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Lord Mahavira and His Philosophy
Article of the Month - May 2006

"Thou who hath large eyes and feet red and tender as is a lotus, who possesseth the ultimate knowledge as his intuitive vision, who redeemeth all from the bonds of attachment, temptations and hatred by his detached yet alluring words, O Ye, Lord Mahavira, I bow to thee in reverence and worship so as to be able to achieve the good and the virtuous," said the first century Jain monk Kundakundacharya, one of the earliest known teachers and annotators of the Jain dogma. The statement reveals three aspects of Lord Mahavira : his form; width of intuitive vision; and, power to redeem from the cycle of life and death.

The Mutual Obligation to Protect Life (Parasparopagraha Jeevanam)

Born in an era of social disparity, killing and violence inflicted in the name of rituals and sacrifice and for vengeance and hatred, Lord Mahavira emerged as a reformist, thinker, law-giver and guide. He sought to achieve a multi-fold mission aiming especially at a change in the prevailing system of thought, economic structure, social set-up, and ethical values seeking to equalize all living beings respecting alike the life contained in a grass-leaf, insect, or human being, and re-defined sanctity and potentialities of individual self - 'jiva', as Mahavira has called it, in attaining salvation - 'nirvana', by its own doing. Far ahead the motto : 'live and let live' - commonly attributed to Lord Mahavira, the ultimate aim that he set before all 'jivas' was : 'parasparopagraha jeevanam' - all living beings, by virtue that they bear life, are under obligation to mutually protect and help life in whatsoever form it is contained. Instead of only 'let live', life was obliged to mutually and positively promote life irrespective of who or what bore it.

Before or even after Mahavira, survival of mankind, or at the most animals, was the prime concern of man's thought and endeavor. Mahavira's umbrella extended to entire life, irrespective of form - grass-leaf, ant, elephant, man or whatever that contained it. Environmentalists, or rather all rational minds, are now worried about irrational and injurious damage to nature - vegetation, minerals and all its resources, which they think are primarily responsible for ecological balance - an essential condition of man's survival. This concern surfaced more intensely and rationally in Mahavira's thought some 2600 years ago when he ordained that life sustained in life, mutually and obligatorily - not in isolation or by destroying other, as to Mahavira, life was life's means and obligation. Contemporary minds - environmentalists and others, seek to protect nature but
primarily for man's survival; Mahavira sought to protect it - or rather every form of life, for its own sake.

Previous Births of Mahavira

In Jains' hierarchical order Lord Mahavira was the last of the twenty-four 'Thirthankaras' of the concurrent eon. As texts related to Jainism have it, before his birth as Vardhamana - the name given to Lord Mahavira at his birth, his 'jiva' transmigrated through a cycle of hundreds of births and deaths. In immediately preceding birth his 'jiva' was born as lion - brave and seeker of new paths. When born as Vardhamana, he had on his right foot the figure of lion - the mark of the previous birth carried forward to the next, which was his last. In the iconography of Mahavira the figure of lion is hence used to denote his images.

Lord Mahavir on Lion Throne
Lord Mahavira on Lion Throne

 

Hundreds of births before he was born as Vardhamana, the 'jiva' of Mahavira was Marichi, the son of Maharaja Bharata, after whom the subcontinent was named Bharata or Bharatavarsha. Rishabha Deva, the father of Maharaja Bharata, was the first 'Tirthankara' and the founder of the 'Shramana-dharma'. After having attained 'tirthankarahood' Rishabha Deva, one day, when preaching a gathering of his followers, predicted that after him twenty-three more 'jivas' would attain 'keval jnan' - enlightenment, and 'tirthankarahood' thereby. The curious gathering prayed him to tell if anyone of such twenty-three 'jivas' was present in the gathering. Rishabha Deva pointed out Marichi as one of the would-be 'tirthankaras'. Hearing this, Marichi began considering himself a 'Tirthankara'. Out of vanity he started behaving proudly, arrogantly and even violently. He was thus in the grip of detrimental 'karmas' - acts that obstructed him from attaining 'tirthankarahood' and threw him into interminable transmigrations, birth after birth. At last, after he was born in this present birth as Vardhamana, he was able to destroy his 'karmas' that obstructed him from attaining 'keval jnan' and 'tirthankarahood'.

