- (c. 599–527 B.C.E.)Jain Arhat (omniscient being)Mahavira (great spiritual hero) is considered by Jains to be the last of the great disseminators of their faith in this half-era (see JAINISM). His life is celebrated in legends and festivals and is consid-ered a model for all Jains to imitate.He was born in 599 in Kundagrama, a large city near the modern city of Patna. His father, Siddhartha, belonged to the Jnatri clan, and his mother, Trishala, was the sister of the king of the area. The texts say they were followers of the earlier Jain TIRTHANKARA and teacher PARSHVANATH. They named their child Vardhamana, “he who brings prosperity.” The SHVETAMBARA Jains believe that Mahavira was originally conceived by a Brahmin couple, Rishabhadatta and Devananda, and that the embryo was transferred into Trishala’s womb magi-cally. DIGAMBARA Jains do not accept this story.Before Mahavira’s birth Trishala had a series of auspicious dreams. Of the two major Jain sects, the SHVETAMBARAS say there were 14 dreams; the DIGAMBARAS say 16. In these dreams she saw (1) a white elephant, (2) a white bull, (3) a lion, (4) the Goddess Sri, (5) garlands of mandara flowers, (6) the full Moon, (7) the rising Sun, (8) a large and beautiful flag, (9) a vase of fine metal, (10) a lake full of lotuses, (11) an ocean of milk, (12) a celes-tial house in the sky, (13) a huge heap of gems, and (14) a blazing fire. Digambaras add (15) a lofty throne and (16) a pair of fish cavorting in a lake. Jains today recall and reenact these dreams when they celebrate the five auspicious moments of Mahavira’s life.It is said that Vardhamana remained very quiet inside the womb, exhibiting the Jain virtue of AHIMSA or noninjury. He only moved when by his powers he learned that his mother worried he was not alive. His birth was accompanied by many marvels as all beings celebrated the birth of the Tirthankara, the karmically special unique teacher, of this half-era.Not much is known of his childhood. There is a story of his subduing a ferocious snake by his courage and calm. The Shvetambaras and Digam-baras disagree about what occurred once Mahavira reached a marriageable age. The Shvetambaras say that he fulfilled his duties as a householder, married a princess called Yashoda, and fathered a daughter called Priyadarshana. They say that he did not become a mendicant until his parents died. The Digambaras believe that Mahavira never married. They stress the notion that he had an aversion to worldly matters from an early age.When Mahavira was 30 years of age some gods went to him and urged him to renounce the world. A great ceremony took place when he embarked on his renunciation in a large park under an ashoka tree. According to the Digam-baras he removed all his clothes and pulled out all his hair in five bunches (as is the norm for Jain monks and nuns even today), becoming a naked ascetic.The Shvetambaras accept most of these details, but they believe he wore a small loincloth given to him by INDRA, king of the gods. They say that he wore this cloth for 13 months, when out of com-plete disregard for such things he let it fall from him and proceeded as a naked mendicant.Mahavira wandered for 12 years, abstain-ing for long periods from water or food or both, ignoring all bodily pains or pleasures, not caring whether he was in the burning sunshine or the pouring rain. (Digambaras, however, believe he observed a vow of silence and solitude for these 12 years.) According to the Shvetambaras, he Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara of Jainism, in Palitana, Gujarat (Constance A. Jones) was approached during this period by the AJIVIKA ascetic Makkhali Gosala, who, upon seeing his magical yogic powers, became his disciple and companion. Unfortunately, they report, Gosala eventually broke away and declared himself a jina or spiritual victor, cursing Mahavira when the lat-ter contradicted his claim.After an amazingly difficult and extended period of austerity, in which Mahavira showed no concern for any bodily insult or trial, he ascended to kevalajnana enlightenment—an infi-nite supreme knowledge and intuition. He then became the 24th and final Tirthankara of the cur-rent half-era.When he became enlightened and omniscient, the gods built him a vast assembly hall, where he sat quietly and uttered a divine sound that carried the essence of the Jain teaching. The Digambaras believe that the message was heard by all beings of every sort—heavenly beings, hell beings, humans, animals, and gods—all of whom gathered there in amazement; they also believe that Mahavira no longer ate, drank, slept, or aged, as a sign of his pure state. Shvetambaras believe that only the gods and a select few disciples heard his teach-ing. A Jain community began to form around him from that moment, though he made no effort to create it.After his enlightenment, Mahavira lived for 30 years as an omniscient being, traveling from place to place. At the age of 72, after undergoing a series of ever more rigorous fasts, he took his death. He passed from this world, his soul heading toward the top of the universe, where it remains eternally in unlimited consciousness and bliss.Historians believe that a Jain community of monks, nuns, and lay people emerged during Mahavira’s lifetime. Nuns always outnumbered monks in the community by a significant margin.Further reading: Paul Dundas, The Jains (London: Routledge, 1992); P. S. Jaini, The Jaina Path of Purifica-tion (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990); L. C. Lalwani, Kalpa Sutra (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.