. Darśana
  16. Dharma
  17. Equanimity
  18. Jain Philosophy
  19. Jīva
  20. Karma
  21. Karmic matter
  22. Kāla
  23. Magadha
  24. Mahāvīra
  25. Meditation
  26. Mokṣa
  27. Nirjarā
  28. Non-absolutism
  29. Non-violence
  30. Omniscient
  31. Parva
  32. Pudgala
  33. Puṇya
  34. Pāpa
  35. Samatā
  36. Sangha
  37. Saṃvara
  38. Soul
  39. Space
  40. Syādvāda
  41. Sādhanā
  42. Violence
  43. Vrata
  44. Ākāśa
  45. Āśrava
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