Lord Mahävir and His Teachings

Lord Mahävir is the twenty‑fourth and last Tirthankar of the Jain religion of this era.  According to Jain philosophy, all Tirthankars were human beings but they attained a state of perfect enlightenment through meditation and self-realization.  They are faultless human model.  They are known as the “Gods” of Jains.  The concept of a supernatural God as creator, protector, and destroyer of the universe does not exist in Jainism.

About 2600 years ago religion in India had taken a very ugly shape.  Original classification of the society in the form of four classes had deteriorated.  Brahmins considered themselves to be very superior.  They looked down upon people of other castes.  Fate of Shudras or untouchables was rendered terrible and they were forever condemned to serve other castes.  They were required to perform most degraded tasks.  They were not allowed to engage in other professions.  The importance of sacrifices as a symbol of giving up and renouncing had lost sight of it and it had taken very violent form.  Animal sacrifices were regularly performed and people believed that by sacrifices they would gain the favor of gods.

Under such social and religious conditions, Mahävir was born on the thirteenth day of the rising moon half of Chaitra month in 599 B.C.  in the state of Bihar, India.  This day falls in the month of April as per the Christian calendar.  His birthday is celebrated as Mahävir Janma Kalyänak day.  His birthplace was Kshatriyakund (also known as Kundalpur), which was a part of famous Vaishäli republic in the present Indian State of Bihar.  His father’s name was Siddhärtha who was the king of Kshatriyakund.  His mother’s name was Trishalä.  She was the sister of Chetak, the king of Vaishäli.

Lord Mahävir had an elder brother named Nandivardhan and a sister named Sudarshanä.  King Siddhärtha began to prosper ever since Queen Trishalä became pregnant.  Therefore, his parents gave him the name of Vardhamän, meaning, “increasing”. 

From his early childhood, he was found to be unusually intelligent, fearless, affectionate, and compassionate.  At school, he hardly needed any instructions.  Once, when he was playing with his friends, a big snake appeared in the field.  His friends were scared and ran away when they saw the snake but Vardhamän was fearless.  He caught the snake by the tail and threw it away.  Another time a giant monster came to frighten him, but Vardhamän was unmoved.  He was popularly known as Mahävir since he showed high degree of courage and fearlessness.  He was also known by his family name as Jnäta-putra.

At a mature age, he married a princess named Yashodä and eventually had a daughter named Priyadarshana.  (According to Digambar tradition he did not marry).  By that time, he firmly realized that worldly happiness and pleasures do not last and are based mostly on the inconvenience, miseries, and unhappiness of others.  He therefore planned to renounce the worldly life in search of a solution to eliminate pain, sorrow, and sufferings of life and to find true happiness.  However, he knew that his parents would be very unhappy if he becomes a monk and renounces the family and all his possessions.  He therefore decided not to renounce during their lifetime.  His parents passed away when he was 28.  He therefore was ready to renounce, but postponed it for two more years at the request of his elder brother.

Hence, at the age of 30 he renounced the worldly life and became a monk.  Mahävir spent the next twelve and half years in deep silence and meditation to conquer his desires, feelings, and attachments.  He carefully avoided harming or annoying other living beings including animals, birds, and plants.  Also during this time he observed severe austerities, fasting for most of the time, moving from place to place on foot, and peacefully faced all types of hardships. 

During this period, he progressed spiritually and ultimately he destroyed four destructive (Ghäti) Karmas and realized perfect perception, perfect knowledge, perfect power, and total bliss.  This realization is known as Kevaljnän (omniscience) or perfect enlightenment.  Now Mahävir became Lord Mahävir or Bhagawän Mahävir or Mahävir Swämi. 

Lord Mahävir spent the next thirty years traveling on bare feet around India preaching the eternal truth he had realized to the people.  The ultimate objective of his teaching is how one can attain total freedom from the cycle of birth, life, pain, misery, and death, and achieve the permanent blissful state of one’s self.  This blissful state is also known as liberation, nirvana, absolute freedom, or Moksha.

Lord Mahävir explained that from eternity, every living being (soul) is ignorant about his/her true-self and also is in a bondage of karmic particles.  These karmic particles are continuously accumulated by our good or bad deeds.  Under the influence of karma, the soul is habituated to seek pleasures in materialistic belongings and possessions.  This is the deep-rooted cause of self-centered violent thoughts, deeds, anger, hatred, greed, and such other vices.  These result in further accumulation of karmas.

