Five hundred years before the Common Era two teachers lived in northern India. Their teachings gave birth to two of the world's great faiths, the Buddhist and jain religions. These teachers were Gautama Buddha and Tirthankara Mahavira. Both hailed from royal families, both abandoned their privileged lives to pursue asceticism, and both gained large followings. Jainism, unlike Buddhism, never strayed far from its original homelands until the twentieth century, and its followers have remained relatively few-worldwide approximately 3.5 million in 2005, Yet Jains-often found involved with business or education-have enriched the religious and cultural life of India far more than their small numbers would suggest. Their most celebrated doctrine-ahimsa or non-violence-was made famous in the twentieth century by Mahatma Gandhi, whose teacher was a jain. Their temples are the most exquisite and architecturally sophisticated of any ever built in India.
Diwali, the festival of lights, is celebrated throughout India every year to honor Mahavira's passing. Mahavira laid great emphasis on the cultivation of compassion and love as the necessary qualities for achieving full understanding. Such teaching attracted many disciples including Gautama Buddha himself, who was amongst Mahavira's first and dearest followers, 'This teaching of compassion is exemplified in the jain tradition as benevolence towards others and the four kinds of giving: food, shelter, medicine and education. Indeed, more than the leadership of his 23 religious predecessors the spiritual power and moral grandeur of this famed historical reformer profoundly touched the masses. He became known as the Great Hero for invigorating Jainism as a religion which was simple and natural. free from elaborate ritual complexities. He is teachings reflected the popular impulse towards internal beauty and harmony of the soul. His message-and his story of nonviolence, truth and celibacy are equally relevant for modern times.
About the Author
Ranchor Prime was born in England in 1950. He studied art and architecture before devoting fifteen years to the research and instruction of Vedic philosophy in Britain, India and the United consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture and is longstanding director of Friends of Vrindavan, an environmental charity. In association with Secretary General Martin Palmer, he produced a series of international conference for the World Bank and the World Wide Fund for Nature designed to join religious and environmental leaders in dialogue. He currently resides in London with his wife.
Jainism is an ancient religion practiced by a mere few million people worldwide, yet its impact has been significant and its contribution in the philosophical field has been profound. Jain teachings were propagated by Lord Mahavira, who existed between 599 BCE and 527 BCE in the North Indian state of Bihar. The word Jainism comes from jina, meaning "conqueror," and signifies the importance of conquering our inner enemies, namely anger, ego, greed and illusion. One has to be above all attachments and aversion (vitaraga in Iain terminology). Jain "gods" are therefore vitaraga gods and are revered for their virtues and inner qualities. The path to liberation, nirvana, is through right knowledge, right faith and right conduct, which is the ultimate goal for all living beings.
The central and foremost teaching of the jain faith is the philosophy of nonviolence (ahimsa). This philosophy teaches us to give protection, be kind and caring toward all living beings, and to be tolerant toward other people's lifestyles and ideologies.
This book covers the life and message of Lord Mahavira in a concise yet lucid style, revealing all the main aspects and events of his life. Anyone wishing to know about his life and message will find it very useful and will I hope be inspired to read more about the philosophy of nonviolence he propagated.
Ranchor Prime has been a student of Indian literature for more than thirty years and is well versed in Hindu scriptures. His account of the life of Mahavira will impress both young and old alike Jain books such as this, written in contemporary English and beautifully illustrated, are always welcome. I am confident that scholars as well as laypeople in the Western world will appreciate this work.
I invite you, dear reader, to explore this wonderful story of Lord Mahavira, whose message is as fresh now as it was two and a h thousand years ago.
The legacy of spiritual asceticism in both Western and Eastern traditions, of young men and women giving up their possessions and material cares to embark upon a life of mendicancy, self-denial and the embrace of God, has poignantly lived on in such recent examples of selfless service as Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Schweitzer. The slums of Calcutta, the African outback and the early adversity inherent in slavery and the fight for civil rights are remote from the daily turmoil with which most people today must cope. And yet, in the broader context of worldly concerns, the countless individual and community struggles for freedom, environmental justice, gender equity and economic fairness are more with us than ever. The raw material out of which we con figure the many allegories and legends of goodness and virtue, of religious pilgrimage and homage to the great sages of all traditions stems from an ideal.ism arising nonetheless from our universal human challenges.
Carl Jung speaks of the "heroism of daily life" as that steadfastness of heart and soul in the midst of life's challenges. What must have incited Buddha, Christ, Lao-tzu and Saint Francis to follow their hearts surely must also hold promise most people find themselves witnesses, if not outright collaborators, in trends and political decisions we might otherwise denounce-wars, runaway consumption, animal cruelty, human rights abuses, environmental degradation-and notwithstanding so many glaring disparities sundering the human family, there burgeons everywhere the craving for deep spirituality. A renaissance of moral priorities tugs at the common sense, shaking up old realities and crying out for a new jurisprudence that holds the entire living world as a priority. We need an ethical stance whose underlying proposition declares unequivocally that life is precious, the earth is our home and that we as human beings can leave a footprint that could be softer, if only we willed it so, and worked at it.
Any moral compass reading for our times must grapple with raw inequities and a demographic winter that has consigned a large majority of human beings to poverty, marginalizing the source of their food, polluting the air they breathe and the water they drink. Such times demand noble behavior from sure-footed shepherds and international alliances built upon trust and chivalry. They require an altruism that puts the bigger picture before the self and calls for unconditional love. That picture is starkly in focus: an image of the future dependent on our thoughts, intentions and behavior.
