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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. Therefore, although Mahavira is widely regarded as the founder of Jainism, he is more properly regarded as a reformer of Jainism.

Mahavira was born into a royal family in what is now Bihar, India. At the age of 30 he left his home in pursuit of spiritual awakening (Diksha). For the next twelve and a half years he practiced intense meditation and severe penance, after which he achieved Kevala Jnana or enlightenment. He travelled all over Bharata (which was larger than today's India) for the next thirty years to teach his philosophy which is based on ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha. Mahavira attained nirvana at the age of 72.

Early life[edit]

Queen Trisala and the Newborn Mahavira

Mahavira was born into a royal family of Kshatriyas. Historians have identified three places in Bihar as his possible birthplace: Kundigram in Vaishali district, Lachhuar in Jamui and Kundalpur in Nalanda. Most modern historians agree that Basokund was his birthplace.[2] Traditionally, Kundalapura in the ancient city of Vaishali is regarded as 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 Kundalapura and Queen Trishala, sister of King Chetaka of Vaishali.[10] His childhood name was 'Vardhamana', which means "One who grows", because of the increased prosperity in the kingdom at the time of his birth. Both his parents were strict followers of Pārśva.[11]

As the son of a king, Mahavira had all luxuries of life at his disposal. The name "Mahavira" is a Sanskrit word meaning Great Warrior. One of the reasons for this name is that during his boyhood, Mahavira brought a terrifying serpent under control.[12] Mahavira has many other titles and epithets, including Vira, Sanmati and Ñataputta. The ancient texts refer to Mahavira as Ñataputta[13] (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 (Digamber) he was celibate and according to another (Shwetamber) he was married young to Yashoda and had one daughter, Priyadarshana.[14]

According to Jainism, Mahavira attained moksha or Salvation in 527 BCE. Some Western scholars suggests that this date would have been around 425 BCE.[15]


An Exhoration by Mahavira, the Jina
Mahavira's moksa. Circa 1472 painting from Kalpasutra

For the next 30 years Mahavira travelled far and wide in India to teach his philosophy. His philosophy has eight cardinal (law of trust) principles & three metaphysical and five ethical. The objective is to elevate the quality of life.[16] 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 other's 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 is said to have died in Doora, Agra, Uttar Pradesh.[17] He died in 527 B.C. at the age of 72. His followers believe his purified soul left the body and achieved complete liberation i.e., attained Nirvana or Moksha. He was cremated at Pawapuri where today stands a Jain temple named Jalmandir.

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

Ascetic life and awakening[edit]

Kevala Jñāna of Mahavira

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.[14]

The Kalpa Sūtra gives a detailed account of his ascetic life:[18]

After twelve and a half years of rigorous penance he achieved kevalajñana.[14] i.e., realization of perfect perception, knowledge, power, and bliss. The Acharangasutra describes Mahavira as all-seeing. The Sutrakritanga elaborates the concept as all-knowing and provides details of other qualities of Mahavira.[3]


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.[19]

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.[20]

Mahavira was grandson of the first tirthankara, Rishabha, according to Jain legends. He was earlier born as the heretical grandson of Rishabha known as Marichi.[21] 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.[22]


  1. ^ "Mahavira (Jaina teacher) – Encyclopedia Britannica". Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  2. ^ Row over Mahavira’s birthplace - Times Of India
  3. ^ a b }Dundas 2002, p. 25
  4. ^ Mahavir Jayanti: Birth anniversary of Lord Mahavira I Times of India
  5. ^ Kumar 2001, p. 3
  6. ^ Jainism: The story of Mahavira - Victoria and Albert Museum
  7. ^ Kristi L. Wiley: Historical Dictionary of Jainism, Lanham 2004, p. 134.
  8. ^ Lord Mahavir and Jain Religion
  9. ^ Concise Encyclopaedia of India - K.R. Gupta & Amita Gupta - Google Books. Retrieved 2012-06-06. 
  10. ^ Glasenapp 1999, pp. 29–37
  11. ^ Jain 1991, p. 32.
  12. ^ Jain Tirthankar Mahavir
  13. ^ Winternitz 1993, p. 408.
  14. ^ a b c "Jainism Literature Center - Articles". Retrieved 11 June 2013. 
  15. ^ Dundas 2002, p. 24.
  16. ^ Chakravarthi 2003, p. 3–22.
  17. ^ Naswa, Sumedha (2001). Tribes of Uttar Pradesh and Uttranchal: Ethnography and Bibliography of Scheduled Tribes. Mittal Publications. p. 1. ISBN 978-81-7099-767-2. Retrieved 2015-01-18. 
  18. ^ Jacobi, Hermann (1884). (ed.) F. Max Müller, ed. The Kalpa Sūtra. Sacred Books of the East vol.22, Part 1 (in English: translated from Prakrit). Oxford: The Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-7007-1538-X.  Note: ISBN refers to the UK:Routledge (2001) reprint. URL is the scan version of the original 1884 reprint
  19. ^ Glasenapp 1999, p. 327
  20. ^ Jain 1991, p. 59
  21. ^ Dundas 2002, p. 21
  22. ^ Nagārāja 2003, p. 127.