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Mahavira (Mahāvīra), also known as Vardhamāna, was the twenty-fourth Tirthankara (ford maker) of Jainism. In the Jain tradition, it is believed that Mahavira was born in early part of the 6th-century BC into a royal family in what is now Bihar, India. At the age of 30, he left his home in pursuit of spiritual awakening, abandoned all worldly possessions, and became an ascetic. For the next twelve-and-a-half years, Mahavira practiced intense meditation and severe austerities, after which he is believed to have attained Kevala Jnana (omniscience). He preached for 30 years, and is believed by Jains to have died in the 6th-century BC. Outside the Jain tradition, scholars such as Karl Potter consider his biographical details as uncertain,[1] with some suggesting he lived in the 5th-century BC contemporaneously with the Buddha. Mahavira died at the age of 72, and his remains were cremated.[2][3]

24th Jain Tirthankara
The idol of Mahavira at Shri Mahavirji, Rajasthan
Other names Vīr, Ativīr, Vardhamāna, Sanmati, Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta
Venerated in Jainism
Predecessor Parshvanatha
Symbol Lion
Height 7 cubits (10.5 feet)
Age 72 years
Tree Shala
Complexion Golden
Personal Information
Born 6th-century BCE (historical)
c. 599 BCE (traditional)
Kundagram, Present-day Vaishali district, Bihar, India
Died 5th-century BCE (historical)
c. 527 BCE (traditional)
Pawapuri, Present-day Bihar, India

After he gained Kevala Jnana, Mahavira taught that the observance of the vows ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (chastity) and aparigraha (non-attachment) is necessary to spiritual liberation. He gave the principle of Anekantavada (many sided reality),[4] Syadvada and Nayavada. The teachings of Mahavira were compiled by Gautama Swami (his chief disciple) and were called Jain Agamas. These texts were transmitted by an oral tradition by Jain monks, but are believed to have been largely lost by about the 1st-century when they were first written down. The surviving versions of the Agamas taught by Mahavira are some of the foundational texts of Jainism.

Mahavira is usually depicted in a sitting or standing meditative posture with the symbol of a lion beneath him. The day he was born is celebrated as Mahavir Jayanti and the day of his liberation is celebrated as Diwali by Jains. In 1975, i.e. the year of the 2,500th anniversary of the Nirvana of Mahavira, monks of various sects of Jainism assembled together to resolve their differences and arrive at some commons points of agreements about history and philosophy of Jainism.


Titles and namesEdit

According to Paul Dundas, a professor of Sanskrit known for his publications on Jainism, the earliest layer of Jain literature such as the Acaranga Sutra makes no mention of the names Vardhamana or Mahavira, nor the equivalent of "fordmaker".[5] The term Jina for him is rare in early Jain texts.[6]

The first book of Sutrakritanga uses the name Mahavira. The early Jain and Buddhist literature that has survived into the modern era uses other names or epithets for Mahavira. These include Nayaputta, Muni, Samana, Niggantha, Brahman and Bhagavan.[5] In early Buddhist Suttas, he is also referred to by the names Araha (meaning "worthy"), and Veyavi (derived from the word "Vedas", but contextually it means "wise" because the Mahavira did not recognize the Vedas as a scripture).[7] Buddhist texts refer to Mahavira as Nigaṇṭha Jñātaputta.[8] Nigaṇṭha means "without knot, tie, or string" and Jñātaputta (son or scion of Natas), refers to his clan of origin as Jñāta or Naya (Prakrit).[9][10][11] He is also known as Sramana, states the Jain text Kalpasutras, because he is "devoid of love and hate".[12]

According to later Jain texts, Mahavira's childhood name was Vardhamāna ("the one who grows"), because of the increased prosperity in the kingdom at the time of his birth.[13] According to the Kalpasutras, he was called Mahavira ("the great hero") by the gods because he stood steadfast in the midst of dangers and fears, hardships and calamities.[12] Mahavira is also called a Tirthankara.[9]

