Teachings of Māhavīra (1/2)

Published: 01.06.2008
Updated: 30.07.2015

Teachings of Māhavīra

1.0 Preamble:

Māhavīra [599 - 527 BCE] is the last and 24th Tirthankara of Jains. He was born in Distt Vaishali in the present state of Bihar India. His parents were the followers of Pārśva, the 23rd tirthańkara of Jains who attained emancipation some 250 years earlier. The current religion and philosophy of Jains is based on Māhavīra’s sermons, teachings and the way He lived His life. It is important to understand the state of affairs in India and abroad during His lifetime so that we can appreciate His teachings better.

He was born in the ruler caste (kşatŗiya) to the chief of the Distt Vaishali, a district which was run by democratically elected rulers and was a prosperous district. There were more than 350 different philosophical preachers at that time in India alone[1]. Animal sacrifice (bali) and yajňas (long strenuous worship of God, with sacrifices of animals and even human beings) to achieve worldly comforts were the popular rituals. Socially; slavery and trading of women, excessive accumulation and consumption of wealth by few, use of corporeal and other types of punishments to rectify the ill behaviors of people and casteism were widely practiced.

Internationally, it was the time period (approximately) when Lao-Tse and Confucius in China, Buddha in India, Pythagoras and later Pluto and Aristotle in Greece and Zarastru in Persia were preaching their doctrines of the universe, its constituents and ways to achieve happiness. According to Jains, Māhavīra was born almost at the end of the 4th time period of the present time epoch and lived almost to the beginning of 5th time period denoting increasing pains over period of time and decreasing happiness.

2.0 Doctrines of Māhavīra

Who am I? From where have I come? And where shall I go after death? These are the questions we keep on asking ourselves4. Māhavīra experimented in his life to find the right answers to these questions and after strenuous penance of 12.5 years; he found the answers and started preaching the same for the good of mankind. Thus His teachings emphasize study of the self and then to improve its status to that of supreme self and attain Bliss and infinite knowledge. His teachings thus are highly spiritual and for enhancing the status of the same. While answering these questions, Māhavīra propagates his doctrines of:

  • Sarvodaya (Doctrine of Māhavīra as described by Samantabhadra) or the enlightenment / improvement of the life of all living beings and not just human beings as their lives are interrelated. Thus His doctrine, which is beneficial to any one, should be beneficial to all.
  • Duality of existence i.e. living and non-living beings. Distinctive feature of living beings is consciousness and its manifestation while lack of it classified as non-living beings. Living beings are classified in six categories, based on the type of body and number of sense organs they have. Air, water, fire, earth and plantation are all classified as living beings with one sense organ and later on classified as of stationery class (sthāvara) and the rest are classified tras or which can move and are with two to five senses organs and mind. Jīva (living being or soul) never dies; it changes body it owns on death i.e. gets new body by shedding the old one depending upon its karmas. Eternal happiness (BLISS) and infinite knowledge is the nature of all living beings. These concepts of living beings are very important to understand doctrines of spiritual purification, non-violence and ethics propagated by Māhavīra.

Loka or cosmos as being eternal from time perspective (i.e. was, is and will always be there; it is of limited size and definite shape and surrounded by Aloka or void), has not been created by anyone and cannot be destroyed but transforms continuously; and is inhabited by all types of beings.

2.1 Non violence, restraint, Self effort / penance or austerity

Dhammo mańgalamukkitthań, ahińsā sańjamo tavo;
Devā vi tań namańsańti, jassa dhamme sayā maņo . [2]

(That which is non-violence, self-restraint and austerity is Dharma (spiritual values). It is by virtue of spiritual values that supreme spiritual beneficence results. To him whose mind is (absorbed) in spiritual values even gods pay homage)

The above verse in essence sums up his philosophy of life. Dharma is the essence of life and those who are constantly absorbed in it are even worshipped by gods. Jain literature describes dharma as the nature of a being (vastu svabhāva). Later on he explains the three most important constituents of dharma. We shall discuss each briefly here.

a. Non-violence / ahińsā.

Jainism is often described as the religion of non-violence. All its ethics, philosophy and way of life are based on being non violent. Ahińsā paramo dharma sums it all and this sutra is generally associated with Jain religion. Similarly the slogan Live and let live signifies the concept of non-violence of Jains from practical viewpoint.

He defined hińsā as giving pain or asking others to do so or admiring those who do so (by mind or speech or body singly or by all of them) to one’s own self or others. Absence of hińsā is Ahińsā.

