Category Archives: 1. Jainism


In the year 599 BCE, a son was born to the ruler of a territory in India known as Kundalpura. The ruler’s name was Siddhartha, and his wife, Trisala, was sister to the king of a large collection of clans, the Vajjis. They belonged to a religion called Parsvanatha, whose contributing founders were known as Tirthankaras, little did they know that their child would eventually become the twenty-fourth and final. He was named Vardhamana, the name itself meaning “increasing prosperity,” or “Prosperous One,” (Law 19-20) and many Jainists will argue that he was aptly titled indeed, as he would go on to lay the framework for their modern-day religious practices. There were even more sudden implications however, as the fortunes of his father’s kingdom reportedly increased from the moment he was conceived.

Many stories exist detailing childhood events of the boy Vardhamana. Most serve to extol to us the promise evident in him, even as a boy. One such story tells of a group of youngsters, Vardhamana among them, playing in a mango grove. Allegedly a huge snake appeared, and as the other boys ran in fear, he calmly took it in his hands and carried it away. (Shah 29) Another describes a game in which the loser of a race was to carry the winner on his back. However, the story states that a heavenly being joined in, taking the form of a boy, and purposely losing the race. When Vardhamana sat on the back of this “boy,” he “started running and grew in size until he had taken the form of a giant” (Shah 29). Unfazed by this, Vardhamana, as the story goes, punched the giant so hard it was shocked at his incredible strength. It is believed that from this particular story, Vardhamana acquired his more widely used alias, Mahavira, or the Great Hero. Yet another, and perhaps the most important of the childhood stories, details an instance in which his parents where asked where in the house Mahavira was located. His mother replied upstairs, while his father, downstairs. Seemingly conflicting and mutually exclusive viewpoints, we are alerted to the fact that he was in fact on the middle floor, while his mother and father respectively on the first and third floors. (Shah 29) This story demonstrates a fundamental concept in Jainist philosophy of relative pluralism, the notion that contradictory statements can possibly both hold validity, when seen from the proper light. Many other stories exist that illustrate his physical and mental prowess; it was even claimed that he was born with three types of knowledge, mind-based, reasoning, and more incredibly, clairvoyance, the latter being a common theme among Tirthankaras. (Shah 31)

Two schools of thought exist on his interactions with the opposite sex. The Svetambara sect claims he married a woman named Yasoda and had by her a daughter Priyadarsana, while Digambara sects maintain he took his ascetic vows while still single. Regardless of the truth, taking into account the wishes of his parents to be a great warrior and ruler, Vardhamana waited until their deaths, and two years later, with the permission of his brother, Nandivardhana entered into the ascetic life. (Law 21) This is common in the Jainist school of thought, one cannot renounce with permission of one’s family.

One of the first stories of his ascetic life tells of the exodus from his city and of an old man, Harikesi. Upon hearing of the incredible occurrence of a prince relinquishing his wealth and status he “ran towards (Mahavira) to touch his feet and pay his respects.” (Shah 30) The masses expressed their distaste for the man, an outcaste, but were halted by Vardhamana. He indicated that he wished for the old man to proceed, and embraced him, to bid him farewell. Harikesi was overwhelmed with gratitude and wept as he paid his respects. This incident foreshadowed the dynamic social change that Jainist philosophy was to eventually advocate, that of universal equality.

At the moment of his renunciation, it is written that Mahavira acquired a fourth knowledge to accompany the three he was born with. Many believe that he came to possess the ability to “know the thoughts of all creatures in the world.” (Shah 31) From this moment on he “knew and saw all conditions of the world of the gods, men and demons: whence they came, whither they went, when they were born as men or animals, gods or infernal beings, according to their deeds.” (Law 31) This seems a little far-fetched and extraordinary, but regardless of what new powers were imbued to him on renunciation, if any at all, for the first twelve years of his ascetic life, Vardhamana endured great hardship. To a greater extent one can study the details of these twelve years in the Kalpa Sutra. The dawn of ascetic life came with a two-and-a-half day fast, whereupon it is said he “pluck(ed) out his hair (and) left his home forever.” (Shah 30) Soon after he gave half his robe to a poor Brahmin and when the other half became caught in a thorn bush, gave clothing up entirely, remaining from then on without possession. He took food only from the hollow of his hand, and erased from his mind all thought of pleasure, pain, pride, deceit, greed, lustful thoughts and severed his ties to the earth he knew. It is written that he did not ever spend more than one night in a single village, and no more than five in any town. He slept only occasionally, perhaps an hour at a time, and not ever for the sake of pleasure. (Shah 30-31) In short, he “abandoned the care of his body, he bore pain free from desire.” (Law 23) From the recounts of the Kalpa Sutra it is believe the area he covered corresponds to the current day state of Bihar, with forays into Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Finally, after twelve long years, in what is described as the most important moment in his life, Mahavira “attained the supreme knowledge and final deliverance from the bonds of pleasure and pain.” (Shah 31) He had fasted without food and drink for more than two days, and was near the town of Jrimhikagrama. He sat in a squatting position in the field of a landowner, Samaga, on the bank of the Rujupalika river. Exposed to the sun and heat, with his head bowed, he obtained the supreme and infinite form of knowledge and intuition known as Kevala Jnaana. From then on we can describe Vardhamana as a Kevali or Arhat, one who has attained enlightenment. (Law 31) Another term frequently used to describe him from this point on is Jina, or one who has conquered himself. (Shah 31)