Historical MahaviraEdit

According to the Kalpasutra, Mahavira was born at Kundagrama in present-day Bihar, India.[5][14] This is assumed to be the modern town of Basu Kund, which is about 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Patna, the capital of Bihar.[15][16] However, it is unclear if the ancient Kundagrama is same as the current assumed location, and the birthplace remains a subject of dispute.[1][5][17] Mahavira renounced all his material wealth and left his home when he was 28 by some accounts,[18] or 30 by others,[19] then lived ascetic life and performed severe austerities for 12 years, and thereafter preached Jainism for a period of 30 years.[18] The location he preached has been a subject of historic disagreement between the two major sub-traditions of Jainism – the Svetambaras and the Digambaras.[5]

Though it is universally accepted by scholars of Jainism that Mahavira was an actual person who lived in ancient India, the details of Mahavira's biography and the year of his birth are uncertain,[1] and a subject of considerable debate among scholars.[6] The Jain Śvētāmbara tradition believes he was born in 599 BC and he died in 527 BC, while the Digambara tradition believes 510 BC as the year he died.[18][20] The scholarly controversy arises from efforts to date him and the Buddha, because both are believed to be contemporaries according to Buddhist and Jain texts, and because unlike Jain literature there is extensive ancient Buddhist literature that has survived.[20] Almost all Indologists and historians, state Dundas and others, accordingly date Mahavira's birth to about 497 BC, and death to about 425 BC.[20][16] However, the Vira era tradition that starts in 527 BC and places Mahavira in the 6th-century BC is a firmly established part of the Jain community tradition.[20]

The 12th-century Jain scholar Hemachandra placed Mahavira in the 5th-century BC.[21][22] According to Kailash Jain, Hemachandra made an incorrect analysis that, along with attempts to establish Buddha's nirvana date, has been a source of confusion and controversy about Mahavira's year of nirvana.[23] Kailash Jain states the traditional date of 527 BC is accurate, adding that the Buddha was a junior contemporary of the Mahavira and that the Buddha "might have attained nirvana a few years later".[24] The place of his death, Pavapuri (now in Bihar), is a pilgrimage site for Jains.[18]

Biography per Jain traditionsEdit

According to the Jain texts, twenty-four Tirthankaras have appeared on earth in the current time cycle of Jain cosmology. Mahavira was the last Tirthankara of Avasarpiṇī (present descending phase or half of the time cycle).[note 1][26] A Tirthankara (Maker of the River-Crossing, saviour, spiritual teacher) signifies the founder of a tirtha which means a fordable passage across the sea of interminable cycles of births and deaths (called saṃsāra). In Jain cosmology, twenty-four Tirthankaras appear in every time cycle, Mahavira was the 24th for the current cycle.[27][28][29]


The Birth of Mahavira, from the Kalpa Sutra, c.1375–1400

Belonging to Kashyapa gotra,[12][15] Mahavira was born into the royal Kshatriya family of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala of the Ikshvaku dynasty.[30][note 2] This is the same solar dynasty in which Hindu Epics place Rama and the Ramayana,[31] the Buddhist texts place the Buddha in,[32] and the Jains attribute another twenty-one of their twenty-four Tirthankaras over millions of years.[33][34]

According to Digambara Jains, Mahavira was born in 582 BC.[35] According to the Svetambara Jain texts, he was born in 599 BC. Mahavira's birthday, in the traditional calendar, falls on the thirteenth day of the rising moon in the month of Chaitra in the Vira Nirvana Samvat calendar.[18][36][37] In the Gregorian calendar, this date falls in March or April and is celebrated as Mahavir Jayanti by Jains.[38]

The Kalpasutra, a popular text in Jainism, cites Kundagrama as the place he was born. This site is believed by the tradition to be near Vaishali, a great ancient town in the Gangetic plains. The identity of this place in modern geography of Bihar is unclear, in part because people migrated out of ancient Bihar for economic and political reasons.[5] According to the "Universal History" in the Jain mythology, states Dundas, Mahavira underwent many rebirths before his birth in the 6th century. These rebirths included being a hell-being, a lion, and a god (deva) in a heavenly realm in Jain cosmology just before his last birth as the 24th fordmaker.[39] His embryo was first formed in a Brahman woman, but his embryo was then transferred by the divine commander of Indra's army Hari-Naigamesin to the womb of Trishala, the wife of Siddhartha.[40][41][note 3] The embryo transfer legend is accepted by the Svetambara tradition, but the Digambaras don't accept this theory of embryo transfer.[43][44]

