published on 03 February 2013
Vardhamana (also known as Mahavira) was an Indian philosopher, religious leader and a key figure of Jainism. He was born into the Kshatriyas caste (the warrior rulers caste) in northeastern India in about the 6th century BCE. The traditional dates are 599-527 BCE. Recently, scholars have moved these dates forward by half a century.
Documented information about Vardhamana is very scarce. The tradition says that Vardhamana was born as a prince, the second son of the king, and lived a life of luxury and wealth. From an early age he was interested in spiritual matters and soon became dissatisfied with the life that surrounded him: the increasing inequalities between rich and poor, warfare and social conflicts. Around the age of 30, when his parents died, he gave up his kingdom, royal privileges, possessions and even his family and for the next twelve years he wandered around as an ascetic, someone who denies him or herself physical pleasures in a quest for spiritual progress mainly through fasting and meditation. At the age of 42, Vardhamana gained full enlightenment and became a Jaina, “conqueror”, and he became known as Mahavira, a title meaning “the great hero” and became the leader of a religious movement known as Jainism.
Vardhamana organized a celibate clergy and an order of nuns. He also systematized the traditional doctrines of Jainism and gave them a more logical twist. One of the key ideas in this movement is the doctrine of non-violence called Ahimsa: violence against any living creature in any form is strictly forbidden. This idea was taken so seriously that eventually the members of the Jain religion veiled their mouths for fear of inhaling and killing the organisms of the air, screened their lamps to protect insects from the flame, and swept the ground before walking in order to avoid the risk of trampling out some life. Jains considered that even the vegetables were alive, along with inanimate objects, such as rocks and fire. This view on living beings could be summarized with the words of an Indian scholar:
Thus the whole world is alive. In every stone on the highway a soul is locked, so tightly enchained by matter that it cannot escape the careless foot that kicks it or cry out in pain, but capable of suffering nevertheless. When a match is struck a fire being, with a soul which may one day be reborn in a human body, is born, only to die a few moments afterwards. In every drop of rain, in every breath of wind, in every lump of clay, is a living soul.
At the age of 72, consistent with his ideas, Vardhamana took the Ahimsa principle to the extreme and finally starved himself to death, leaving behind around fourteen thousand devotees.
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599 BCE - 527 BCE