 

 

Personal Life Of Lord Mahavira

Though a historical figure, little is known about the personal life of Lord Mahavira. Except that on the 6th day of the later half of the month of Ashad in 600 B. C., mother Trishala saw in her dream sixteen auspicious signs when Mahavira emerged into her womb, the childhood of Mahavira was by and large eventless.

Birth of Mahavira
Birth of Mahavira
Folio from a Kalpasutra manuscript
Gujarat; 15th century

So were the early years of his youth, or rather the rest of his life; perhaps because whatever worldly a 'jiva' was required to go through, Mahavira had accomplished in his previous births. When he emerged into public eye - as a prince or divine, he had already reached such state of being, where he was required to only know - not do anything. He neither hated nor loved, nor reacted to injury inflicted or service rendered. He inclined neither to eliminate evil nor to promote good for he was neither the enemy of one nor the friend of the other. Neither the emergence of 'jiva' - birth, delighted him nor its disappearance - death, grieved, for he knew that whosoever came would also go. Fixed into himself Mahavira was beyond both - birth and death, or rather beyond all worldly things, feelings of flesh and misgivings of mind.

Birth And Early Days

Chronologically, Lord Mahavira was born at midnight on 30th March - Chaitra Shukla Trayodashi, 599 B. C., at Kundalpur or Kshatriya Kundapur, a sub-township of Vaishali - part of modern Bihar. After he emerged in Trishala's womb, Vaishali - the state of his father Raja Siddhartha, recorded tremendous growth. Hence, on the twelfth day, during a ceremony, Raja Siddhartha named his son Vardhamana - ever-growing. He was his father's second son. His mother Trishaladevi was the daughter of Raja Chetak, an influential ruler of those days. Raja Chetak - the theme of numerous legends in Jain tradition, was greatly instrumental in expanding Mahavira's Order.

King Siddhartha - himself a great astrologer, knew by interpreting Trishala's dream that his son was not for palatial comforts but to redeem the world of its pangs and miseries. Despite, he arranged for him a teacher for instructing him in 'shashtras', and a trainer of arms. In no time the teacher found that his pupil knew more than what he could teach him; and by his deeds of bravery and prowess he soon outwitted his arms-trainer and impressed all. Gods also tested Mahavira's mettle. One day, a god, named Sangama, transformed as a ferocious snake, came to frighten him. But, compassionate Mahavira took in into his hands to protect it from others and let go. His face did not reveal even a sign of fear.

Lord Mahavira with the Venemous Serpent
Lord Mahavira with the Venemous Serpent

 

 

Some believe that this incident gave him 'Mahavira' epithet. Such beliefs are, however, erroneous. His devotees called him Mahavira for far superior reasons. They found that thousands submitted themselves to some extraneous power - a god or whatever, for redeeming them from the cycle of births and deaths. Mahavira was one who transcended beyond this cycle of his own by conquering himself - a far difficult thing. Opinions differ as to whether Mahavira married or not. The name of Yashoda - daughter of the Kalinga king Jitashatru, whom Sidhartha and Trishala both liked, occurs sometimes as his wife and sometimes only as one proposed for marriage. Followers of 'Digambara' sect maintain that Mahavira declined the proposal but those of 'Svetambara' sect hold that he was married to her and also had a female child.

 

 

 

Renunciation And Attainment Of Tirthankarahood

Mahavira, always sunk into himself, was an introvert person with a very few words. At about 30 years of age, on the 10th day of the second half of the month of 'Magha', 569 B. C., he renounced the world after duly seeking his parents' permission. In Kundapur, he was a prince. He hence left the town in a specially prepared palanquin. But, after he reached Jnatakhanda - a garden outside Kundapur, he got down and bade farewell to all. The garden had a rock which looked like a 'swastika' - an auspicious diagram consisting of two lines crossing each other in the center and all four ends turning clock-wise. He sat on the rock, removed his garments, ornaments and even hair. Now the world ceased to belong to him.

