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It is a common misconception that Vardhaman Mahaveer was the founder of Jainism. But now it is proven by many Indian and western scholars and historians that he was not the founder but a reformer who reformed and refined previous teachings of Parshwanath, the 23 rd Jain Teerthankar (Prophet).
Vardhman Mahaveer was born in 599 BC in Kundgram near Vaishali of Bihar in India. He was born to Siddharth and Trishala. Siddharth belonged to a high-ranked Warrior family of Nath Clan. Vardhman Mahaveer’s mother Trishala was daughter of Chetak, the mighty and famous Lichchhavi king of Vaishali. Vardhman Mahaveer had an elder brother named Nandivardhan. Vardhman Mahaveer had 6 maternal aunts, who were married to various kings of Eastern India. Thus Vardhman Mahaveer was related to various kings and eventually it helped him to promote his reformed Jainism.
Vardhman Mahaveer received all the education required for a prince. He was a fast learner and easily learned about literature, art, philosophy, military and administrative sciences. But he was not interested in worldly things and wanted to renounce them. But his parents didn’t permit him to do so.
When Vardhman Mahaveer was 28, his parents died. Now he was free to leave the palace, but his brother Nandivardhan asked him not to leave suddenly and requested to stay with him for some more time. To respect elder brother Nandivardhan, Vardhman Mahaveer decided to stay with Nandivardhan until the age of 30. In those two years, Vardhman Mahaveer practiced self-discipline and practiced almost an ascetic’s life. At the age of 30, he donated all his personal possessions to needy and poor people and left his home. He wandered on his bare feet in jungles and strange places. He meditated there, and almost all the time he spent there he never spoke to anybody. He rarely took food and fasting was a common thing for him. Some tribal people harassed him for a long time, but he never reacted.
After 12 years of his search for the truth, Vardhman Mahaveer became a naked monk. He took his first meal after becoming a monk from a Slave woman Chandana who was bought by a merchant from the slave market and persecuted by his wife. Vardhman Mahaveer traveled to the various parts of northern India, without using any vehicle. These parts included today’s Bihar, Jharkhand, western Bengal, Orissa, and eastern Uttar Pradesh of India. He taught and preached the way of life that one should adopt. He announced a silent war against animal sacrifices. All kinds of people, including kings and queens, rich and poor, men and women were attracted towards his teachings. Many scholarly Bramhins like Indrabhuti Goutam, Agnibhuti, Vayubhuti and others joined Vardhman Mahaveer’s mission with their thousands of pupils. Indrabhuti Goutam and others compiled all the teachings of Vardhman Mahaveer. Shrenik Bimbisar, who was a famous and mighty king of Rajgrahi also became a disciple of Vardhman Mahaveer. Shrenik asked thousands of questions about soul, rebirths, meditation, Shraman tradition and history etc. to Vardhman Mahaveer and got answers from him. These questions and answers were written down by Indrabhuti Goutam which are preserved till today in Jain literature.
Vardhman Mahaveer’s teachings belonged to the ancient and pre Aryan Shraman tradition. He did not believe in the creation theory and the mighty God. According to him no one has created the universe and it is there from infinitive past and will remain there forever. Only changes will take place. It was almost a scientific approach of Vardhman Mahaveer. According to his philosophy anybody can become a God by destroying his Karmas. He told: instead of finding out an imaginary God, try to become a God, the highest stage of mankind.
One of his famous doctrine is Anekantvad i.e. pluralism. According to it, every truth has many angles or viewpoints. Every observer observes some truth and he is not totally wrong. But the whole truth could be told only after considering all the viewpoints. He never believed in classes and castes. According to him, a person becomes great by his own deeds and it has nothing to do with in which community, class, or caste he is born. One of his famous quotes is: Eko Manuss Jaai which means that all mankind is one. Even a outcasted could join as a monk in Vardhman Mahaveer’s Sangh. Chandana, the slave woman also became a nun and eventually she became the head of all nuns in Vardhman Mahaveer’s sangh.
Vardhman Mahaveer’s teachings were based on the Right Knowledge, Right Faith, and Right Conduct, which are called as Three Jewels of Jainism. Some of his teachings include:
Ahimsa (Non Violence): Not to kill any living creature, nor to cause for killings and avoid all types of violence, even hurting others by words. Vegetarianism became a must thing for the disciples. However, he was not against the unavoidable unknowingly killings in routine works by layman like farming etc. He was not against the violence by layman in protection of oneself, his family, village, or the nation.
Truth: To speak truth only, not to lie. But one should not speak a bitter truth, which will hurt others.
Non Stealing: One should not steal anything, which belongs to others. One should not take the things, which are not given by the possessor.
Non possession: One should not possess things more than his requirements. Excess money should be donated for noble cause.
Celibacy: One should control his sexual desires. One should not involve in extra marital relations.
For Vardhman Mahaveer the final goal of life for everybody was to reach nirvana (Moksh) or salvation. Nirvana was nothing but breaking the cycle of birth, life and death. Vardhman Mahaveer attained nirvana at the dawn of a no moon day at Pavapuri in Bihar when he was 72 years old (527 B.C). On the same day, his chief disciple Indrabhuti Goutam attained Keval Gyan, i.e. omniscience or ultimate knowledge.
The news of Vardhman Mahaveer’s nirvan spread all over and the chieftains of 14 kingdoms gathered at Pavapuri. They took part in the funeral of Vardhman Mahaveer. As this was not an occasion of sorrow but of joy as now Vardhman Mahaveer was free from birth and death, the kings decided to celebrate this day every year as a festival of lights, which is celebrated even today all over India.