views updated May 29 2018


MAHĀVĪRA . Among the numerous philosophers and religious teachers who preached in eastern India during the sixth century bce was the Jina ("conqueror"), considered to be the founder and systematizer of Jainism. The name given to him by his parents was Vardhamāna ("prospering"), for soon after his conception, it is said, things began to flourish and prosper for him and for those around him. The gods called him Mahāvīra ("great hero"), because, they claimed, "he stands fast in the midst of dangers and fears" (Jinacaritra 108). He is regarded as the twenty-fourth tīrthakara ("fordmaker") or prophet, and the reformer of Jainism. Mahāvīra's symbol is the lion; like other tīrthakara s, he is sometimes represented with his two guardian deities.


The main episodes of Mahāvīra's life and religious career are often described in Jain literature and are prominent in the Śvetāmbara canon. The five principal "auspicious moments" of his lifehis conception, birth, renunciation, enlightenment, and passing into nirvāa are celebrated by his followers to this day.

According to the Jains, Mahāvīra was born seventy-five years and eight and a half months before the end of the fourth descending period of the current avasarpiī era (or 599 bce); by the calculations of Western scholars, the event probably took place at least some fifty years later. He was born in Kuagrāma, apparently a village near Vaiśālī, to the north of modern-day Patna in northern Biharwhere a Mahāvīra memorial has been erected and where the Research Institute of Prakrit, Ahisā, and Jainology was founded by the government of Bihar in 1956.

Like all tīrthakara s, Vardhamāna was alleged to have come from a princely family; the Jains hold that he had a katriya lineage and that his mother, Triśalā, was closely related to the Vaiśālī ruler. The Śvetāmbara scriptures and miniatures even show the transplantation of his embryo, following Indra's orders, from the womb of a brahman mother, Devānandā, into that of Triśalā. This episode, which is reminiscent of the Ka legend, is rejected by the Digambaras. As will be seen, the two churches disagree on certain points in the biography of the twenty-fourth tīrthakara. Both agree, however, that his conception was foretold to his mother in a series of fourteen (or sixteen) auspicious dreams by a white elephant, a white bull, a lion, the goddess Śrī, the full moon, the rising sun, an ocean of milk, and so forth. These dreams are frequently described in the literature and represented in manuscripts and in temples.

While still in the womb Vardhamāna began to practice ahisā: He was careful not to cause his mother any pain, and even vowed not to renounce the world before his parents' death. His birth was the occasion of universal rejoicing and liberality. As a boy he received a princely education and his family appears to have followed the doctrine of the twenty-third tīrthakara, Pārśva, whose teachings Mahāvīra was to reconsider and complete, but not, apparently, to oppose. According to the Śvetāmbaras he married the princess Yaśodā, who gave birth to a daughter; their daughter's husband was later to start the first schism of Jainism. The Digambaras, however, consider that Vardhamāna had no such worldly ties. They emphasize that Mahāvīra was one of an unending succession of tīrthakara s: His earlier births are linked with abha (through one of the latter's grandsons), while one of his disciples, King Śreika Bimbisāra, will be reborn as the first tīrthakara of the next utsarpiī age.

By the time Vardhamāna was thirty years old his parents had died. Having gained the consent of his elder brother he distributed his property, plucked out his hair, and renounced the world; this is an event commonly depicted in Jain iconography, with Indra devotedly receiving the saint's hair in his hands. Thereafter, Mahāvīra led the hard, solitary life of a wandering ascetic (śramaa ), begging for food and shelter, moving from place to place (except during the four months of the rainy season) in the eastern region of the Ganges Valley. According to the Digambaras, Mahāvīra immediately abandoned clothing as well as ornaments, whereas the Śvetāmbaras hold that this occurred only after thirteen months of renunciation. Such discussions again reflect a difference of opinion, in this case concerning the importance of nakedness in the holy life.