After Mahavira was born, Jain texts state that god Indra came from the heavens, anointed him and performed his abhisheka (consecration) on Mount Meru.[39] These events associated with Mahavira's birth are illustrated in the artwork of numerous Jain temples and is a part of modern Jain temple rituals.[45] The Kalpa sutras describing Mahavira's birth legends are recited by the Svetambara Jains during annual festivals such as Paryushana, but the same festival is observed by Digambaras without the recitation.[46]

Early lifeEdit

Mahavira grew up as a prince. According to the second chapter of the Śvētāmbara text Acharanga Sutra, both his parents were followers of Parshvanatha and lay devotees.[47][13] Jain traditions do not agree whether Mahavira ever married.[44][48] According to the Digambara tradition, Mahavira's parents wanted him to marry Yashoda but Mahavira refused to marry.[49][note 4] According to the Śvētāmbara tradition, he was married to Yashoda at a young age and had one daughter, Priyadarshana,[39][15] also called Anojja.[51]

Jain texts portray Mahavira as a very tall man, with his height stated to be seven cubits (10.5 feet) in Aupapatika Sutra.[52] In Jain mythology, he was the shortest of the 24 Tirthankaras, with earlier teachers believed to be much taller, with the 22nd Tirthankara Aristanemi stated to be forty cubits tall (60 feet) who lived for 1,000 years.[53]


At the age of thirty, Mahavira abandoned the comforts of royal life and left his home and family to live an ascetic life in the pursuit of spiritual awakening.[25][54][55] He undertook severe austerities of fasting and bodily mortifications,[56] meditated under the Ashoka tree and discarded his clothes.[25][57] There is a graphic description of his hardships and humiliation in the Acharanga Sutra.[58][59] According to Kalpa Sūtra, Mahavira spent the first 42 monsoons of his life at Astikagrama, Champapuri, Prstichampa, Vaishali, Vanijagrama, Nalanda, Mithila, Bhadrika, Alabhika, Panitabhumi, Shravasti and Pawapuri.[60] He is said to have lived in Rajagriha during the rainy-season of 41st year of his ascetic life. This is traditionally dated in 491 BC.[61]


Attainment of omniscience (kevalajñāna) by Mahavira

After twelve years of rigorous penance, at the age of 43, Mahavira achieved the state of Kevala Jnana (omniscience or infinite knowledge) under a Sāla tree according to traditional accounts.[54][62][63] The details of this event are mentioned in Jain texts like Uttar-purāņa and Harivamśa-purāņa.[64] The Acharanga Sutra describes Mahavira as all-seeing. The Sutrakritanga elaborates the concept as all-knowing and provides details of other qualities of Mahavira.[5] Jains believe that Mahavira had the most auspicious body (paramaudārika śarīra) and was free from eighteen imperfections when he attained omniscience.[65] Śvētāmbara believe that Mahavira traveled throughout in India to teach his philosophy for 30 years after gaining omniscience.[54] Digambara however claim that after attaining omniscience, he sat fixed in his Samavasarana giving sermons to his followers.[66]


The Jain texts state that Mahavira's first disciples were 11 Brahmins, who traditionally are called the 11 Ganadharas.[35] Gautama was their chief.[66] Others were Agnibhuti, Vayubhuti, Akampita, Arya Vyakta, Sudharman, Manditaputra, Mauryaputra, Acalabhraataa, Metraya and Prabhasa. Mahavira's disciples are said to be led by Gautama after him, who later is said to have made Sudharman his successor.[54] These 11 Brahmin-Ganadharas as the early followers were responsible for remembering and verbally transmitting the teachings of the Mahavira after his death, which came to be known as Gani-Pidaga or Jain Agamas.[67]

According to the Jain tradition, Mahavira had 14,000 muni (male ascetics), 36,000 aryika (nuns), 159,000 sravakas (laymen) and 318,000 sravikas (laywomen) as his followers.[68][69][70] Some of the royal followers included King Srenika (popularly known as Bimbisara) of Magadha, Kunika of Anga and Chetaka of Videha.[60][71] Mahavira initiated the mendicants with the Mahavratas (Five vows).[35] He delivered 55 pravachana and answered 36 unasked questions (Uttaraadhyayana-sutra).[54]

