Vardhamana (Mahavira)

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The 24th and the last reformer of Jainism, Vardhamana was born in 599 BC in Ksatiryakundagrama, India, to a royal Kastirya family (warrior caste) of Hindus. It is speculated that he was a junior contemporary of Buddha. His parents Siddhartha and Trisala, brought up their son in a luxurious environment as heir to their throne. Although he grew up in a royal family, he renounced riches and become ascetic at the age of thirty. Amid his spiritual quest, he took five self denying pledges: the rejection of i) killing Ahimsa, ii) lying Satya, iii) greed Asteya, iv) sexual pleasure Brahmacharya, and v) attachment to the world Aparigraha. His preaching of Ahimsa, or “respect for life,” eventually led to the ending of ritual sacrifices in India. Ahimsa assumes reincarnation—the belief that all animal and human life goes through cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.

Vardhamana spent most of his life as a wanderer, owning no clothes, eating only vegetables, and often fasting. After 12 years of practicing such an austere life, he is said to have gained the highest spiritual knowledge. He is, therefore, known as Mahavira (the fully enlightened teacher). He spent next thirty years in traveling. He reorganized the religion of Jainism, systematized earlier doctrines, and established guidelines for monks and other followers. His reforms have influenced Indian society to this day. According to tradition, Mahavira died at the age of 72 at Pava in Bihar state in 527 BC. At one time he is said to have 400,000 followers.

His death anniversary is remembered in India as an event of Dipavali, which is the last day of Hindu and Jain calendar. Mahavira’s sermons were orally compiled by his immediate disciples in the Agam Sutras. These Agam Sutras were orally passed on to future generations. In the course of time, many of the Agam Sutras were lost, destroyed, or modified. After about one thousand years the Agam Sutras were recorded on Tadpatris (leafy paper that was used in those days to preserve records for future references). Swetambar Jains acknowledge these sutras as authentic version of his teachings while Digambar Jains use them as a reference.

This article was last updated on Monday, Jan 03, 2005