published on 03 February 2013
Vardhamana (meaning "prosperous") was an important Indian religious figure who became the leader of a sect of wanderer ascetics (Sramanas), one of the many sects which existed at that time in India. He is best known under the name of Mahavira, which is not an actual name, but a title that means “Great Victor”. The teachings of Vardhamana are considered to be the core of Jainism, one of the major early sects of Sramanas in India, which later evolved into an important religious tradition.
Even though Vardhamana is generally credited as the founder of Jainism, he appears to have built his doctrine upon the ideas of Parsva, a teacher who lived roughly two centuries before the Buddha. So rather than its founder, Vardhamana is the reformer of Jainism: his input and legacy were so strong that his figure as an authoritative source overshadowed all earlier figures in Jainism.
Buddhist texts normally refer to Vardhamana as Nirgrantha Jnatiputra and sometimes as Nataputta, as he is usually called in Buddhist Pali sources. The term Nirgrantha is a Sanskrit word which means “Free from all ties”, and it is normally used in Sanskrit Buddhist texts to refer to the followers of Vardhamana.
At the time when Vardhamana lived, Northern India was composed of numerous small independent states competing for resources. This was a time when the traditional religious order in India was being challenged by a number of new philosophical and religious schools that were not in line with the orthodox Indian religion. All components of the Vedic religion, along with its ever growing complexity of rituals and sacrificial fees, were being questioned. The reputation and authority of the traditional priestly class were being undermined by new philosophical schools, which led to a temporary religious anarchy. By the time Vardhamana was born, the intellectual decay of Brahmanism had begotten a strong skepticism and moral vacuum which was filled by new religious and philosophical views.
Around the 7th century BCE, a culture of world-renunciation developed in India. This culture is the common origin of many Indian religions including Jainism and Buddhism. Some groups who rejected the conventional teachings of the Vedic tradition became mendicant ascetics: they renounced conventional society. These renunciants were known as Sramanas. Some of these mendicants were merely vagabonds similar to the type we still meet in India today, while others were organized under a recognized leader. Vardhamana was a recognized teacher who led one of these Sramanas groups.
The Historical Vardhamana
Reliable documented information about Vardhamana is very scarce. Details about his life can be pieced together by looking into the early Jain and Buddhist sources, which is a challenging job for historians given the fact that most of these accounts are filled with myth and legendary stories that slowly but surely changed the initial attributes of Vardhamana’s biography.
In Pali Buddhist sources and in some Jain sources, Vardhamana is presented as the Buddha’s senior contemporary, which is one of the reasons why the dates of Vardhamana’s life relies on synchronicity with the dates of the Buddha. Modern scholarly consensus dates the birth of the Buddha in a period that goes from 490 to 450 BCE. The current accepted date for Vardhamana’s death is around 467 BCE. All accounts agree that Vardhamana was 72 years old at the time of his death, which would make around 539 BCE an acceptable estimation for Vardhamana’s birth. Jain tradition claims that Vardhamana was born in 599 BCE, which is not supported by historical evidence.
Vardhamana was born into the Kshatriya caste (the warrior rulers caste). He also belonged to the Jnatrika clan: His father was Siddhartha of Kundagraam and his mother was named Trishala. The place where Vardhamana was born is also a debated topic. Jain sources claim that he was born in the kingdom of Kundagraam, but the exact location of this place remains unknown. Many modern cities have been suggested as the possible birthplace of Vardhamana, but none of them is free of controversy.
The background of the Jnatrika clan deserves some comments. Most of what we know about the Jnatrikas is through Jain and Buddhist sources, where we read that the father of Vardhamana, Siddhartha of Kundagraam, was the king of Kundagraam. However, there are good reasons to believe he was not actually a king. During that time, most Indian states were organized as aristocratic tribal republican systems, which means that Vardhamana’s parents were surely the heads of aristocratic ruling clans, not monarchs.
During the first stage of his life, Vardhamana lived a life of luxury. From an early age, he became interested in spiritual matters and soon became dissatisfied with the life that surrounded him: the increasing inequalities between rich and poor, warfare, and social struggle. Around the age of 30 his parents died, so he gave up his kingdom, his royal privileges along with his possessions, and even his family, and for the next twelve years he wandered around northern India as an ascetic, rejecting physical pleasures and engaged in the pursuit of spiritual progress. Fasting and meditation were some of the key methods used by Vardhamana.
It is believed that at the age of 42, Vardhamana gained full enlightenment. The state attained by Vardhamana is known as kevala, a term which the Jain traditions understands as omniscience or supreme knowledge. From this moment onwards he became known as Mahavira. After this event, he became the head of a group of Sramanas and taught others about what he had learned. Vardhamana's great insight was to substitute the authority of old religious doctrines with logical experience and a more rational approach. In other words, he introduced important changes in Jainism by framing traditional Jain doctrines in a more logical fashion.
Vardhamana developed a philosophy in which its metaphysics was consistent with the ethics. This metaphysical system revolved around the idea of samsara (reincarnation), a widespread belief that harmful actions led to bad karma, and good actions to good karma: good karma would improve the conditions in the next life while bad karma would make it worse. The goal for Jains was to break free from the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth by avoiding the generation of karma entirely, either good or bad. According to this view, extreme austerity was key in cancelling the karma of all past actions so one could finally be set free from reincarnation:
As a large pond, when its influx of water has been blocked, dries up gradually through consumption of water and evaporation, so the karmic matter of a monk, which has been acquired through millions of births, is annihilated by austerity—provided there is no further influx. (Campbell, p.234)
Regarding the idea of the soul, Vardhamana introduced a small change that made a significant difference in his approach to life and the shaping of the Jain code of conduct. It was widely accepted by Indian society that animals, humans, and even the gods had souls, but Vardhamana went even further, claiming that nearly everything is alive. Everything is made up, according to his view, of Jiva or “living intelligence”, trapped in matter. Living beings were divided into different categories.
