Feb 11, 2008

Remembering Mahavira, Apostle of Ahimsa

IN most western style histories of religions, as well as in popular perception, Mahavira is generally regarded as being the founder of Jainism in much the same way as Jesus is regarded as the founder of Christianity. The Jain tradition, however, puts Mahavira in perspective as one of a chain of teachers, one among a galaxy of deified men, in fact the last of the twenty four Tirthankaras, ``Ford makers across the stream of existence''. Tradition saw these ford-makers appear in succession to activate the three Jewels, the Jain teachings of Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Practice. And they founded a community of ascetics and lay followers to serve as a spiritual ford (Tirtha) for human beings over the ocean of rebirth.

From Rishabadeva to Parsvanatha to Mahavira, these Tirthankaras were considered to be the Jina, ``the conqueror'', from which the Sanskrit word Jaina is itself derived, an epithet given to this line of human teachers who taught the true doctrine of non-violence. Mahavira, ``the Great Hero'', was in some ways the culminating fulfilment of this chain, in his search and acquisition of perfect knowledge, embodied in the great renunciation and austerities of his life.

After his birth consecration, which tradition suggests was carried out by Indra on Mount Meru, he was given the name Vardhamana which meant ``increasing'', because his family's prosperity increased after his birth. Tradition further records that Mahavira married Yashoda and had a daughter called Priyadarshana, but he renounced his family life on his thirtieth birthday. It is also said that he left his home at the beginning of winter, which is suggestive of his inclination towards severe asceticism. Thirteen months later he abandoned his clothing and began to wander as a naked (Digambara) monk, considered to be the first major shift in the evolution of the Jain Canon of Parsvanatha which had allowed clothing (Svetambara).

There is a beautiful passage in the ``Acharanga'', the ancient Svetambara text, which describes how Mahavira's thought matured in his twelve years of austerities. He attributed life (Jiva) not only to animals and plants, but to material objects like earth and water, assumed the real cause of worldly misery to be Karma, engendered by indulgence in sensual pleasure, and the essential misery of life to be due to the needless cycle of birth and death. His own behaviour furnished an example to be followed by the monks in their religious life. Jain tradition tells us that Mahavira was born with the three types of knowledge, acquired the fourth at the beginning of his monkhood, and achieved omniscience under a Sala tree at the end of twelve years of austerity, on the bank of the river Rajupalika not far from the village Jrimbhikagrama in modern-day Bihar. Henceforth he entered on his career as a religious teacher.

The later Jaina metaphysics of ``Syadvada'' was a philosophical elaboration of the tremendous speculative thought of Mahavira. His ability to discuss matters beyond the limits of normal human experience contrast markedly with the Buddha who refused to engage in metaphysical speculation not conducive to salvation. Vividly described in the Vyakhyaprajnapti, the `Exposition of Explanations', another Jaina scriptural text, this represents for the Jains, a guarantee of the truth of their religions message, for it is only the omniscient person who can know and see what lies beneath reality and as a result teach the correct spiritual path.

At the heart of Mahavira's ethical teachings are the five great vows of abstaining from killing, abstaining from lying, rejection of theft, brahmacharya and renunciation of possessions. Taken up in order to bring about a state of internal purification, the vows actually all develop from the first, the renunciation of violence, ahimsa, the principle which inspired and was embodied in the character of Mahatma Gandhi centuries later. There was a common narrative theme in Jain literature relating to the monk who refuses to tell a hunter the whereabouts of an animal being pursued and as a consequence endures torture in silence rather than reveal the truth.

Mahavira's entire life was saturated with the conviction that he had a cosmic mission to perform. His 2600th Birth Jayanti is a befitting occasion to remember this great spiritual legacy and to resurrect the cardinal principles of right faith, right knowledge, right practice and Ahimsa in these times of turbulence and strife.

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