The Mahavira's teachings were gradually lost after around 300 BC, according to the Jain tradition, when a severe famine in the Magadha region of ancient India caused a scattering of the Jain monks. Thereafter, attempts were made by Jain monks to gather again, co-recite the canon and re-establish it in its entirety.[72] These efforts identified differences between recitations of the Mahavira's teachings, and an attempt was made in the 5th century AD to reconcile the differences.[72] However, the reconciliation efforts failed, with Svetambara and Digambara Jain traditions continuing on with their own incomplete, somewhat different versions of the Mahavira's teachings. In the early centuries of the common era, Jain texts containing Mahavira's teachings were written down on palm leaf manuscripts.[67]

Nirvāṇa, deathEdit

Jal Mandir marking Mahavira's nirvana at Pawapuri

Jains believe Mahavira attained omniscience at the age of 42, under a Sala tree on the banks of River Rijupalika near Jrimbhikagrama.[73] He preached, then died at the age of 72. The Jain Śvētāmbara tradition believes his death occurred in 527 BC, while the Digambara Jain tradition believes this happened in 510 BC.[20] His jiva (soul) is believed in all Jain traditions to be in Siddhashila (abode of the liberated souls).[74]

According to Jain texts, Mahavira's nirvana[note 5] (death) occurred in the town of Pawapuri (Bihar).[76][77][78] His life as a spiritual light and the night of his nirvana is remembered by Jains as Diwali on the same night Hindu's celebrate their festival of lights.[78][74] On the same night that Mahavira's died, his chief disciple Gautama is said to have attained omniscience.[70]

The accounts of his death vary by the Jain text. Some texts describe a simple death, but others describe grandiose celebrations attended by gods and kings. According to the Jinasena's Mahapurana, the heavenly beings arrived to perform his funeral rites. Yet in others, he is described at age 72 to be giving his final preaching over six days to a large crowd of people. Everyone falls asleep, he disappears, only his nails and hair remain and his followers cremate these.[79][80]

Today, a Jain temple called Jal Mandir stands at the place of Mahavira's nirvana, also known as moksha.[81] Jaina artwork in temples and texts depicts the final liberation and cremation of Mahavira, sometimes symbolically shown as a miniature pyre of sandalwood and a piece of burning camphor.[82]

Previous birthsEdit

Mahavira's previous births are discussed in Jain texts such as the Mahapurana and Tri-shashti-shalaka-purusha-charitra. While a soul undergoes countless reincarnations in the transmigratory cycle of saṃsāra (world), 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 before his incarnation as a Tirthankara.[60] As per the texts, Mahavira was born as Marichi, the son of Bharata Chakravartin, in one of his previous births.[39]

Ascetic lineageEdit

Mahavira has been mistakenly called the founder of Jainism.[83] For the Jains, there were 23 teachers before the Mahavira, and they believe that Jainism was founded in far more ancient times than that of the Mahavira, who they revere as the 24th Tirthankara.[56] The first 22 Tirthankara are placed in mythical times. For example, the 22nd Tirthankara Arishtanemi is believed in the Jain tradition to have been born 84,000 years before the 23rd Tirthankara named Parshvanatha.[84] Mahavira is sometimes placed within Parshvanatha lineage, but this is contradicted by all Jain texts which state that Mahavira renounced the world alone.[85]

Jain texts suggest that Mahavira's parents were lay devotees and followers of Parshvanatha. However, the lack of details and mythical nature of the legends about Parshvanatha,[86][87] combined with medieval era Svetambara texts portraying Parsvites as "pseudo-ascetics" with "dubious practices of magic and astrology" have led scholars to debate the evidence for Parshvanatha's historicity.[85] Regardless of scholarly speculations, according to Dundas, Jains believe that Parshvanatha lineage influenced Mahavira. Parshvanatha, as the one who "removes obstacles and has the capacity to save", has been a highly popular icon and his image the greatest focus of Jain devotional activity in temples.[85] Of the 24 Tirthankaras, the Jain iconography has celebrated Mahavira and Parshvanatha the most since the earliest times, with sculptures discovered at the Mathura archeological site that have been dated to 1st-century BCE by modern dating methods.[85][88][89]