By this definition of Ahińsā and the definition of living beings as above, Māhavīra has answered not only the issues concerning spiritual purification but also most of the issues of concern to us today. Māhavīra says,’ All the worthy men of the past, the present and the future say thus, speak thus, declare thus, explain thus, that all breathing, existing, living and sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence or abused nor tormented’[1] We can see that most of the issues related to terrorism, ecology, slavery etc could be solved to a large extent if we understand and implement His concept of Ahińsā.

Noted ācārya Amŗta Candra in Puruşārthasidhiupāya analyzes and explains the entire gamut of Jain ethics as derivatives of non-violence. The example of the person who wants to throw fire on others to burn them has to first burn his hand first. Even he makes an enemy in the other persons who wish to take revenge all the time. Even for food, the concept of Ahińsā (extreme type of vegetarianism for monks) is explained beautifully in the following verse (gāthā)[3]

Jahā dumassa puffesu, bhamaro āviyai rasań;
Na ya puffań kilāmei, so ya piņei appaya,

(Like the bumblebee, who takes the nectar from different flowers in different gardens without hurting or causing damage to the flower; so should the saint take his food from householders).

b. Self-restraint / sańyama.5

Self-restraint in Jainism primarily means to gain control over one’s senses or be indifferent to sensual pleasures or experiences. Another word used abundantly in Jain literature for self restraint is equanimity (samatā) which means,’ Not getting disturbed by either pleasant or unpleasant sensual experiences’ or developing indifference to good and bad as they are the two sides of the same coin. Philosophically it means to become introvert and look and concentrate over your self (ātmā) and feel detached with all external objects (including your body). The five major vows for ascetics coupled with five attitudes of restraint (samitis) and three attitudes of control (guptis) and their simpler version of five minor vows (aņuvrata), four guņavrats (multipliers of vows) and three Śikşā vratas (teaching major vows) constitute the code of conduct for Jains which all are based on non violence and self restraint. Importance of self-restraint is clarified by examples of the problems associated with each type of sense organ; e.g. elephant is trapped because of his uncontrolled lust for sex, fish for her taste, mosquito for the light etc. Self-restraint enhances the will power and the effectiveness of the individual in focusing on his objective and achieves excellence. To move up the ladder of spiritual purification, it is an essential act. Similarly in our day-today life, we see the people who exercise self restraint achieve success.

c. Penance / austerities or tapa:

To make effort in controlling / suppressing or destroying the passion tainted tendencies of sense organs as per the capabilities of the individual is penance.6 Penance should not cause tension or distraction in the practitioner; rather it should help the practitioner meditate more on the self. We thus see that Jains do not accept physical hardships like burning your body by exposing to sun or taking a holy dip in the river to wash sins etc as penance. Penance is classified in two groups namely external (i.e. those which are physical) and internal or psychic. Both are considered essential and one without the other is considered inadequate. In fact, the internal penance is the key but without observing external types of penance, the practitioner has little chance of successfully performing internal penance, e.g. wise people say that students should not overeat so that they can concentrate on their studies. It is also a part of self-restraint. Penance causes dissociation of karmas like the fire burns a matter object. Penance in Jain philosophy is considered to be very harsh, specially the external. Fasting, gaining self-control etc is so tough to others that even Buddha called his path as Madhayama mārga or the middle path between Jains and Vedantińs.

2.2. Non possession (aparigraha) /Giving up / Detachment. Elimination of bondage

The word parigraha means pari (from all four sides)+ graha (bind) i.e. the things or objects which bind us (soul) from all sides. Jains call it as infatuation (mūrchhā) or attachment/ attraction. Tattvartha Sutra says ‘ mūrchhā parigrahaħ’ i.e. the infatuation or attachment or a feeling of mine (and not me) in other objects (besides the soul) is possession. Mahavira in Sutrakŗatāńga calls bondage (bandha) as parigraha and cause of all our ills. Possession is described as of two types namely internal (4 passions (anger, pride, greed and deceit and 7 secondary passions) and external. External are further classified as living beings (family, servants, animals etc.) and non-living beings (wealth, houses, cloths, ornaments etc.). Ascetics are asked to give up all types of possessions and become aparigrahi or nirgrantha while for laity, who are involved in worldly pursuits, the order is to limit their possessions according to needs without developing attachment with them.[5]

Apollonius Tyaneaus (Greek traveler 1st century CE) beautifully describes Jains as follows:

‘In India, I found a race of mortals living upon the Earth, but not adhering to it; inhabiting cities, but not being fixed to them; possessing everything, but possessed by nothing.’

