599 - 527 BC
Wisdom of the Ancient Sages
Indian Sage & Great Hero
An Introduction to Mahavira
If asceticism, self denial and self-mortification were to be personified, that personification would be Mahavira, or the Great Hero, as his name suggests. Proponent of "eternalism" the theory that supports the superiority of the soul, over any good or evil, and its eternally unchangeable substance, Mahavira maintains that the soul seeks liberation from the law of karma and the wheel of births, deaths and rebirths, and its existence is completely unaffected by the presence or non-presence of different forms of knowledge.
He defines soul as whatever one understands when they pronounce the word "I", and he claims that the liberated soul acquires the divine attributes of power, bliss and unlimited knowledge. Moreover, the absence of an almighty god, who rewards or punishes according to what a person has done in life, promotes the idea of responsibility for oneself, through the five vows of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity and freedom from possessions and attachments.
Mahavira's father was King Siddartha and his mother was Queen Trishala, who were both devoted followers of Parshva, the 23rd Tirthankara, or Enlightened One, in the Jain religion. Mahavira was born in Kundapura and according to a legend, his mother had 14 prophetic dreams, which were indications that he would become a sage and an enlightened guide for his people. He was born in 559, in the 6th century BC, a century full of spirituality and great Masters like Buddha, and he was the 24th and last Tirthankara of Jainism.
The royal couple named their baby Vardhaman, which meant "ever-growing", because while his mother was pregnant, there was a period of increasing wealth and prosperity in the country. Later, he was called Mahavira, which means "Great Hero" because he redeemed people from the never-ending cycle of reincarnation. It is also said that he was named Mahavira, because when he was a little boy, he showed unusual courage when he picked up a dangerous snake or when he climbed up the trunk of an elephant.
Despite the fact that Mahavira was brought up in luxury, he always showed signs of spiritual inclination and a virtuous character. He engaged himself in meditation, he had a profound interest in the truths of Jainism and paid little attention to luxuries and worldly matters. Mahavira's wife was a princess named Yasoda from whom he had a daughter called Anojja.
At the age of 30, and after his parents died, he left home and renounced his royal position, his family, his wealth and all worldly pleasures. He took off his clothes, tore his hair out and with only a piece of cloth on his shoulders he started a journey of endurance against all physical hardships that were caused by the elements, animals, humans or divine powers.
He only had his hand as a dish, the foot of a tree as his bed, he kept silence and held a body posture similar to the one of a statue. He always walked carefully to avoid stepping on insects and lived in far away, isolated places like cemeteries or crematoriums. He travelled around naked and accepted physical and verbal assault without any protest, but he used to stay at the same place during the rainy seasons.
After 13 long years of physical hardships, spiritual quest and endless days of meditation, without food or water, he finally attained, first the state of nirvana, liberation from the cycle of births and deaths, and then the state of kevala, the highest state of awareness and infinite knowledge a soul can attain.
For the rest of his life, Mahavira and his disciples, travelled around India teaching the spiritual truths and initiating people from all walks of life, in the liberating practice of attaining nirvana. Thousands of people followed him, and Jain philosophy spread throughout the country. He died at the age of 72 after a short period of meditation and attaining moksa, the absolute freedom from all births, an event that Jainists celebrate up to this day, as the Diwali, or the "Festival of lights".
Mahavira's main philosophy and the core philosophy of Jainism, has to do with three principles: Pluralism (Anekantavada), the Doctrine of Postulation (Syadvada), and the law of Cause and Effect (Karma).
The principle of Pluralism is clearly depicted in the story of "The blind men and the elephant" meaning that the same truth can be seen from different viewpoints. The Doctrine of Postulation, in which a truth in one system can be proved as valid as another truth in another system. And finally, the law of Karma, the theory of Cause and Effect, according to which, our past lives are closely connected to our present lives or "As you sow, so shall you reap".
According to his teachings, the universe consists of living beings and matter. All living beings get entangled in the cycle of reincarnation because of karma. If the soul is attached to worldly things, then the bondage of karma is formed, and when caught in such bondage, soul loses all awareness of its true nature which is a state of omniscience and bliss. Discipline of speech, the body and mind are necessary in order to eliminate karma. When liberation is achieved the soul is free from any successive reincarnations and rises to higher heavens.
By his personal exemplary life, Mahavira showed people a way of attaining liberation from the never-ending cycle of reincarnation. However, due to its strict rules of ethical living, away from worldly pleasures and attachments, Jainism has never become a religion as popular as Buddhism or Hinduism.
However, conquering our passions, like greed, lust and anger, adopting a harmless way of living, without killing animals for food or other uses, consuming less so that others can have enough too, leading a life of honesty, humility and sincerity and by adopting positive thinking and forgiveness, we may not be able to achieve liberation, but we will become better individuals and we will be able to enjoy a better society.
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