For over twelve years - twelve years, five months and fifteen days, he moved from one place to other, moving, knowing and meditating - all in simultaneity. He stayed at one place only for a 'Chaturmasa' - four months of monsoons. Most of his meditation was accomplished in a standing posture - 'kayotsarga-mudra', though when on the 10th day of the later half of Vaisakha he attained 'keval jnan', he was in 'Godohana-mudra' - a posture one had when milking a cow. On the bank of river Rjukula, when he attained 'keval jnan' - all-knowing intuitive vision, he was sunk into 'shukla dhyan' - pure meditation. For these twelve years, he was in the process of acquiring, hence had not spoken out a word. Now gods wished he revealed what he had acquired.

Kuber, gods' treasurer, prepared a large venue - 'Samavasarana' as it is known in Jain tradition, with a huge and high rostrum for Mahavira to deliver his first sermon. Many days passed but he did not utter a word. Indra realized that Mahavira was silent for twelve years. Thus, people's dialect was no more his medium to talk to them. All this while he spoke to himself in an abstract language. Besides, 'keval jnan' that he had attained, too, revealed on him in a different vocabulary. Hence, he felt, Mahavira would speak only when someone was able to interpret him. Indra believed that Gautama - the most learned Brahmin of those days, alone could interpret Mahavira's words. Indra somehow persuaded the reluctant Brahmin to do the good job. No sooner than Gautama appeared in the 'Samavasarana' words began pouring from Mahavira's throat. Gautama interpreted what Mahavira delivered.

Mahavira's Sermon
Mahavira's Sermon

 

 

 

Gautama with his ten Brahmin disciples was the first to convert to Mahavira's path. Mahavira founded with them and others the institution of 'Jinas'. For 30 years then Lord Mahavira traveled countrywide preaching people and sharing with them what he had attained by his penance and meditation. One day when absorbed in deep meditation at Pavapuri - some 27-28 kms from Patna, in the early hours of Kartika Amavasya, the day celebrated all over the country as the festival of light - Diwali, he attained 'Nirvana - final extinction beyond the cycle of birth and death.

 

 

 

The Grammar Of Mahavira's Philosophy

Lord Mahavira's Parinirvana
Lord Mahavira's Parinirvana

 

 

 

As a diction comprises eight parts of speech, Mahavira's philosophy has eight principal cardinals - three having
metaphysical character and the other five ethical, though the objective of both is elevational seeking to elevate the quality of life. Hence, these independent principles reveal exceptional unity of purpose, which aims at achieving spiritual excellence by ethically sound behavior and collateral metaphysical thought. Mahavira's metaphysics consist of three principles - Anekantavada, Syadvada, and Karmas; and his ethics, of Panchavratas, five codes of conduct - Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. He also talks of Tri-ratnas - three gems, which are both, the means of the above as also their goal.

 

 

 

The Many-fold Vision of Reality (Anekantavada)

The cardinal doctrine of Mahavira's philosophy - 'Anekantavada', is based on three words that he first uttered after attaining 'keval jnan'. These words were : 'uppanneyi va', 'vigameyi va', and 'dhruveyi va' - everything is created, everything is destroyed, and everything lasts; that is, everything has inherent in it characters of creation, dissolution and permanency. When a potter moulds clay into a pot, the state that clay earlier had is destroyed; instead, a new state is created; and yet, clay - permanent state of the substance, is inherent in both states. Creation, destruction and permanency are simultaneous, as when a new state of matter is created, the old gets destroyed in simultaneity, and during this transformation, substance, which undergoes such transformation, is inherently present. Human perception is subjective; hence, to some, it is one thing, while to other, different. Thus, at one and the same time, a thing is one and also many. Similarly, it possesses one attribute and also many. 'Anekanta' asserts that there cannot be 'utpada' - creation, unless there is 'vyaya' or 'vinasha' - consumption or destruction; and, unless there is 'dhrauvya'- substance, there can neither be 'vinasha' nor 'utpada'. None of them occurs, or exists, without the other two. Hence, the assertion that a thing is just one does not rightly define existence of things. 'Anekantavada' asserts multitudinousness of states and attributes of a thing and truly defines the character of matter, its forms and transforms - the total existence.