According to Moriz Winternitz, Mahavira may be considered as a reformer of a pre-existing sect of Jainas called Niganthas (fetter-less) that is mentioned in early Buddhist texts.[8]


Folio from Kalpa Sūtra, 15th century


The colonial era Indologists, for a long time, considered Jainism and Mahavira's followers as a sect of Buddhism because of the superficial similarities in their iconography, meditative and ascetic practices.[8] However, as studies and understanding progressed, the differences between the teachings of the Mahavira and the Buddha were found to be so markedly divergent that the two gained recognition as separate religions.[95] Mahavira, states Moriz Winternitz, taught a "very elaborate belief in the soul" unlike the Buddhists who denied it, the ascetic practices in his teachings have been of a higher order of magnitude than those found in Buddhism or Hinduism, and his emphasis on Ahimsa (non-violence) against all life forms is far greater than the teachers in all other Indian religions.[95]

Jain AgamasEdit

Mahavira's teachings were compiled by his Ganadhara (chief disciple), Gautama Swami.[96] The sacred canonical scriptures had twelve parts.[97] According to the Digambaras, Āchārya Bhutabali was the last ascetic who had partial knowledge of the original canon. Later, some learned Āchāryas started to restore, compile and write down the teachings of Mahavira that were the subject matter of Agamas.[98] Āchārya Dharasena, in 1st century CE, guided Āchārya Pushpadant and Āchārya Bhutabali, to write down these teachings. The two Āchāryas wrote on palm leaves, Ṣaṭkhaṅḍāgama—among the oldest known Digambara Jaina texts.

Five vowsEdit

Jain emblem and the "Five Vows"

Jain Agamas prescribe five major vratas (vows) that both ascetics and householders have to follow.[99] These ethical principles were preached by Mahavira:[54][100]

  1. Ahimsa (Non-violence or Non-injury). Mahavira taught that every living being has sanctity and dignity of its own and it should be respected just as one expects one's own sanctity and dignity to be respected. Ahimsa is formalised into Jain doctrine as the first and foremost vow. The concept applies to action, speech and thought.[101]
  2. Satya (Truthfulness)—neither lie, nor speak what is not true, do not encourage others or approve anyone who speaks the untruth.[101]
  3. Asteya — Non-stealing. Theft is explained as "taking anything that has not been given".[102]
  4. Brahmacharya (Chastity), abstinence from sex and sensual pleasures for Jain monks, faithfulness to one's partner for Jain householders.[101][103]
  5. Aparigraha (Non-attachment) — the attitude of non-attachment to property or worldly possessions for layperson, not owning anything for mendicants.[104]

The goal of these principles is to achieve spiritual peace, better rebirth or ultimately liberation.[105][106][107] According to Chakravarthi, these teachings help elevate the quality of life.[108] In contrast, states Dundas, the emphasis of Mahavira on non-violence and restraint has been interpreted by some Jain scholars to "not be driven by merit from giving or compassion to other creatures, nor a duty to rescue all creatures", but resulting from "continual self discipline", a cleansing of the soul that leads to one's own spiritual development which ultimately effects spiritual release.[109]

Of these precepts, Mahavira is most remembered in the Indian traditions for his teachings of ahimsa (non-injury) as the supreme ethical and moral virtue.[54][110] Mahavira taught that the doctrine of non-injury must cover all living beings,[111] and causing injury to any being in any form creates bad karma which affects one's rebirth, future well being and suffering.[112][113] According to Mahatma Gandhi, Mahāvīra was the greatest authority on Ahimsa.[114][115][116]


Mahavira taught that soul exists, a premise that Jainism shares with Hinduism, but disagrees on with Buddhism. According to Buddhism, there is no soul or self, and it premises its teachings on the concept of anatta.[117] In contrast, Mahavira taught that the soul is permanent and eternal with respect to dravya (substance).[118] Mahavira additionally taught that the soul is also impermanent with respect to paryaya (modes that originate and vanish).[118]

