Who Was Mahavira? The Reformer of Jainism

Reformed by Mahavira, Jainism is an Indian religion that combines many aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism and offers an extraordinarily peaceful world vision.

Dec 15, 2023By Vedran Obucina, PhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA Philosophy

who was mahavira jainism


Reformed by Mahavira in ancient times, Jainism is a relatively small religion, with approximately 5.6 million adherents (all but about 275,000 of whom live in India). Through the centuries, Jainism has earned a unique reputation for having exemplified the ideal of nonviolence. It has many connecting points with other prominent religions from India (namely Buddhism and Hinduism) in its understanding of the laws of the world, such as karma and reincarnation. Similarities also include a cycle of rebirth and the reaching for freedom from it (moksha). However, unlike Hindus, Jains do not have a concept of god or gods.


The Birth and Childhood of Mahavira: Reformer of Jainism

mahavira statue delhi
Mahavira Statue in Ahinsa, New Delhi, photo by Harjeetsinghnarang, 2013, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Mahavira (meaning the Great Hero) was born in 599 BCE in Kundagram near Vaishali (located in the northern Indian state of Bihar), to Kshatriya king Siddhartha and Queen Trishala. His given name was Vardhamana (the One Who Knows).


He had several recorded names: Vardhamana, Veer, Ativir, Mahavira, and Sanmati which are mentioned in the Jain text the Uttarpurana; there is a story associated with all these names. According to Jain texts, he was born 188 years after the 23rd Tirthankara (spiritual teacher), Parshvanatha, attained nirvana.


His birthday is not precise, and literature gives many possible dates. Scholars tend to date his lifetime to the second half of the fifth century BCE, placing him close to the age of the Buddha; in fact, the Buddhist scriptures mention Mahavira and his ascetic disciples. However, Mahavira lived before Buddha, maybe even one century before. Everything we know about his early years derives from Jain traditions.

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When Mahavira was born, the god Indra supposedly anointed him and performed his consecration on the holy mountain of Meru. Most other legends about Mahavira diverge between two main Jain sects: Digambara and Svetambara. Digambara tradition does not think Mahavira ever married, although it does say his parents wanted him to marry Yashoda. Svetambara claims he did marry Yashoda at a young age and had one daughter, Priyadarshana.


Why Mahavira was a Tirthankara? 

24 jain tirthankaras
Jain Miniature Painting of 24 Jain Tirthankaras from Jaipur, circa 1850, Source: Jainminiaturepaintings.co.uk


The foundational figures whom all Jains revere are the Tirthankaras, “makers of the ford.” Each is considered to be a Jina, “a conqueror” — from whence comes the name Jainism. It is not a physical conquest but a spiritual victory over one’s ego. The conqueror uses asceticism as one’s spiritual weapon to fight against passion, lust, and bodily sensuality in order to attain enlightenment, knowledge, and purity of the soul.


Interestingly, both Buddha and Mahavira were from the warrior caste (Kshatriya), who employed military terminology to describe spiritual warfare. Similarly, both were acting against the Brahman elite in Indian society.


Through having conquered the realm of samsara, the “cycle” of moving from one birth to another, the Tirthankara has, metaphorically, successfully crossed the river from the worldly realm to the beyond — the realm of the liberated. Jains believe in an eternal succession of Tirthankaras who form the Tirtha or Jain community. This word is now almost exclusively used to denote the religious community.


The cycles are eternal, as the universe is considered to be without a beginning or an end. But cosmic cycles (Kalpa) are not endless, although they last billions of years. In each kalpa, 24 Tirthankaras emerge. Jains believe we are approaching this Kalpa’s final time, as the 24th Tirthankara has already lived and died among us. Thus, Mahavira is the 24th and the last Tirthankara of this Kalpa.


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The statue of Mahavira in a Jain Temple, photo by Shivamt77, Source: Pixabay


Jainism conceives of time as cyclical and envisions the cycles as the upward and downward turnings of a wheel. The current age is said to be the Kali Yuga, followed by a sixth and final stage of degeneration before the cycle starts over again. Spatially, Jains describe the universe as the Loka, a vast and yet finite space within which all beings dwell. Beyond the Loka, there is nothing but strong winds. Jainism thus does not believe in a creator god.


Mahavira was vehemently against the adoration of gods, as in Hinduism. Jainism was, from the very start, a very non-theistic religion. There is no creator of physical reality; the universe just exists. The Tirthankaras are regularly venerated (if not adored), and soon after Mahavira’s death, legends started to be made about him.


Some of them regard Mahavira as a being that came from the heavens and was sinless, and through meditation, he showed how to free oneself from earthly desires. The Jains do not consider this veneration as deification, as they do not accept the principle of a higher being. A higher level of reality is not revered because it is part of every soul. Freed souls are here to be venerated as a goal for one’s soul and exist in egalitarian perfection.


The Enlightenment of Mahavira

jain statue meditation
Jain Svetambara Tirthankara in Meditation, 11th century, Source: The MET Museum


When he was 30 years old, Mahavira started a life of asceticism, renouncing all worldly goods, including clothes. In the thirteenth year of his ascetic wanderings, Mahavira is believed to have attained the state of kevala, or omniscience. This complete and perfect knowledge leads at the time of death to liberation from the realm of samsara. They also think Mahavira chose deliberately to fast until his death. Now perfectly enlightened, Mahavira set about preaching the tenets of Jainism. Mahavira preached for some thirty years until, at the age of seventy-two, he died in the town of Pava (located in the northern Indian state of Bihar).