This is where the ancient teachings of Jainism offer critical insight and wisdom for our modern world. Jainism has enjoyed an enormous resurgence in literature, philosophy, conferences, magazine publishing and the sheer vitality and charitable force unleashed by today's nearly twenty million Jains. Their collective admonition to expand the circle of compassion so as to include all living beings, to insist upon nonviolence (ahimsa) in all of our thoughts and actions, is the result of an ancient tradition that recognized an ecological conscience several thousand years before the scientific or cultural vogue for such assertions. Even in Mahavira's time-599 BCE to 527 BCE there was a depletion of resources, overpopulation and the same landscape of minefields benumbing the psychological and emotional, if not practical realities of people. For Mahavira to have renounced his material comforts and security and then wander from village to village across India for nearly four decades, discussing options for nonviolence wherever he went, took tremendous courage and fortitude. It also required an acute understanding of pain, suffering and compassion that could be conveyed to others in parables and plain-speaking examples. But Mahavira was also a scientist, as steeped in biology as he was in metaphysics. He was as attuned to the needs of humanity as he was to the fine nuances of ecosystem dynamics.
Mahavira knew of over eight-thousand species at a time when Aristotle could cite fewer than six hundred organisms. jain pragmatism, as voiced by Mahavira, and written down by his disciples, laid claim to a botany of compassion that would prefigure the writings of more recent luminaries from Porphyry to Erasmus Darwin, from Thoreau to Gurudev Chitrabhanuji. The core of this sensibility was revolutionary. Every organism was designated according to its sensibilities. Compassion (anukampa) and the belief in the interdependence of all living beings (parasparopagraho jivanam) formed the basis for a religion of nonviolence that spoke not in absolutes (an impossibility within the natural world) but in relative characteristics. By such gradients, the jain community psychoanalyzed all forms of violence and declared itself a sovereign world of ethical vegetarianism wherein all commerce, daily toil, intention, belief and action would be guided by the love of nature. This environmental stance, full of tolerance for the frailties of human nature and the incremental changes that are possible in a person's life, offers great wisdom for the present era, and there is no more forceful, compelling ambassador than Mahavira himself.
The texts outlining the jain philosophy of nature, and the life of Mahavira, include the Kalpa and Acharanga, Dasavalkalika and Bhagavati Sutras. A statement from the Acharanga Sutra, ascribed to Mahavira, states: "You are the one whom you intend to kill, you are the one you intend to tyrannize." In a more contemporary manifestation, India's former high commissioner to England, L. M. Singhvi-one of the world's foremost legal thinkers-composed the stirring "jain Declaration on Nature," while countless other proclamations, codices, lectures, works of art and manuscripts from uncelebrated monks and nuns shine a similar spotlight on the beauty and eloquence of jain thinking as it makes sense of the natural world. That sense resonates in politics, legal circles, interfaith dialogue, human rights and environmental consciousness-raising. But most stunningly, the jain approach to nature signals an unwavering commitment to the rights of all other habitats, species and individuals. No small detail is left unattended by the jain ecological revolution, as I think of it: from animal sanctuaries to wildlife conservation; from the ethics and techniques of natural capitalism and socially responsible investing to the international finesse needed to reshape consumerism in the generation that has come to associate Kyoto not with gardens and meditation, but with pro to cols predicated upon CO2 emissions. All of the Rio Summit, as well as the Valdez and Assisi Declarations and the Agenda 21, were anticipated by the jain scribes and mendicants who followed in Mahavira's footsteps, as he had followed in those of innumerable sages before him.
What we do with the all-encompassing belief in nonviolence is a personal affair, say the Jains, Each of us must rise to the challenge; must transform every juncture of every day into the possibility of a poetic gesture of forgiveness, right intentions, love and compassion. The opportunities, of course, are endless. I have always embraced a thorough idealism that marks my own personal journey through life. Somebody once asked me if I was a jain. My response was: I am trying to be a jain, just as I am trying to be a human being. But it is probably impossible (at least for me) to be a true Jain. That is the essence of jain idealism: to challenge the individual to forever do better, to become informed and to let the information percolate upward to one's heart to the extent of real feeling, real understanding, real dignity, restraint, modesty and action in a world that cries out for sensitive, informed, tolerant and compassionate human stewardship and behavior.
When we speak of ethics in the twenty-first century, we are speaking a language of urgency that Jains have known for thousands of years. The task of sustaining that knowledge and sensitivity and activism in the context of unprecedented tragedy, conflict and global unrest will test this and future generations of Jains like never before. I am hopeful that the Jain community, in its endless diversity and beauty, will embrace the challenges that Mahavira imbibed, pondered and conveyed, and similarly take them to heart.
The masterful B. G. Sharma's tranquil illustrations charmingly reflect the colorful array of dreams and realities that have cloaked jain tradition and the birth, life and death of Mahavira for 2,500 years. Ranchor Prime-himself a global environmentalist who has long strived to bring the religious communities of the world together in defense of nature-has insightfully interpreted the "divine" parable that is the alluring saga of Mahavira's life. Together, they have made accessible one of the most important legacies in religious and ecological history.
Descent to earth
A strange dream
The queen fears for her baby
Birth of a special child
The lord of heaven rejoices
Festival in heaven
Defeat of a demon
Test of wisdom
Fried to all
Call of destiny
He gives everything away
Leaving the city
The great renunciation
Unmoved by distractions
Losing the final comfort
An angry man
Anger overcome by love
As snake is enlightened
Calm amidst a storm
Tested by envious spirits
A suitable offering
The severest test
His first sermon
Teaching his followers
An enemy destroys himself
Thirty years of preaching
He leaves this world
Epilogue: his teachings contin'ue
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