Lord Mahävir preached that right faith (Samyag-darshan), right knowledge (Samyag‑Jnän), and right conduct (Samyag-chäritra) together is the real path to attain the liberation from karmic matter of one’s self.

At the heart of right conduct for Jains lie the five great vows:

Nonviolence (Ahimsä)

Not to cause harm to any living beings

Truthfulness (Satya)

To speak the harmless truth only

Non‑stealing (Asteya)

Not to take anything not properly given

Chastity (Brahmacharya)

Not to indulge in sensual pleasure

Non‑possession/ Non‑attachment (Aparigraha)

Complete detachment from people, places, and material things


Jains hold these vows at the center of their lives.  These vows cannot be fully implemented without the acceptance of a philosophy of non‑absolutism (Anekäntaväd) and the theory of relativity (Syädväda).  Monks and nuns follow these vows strictly and totally, while the common people follow the vows as far as their ability, and, desire permit.

In matters of spiritual advancement, as envisioned by Lord Mahävir, men and women are on an equal footing.  The lure of renunciation and liberation attracted women as well.  Many women followed Mahävir’s path and renounced the world in search of ultimate truth and happiness.

Thus, the principles of Jainism, if properly understood in their right perspective and faithfully adhered to, will bring contentment and inner happiness and joy in the present life.  This will elevate the soul in future reincarnations to a higher spiritual level, ultimately achieving perfect enlightenment, reaching its final destination of eternal bliss, ending all cycles of birth & death.

Lord Mahävir attracted people from all walks of life, rich and poor, kings and commoners, men and women, princes and priests, touchable and untouchable.  He organized his followers, into a four-fold order, namely monk (Sädhu), nun (Sädhvi), layman (Shrävak), and laywoman (Shrävikä).  This order is known as Jain Sangha.

Lord Mahävir’s sermons were orally compiled in Ägam Sutras by his immediate disciples.  These Ägam Sutras were orally passed on to future generations of ascetics.  In course of time many of the Ägam Sutras were lost, destroyed, and some were modified.  About one thousand years later the Ägam Sutras were recorded on Tädpatris (leafy paper used in those days to preserve records for future references).  Some Jains have accepted these Sutras as authentic versions of His teachings while others do not accept them as authentic.

At the age of seventy two (527 B.C.), Lord Mahävir attained Nirvän and his purified soul left his body and achieved complete liberation.  He became a Siddha, a pure consciousness, a liberated soul, living forever in a state of complete bliss.  On the night of his Nirvän, people celebrate the Festival of Lights (Deepävali) in His honor.  This is the last day of the Hindu and Jain calendar year known as Deepävali Day.

Jainism existed long before Lord Mahävir, and his teachings were based on those of his predecessors.  Thus Mahävir was more of a reformer and propagator of an existing religious order than the founder of a new faith.  He followed the well-established creed of his predecessor Tirthankar Pärshva-Näth.  However, Mahävir did reorganize the philosophical tenets of Jainism to correspond to his times.

A few centuries after Lord Mahävir nirvana, the Jain religious order (Sangha) grew more and more complex.  There were schisms on some minor points, although they did not affect the original doctrines as preached by Mahävir.  Later generations saw the introduction of ritualistic complexities, which almost destroyed the simplicity of the Jain religion.

Significant points of Teachings of Lord Mahävir:

Lord Mahävir made religion simple and natural, free from elaborate ritual complexities.  His teachings reflected the internal beauty and harmony of the soul.

Lord Mahävir taught the idea of supremacy of human life and stressed the importance of the positive attitude of life.

Lord Mahävir’s message of nonviolence (Ahimsä), truth (Satya), non‑stealing (Achaurya), celibacy (Brahma‑Charya), and non‑possession (Aparigraha) is full of universal compassion.

Lord Mahävir said that, “A living body is not merely an integration of limbs and flesh but it is the abode of the soul, which potentially has perfect perception (Anant‑Darshan), perfect knowledge (Anant‑Jnän), perfect power (Anant‑Virya), and perfect conduct (Anant Chäritra).  Mahävir’s message reflects the freedom and spiritual joy of the living being.

Lord Mahävir emphasized that all living beings, irrespective of their size, shape, and form how spiritually developed or undeveloped, are equal and we should love and respect them.  This way he preached the gospel of universal love.

Lord Mahävir rejected the concept of God as a creator, a protector, and a destroyer of the universe.  He also denounced the worshiping of gods and goddesses as a means of material gains and personal benefits.