 

The Multi-Dimensionality of Truth (Syadvada)

Ahimsa, Anekanta and Jainism
Ahimsa, Anekanta & Jainism

'Anekanta' relates to the truth of a thing and 'syadvada', to method to arrive at this truth. 'Syadvada' is the means to seek, know, and express multi-truths or multitudinous of attributes, which one is able to perceive in a thing, expressing at the same time the probability of any number of truths or attributes, which such thing might inherently be having. To Mahavira, knowing a thing with all its contradictory attributes was not so difficult as to express all such contradicting attributes simultaneously. Hence, ignorant alone would claim that only that, which he perceived, was final and all about a thing. After having perceived a thing the wise would only say : 'may be', 'may not be', or 'may or may not be'.

'Syadvada' is based on the belief that forms or attributes, which a substance is capable of adopting, are infinite. Whatever the magnitude of one's knowledge, one may not know total truth of a substance. The wise would assert only what he perceives without disproving what others do. Contrarily, the ignorant would reject perceptions of all except his own. 'Syadvada' of Lord Mahavira does not reject or under-estimate a thought other than his own, whether prevailing now or likely to ever prevail. 'Syadvada' is not negative, as some think. Different from 'perhaps', denoting suspiciousness, 'syat' denotes probability of many more attributes of a thing besides what has already been spoken of. It is the most positive approach of seeing things beyond their concurrent appearance. 'Syat' is, thus, instrument of arriving at a fuller, wider and deeper knowledge of a thing.

Karmas

In Mahavira's theory, 'karmas' - deeds, actions, contrary to what the term commonly denotes, are conceived as obstructing attainment of 'keval jnan'. As no 'karma' takes place without a reason behind it, Mahavira contemplates a 'karma' as a mere product or material manifestation of mind or senses. Attachment, delusion, hatred, fear, hunger, malice, anger, temptation, love, - all manifest as 'karmas' - acts of body. Their elimination would render senses and reasoning mind detached and lead to all-knowing intuitive vision. Mahavira has identified eight classes of such 'karmas' : 'jnan-avarniya', that which covered knowledge; 'darsha-avarniya', that which covered perception of vision; 'antaraya', that which obstructed; 'mohaniya', that which deluded; 'vedaniya', by which 'jiva' experiences pleasure and pain; 'ayu' - age; 'nam' - name; and 'gotra' - exogamous sub-division of caste.


Detrimental 'karmas' - first four, are real enemies of 'jivas'. Once they are destroyed, 'jiva' attains what such 'karmas' had concealed behind them. Fifth - 'vedaniya', is one's own doing and might be more easily overcome. 'Ayu-karma' is an attribute working both ways; and, 'nam' and 'gotra' isolate the 'jiva'. The path - penance, which Mahavira adopted, helped defeat 'karmas'. Penance was to him a laboratory where a 'jiva' destroyed his detrimental 'karmas' and attained such attributes of a liberated soul that made it infinite - 'Parmatma'. Mahavira, hence, instead of favoring Omni Godship concept, emphasized that 'jiva', by destroying its detrimental 'karmas', might work its own salvation. He said : 'purisa, tumemeva tumam mittam' - man thou alone art thy friend. Lord Mahavira did not approve the theory that this universe has been created by any external agency. He maintained that the universe along with all existing things is the result of a substantial evolution. Creation, destruction, and permanency of substance are names of cosmic process.