Now, at forty-two years of age, having achieved his liberation, Mahavira began the next stage of his life, and perhaps the most influential in contemporary life, the stage of religious teacher. His followers were to be referred to as Nirgranthas, and himself Nirgrantha, or he who is freed from all bonds. (Law 20) He travelled from place to place, spreading enlightenment. In particular, his first declaration was so moving it inspired many to join him, it went as follows:

“I am all knowing and all seeing and possessed of infinite knowledge. Whether I am walking or standing still, whether I sleep or remain awake, supreme knowledge and intuition are with me, constantly and continuously. There are, O Nirgranthas, sinful acts that you have done in the past which you must now undo by this acute form of austerity. Now that you will be living a restrained life as regards your acts, speech and thought, this will negate the effects of Karma for the future. Thus, by the exhaustion of the foroe of past deeds through penance, and the non-accumulation of the effects of new acts, [you are assured] of the end of the future course [of the effects of karma] and the resultant rebirths, of the destruction of the effects of karma, and from that the destruction of pain, and from that of the destruction of mental feelings, and from that the complete absence of all kinds of pain.” (Shah 32)

It is claimed that the main characteristics of Tirthankaras’ utterances was that “once it was heard by audience, it turned into their respective dialect and was easily understood by them,” (Nagraj 16) and Mahavira was no different. Though this claim is a little fantastic, it still expresses once again the desire to erase the bonds of classes and sexes in an attempt to communicate to all the people of the nation. In fact it is likely this just embellishes the novel practice he had of speaking to the lesser people in their indigenous languages instead of the Sanskrit they held little knowledge of.

Vardhamana was also a great leader and organizer, he divided his followers initially into two categories, those who could follow his teachings fully, ascetics, and those that were to be held to less strict standards, lay followers. The ascetics as they were to be known took the five great vows:

1. Ahimsa – non-violence and reverence for all life

2. Satya – truthfulness

3. Asteya – not taking anything without the owner’s permission

4. Brahmacarya – control over the senses, chastity

5. Aparigraha – non-attachment to worldly things (Shah 32-33)

From this classification and that of gender we arrive at the current-day four-fold structure that exists today. It is to be noted, however, that despite these divisions, they were nothing more than classifications, for Mahavira “made no distinction between people of one caste or class and another, nor between men and women; and he did not lay down one set of rules for monks and another for nuns, nor one for male lay followers and another for females.” (Shah 34)

In the year 527 BCE, on the banks of a lake outside the town now known as Pavapuri, Vardhamana attained Moksa and his physical form passed from this world. Records indicate that the eighteen kings of the surrounding kingdoms illuminated their respective lands “since the light of intelligence (was) gone.” (Shah 35) This day is even now marked by the illumination of the dark, and is known as Dipavali or Divali, the Festival of Lamps, “symbolizing the light of knowledge revealing the truth and illuminating the soul when the master was no longer physically present.” (Shah 36) Though contention remains as to whether the primary root of this festival is the great Jina; however, many claim the origins should be attributed to other influences.

Mahavira is widely regarded as the greatest sage to have ever lived. His legacy is a lasting one in the form of the religion he helped crystallize into what is known as modern day Jainism. It has experienced many downturns and revivals in the years since his passing, and is most known for its committed non-violence and respect for all living beings, which is paralleled in the vows its early followers took. Perhaps just as importantly, and as with Buddhist thought which followed, Vardhamana’s teachings brought about a push for greater equality in what is now known as India, among men, women, and divergent class/caste members.