To Mahavira, the metaphysical nature of the universe consists of dravya, jiva and ajiva.[71] The jiva gets attached and bound to samsara (wordly realms of suffering and existence), because of karma (activity).[71] The karma, in Jainism, includes both actions and intent, and it colors (lesya) the soul, its particles stick to the soul affecting how, where and what the soul is instantaneously reborn into after a being dies.[119]

There is no creator God, according to Mahavira's teachings, and the existence has neither beginning nor end. However, there are gods and demons in Jain beliefs, whose jivas are a part of the same cycles of births and deaths depending on the accumulated karmic particles.[120] The goal of spiritual practice is to liberate the jiva from all karmic accumulation, and thus enter the realm of the siddhas who are never reborn again.[121] Enlightenment, to Mahavira, is the consequence of a process of self-cultivation and self-restraint.[109]


Mahavira taught the doctrine of "many sided reality". This doctrine is now known as Anekantavada or Anekantatva.[122][123] This term does not appear in the earliest layer of Jain literature or the Jain Agamas, but the doctrine is illustrated in the answers of Mahavira to questions his followers asked.[122] According to Mahavira, truth and reality are complex and always have multiple aspects. Reality can be experienced, but it is not possible to totally express it with language. Human attempts to communicate are Naya, or "partial expression of the truth".[122] Language is not Truth, but a means and attempt to express Truth. From Truth, according to Mahavira, language returns and not the other way around.[122][124] One can experience the truth of a taste, but cannot fully express that taste through language. Any attempt to express the experience is syāt, or valid "in some respect" but still remains a "perhaps, just one perspective, incomplete".[124] In the same way, spiritual truths are complex, they have multiple aspects, language cannot express their plurality, yet through effort and appropriate karma they can be experienced.[122]

The Anekantavada premises of the Mahavira are also summarized in Buddhist texts such as in Samaññaphala Sutta, where in he is called Nigantha Nataputta.[note 6] The Anekantavada doctrine is another key difference between the teachings of the Mahavira and those of the Buddha. The Buddha taught the Middle Way, rejecting extremes of the answer "it is" or "it is not" to questions. The Mahavira, in contrast, accepted both "it is" and "it is not", with "perhaps" qualification and with reconciliation.[126]

The Jain Agamas suggest that Mahavira's approach to answering all metaphysical philosophical questions was a "qualified yes" (syāt). A version of this doctrine is also found in the Ajivika tradition of ancient Indian philosophies.[127][128]

In contemporary times, according to Paul Dundas, the Anekantavada doctrine has been interpreted by many Jains as intending to "promote a universal religious tolerance", and a teaching of "plurality" and "benign attitude to other [ethical, religious] positions", but this is problematic and a misreading of Jain historical texts and Mahavira's teachings.[129] The "many pointedness, multiple perspective" teachings of the Mahavira is a doctrine about the nature of Reality and human existence, and it was not a doctrine about tolerating religious positions such as on sacrificing or killing animals for food, violence against disbelievers or any other living being as "perhaps right".[129] The Five vows for Jain monks and nuns, for example, are strict requirements and there is no "perhaps".[130] Beyond the renunciant Jain communities, while Mahavira's Jainism co-existed with Buddhism and Hinduism over the history, according to Dundas, each were also "highly critical of the knowledge systems and ideologies of their rivals".[131]


One of the historically contentious views within Jainism is in part attributed to Mahavira and his ascetic life where he never wore any clothes as a mark of disowning everything (interpreted as a consequence of the Fifth vow of Aparigraha). The disputes triggered by this teaching of Mahavira are those related to gender and whether a female mendicant (sadhvi) can achieve spiritual liberation just like a male mendicant (sadhu) through Jain ascetic practices.[132][133]

The main sub-traditions of Jainism have historically disagreed, with Digambaras (sky clad, naked mendicant order) stating that a woman is by her nature and her body unable to practice asceticism, such as by living naked, and therefore she cannot achieve spiritual liberation, because of her gender. She can at best, state the Digambara texts, live an ethical life so that she is reborn as a man in a future life.[note 7] In this view, she is also viewed a threat to a monk's chastity.[135] In contrast, Svetambaras (white clad, wear clothes) have disagreed and have interpreted Mahavira's teaching as encouraging both males and females to pursue a mendicant ascetic life with the possibility of moksha (kaivalya, spiritual liberation) regardless of gender.[135][133][136]