Spiritually speaking, it means that all bondages of soul, i.e. karmas of all types are to be eliminated so that the soul just becomes pure soul and enjoy its true nature i.e. bliss and knowledge (jňānānanda).

2.3 Multiplicity of viewpoints / Non absolutism / Anekānta

‘Calamāna caliye’ 7means the one who started moving has actually moved i.e. starting and partial completion of an activity takes place at the same moment. Utpadavyayadhrauvyayuktasat i.e. reality consists of origination, decay and permanence simultaneously. [6]

The above sutras form the foundation of the doctrine of Anekānta, the most important doctrine to enhance our understanding of the reality. They also depict the existence of pairs of opposite attributes co-existing e.g. origination and decay existing together, relativity i.e. origination and decay are related and not independent/absolute. An example will explain the concept of Anekānta.

There is a big tree and there are hundred cameramen, who are taking picture of the tree from different angles. We will find that no two pictures of the tree are exactly alike even though they all represent the same tree. Therefore to say that any one picture represents the whole tree is wrong while to say that it is also a part of the tree and related to other pictures is the correct one. So is the truth/ reality and our understanding of the same depends on the angle from which we look at it. Māhavīra also used at least four viewpoints, namely space, time, substance and mode to answer any question put to Him (Bhagavati). The three main principles of Anekānta are:

a. Co-existence:

Anything or anybody existent must have its opposite also. Without the opposite, naming and characterization is impossible. The animate and the inanimate are two extremes, yet they co-exist (the body is inanimate and the soul is animate). Similarly the speak-able and unspeakable, permanent and impermanent, the similar and dissimilar, the co-existence of one and many and the identical and different co-exist in any object. Similarly the government (treasury benches) and the opposition co-exist in any form of government.

b. Relativity:

If we see our own world, we see we are related to each other as brother / sister / father / mother / son / daughter /friend, coworker/ neighbor etc. etc. We see hardly anybody who exists just on his own. Similarly we find that night follows day, Monday follows Sunday, smaller than or hotter than etc statements indicating relativity of existence. Anekānta, as indicated above also propagates relativity of even opposites co-existing. This principle is very important in our life as it makes us accept views and existence of others even though they are opposed to our own. ‘Parasparograho jīvānāń6 i.e. living beings originate, develop and exist with the co-operation of other living beings is the important doctrine of Jains.

c. Reconciliation:

It is the quest for unity between two apparently different characteristics of a substance. Characteristics, which differ, are not altogether different. Only using the two viewpoints namely absolute and practical and not just one, one can bring about reconciliation. Insistence on just one viewpoint as the complete truth is the basis of all conflicts. Thus the feeling ‘I alone exist’ disappears and gives rise to ‘we exist’. Thus to establish the whole truth about an entity (which has almost of infinite attributes) is not possible for individuals like us; only an omniscient can know them all. However for him, it is impossible to express it simultaneously. Therefore Jains established Syādavāda, the conditional dialectic, as the method of expressing the whole truth sequentially by emphasizing that the sentence being spoken does not represent the whole truth i.e. it represents only the partial truth.

International School for Jain Studies
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aloka
  2. Anekānta
  3. Anger
  4. Aparigraha
  5. Aristotle
  6. Bandha
  7. Bihar
  8. Body
  9. Buddha
  10. Candra
  11. Casteism
  12. Consciousness
  13. Deceit
  14. Dhammo
  15. Dharma
  16. Ecology
  17. Equanimity
  18. Fasting
  19. Graha
  20. Greed
  21. Guptis
  22. International School for Jain Studies
  23. Jain Philosophy
  24. Jainism
  25. Jīva
  26. Karmas
  27. Loka
  28. Mahavira
  29. Nirgrantha
  30. Non violence
  31. Non-violence
  32. Omniscient
  33. Parigraha
  34. Pride
  35. Pythagoras
  36. Pārśva
  37. Samatā
  38. Samitis
  39. Sarvodaya
  40. Soul
  41. Space
  42. Sutra
  43. Svabhāva
  44. Syādavāda
  45. Tapa
  46. Tattvartha Sutra
  47. Tirthankara
  48. Vegetarianism
  49. Violence
  50. Ācārya
  51. Ātmā
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