Related Terms/Further Readings






Bhagavati Sutra



Dipavali, Divali





Kalpa Sutra














Uttar Pradesh




Law, Bimala Churn (2002) Mahavira: His Life and Teachings Kolkata: Maha Bodhi Book Agency

Shah, Natubhai (2004) Jainism: The World of Conquerors Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Nagraj, Muni (2003) Agama and Tripitaka: A Comparative Study of Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha New Delhi: Today and Tomorrow’s Printers and Publishers

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Written by Jesse VanAlstine (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Jainism is the heterodox branch of Hinduism, with roots tracing all the way back to 500 B.C.E. Some say the existence of Jainism is much older, but it has not yet been proven. The Jains trace their origins back to India, where their existence represents a little less than a million and a half of the world’s population. European scholars, who familiarized themselves with Jainism through samples of Jaina literature, hastily came to the conclusion that Jainism was just a subsidiary of Buddhism. It has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt that Jainism is not an offshoot of Buddhism, and is at least as old as Buddhism (see Dasgupta 169-170). The leader of Jainism is attributed to Vardhamana Mahavira, the last prophet, also known as Tirthankara of the Jains. Jainism has twenty-four Tirthankaras: Risabha (being the first), Ajita, Sambhava, Abhinandana, Sumati, Padmaprabha, Suparshva, Candraprabha, Puspadanta, Sitalnatha, Sreyamsa, Vasupujya, Vimala, Ananta, Dharma, Santi, Kuntha, Aara, Mallinatha, Munisuvrata, Nami, Nemi, Parsvanath, and last but not least, Mahavira.

Jain Tirthankara, 12th century AD (Gwalior Archaeological Museum 2017)

According to belief of orthodox Jains, the Jaina religion is eternal, and it has been revealed again and again in every one of the endless succeeding periods of the world by innumerable Tirthankaras” (Dasgupta 169). All the Tirthankaras have attained moksa at their death, and are regarded as “Gods” by the Jain worshippers. There are two main sects of Jain worshippers: The Svetambaras and the Digambaras.

The Svetambaras are known as “the wearers of white clothes,” whereas the Digambaras are known as “the cloth less.” Digambaras are found mainly in Southern India but also in the Northwestern provinces such as: Eastern Rajputana and the Punjab. The Svetambaras on the other hand, are mainly found in Gujarat, and Western Rajputana, but they can also be found all over Northern and Central India. Although both sects generally agree on all the fundamental principles of Jainism, the Digambaras keenly believe that perfect saints such as the Tirthankaras live without food, and that a monk who owns any property and wears clothes cannot obtain moksa. They also contend that no woman can obtain moksa. The Digambaras deny all canonical works of the Svetambaras and state that the values the Svetambaras have were lost immediately after Mahavira. The Digambaras, who separated from the Svetambaras, developed eccentric religious rituals. Sanskrit works of the Digambaras go way back before the works of the Svetambaras if we do not include the canonical works of the Svetambaras. The views of these two sects differ when it comes to the true meaning of existence (samsara) but both believe that Mahavira was the true leader of this complex religion.

Mahavira was a ksatriya (warrior) of the Jnata clan. He was the second son of Siddhartha and Trisala. The Svetambaras believe that the embryo of Mahavira was transferred from a Brahmin (priestly class) lady named, Devananda to the womb of Trisala. This story however, is frowned upon by the Digambaras. Siddhartha and Trisala gave him the name Vardhamana (Vira or Mahavira). Mahavira later went on to marry Yasoda, who later gave birth to their only daughter. At the age of thirty, Mahavira’s life had changed drastically. With the death of his parents and the permission of his brother, Mahavira became a monk, and after twelve years of self-humiliation and meditation “he attained omniscience” (see Dasgupta 173). He eventually attained moksa in 480 B.C.E. after preaching for approximately forty years making him the very last Tirthankara known to Jains. Mahavira was also an avid follower of the five great vows (panca-mahavrata), which consist of: Ahimsa, Satyam, Asteyam, Brahmacaryam, and Aparigraha.