Both sects do agree that the prophet shunned all violence to living beings, took nothing that was not explicitly given to him, spoke no lies, strictly avoided unchaste behavior in thought, word, and deed, and had no possessionsin short, he followed what were to become the five major vows of the Jain monk. Moreover, he endured severe hardships (due to nature, animal, and humanity) and practiced systematic penances that involved many kinds of prolonged and complicated fasts, "exerting himself," according to the Jinacaritra (119), "for the suppression of the defilement of karman." He gained disciples, with whom he conversed in a Prakrit language. In this way he spent twelve years, six months, and fifteen days on the mendicant's path. Finally, on a summer night, near a sal tree on the bank of the river jupālikā, he attained omniscience (kevala-jñāna ), "which is infinite, supreme, unobstructed, unimpeded, and full. He knew and saw all conditions of all living beings in the worldwhat they thought, spoke, or did at any moment" (Jinacaritra 120121). He had in fact acquired full knowledge of the world (and the nonworld), and of the past, present, and future of its inhabitants, whether divine, infernal, animal, or human. Concerning the state of enlightenment there are again differences between the Śvetāmbaras, who consider that even a kevalin eats and complies with constraints of the body without any defilement, and the Digambaras, who believe that following enlightenment one is free from all human imperfections (such as hunger) and only sits in perfect omniscience while a divine sound emanates from his person and instructs his hearers, directly or otherwise.

After attaining omniscience Mahāvīra preached the truth to immense assemblies of listeners and successfully organized the fourfold Jain community of monks, nuns, male laity, and female laity. He was assisted in this task by eleven gaadhara s (chiefs of religious communities): The first chief was Indrabhūti Gautama, who is responsible for having retained and handed down Mahāvīra's teachings. One of Mahāvīra's earlier disciples was Gośāla, who turned against him to become head of the jīvika sect.

Finally, at the age of seventy-two, sitting "single and alone , reciting the fifty-five lectures that detail the results of karman, " Mahāvīra passed into nirvāa. According to tradition, this occurred in the town of Papa, near Patna, toward the end of the monsoon in the year 527 bce. This year was to become the starting point of the era known as the Vīra Savat; nevertheless, Western scholars tend to place Mahāvīra's death in 467 or 477476 bce, or even later. Be that as it may, at that time (which was a fast-day) the neighboring kings "instituted an illumination. For they said: 'Since the spiritual light is gone, let us make a material illumination'" (Jinacaritra 128). As it happened, this homage coincided with the Hindu festival of Dīvālī, so that Hindus and Jains simultaneously conduct these two different celebrations.

MahĀvĪra's Teachings

Although the various discrepancies between the Digambara and Śvetāmbara accounts of Mahāvīra's career naturally imply doctrinal differences, the fundamental tenets upheld by the two churches are, nonetheless, basically similar, and can be regarded as deriving from Mahāvīra. Mahāvīra defined a pluralist substantialism that, typical of Jainism, is characterized by seven (or nine) tattva s (principles).

The first tattva is the soul or "life" (jīva) ; it is immaterial, eternal, characterized by consciousness, and capable of cognition. The tattva s serve to explain the mechanism of transmigration, the innumerable reincarnations of the soul, and the soul's final liberation. In this context Mahāvīra explained jīva and its opposite, ajīva; the influx of karmic matter into the soul; bondage; stoppage of karmic influx; expulsion of previously accumulated karmic matter; and the final accomplishment of "perfection" (siddhi), when karmic matter has been exhausted and the jīva has regained its pure spiritual nature.

This ultimate goal cannot be attained except by those who tread "the ford" that Mahāvīra built to the other shore of sasāra. They must train themselves to follow the ideal pattern of life, which has been set by the Jina, and they must master the "three jewels" of right (Jain) faith, right knowledge, and right conduct; "right conduct" necessitates performing the difficult and constant ascetic exercises that were undertaken by the Jina himself. As a consequence, from the beginning great importance has been attached to religious life and to the organization of the community, in which the female devotees seem to have been particularly active and numerous. According to the Jinacaritra (134137), "the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra had an excellent community of 14,000 śramaa s with Indrabhūti at their head; 36,000 nuns with Candanā at their head; 159,000 lay votaries with Śakhaśataka at their head; 318,000 female lay votaries with Sulasā and Revatī at their head."

MahĀvĪra's Significance in the Indian Tradition

It cannot be denied that in the traditional biography of Mahāvīra some episodes are stereotypes that systematically serve elsewhere to describe the career of other "great men" (mahāpuruas ). Additionally, there are many discrepancies concerning the date and place of his birth, his nirvāa, and so forth. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt the historicity of this vigorous original thinker and extremely capable organizer. While naturally accepting many of the basic assumptions of his society and his era, he was one of the first to oppose the Brahmanic ritualistic orthodoxy and to suceed in building a coherent system aimed at explaining the laws of the universe and the place of humankind therein, thus clearly linking metaphysics with ethics and speculation with social organization.