Rebirth and realms of existenceEdit

Rebirth and realms of existence are foundational teachings of Mahavira. According to the Acaranga Sutra, Mahavira comprehended life to exist in myriad forms, such as animals, plants, insects, water bodies, fire bodies, wind bodies, elemental forms and others.[112][137] He taught that a monk should avoid touching or disturbing any one of them including plants, never swim in water, nor light up fire or extinguish it, nor thrash arms in the air as such actions can torment or hurt other beings that live in those states of matter.[112]

Mahavira preached that the nature of existence is cyclic, where the jiva (soul) of beings is reborn after death in one of the triloka – heavenly, hellish or earthly realms of existence and suffering.[138] Human beings are reborn, according to Mahavira, depending on one's karma (actions) as a human, animal, element, microbe and other forms on earth, or in a heavenly or hellish state of existence.[112][139][140] Nothing is permanent, everyone including gods, demons and beings on the earthly realms die and are reborn again based on their karma merits and demerits. It is the Jina who have reached Kevala Jnana who are not reborn again,[112] and attain the Siddhaloka or the "Realm of the Perfected Ones".[139]



The two major annual festivals in Jainism associated with Mahavira are Mahavir-Jayanti and Diwali.

  1. Mahavir Jayanti : It celebrates the birth of Mahavira, twenty-fourth and last Tirthankara (Teaching God) of Avasarpiṇī.[141] In Mahavir Jayanti, the five auspicious events (Kalyaans) of Mahavira's life are re-enacted by Jain.[142]
  2. Diwali : Diwali marks the anniversary of Nirvana or liberation of Mahavira's soul, the twenty fourth and last Jain Tirthankara of present cosmic age. It is celebrated at the same time as the Hindu festival of Diwali. Diwali marks the New Year for the Jain group and it likewise remembers the passing commemoration of their 24th Tirthankara Mahavira and his achievement of moksha.[143]


Mahavira adoration in a Manuscript, ca. 1825 CE
  • Svayambhustotra by Acharya Samantabhadra is the adoration of twenty-four Tirthankaras. Its eight shlokas (aphorisms) adore the qualities of Mahavira.[144] One such shloka is:

    O Lord Jina! Your doctrine that expounds essential attributes required of a potential aspirant to cross over the ocean of worldly existence (Saṃsāra) reigns supreme even in this strife-ridden spoke of time (Pancham Kaal). Accomplished sages who have invalidated the so-called deities that are famous in the world, and have made ineffective the whip of all blemishes, adore your doctrine.[145]

  • Yuktyanusasana by Acharya Samantabhadra is a poetic work consisting of sixty-four verses in praise of Mahavira.[146]


Mahavira's teachings influenced many personalities. Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

Mahavira proclaimed in India, the message of salvation, that religion is a reality and not a mere social convention, that salvation comes from taking refuge in the true religion and not from observing the external ceremonies of the community, that religion cannot regard any barriers between man and man as an eternal variety. Wonderous to say, this teaching rapidly over topped the barriers of the race abiding instinct and conquered the whole county.

— Rabindranath Tagore[115]
The Mahavira iconography is recognized by the lion stamped or carved below his feet. On his chest is a Shrivatsa mark, found on other Jinas as well.

A major event is associated with the 2,500th anniversary of the Nirvana of Mahavira in 1974. According to Padmanabh Jaini:[147]

Probably few people in the West are aware that during this Anniversary year for the first time in their long history, the mendicants of the Śvētāmbara, Digambara and Sthānakavāsī sects assembled on the same platform, agreed upon a common flag (Jaina dhvaja) and emblem (pratīka); and resolved to bring about the unity of the community. For the duration of the year four dharma cakras, a wheel mounted on a chariot as an ancient symbol of the samavasaraṇa (Holy Assembly) of Tīrthaṅkara Mahavira traversed to all the major cities of India, winning legal sanctions from various state governments against the slaughter of animals for sacrifice or other religious purposes, a campaign which has been a major preoccupation of the Jainas throughout their history.