Ahimsa is defined as “abstinence from all injury to life” (Chatterjee & Datta 107). Life is seen as existence that goes beyond the “moving beings.” Plants and beings inhabiting bodies of the earth are also seen as being part of ‘life’. Thus, the ideal of the Jains is, therefore, “to avoid abusing life not only through the moving beings, but also of the non-moving ones” (Dasgupta 169). Often seen throughout India, are Jain saints who try to follow this ideal. They are seen wearing a piece of cloth that is tied over their noses so they do not inhale and destroy the life of any organism floating in the air. “The Jaina attitude of ahimsa is the logical outcome of their metaphysical theory of the potential equality of all souls and recognition of the principle of reciprocity” (Chatterjee & Datta 107). This basically means do to others, what you would want done to you. The typical Jain tries to perform this duty in everything he or she does, because he or she wants to be consistent with the principle he or she has adopted. Not only is ahimsa practiced through action, but it also must be practiced through thought, speech and action. The next vow is to abstain from falsehood.

Satyam does exactly this through the vow of truthfulness, which consists of speaking of things that are not only true, but also moral and pleasant. Without the moral and pleasant qualifications, speaking the truth can lead to “vulgarity, frivolity, vilification, etc” (see Chatterjee & Datta 108). In order to carry out the perfect maintenance of satyam, Jains must surmount greed, fear, anger and even stealing.

Asteyam is the vow to abstain from stealing. It emphasizes the point to never take what is not given to you. A Jain writer once said, “wealth is but the outer life of man and to rob wealth is to rob life.” This alludes back to the vow of ahimsa with the “sanctity of property” being a direct comparison of the “sanctity of life” (See Dasgupta 180-211).

Another vow that has extreme importance in the conducting of Jain principles is that of brahmacaryam. This is the abstinence from self-indulgence. Brahmacaryam is seen in the context of abstaining from celibacy, however it goes deeper than that. It is interpreted as the vow to give up kama (self-indulgence) of every form. Jains believe that although physical indulgence may stop, the continuation of self-indulgence may still occur through subtle forms such as: speech, thoughts, and in the hopes of enjoyment hereafter in heaven. In order to abide by this vow, a Jain must, therefore, resist all forms of self-indulgence whether it is external or internal, subtle or obvious, and even direct or indirect.

Last but not least comes aparigraha, the abstinence from all attachment. “This is explained as the vow to give up all attachment dealing with the five senses: pleasant sound, touch, color, taste and smell” (Chatterjee & Datta 108). Attachment to any of the world’s objects means the soul is placed under bondage to the world, and according to sources, it causes rebirth, and liberation is unattainable without the withdrawal of attachment. The only way to overcome this attachment is through “right knowledge, faith and proper conduct.” When a person successfully overcomes the forces of all passions and karmas, the soul becomes free from its bondage and in turn attains liberation (moksa). When liberation is attained, Jains believe the fourfold perfection is achieved. It consists of: infinite knowledge, infinite faith, infinite power, and infinite bliss (see Chatterjee and Datta 109-111). Mahavira as well as the other twenty-three Tirthankaras achieved these five great vows and to assume the role of the prophets in Jainism.

Although these prophets are sacred and revered, they are not considered Gods. In fact, Jainism does not believe in God. The skepticism of the Jains is based on the following grounds: “Like the existence of God, the qualities of omnipotence, unity, eternity and perfection, are generally attributed to Him” (Chatterjee & Datta 110). If God is the “all mighty” (omnipotent), then God is supposed to be the cause of all things. The Jains however, argue that through the omnipotence of His character. They feel that He did not create everything and through that the Jains come to reject the belief in God. The Jains do, however, feel it necessary to meditate on and worship the liberated souls. The tirthankaras already possess the perfections, as mentioned earlier, and so they easily take the place of God in the eyes of the Jains. “The liberated souls serve only as beacon lights” (Chatterjee & Datta 111). This guides the Jainas to ultimate liberation.

The Jain religion is undoubtedly one of the oldest religions out there that are still being practiced to this day. Despite Jains being dispersed all throughout the world presently, the total Jain population hasn’t changed much. Its strict rules thus make it a “religion of the strong and the brave” (Chatterjee & Datta 111). It has recently become a scholar’s fervor to explore this antediluvian religion, due to its teachings, and its ability to function without a God. The complexity of this religion will most definitely have scholars enticed to find out more about this religion and perhaps dig its roots back to before 500 B.C.E. when it was first noted as being found.


Bhargava, Dayanand (1968) Jaina Ethics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Chapple, Christopher (1993) Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Serf in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chatterjee, S., and Datta, D.M. (1984) An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1975) A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume I. Delhi: Motilal


Tahtinen, Unto (1976) Ahimsa: Nonviolence in Indian Tradition. Ahmedabad: Navajivan

Publishing House.

Thapar, Romila (1992) Interpreting Early India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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Written by Raj Shah (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.