It has been justly emphasized that Jainism (like early Buddhism) integrated many older beliefs and practices that had previously been nurtured only by isolated Brahmanic ascetics. With Mahāvīra, these ideas appear to have gained in influence. Jainism has thus been equated with some of the most typically Indian tendencies and ideals; indeed, Jainism did much to enrich Indian ideals of spirituality. Among its contributions are the belief in the powers of asceticism, in the spiritual benefit to be derived from fasting (even unto death), and in the absolute necessity of avoiding injury to life (ahisā ), whether in thought, word, or deed. This last ideal constitutes the first vow of the Jains, which is a dedication to tolerance, unabated benevolence, and vegetarianism.

The Jain movement probably owes much of its influence to the missionary zeal and gifts of Mahāvīra, and to his ability to organize a coherent society of religious and lay believers. The well-structured Jain community of monks and nuns was, together with the Buddhist sagha, one of the first to exist in India. In the course of time it proved to be remarkably dynamic, capable of continuing Mahāvīra's action, and even, as he himself is alleged to have done, of gaining the sympathy and support of many rulers. Following his path and the example he had set, Jain nirgrantha s (religious mendicants) as well as laypersons have achieved the material as well as the spiritual glory of Jainism.

See Also

Ahisā; jīvikas; Gośāla; Jainism; Moka; Tīrthakaras.


All standard books on Jainism discuss the life of Mahāvīra. The Digambara views are clearly presented in Padmanabh S. Jaini's The Jaina Path of Purification (Berkeley, Calif., 1979). Two valuable books are Bimala Churn Law's Mahāvīra: His Life and Teachings (London, 1937) and Hiralal Jain and A. N. Upadhye's Mahāvīra: His Times and His Philosophy of Life (New Delhi, 1974).

Two important Śvetāmbara canonical texts tell the story of Mahāvīra's life: One text is included in the first book of the canon (cārāga Sūtra 1.8); the other forms a major part of the Jinacaritra (Lives of the Jinas), edited in 1882 and 1879 respectively by Hermann Jacobi, and translated from Prakrit into English by Jacobi in volume 1 of Jaina Sûtras, "Sacred Books of the East," vol. 22 (1884; reprint, Delhi, 1964). The teachings of Mahāvīra are somewhat discursively presented in other canonical books, among them the Sūtraktāga and Uttarādhyayana, also translated by Hermann Jacobi, in volume 2 of Jaina Sūtras, "Sacred Books of the East," vol. 45 (1895; reprint Delhi, 1964).

Comparisons between the Buddha and the Jina have been attempted by Ernst Leumann in Buddha und Mahāvīra, die beiden indischen Religionsstifter (Munich, 1921). Mahāvīra's career is the subject of a number of Jain quasi-epic poems from both the Digambara and Śvetāmbara traditions, and an important chapter in the Triaiśalākāpuruacaritra, translated by Helen M. Johnson as Triaiśalākāpuruacaritra, or The Lives of Sixty-Three Illustrious Persons by Hemacandra, "Gaekwad's Oriental Series," vols. 51, 77, 108, 125, 139, and 140 (Baroda, 19311962).

Colette Caillat (1987)


views updated May 23 2018


BORN: c. 599 bce • Kundagrama, Bihar, India

DIED: c. 527 bce • Papa, Bihar, India

Indian philosopher; religious leader

Mahavira was an Indian philosopher who lived a life of extreme piety, or devotion. He is regarded as the founder of a religion called Jainism, which is practiced primarily in India. Jains, however, would say that Mahavira did not "found" Jainism. They would instead say he rediscovered or reinvigorated Jain principles and beliefs that had always existed.

There are few biographical records of Mahavira in existence, and much of what is known about his life is more mythical than factual. The term hagiography, from the Greek word hagios, meaning "saint," is sometimes used to refer to a biography that idealizes saintly figures. The legends that surround the life of Mahavira fall into the category of hagiography.

"Whether I am walking or standing still/whether I sleep or remain awake,/the supreme knowledge and intuition/present with me—constantly and continuously."

Birth and early life

One major uncertainty concerns exactly when Mahavira lived. Some evidence suggests that his life overlapped with that of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 bce; see entry), the founder of Buddhism. If this is correct, he may have been born in about 490 bce and died in about 410 bce. Many sources, however, give other birth and death dates. Certain Western scholars believe he was born around 540 bceand his date of death was about 470 bce. Jains believe that Mahavira was born "seventy-five years before the fourth descending period of the current era," referring to Jain measurements of historical time. This would put his birth date at 599 bce and his death date at 527 bce.

