Mahavira (ca. 599 B.C.–527 B.C.)

The greatest of the Jain saints, revered as a founder of Jainism. He is considered the twenty-fourth and last of a line of Tirthankaras, Jain saints, whose omniscience signalled the path of human salvation. Mahavira is a title rather than a proper name, and translates from the Sanskrit roughly as Great Hero. In many ways the story of Mahavira’s life mirrors that of Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha, who was his near contemporary in an India that was simmering with religious ferment as many political elites and thinkers began to resist the early brahmin priests’ insistence on the monopoly of elaborate sacrificial and other rites. Mahavira was born Vardhamana Jnarputra north of the modern city of Patna in northern India. His parents were local rulers and members of the kshatriya, or warrior, caste of Hinduism. According to Jain tradition he married a princess and had a daughter, although since he was not his parent’s eldest son he would not inherit leadership of his clan. At the age of thirty he renounced the world and left his wife and child. For twelve years he lived the life of an ascetic, ultimately renouncing all possessions, even his clothes, and refusing any specially prepared food. He thought it a sin to harm any other creatures, and in the process of lengthy meditations, developed the doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolence, that was to influence not only Jainism but other Indian religious traditions as well. The twelve years of asceticism allowed Mahavira to fast in order to cleanse his body, maintain silence in order to improve his speech, and meditate in order to clear his mind, and at the end of this period he achieved the highest stage of human perception and was released from the cycle of birth and death. He also attained the status of a jina, which in Jainism means a spiritual victor. Mahavira spent the remainder of his life wandering and teaching throughout northeastern India, providing the example of salvation through purification. His followers practiced vegetarianism as well as the five mahavratas: avoiding killing, deception, greed, sexual pleasure, and attachments to living things and earthly objects. When he died near Patna at the age of seventy-three, tradition holds, he left behind the core of the community that established Jainism. SEE ALSO: ahimsa; Jainism; Siddhartha Gautama

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