- Beings with five senses, including humans and major animals.
- Beings with four senses, they cannot hear (wasps, flies, butterflies).
- Beings with three senses, they can neither hear nor see (ants, moths, fleas).
- Beings with two senses, they can only taste and touch (worms, leeches, shellfish).
- Beings with only one sense, they only have the sense of touch (plants, microscopic organisms, wind, fire, water).
These ideas became the basis of the most important component of the ethical code of Jainism, named ahimsa or “non-violence”: Violence against any living creature in any form is strictly forbidden. Because Jains believed that everything was alive, non-violence was taken very seriously, to the point that the followers of Vardhamana veiled their mouths for fear of inhaling and killing the organisms of the air. They also screened their lamps to protect insects from the flame and swept the ground before walking in order to avoid the risk of accidentally trampling out any life. Some sources claim that Vardhamana would allow mosquitoes to feed on his blood, and while other ascetics would carry sticks with them to scare off the dogs, Vardhamana would allow the dogs to bite him. Even vegetables were considered to be alive, along with inanimate objects, such as rocks and fire. For this reason, the most strict Jains would only eat vegetables and grains of rice that were already lying on the floor, no longer attached to their source, and would never cut up a plant to obtain their food.
Vardhamana is credited as the author of an interesting parable known as, “The blind men and the elephant”, which is a form of criticism of the conventional assumptions on the nature and scope of human knowledge. A group of blind men are taken to an elephant and asked to inspect the animal while describing it:
[...] the one whose hand landed on the trunk said, "This being is like a drain pipe". The one whose hand reached its ear said, “This being is like a kind of fan”. The one whose hand touched its leg said, "This being is like a pillar". The one who placed his hand upon its tail said...
All these descriptions are accurate and incorrect at the same time. The point of the parable is clear: all points of view are partial and there is no such thing as an absolute truth when it comes to human knowledge. All human notions are imperfect, incomplete, tentative. This parable illustrates the fundamental doctrine of Jain epistemology known as Anekantavada, which maintains that no single point of view or human notion can be regarded as the complete truth. This parable is also mentioned in other traditions as well, such as Buddhism and Sufism, but it is most strongly linked to Jainism as it is perfectly consistent with the Jain epistemological approach.
No deity was recognized by Vardhamana: The only road to liberation was people’s own personal effort. This is the reason why Jainism is considered an atheist religion. Vardhamana emphasized the importance of individual actions.
Vardhamana’s popularity grew significantly and the sources report thousands of members in his community. At the age of 72, consistent with his ideas, he took the austerity ideal to the extreme by gradually reducing his daily food intake and finally starved himself to death. Fourteen thousand followers are reported by the time Vardhamana passed away.
Myth & Legendary Accounts
The followers of Vardhamana’s teachings attempted to demonstrate that what their master taught was nothing new, but rather the rediscovery of an eternal truth. This was a very widespread strategy in many religious communities at that time: they wanted to challenge some rival schools, especially the Vedic tradition, which supported their authority by claiming to have originated a long time ago. Therefore, the Jains claimed that Vardhamana was the 24th and the last teacher in a long line of teachers known as Tirthankars or “ford-makers”. Jains see the Tirthankars as people who help others to cross the ocean of ordinary worldly life and achieve a higher spiritual state free of misery and pain.
The biographies of all 24 Tirthankars share the same general outline: They were all born into royal families, renounced the world, engaged in asceticism and meditation, achieved enlightenment and taught the Jain doctrine, retired to a mountain when they felt death approaching, and died after a final meditation, never to be reborn again.
Different Jain texts present many previous reincarnations of Vardhamana. There are also accounts describing the miraculous nature of Vardhamana’s conception and also a number of many different dreams that Trishala (Vardhamana’s mother) had before his birth. These dreams were interpreted by the priests, who anticipated the fate of Vardhamana: he would become either a political leader or a Tirthankar. After his enlightenment, Vardhamana never slept again, never blinked his eyes again, his fingernails and hair stopped growing, and his body cast no shadow.
The legacy of Vardhamana is hard to distinguish from the legacy of Jainism. Vardhamana’s emphasis on non-violence and strict vegetarianism has had an enormous influence in Indian culture. These ideas, whether original or not to Vardhamana, were adopted by Jains as a fundamental way of living and became their core convictions. Even today, Jains still take great care to avoid unnecessary harm to all creatures.
Many values in Hinduism and Buddhism are the result of Jain cultural influence: Non-violence was adopted by many sects of Hinduism and also by Buddhists, and there were two important monarchs in India, Ashoka and Akbar, who were fervent proponents of the principle of non-violence.
Vardhamana’s belief on the transformative power of human effort, self-help, and his philosophy of non-violence still inspire millions of men and women today all over the world. During the 20th century CE, Mahatma Gandhi took the advice of a Jain teacher named Raichandbhai Mehta and adopted the principle of non-violence. The resistance to British rule in India might have been different, perhaps bloodier, without the Jain influence.
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