Mahavira was born in Kundagrama, a village in Bihar, a modern-day Indian state in the northeast whose capital city is Patna. His birth name was Vardhamana, which means "prospering." He was given that name because soon after he was conceived, his family and the people around him began to experience good fortune.

Vardhamana came from a royal family and was considered a member of the warrior caste, called the Kshatriya. Castes are hereditary Indian social classes. His mother, Trishala, was related to the ruler of the nearby city of Vaisali, and his father, Siddhartha, was a local king. According to legend Vardhamana was originally conceived by a Brahmin mother, Devananda. (Brahmins are the highest Indian caste and are usually priests, religious teachers, and intellectuals.) The embryo was then moved into Trishala's womb. The legends also hold that Vardhamana's conception was foretold to his mother in a series of dreams. These dreams, called "auspicious dreams" (favorable or lucky dreams) included images of a lion, the full moon, the rising sun, an ocean of milk, a white bull, and a white elephant. These dreams are described in Jain literature and are often depicted in temples.

As a child Vardhamana received an education that was suitable for a prince. According to one of the two main sects, or divisions, of Jainism, he married a princess named Yasoda, and the couple had a daughter. The other major sect of Jainism denies that he married and had a child. This sect believes that he had no ties to other people in the world.


The most important event in Vardhamana's life was his decision at about age thirty to renounce, or give up, his worldly possessions. After the death of his parents, he gave away all of his property, pulled out his hair, and became a wandering ascetic, or sadhana, meaning that he lived a life of total self-discipline and piety. He traveled around the country begging for food. At first, his only possession was a single robe, but he eventually gave up even that and went naked. He never stayed in one village for more than a day at a time and refused to shelter himself from either cold or heat. When he walked or sat, he was careful never to injure any living thing. For this reason, he traveled less during the rainy seasons, when paths would be filled with life forms that he did not want to injure. As part of this determination, Vardhamana was a vegetarian, or a person who does not eat meat. He even strained his drinking water to ensure that no creatures were living in it.

Jain Sects

There are two main sects, or divisions, in Jainism: the Digambara, which translates as "sky clad," and the Svetambara, which translates as "white clad." The original division between the two sects resulted from disputes over which of Mahavira's teachings were the true ones and how those teachings were to be interpreted. This problem arose in part because Mahavira's teachings were not written down until well after his death, so followers had no reliable texts to use as references.

The Digambaras are the more austere, or morally strict, sect of Jainism. Unlike Svetambaras, Digambaras do not believe that women can achieve freedom until they have been reborn as men. This is partly because Digambara monks do not wear clothing. Because they believe remaining naked would be more impractical for women, they claim women have to be reborn as men in order to lead completely austere lives.

The two sects also have different views about the nature of Jinas, who are godlike enlightened ones. Unlike the Svetambaras, Digambaras believe that Jinas do not require food, do not have bodily functions, nor do they carry out any functions in the world. Additionally the religious images of the two sects differ. Digambara images of the Tirthankara, the revered Jain teachers, always have downcast eyes, signifying meditation (deep and concentrated thinking). The figures are always plain and naked. In contrast Svetambara images are always highly decorated, and the statues of the Tirthankara have wide, staring eyes, signifying preaching.

Another difference between the two sects is their views on worldly possessions. Digambaras believe that a person can achieve spiritual freedom only by completely abandoning worldly possessions. Monks of this sect are not even allowed to own a bowl for eating. All gifts they accept have to fit in the hands. A Svetembara monk, however, is allowed to wear a simple, plain white robe and may also own a begging bowl, a broom to sweep insects from his path, and writing tools.

Vardhamana supposedly lived in this ascetic fashion for twelve years, six months, and fifteen days. Then, on a summer night, he sat on the bank of the river Rjupalika under a tree and achieved omniscience, or knowledge of everything. He gained a complete understanding of the world, including its past, present, and future. According to one sacred Jain text, he saw all things about all living beings, including what they thought about, said, or did. At this point Vardhamana acquired the name Mahavira, which means "great hero."

He began to attract many followers. He preached to large crowds and engaged other religious leaders in debates about spiritual matters. He organized the Jain religion into societies of nuns, monks, female laity, and male laity. The term "laity" refers to ordinary members of a religion, or those who are not monks, priests, or nuns. According to Jain tradition, by the time of his death, Mahavira had established a community of some 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 laymen, and 318,000 laywomen.