Mahavira is usually depicted in a sitting or standing meditative posture with the symbol of a lion beneath him.[148] Every Tīrthankara has a distinguishing emblem that allows worshippers to distinguish similar-looking idols of the Tirthankaras.[149] The lion emblem of Mahavira is usually carved below the legs of the Tirthankara. Like all Tirthankaras, Mahavira is depicted with Shrivatsa[note 8] and downcast eyes.[152]

The earliest iconography for Mahavira are from archeological sites in the north Indian city of Mathura. These are variously dated from the 1st-century BC to 2nd-century AD.[153][154] The use of the srivatsa mark on Mahavira's chest, along with him in dhyana-mudra posture, appears in Kushana Empire era art works. The differences in the Mahavira artworks between the Digambara and Svetambara traditions appear in the late 5th-century AD and thereafter.[153] According to John Cort, the earliest archeological evidence of Jina iconography with inscriptions precedes its datable texts by more than 250 years.[155]

An image of Mahavira at the State Museum Lucknow is dated to 1007 AD, while the one at Parshvanatha temple, Kumbharia, is dated to 1179 AD. Another image dated v.s. 1212 is installed at Vimala Vasahi, Mount Abu.[156] An ancient sculpture of Mahavira was found in a cave at Sundarajapuram, Theni district, Tamil Nadu. K Ajithadoss, a Jain scholar based in Chennai, dated the sculpture to the 9th century AD.[157]


According to John Cort, the Mahavira temple at Osian, Jodhpur, Rajasthan is the oldest Jain temple surviving in western India. It was constructed in the late eighth century CE.[159] Other temples of Mahavira include:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Heinrich Zimmer: "The cycle of time continually revolves, according to the Jainas. The present "descending" (avasarpini) period was preceded and will be followed by an "ascending" (utsarpini). Sarpini suggests the creeping movement of a "serpent" ('sarpin'); ava- means "down" and ut- means up."[25]
  2. ^ Trishala was the sister of King Chetaka of Vaishali in ancient India.[15]
  3. ^ This mythology has similarities with those found in the mythical texts of the Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism.[42]
  4. ^ On this Champat Rai Jain wrote- "Of the two versions of Mahavira's life — the Swetambara and the Digambara— it is obvious that only one can be true: either Mahavira married, or he did not marry."[50]
  5. ^ Not to be confused with Kevalajnana (omniscience), which he achieved at age 42.[75]
  6. ^ Samaññaphala Sutta, D i.47: "Nigantha Nataputta answered with fourfold restraint. Just as if a person, when asked about a mango, were to answer with a breadfruit; or, when asked about a breadfruit, were to answer with a mango: In the same way, when asked about a fruit of the contemplative life, visible here and now, Nigantha Nataputta answered with fourfold restraint. The thought occurred to me: 'How can anyone like me think of disparaging a brahman or contemplative living in his realm?' Yet I [Buddha] neither delighted in Nigantha Nataputta's words nor did I protest against them. Neither delighting nor protesting, I was dissatisfied. Without expressing dissatisfaction, without accepting his teaching, without adopting it, I got up from my seat and left."[125]
  7. ^ According to Melton and Baumann, the Digambaras state that "women's physical and emotional character makes it impossible for them to genuinely engage in the intense [ascetic] path necessary for spiritual purification. (...) Only by being reborn as a man can a woman engage in the ascetic path. Later Digambara secondary arguments appealed to human physiology in order to exclude women from the path: by their very biological basis, women constantly generate and destroy (and therefore harm) life forms within their sexual organs. Svetambara oppose this view by appealing to scriptures."[134]
  8. ^ A special symbol that marks the chest of a Tirthankara. The yoga pose is very common in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Each tradition has had a distinctive auspicious chest mark that allows devotees to identify a meditating statue to symbolic icon for their theology. There are several srivasta found in ancient and medieval Jain art works, and these are not found on Buddhist or Hindu art works.[150][151]



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  3. ^ Suresh K. Sharma; Usha Sharma (2004). Cultural and Religious Heritage of India: Jainism. Mittal Publications. p. 39. ISBN 978-81-7099-957-7. , Quote: "The body of Mahavira was cremated in Pava, and to this day the town of Pava, in the province of Bihar is the holy ground for his followers."
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External linksEdit