Vardhamana Mahavira

Mahavira, also known as Vardhamāna, was the twenty-fourth and last Tirthankara. In Jainism, a Tirthankara (maker of the river crossing) is an omniscient teacher who preaches the dharma (righteous path) and builds a ford across the ocean of rebirth and transmigration. Twenty-four Tirthankara grace each half of the cosmic time cycle. Mahāvīra was the last Tirthankara of avasarpani (present descending phase). Mahavira was born into a royal family in what is now Bihar, India. At the age of thirty, he left his home in pursuit of spiritual awakening. He abandoned all the worldly things including his clothes and became a Jain monk. For the next twelve and a half years, he practiced intense meditation and severe penance, after which he became omniscient. He traveled all over South Asia for the next thirty years to teach Jain philosophy. Mahavira died at the age of seventy-two and attained nirvana (final release) or moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). Mahavira's philosophy has eight cardinal (law of trust), three metaphysical (dravya, jiva and ajiva), and five ethical principles. The objective is to elevate the quality of life.


Mahavira's childhood name was Vardhamana, which means the one who grows, because of the increased prosperity in the kingdom at the time of his birth. He was called Mahavira (the Great Hero) because of the acts of bravery he performed during his childhood. Mahavira was given the title Jīnā (the "Victor" or conqueror of inner enemies such as attachment, pride and greed), which subsequently became synonymous with Tirthankara.

Buddhist texts refer to Mahavira as Nigaṇṭha Jñātaputta. Nigaṇṭha means "without knot, tie, or string" and Jñātaputta (son of Natas), referred to his clan of origin Jñāta or Naya (Prakrit). He is also known as Sramana.


Jaina traditions date Mahavira as living from 599 BC to 527 BC. Western historians date Mahavira as living from 480 BC to 408 BC. Some Western scholars suggest that Mahavira died around 425 BC. Most modern historians agree that Kundagrama (now Basokund in Muzaffarpur district) in the Indian state of Bihar is the birthplace of Mahavira.

Life events

Belonging to Kashyapa gotra, Mahavira was born into the royal Kshatriya family of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala (sister of King Chetaka of Vaishali) of the Ikshvaku dynasty, on the thirteenth day of the rising moon of Chaitra in the Vira Nirvana Samvat calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, this date falls in March or April and is celebrated as Mahavir Jayanti. Traditionally, Kundalpur in the ancient city of Vaishali is regarded as his birthplace; however, its location remains unidentified. After his birth, anointment and consecration (abhisheka) - carried out by Indra on Mount Meru, the axis of the central cosmic contingent of Jambudvipa - he was given the name Vardhmana.

As the son of a king, Mahavira had all luxuries of life at his disposal. According to the second chapter of Acharanga, both his parents were followers of Parshvanatha and lay devotees of Jain ascetics. Jain traditions are not unanimous about his marital state. According to Digambara tradition, Mahavira's parents desired that he should get married to Yashoda but Mahavira refused to marry. According to Svetambara tradition, he was married young to Yashoda and had one daughter, Priyadarshana.

At the age of thirty, Mahavira abandoned all the comforts of royal life and left his home and family to live an ascetic life in the pursuit of spiritual awakening. He went into a park called Sandavana in the surroundings of Kundalpur. He underwent severe penances, meditated under the Ashoka tree and discarded his clothes. There is a graphic description of hardships and humiliation he faced in the Acharanga Sutra. In the eastern part of Bengal he suffered great distress. Boys pelted him with stones, people often humiliated him.

According to Kalpa Sūtra, Mahavira spent 42 monsoons of his ascetic life at Astikagrama, Champapuri, Prstichampa, Vaishali, Vanijagrama, Nalanda, Mithila, Bhadrika, Alabhika, Panitabhumi, Shravasti and Pawapuri.

After twelve-and-a-half years of rigorous penance, i.e. at the age of 43, Mahavira achieved the state of Kevala Jnana. Kevala means "isolation-integration" and Jnana means knowledge. This implies omniscience and release from earthly bondage-corresponding to the "enlightenment" (bodhi) of the Buddhas. This happened under a Sala-tree on the banks of the river Rjupalika (today Barakar) near a place called Jrmbhikagrama. The Acharanga Sutra describes Mahavira as all-seeing. The Sutrakritanga elaborates the concept as all-knowing and provides details of other qualities of Mahavira.

For a period of thirty years after omniscience, Mahavira traveled far and wide in India to teach his philosophy. According to the Jain tradition, Mahavira had 14,000 ascetics, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 sravakas (laymen) and 318,000 sravikas (laywomen) as his followers. Some of the royal followers included King Srenika (popularly known as Bimbisara) of Magadha, Kunika of Anga and Chetaka of Videha.

According to Jain texts, Mahavira attained moksha, i.e. his soul is believed to have become Siddha (soul at its purest form), aged 72 at the town of Pawapuri (now in Bihar). On the same day Gautama, his Ganadhara (chief disciple) attained omniscience. According to the Mahapurana, after the nirvana of Tīrthankaras, heavenly beings do the funeral rites. According to the Pravachanasara, only the nails and hair of Tirthankaras are left behind, and rest of the body gets dissolved in the air like camphor. Today, a Jain temple, called Jal Mandir, stands at the place where Mahavira is believed to have attained moksha.

Previous births

Mahavira's previous births are discussed in Jain texts such as the Tri-shashti-shalaka-purusha-charitra and Jinasena's Mahapurana. While a soul undergoes countless reincarnations in the transmigratory cycle of saṃsāra (world), the births of a Tirthankara are reckoned from the time he determined the causes of karma and developed the Ratnatraya. Jain texts discuss 26 births of Mahavira prior to his incarnation as a Tirthankara. Mahavira was born as Marichi, the son of Bharata Chakravartin in one of his previous births.

There are various Jain texts like Kalpa Sutra that describe the life of Mahavira. The first Sanskrit biography of Mahavira was Vardhamacharitra by Asaga in 853 CE.


Mahavira is usually depicted in a sitting or standing meditative posture with a symbol of a lion under him. Every Tīrthankara has a distinguishing emblem which allows a worshiper to distinguish the otherwise similar looking idols of the Tirthankaras. The emblem of Mahavira is "Lion". The emblem is usually carved, right below the legs of the Tirthankara. Like all Tirthankaras, Mahavira is depicted as having Shrivatsa and downcast eyes.

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