Mahavira died in the town of Papa, near Patna. His followers believe that he was alone at the time, reciting religious texts. The Jains list his death as occurring in 527 bce. As noted earlier, however, scholars offer different dates for this event. Some place it at 467 bce, others at about 477 or 476 bce, and still others at 490 bce.

Mahavira as Tirthankar

Jains regard Mahavira as the twenty-fourth Tirthankar. This title, the plural of which is Tirthankara, means something like "maker of the ford," or "maker of the ocean crossing." It refers to building or creating ways to cross the "ocean" of rebirth. In this way a Tirthankar can be thought of as similar to a prophet (divine messenger) in other religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Zoroastrianism.

To understand the significance of the Tirthankara in the history of Jainism, the Jain concept of time must be understood. Jains believe that the principles of their religion have always existed. Sometimes, however, those principles become less important in the minds of the people and the religion dies out for a time before it is reborn. To Jains, therefore, the concept of time is cyclical, and can be pictured much like the rotation of a wheel. The rotation includes a series of upward movements, utsarpini, and downward movements, avarsarpini. A complete turn of the wheel is called a kalpa and covers an immense span of time. According to Jain beliefs, a kalpa is a unit of time equal to approximately 4.32 million years.

Each of these cycles, or kalpas, is divided into six ages, which can be thought of as divisions between spokes on the wheel. Three of the ages are considered to be a kind of golden era, which is followed by a decline that continues until Jainism dies out. The process is then reversed, as the religion is reborn and eventually reaches a new golden age. Jains believe that in the current time cycle, the world has passed through the first four ages of the cycle and is currently in the middle of the fifth age, with a sixth and final age to come. Each complete kalpa is long enough for twenty-four Tirthankara to live. These twenty-four make up a "set" of Tirthankara that Jains worship.

The present cycle is said to have witnessed the passing of all twenty-four of these enlightened ones, with Mahavira being the last. No historical records prove the existence of the first twenty-two. Some evidence suggests that the twenty-third Tirthankar, Parshva, did exist and lived about 250 years before Mahavira. Mahavira did not oppose or change the teachings of Parshva. Rather, Jains believe that he came to Earth to complete and fulfill those teachings and to renew Jainism.

Jains believe that some enlightened individuals can reach the perfection of a god. These people are called Jina, which means "conqueror" and is the source of the word Jain. Jains regard Mahavira as one of the Jina. Jina are perfectly happy, having conquered earthly desires, and their spirits live eternally, so they are worshipped as "gods." Although the Jina are thought of as gods, they are neither creators nor destroyers. They do not affect the laws of the physical universe. Humans also do not exist because of the Jina's actions and cannot have any kind of relationship with them, for the Jina do not interfere in the affairs of humans. They do not reward people for good actions or forgive their sins. Humans regard them only as a source of inspiration. Because of these characteristics, Jains are sometimes referred to as atheists, meaning that they do not believe in any gods, but this is true only in a limited sense.

Mahavira's teachings

Mahavira is referred to by two titles. As a Tirthankar, he was one of the great teachers of Jainism. He purified and organized the religion in the present age. He was also a Jina, a person who has gained enlightenment and understanding to such an extent that he is to be worshipped. Mahavira achieved this position in large part by living and teaching the Five Vows of Jainism. These vows are still practiced by Jains in the early twenty-first century. The Five Vows are as follows:

  1. Ahimsa: neither killing nor injuring any living thing.
  2. Satya: speaking only the truth.
  3. Asteya: not stealing things or being greedy.
  4. Brahmacharya: practicing celibacy, or not having sex, and giving up all sensual pleasure.
  5. Aparigraha: being detached and being neither delighted nor disturbed by any outward experiences.

Another central belief of Jainism, related to ahimsa, or nonviolence, is that since all creatures contain living souls, all deserve to be treated with respect.

The Five Vows can be thought of as somewhat similar to the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity and to the Five Pillars of Islam, which provide the followers of these religions with basic guidelines or laws for living. The vows provide Jains with a moral and ethical code to follow. The principle that is particularly associated with Jainism is the first, ahimsa, the vow to not injure or kill any living thing. This vow not only bans such extreme actions as murder and assault but also extends into everyday life. All Jains are vegetarians, as was Mahavira, and strict Jains go to great lengths to avoid harming anything that is alive. Some Jains even avoid eating after dark in order to be certain they do not accidentally consume small living creatures that they cannot see.