Mahavira also established four tirthas: Jain monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. They are four parts of the Jain community or four limbs, often depicted in the svastika. This symbol is often used in Jain ritual practice. It also represents the four possible incarnations of the Jiva — they may be incarnated as heavenly beings, hell-beings, human beings, and animals. Thus, the svastika depicts the community of all life forms.


Only Tirthankaras know the absolute truth of reality, and they teach it to other people. All aspects of experience are seen as equally real, and nothing can be an illusion. As a primary example, Jains point to the person of Mahavira. He is eternal because his Jina or soul is fixed and does not change, but he is also not eternal when seen in a physical form.


Mahavira on Non-Violence

depiction of ahimsa
Depiction of Ahimsa, photo by Jain Cloud, 2015, Source: Wikimedia Commons


While prevalent throughout the traditional religions of India, Mahavira emphasized the central place of non-violence or Ahimsa, the “pure, unchangeable, eternal law”. Ascetics commit to five “Great Vows,” left by Mahavira, the vow of Ahimsa being the centerpiece. Others include commands not to kill a single living being, not to lie, not to be greedy, not to indulge in sexual experiences, and not to attach to any worldly matter.


The leading institutional difference among Jains is that a minority are monks and nuns, while the majority are laypersons, and they have different obligations and vows. The great vow of Ahimsa is radically followed. Many monks and nuns wear mouth protection (muhpatti), which helps them not to swallow flies or other smaller beings by accident. An ascetic is responsible for the well-being of another life form whenever they are aware of it. Such awareness is an essential aspect of Jain life, as negligence causes bad karma.


Jains follow other ways of life of Mahavira-. They are strict vegetarians who go to great lengths to avoid harming life forms. Some are strict vegans because they think that all animal product usage, such as milk, egg, or cheese, is essentially violent. This radical veganism is seen in the small amount of food Jains eat, barely surviving, and with many fasting periods.


When reassessing the role of Jainism in Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement, the concept of Ahimsa became a very prominent topic in the interreligious peace initiatives. Not only non-violence towards humans and animals but also compassion for others fit well into the Golden Rule found in many religions.


Mahavira on Asceticism

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A prominent Digambar Jain monk, photo by Aayushmamu04, 2020, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Jains are very attached to the Mahavira’s ideas and rituals of nonviolent asceticism. This includes extreme measures such as sweeping the floor before them and not unintentionally killing some tiny being. While laypeople admire and cherish such radical nonviolent asceticism, they mostly feel it is an extraordinary and arduous activity.


Mahavira preached that asceticism is necessary to free one’s soul and reach enlightenment, in other words, to free oneself from the continual transmigration of the soul into mortal bodies. Radical asceticism asks for complete withdrawal from the world, without ties to family or society, and devoting oneself to pure ascetic practices full-time. With the help of three jewels – true faith, knowledge, and behaviour – asceticism may free the soul or move it to the higher form of being in the next generation.


Most Jains, however, do not choose this arduous life, taking up instead the lifestyle and duties of the Jain laity. Ascetics depend on the almsgiving of the Jain laity, and sometimes of Hindus, to eat. Usually wandering in groups, they spend eight months of the year traversing the land and then four months, during the rainy season, with lay communities.


The Legacy of Mahavira

mahavira atop universe
Mahavira atop of the universe, from the Kalpasutra Manuscript, 15th century, Source: The MET Museum


When Mahavira passed away, he left eleven of his disciples (Gandhara, lit. supporters of the gana or Indian martial traditions; later, this term would be used for monks) beneath him, chief among them was Indrabhuti Gautama, who would become a leading figure in the Svetambara canon. Sudharman was another leading figure, and both of them are considered as the founding fathers of Jain monasticism. The third disciple, Jambu, is deemed to be the last person from the present epoch to attain enlightenment.


Mahavira’s knowledge has been transferred from teacher to student in a teaching lineage (guru parampara). Jain monks formed distinct monastic lineages but without any effort to make separate teachings. Because of their utter reliance on laypeople — who even had to cook for the monks and nuns as they could not accidentally kill any creature — in the past there was always a Jain settlement wherever there was the presence of a Jain monastery.


chandragupta statue
Chandragupta, Laxmi Narayan Temple Delhi Souce: Wikimedia Commons


The most considerable Jain presence was initially in the area where Mahavira came from, in the northeastern Indian region of Greater Magadha. They had royal support from King Chandragupta, a cousin of King Ashoka, who would become a royal patron of Buddhism. Kings of that time were the most secure bet for new religious communities. Due to the political instability, Jains moved from Magadha to the south, effectively causing a split between the two communities.


With time, different monastic lineages caused a schism into two sects: Digambara and Svetambara. The split happened due to the disagreement between two sects about which texts were valid and which were not. Most of the Jain canon is identical for both denominations. Still, there are some significant differences regarding ascetic nudity, the nature of liberated beings, the nudity of ascetic women, monastic rules, and the interpretation of religious scriptures.


Namely, the Svetambara sect called for the wearing of white robes by monks and nuns (thus, their name means White Robe). On the other hand, the Digambara sect is known for their nudity (thus, their name means “dressed in heaven”, i.e. naked). However, this nakedness is reserved only for monks but not for nuns. In other matters, they are virtually identical. All Jain religious teachings are now based on the Tattvartha Sutra, written in the Sanskrit language.

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By Vedran ObucinaPhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA PhilosophyVedran is a Croatian political scientist, historian, and theologian. He is an Old-Catholic priest and is interested in the history of religions and philosophy. He is also very active in religious peacebuilding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Regensburg; an MA in political science from the University of Zagreb; and an MA in Theology with a BA in philosophy from Old-Catholic Seminary. He writes about world religions, their histories, and rituals, as well as the history of philosophical ideas.