The Five Vows (Panch-Vratas):

Non-Violence (Ahimsa)

Lord Mahavira considered 'Ahimsa' the highest religion of man. 'Dhammamahinsa samam natthi' - there is no religion like 'ahimsa'. Lord Mahavira commanded: 'killing is unpleasant to all, life is pleasant. All living beings desire to live. Whatever, life is dear to all. Hence, do not kill any living ones.' His concept of 'ahimsa' is not limited to prohibition of killing. 'Ahimsa', as perceived by Mahavira, is the highest form of human sensitiveness. Whatever pains others - a rude behavior, negligence, or insult, is 'himsa' under the concept of Mahavira. Infliction of injury to body, mind or soul by deeds, words, actions, or even in thought, is 'himsa' and should be forbidden.
Once 'himsa' emerges in one's thoughts, it is 'himsa' - it inflicts anyone or not.

Truth (Satya)

As 'ahimsa' is the highest religion or code for life, 'satya' is the highest of all achievable virtues, or rather is inclusive of all of them - penance, self-restraint, or even anger. Lord Mahavira held that as ocean harbors all fish of all kinds, so doth the truth harbor within it the good and virtuous. The wise use words that are truthful in practice and in determination, that bind him who uses them but not others and are yet pleasing, benevolent and free from bitterness and suspiciousness.

Non-Theft (Asteya), Celibacy (Brahmacharya) and Non-Hoarding (Aparigraha)

Lord Mahavira has commanded everyone to abstain from committing theft of any kind, adulteration, forgery and their abetment. A desire to obtain even a grass-leaf belonging to someone else without his consent is sinful and one should abstain from it. Abstaining from such acts is 'asteya'.

'Brahmacharya' is higher and different from celibacy in the sense that it does not forbid only physical or matrimonial relationship but indulgence in 'kama' in all possible ways. There is nothing more delusive than 'kama' and should hence be conquered by 'brahmacharya'.

Lord Mahavira's teaching of 'aparigraha' leads to economic parity and a kind of socialism which commands all to possess only what is enough for their need. To possess beyond one's needs is 'parigraha'. Lord Mahavira warned his followers to be beware of riches, as one may protect himself against anything but not against riches. He said wise never accumulate beyond what they need in minimum. Anyone who amasses money or riches beyond one's need gets entrapped into malice and evil, and those who are detached from them are free in themselves and from fear.

The Three Jewels (Tri-Ratnas)

The "three jewels" (Triratna)
The "three jewels" (Triratna)
Base of an Image with Devotees and Symbols, Uttar Pradesh, Mathura.
Symbols is at Left

Mahavira talked of three more tenets : 'samyaka-darshana' - absolute detached visual perception; 'samyaka-jnan' - absolute detached knowledge; and 'samyaka-charitra' - absolute detached character. These are means of above eight as also their outcome. If the 'jiva' attains 'tri-ratnas', either the 'karmas' would delude it, nor it would over-emphasize its perception as final or hurt any other 'jiva' by any of its acts, words or thoughts. And, if the 'jiva' is able to destroy its detrimental 'karmas', is humble to accept others' perception as another truth of a thing, and observes 'Panch-vratas', it will not fail in its attainment of 'Tri-ratnas'.

 

Mahavira In Visual Arts

Mahavira
Mahavira

 

 

 

 

Images of Mahavira came to be sculpted more than six hundred years after his 'nirvana'. His images, or rather all Tirthankara images, were a votive necessity of Jain devotees. Hence, instead of aiming at discovering their real likenesses the prime thrust of such images was their spiritual and aesthetic modeling under prescribed norms.

 

 

 

 

Parshvanatha
Parshvanatha

 

 

 

Their images were largely the images of mind transformed into stone, metal or colors. With locks of hair falling on his shoulders and serpent hood behind his head the images of Rishabhadeva and Parshvanatha respectively have a distinct iconography, but such distinction, except some regional variations and a few minor and remote features, is not seen in other Tirthankara images.

 

 

 

 

Jain Tirthankara
Jain Tirthankara

 

Besides his lion emblem and a slightly different modeling of head, the images of Mahavira are largely identical to those of other Tirthankaras. In most images - at least the ancient ones which alone are in thousands, the pedestals, which contained emblems of different Tirthankaras, are not intact. Hence, identity of a Tirthankara image is difficult to discern.