Mahavira accepted the Hindu belief in reincarnation, or being reborn into another living body after death. He taught that the jiva, or soul, is conscious, immaterial, and eternal. Because the soul is eternal, it is subject to the ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Mahavira also taught the Hindu concept of karma. Karma refers to the effects of a person's actions in one life on the nature of his or her next life. A person who earns positive karma by doing good deeds can be reborn on a higher plane of existence, while one who earns bad karma by being immoral or unethical will likely be reborn on a lower plane of existence. Mahavira taught that karma represents a kind of bondage or entrapment. The goal of every person is to stop earning new karma and to get rid of past karma. The result of doing so is siddhi, or perfection. He preached that a soul that has gotten rid of all karma can become spiritually pure. Unlike Hindus, Jains believe that karma is an actual physical substance, like dust, that attaches itself to the soul.

Mahavira warned that freeing the soul from karma was not easy, and could only be accomplished by mastering the "three jewels." Like the Five Vows, the three jewels form an ethical code. They are right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. The first of these, right faith, or samyak darshana, means seeing clearly. It is sometimes translated as "right perception." The term refers to avoiding superstition and preconceptions (opinions formed in advance of adequate knowledge) and being determined to find the truth. The second jewel, right knowledge, or samyak jnana, refers to knowing and understanding the universe. The third, samyak charitra, or right conduct, refers to leading one's life ethically. An ethical person avoids doing harm to living things and frees himself or herself from impure desires, attitudes, and thoughts by following the Five Vows.

Regardless of the uncertainties surrounding the facts of Mahavira's life, he was an important religious figure in India in the centuries before the start of the Common Era. Though his home village of Kundagrama no longer exists, in 1956 the government of Bihar created a memorial to Mahavira near its former location. The memorial is home to the Research Institute of Prakrit, Ahimsa, and Jainology, an institution in which the principles of Jainism are studied.

For More Information


Dundas, Paul. The Jains. 2nd ed. London, UK: Routledge, 2002.

Prime, Ranchor. Mahavira: Prince of Peace. San Rafael, CA: Mandala Publishing, 2006.

Singh, Narendra, ed. Encyclopaedia of Jainism. 30 vols. New Delhi, India: Anmol, 2001.


"Jainism History." BBC Religion & Ethics. (accessed June 2, 2006).

"Mahavir." Manas: Religions. (accessed June 2, 2006).

Shah, Pravin K. "Lord Mahavir and Jain Religion." Jain History.∼malaiya/mahavira.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Mahavira (540 B.C.E.-468 B.C.E.)

views updated May 29 2018

Mahavira (540 B.C.E.-468 B.C.E.)

Mahavira, Indian guru of the Jain tradition, was born into the kshatriya or warrior caste and originally named Vardhamana. His birthdate is traditionally given as 599 B.C.E. , but modern dating has suggested a more likely date of 540. He married at a young age, but at the age of 30 left his home on a spiritual quest. After 12 years of wonders and accomplishments in the spiritual life he was given the name Mahavira or Great Hero. He eventually reached a state thought of as complete isolation from harmful karma, called kevela. He was acknowledged as the 24th Great Teacher of his tradition, and his new title, Jaina or Victor, gave the name to the Jaina community. Mahavira concluded early in his spiritual quest that the key to spiritual advancement was the avoidance of injury to any life form, a difficult process as life was everywhere.

After attaining kevala, Mahavira took a student, Makkhali Gosala, who had attained some magical powers. Mahavira questioned the equation of his powers with spiritual enlightenment, and the two went their separate ways. Before their parting, Makkhali Gosala tried to use his powers on Mahavira. Though he lost his first disciple, Mahavira soon gained others, including 11 brahman priests. According to tradition, he had half a million followers by the time of his death. As with his birth, there is a discrepancy between the traditionally accepted date (527 B.C.E.) and the estimates of contemporary scholars (468 B.C.E.).

Since Mahavira's time Jains have followed a path of liberation that has 14 stages. The basics of the life include the successive taking of vows of nonviolence (ahimsa ), truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual abstinence, and nonpossessiveness. Each vow leads to a releasing of karma. In Jainism, karma is pictured as a sticky substance that adheres to one's life force and prevents liberation. This substance is attracted by violence and the most violent are said to be covered in black karma.