 

Mahavira's images are mostly either in 'kayotsarga-mudra' or in 'padmasana'. Other postures have not been preferred - not even the 'godohana-mudra', which Mahavira had when he attained 'keval jnan'. His images rendered for devotees of Digambara sect are not only without clothes but also without every kind of ornamentation. Images rendered for Svetambara devotees are represented as wearing garments, jewels and even a crown. They are represented as seated in a throne much like a monarch. Episodes from his life do not, or little figure in visual arts. Both sculptors and painters have shown some interest in rendering his birth, sometimes as mother Trishala lying on a bed with a number of maids attending upon her, and sometimes as dreaming with sixteen auspicious signs around. A symbolic representation of Mahavira's 'tri-ratnas' is also found in various sculptural panels. Similarly, the diagram of his 'samavasarana' has been the theme of a number of miniatures and wall paintings.

Bibliography:

  • Pratapditya Pal: The Peaceful Liberators Jain Art from India, Los Angels County Museum, 1995

  • Dr. Daljeet & P. C. Jain: Indian Miniature Painting, New Delhi (in press)

  • A. K. Chatterjee: A Comprehensive History of Jainism, Calcutta, Vols. 1 & 2

  • R. D. Dwivedi: Contribution of Jainism to Indian Culture (ed.), Delhi, 1975

  • J. S. Nicholson: Jainism: Art and Religion, Leicester, 1987

  • A.W. Norton: The Jain Samavasarana, New York, 1981

  • A. Ghosh: Lain Art and Architecture ( 3 vols.), New Delhi, 1974-75 (ed.)

  • S. Andhare: A Note on the Mahavira Samavasarana in Chhavi, 1971

  • D. R. Bhandarkar: Jain Iconography in Indian Antiquity (May-June), 1911

We hope you have enjoyed reading the article. Any comments or feedback that you may have will be greatly appreciated. Please send your feedback to feedback@exoticindiaart.com.


This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.


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Article Reviews

  • The article is good . I am also a Jain but didnt know much about jainism. It is my belief that Jainism is not a religion it is a preaching of some principles of Lord Mahavir. These preaches shall help the person and the world to develop in a good manner. If we take it in a technical world Lord Mahavir wants to save the bio-cycle of the envirnoment and world from wars.
    I want few more articles on Lord Mahavir and other form of God preaching
    - Surabhi Jain (rush2sonal@gmail.com)
    8th Oct 2008
  • This article is very good. I am a follower of Lord Mahavira. I want to advise Johaley Pannu that there is nothing like conversion. There was no need for you to get converted. Catholic religion also teaches the same and you should have faith in your religion. I am Jain and I believe that all religions are same. All religions teach us to do good things (Karma).
    - Ritesh Gandhi
    1st Jan 2008
  • Namaaste! Thank you for putting all of this up I really enjoyed it. It really inspired me to become Hindu! Well actually I'm catholic and my boyfriend was hindu and he proposed to me and I was like my parents won't approve you since you are hindu.The next evening he took me to this site and I was absolutely amazed and today I am HINDU AND PROUD ALL BECAUSE OF THIS SITE!!! oo and I got married to my hindu buddy John Malhotra!! if you see or talk to him congragulate him!!
    - Johaley Pannu
    13th Nov 2006
  • Wonderful article. I was especially thrilled to learn about 'The Many-fold Vision of Reality (Anekantavada)' as well as 'The Multi-Dimensionality of Truth (Syadvada)'. Whatever the magnitude of one's knowledge, one may not know total truth of a substance. Wow! This is exctly in line with Hiegenberg's 'Uncertainty Principle' which is the basis of Quantum Mechanics.

    Thanks.

    Bindu
    - Bindu Joshi
    26th May 2006
  • I want to thank you for the wonderful informative articles. I enjoy learning in this way with the art to look at. I am fairly new to the Indian traditions and your clear descriptions of such ancient and intricate teachings is appreciated.



    Thank you,
    - Maya
    16th May 2006
  • Thank you for the article: I truely enjoy reading all of the scriptures and readings from you.It eases my mind and relaxes my anxieties that I am having day to day.
    - Catherine
    15th May 2006
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