Jainism forms an important element of the Eastern teachings that came into the West, especially England, beginning late in the nineteenth century. These teachings influenced the development of various nonviolent perspectives, some of which became identified with Spiritualism and the metaphysical community including the antivivisection movement and vegetarianism.


Chalpple, Christopher Key. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Jaini, Padmanabh S. The Jaina Path of Purification. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Tatia, Nathmal. Studies in Jaina Philosophy. Benares, India: Jaina Cultural Research Society, 1951.


views updated May 18 2018

Mahāvīra (Skt., mahat, ‘great’, + vīra, ‘hero’). In Jainism, the honorific title given to Vardhamāna Jnātṛputra, the 24th tīrthaṅkara. The Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects recount two divergent accounts of his life. Both agree that he was born the son of a kṣatriya couple, Siddhārtha and Triśalā, at Kuṇḍagrama just north of modern Patna (Bihar State, India) in 599 BCE. The Śvetāmbara Jains date his life 599–527 BCE (the Digambara hold that he died in 510), but some modern scholarship suggests 549–477 BCE. Śvetāmbara tradition claims that Mahāvīra married a princess Yośodā, who bore him a daughter, Priyadarśanā; but Digambara tradition rejects this. At the age of 30, Mahāvīra renounced family life to become a wandering ascetic in the tradition of Pārśva—for a time in company with Makkhali Gosala. After twelve years of severe fasting to cleanse his body, of silence to improve his speech, and of meditation to clear his mind, he gained omniscience (kevala jñāna) and became a jina. For the next thirty years he travelled throughout NE India, teaching by word and example the path of purification. Mahāvīra died and passed to mokṣa at the age of 73 at Pāvāpurī, near Patna, leaving (tradition claims) 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 laymen, and 318,000 laywomen to continue his teaching. Jains today look back on Mahāvīra as the greatest of all their teachers.


views updated May 29 2018


(fl. Mysore, India, ninth century)


Mahāvīra, a Jain, wrote during the reign of Amoghavarṣa, the Rāṣṭrakūṭa monarch of Karṇāṭaka and Mahārāṣṭra between 814/815 and about 880. Nothing else of his life is known. His sole work was a major treatise on mathematics, the Gaṇitasārasan̄graha (see essay in Supplement), in nine chapters:

  1. Terminology.
  2. Arithmetical operations.
  3. Operations involving fractions.
  4. Miscellaneous operations.
  5. Operations involving the rule of three.
  6. Mixed operations.
  7. Operations relating to the calculations of areas.
  8. Operations relating to excavations.
  9. Operations relating to shadows.

There is one commentary on this work by a certain Varadarāja, and another in Kannaḍa, entitled Daivajñavallabha.


The Gaṇitasārasan̄graha was edited, with an English trans. and notes, by M. Ran̄gācārya (Madras, 1912); and with a Hindī anuvāda by Lakṣmīcandra Jaina as Jīvarāma Jaina Granthamālā 12 (Solāpura, 1963). There are discussions of various aspects of this work (listed chronologically) by D. E. Smith, “The Ganita-Sara-Sangraha of Mahāvīrācārya,” in Bibliotheca mathematica, 3 , no. 9 (1908–1909), 106–110; B. Datta, “On Mahāvīra’s Solution of Rational Triangles and Quadrilaterals,” in Bulletin of the Calcutta Mathematical Society, 20 (1932), 267–294; B. Datta, “On the Relation of Mahâvîra to Śrîdhara,” in Isis, 17 (1932), 25–33; B. Datta and A. N. Singh, History of Hindu Mathematics, 2 vols. (Lahore, 1935–1938; repr. in 1 vol., Bombay, 1962), passim; E. T. Bell, “Mahavira’s Diophantine System,” in Bulletin of the Calcutta Mathematical Society38 (1946), 121–122; and A. Volodarsky,“O traktate Magaviry ‘Kratky kurs matematiki,’” in Fizikomatematicheskie nauki v stranakh vostoka, II (Moscow, 1969), 98–130.

David Pingree


views updated Jun 08 2018


d. 850

We know nothing about him except that he wrote during the reign of Amoghavarsa, monarch of Karnataka and Maharastra, between 814/5 and 880. His sole surviving work, the Ganitasarasangraha, is a mathematical text in nine parts that discusses terminology, arithmetical operations, fractions, the calculation of areas, calculations relating to shadows and excavations, and other mathematical operations.