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Mahavira (महावीर lit. "Great Hero", traditionally 599 – 527 BCE is the name most commonly used to refer to the Indian sage Vardhamana (Sanskrit: वर्धमान "increasing") who established what are today considered to be the central tenets of Jainism. According to Jain tradition, he was the 24th and the last Tirthankara. He is also known in texts as Vira or Viraprabhu, ...Sanmati, Ativira,and Gnatputra. In the Buddhist Pali Canon, he is referred to as Nigantha Nātaputta.

Overview of Mahavira's life

Birth of Prince Vardhaman

Queen Trishala and her fourteen dreams


In a place called Kshatriyakunda in the ancient kingdom of Lachuar in Jamui District in modern day Biharmarker, Indiamarker, Mahavira was born to King Siddartha and Queen Trishala on the 13th day under the rising moon of Chaitra (12 April according to the Gregorian calendar). While still in his mother's womb it is believed he brought wealth and prosperity to the entire kingdom, which is why he was also known as Vardhaman. An increase of all good things, like the abundant bloom of beautiful flowers, was noticed in the kingdom after his conception. Queen Trishala had 14 (14 in Swetambar Sect, 16 in Digambar Sect) auspicious dreams before giving birth to Vardhaman, signs foretelling the advent of a great soul.

Jain tradition states that after his birth, Indra bathed him in celestial milk with rituals befitting a future Tirthankar and he was returned to his mother, Trishala.

Vardhaman's birthday is celebrated as Mahavir Jayanti, the most important religious holiday of Jains around the world.

Early years

As King Siddartha's son, he lived as a prince. However, even at that tender age he exhibited a virtuous nature. He started engaging in meditation and immersed himself in self-contemplation. He was interested in the core beliefs of Jainism and began to distance himself from worldly matters.

Twelve years of spiritual pursuit

India at the time of Mahavira
At the age of thirty Mahavira renounced his kingdom and family, gave up his worldly possessions, and spent twelve years as an ascetic. During these twelve years he spent most of his time meditating. He gave utmost regard to other living beings, including humans, animals and plants, and avoided harming them. He had given up all worldly possessions including his clothes, and lived an extremely austere life. He exhibited exemplary control over his senses while enduring the penance during these years. His courage and braveness earned him the name Mahavira. These were the golden years of his spiritual journey, at the end of which he achieved Kaivlya Gyan. He was now a person of infinite harmony, knowledge and self-control.

Later years

Mahavira devoted the rest of his life to preaching the eternal truth of spiritual freedom to people around India. He traveled barefoot and without clothes, in the hardest of climates, and people from all walks of life came to listen to his message. At one point Mahavira had over 400,000 followers. Mahavira's preaching and efforts to spread Jain philosophy is considered the real catalyst to the spread of this ancient religion throughout India and into the mainstream.

At the age of 72 years and 4.5 months, he attained Nirvana in the area known as Pawapuri on the last day of the Indianmarker and Jain calendars, Dipavali. Jains celebrate this as the day he attained liberation or Moksha. Jains believe Mahavira lived from 599-527 BCE, though some scholars prefer 549-477 BCE.

Mahavira's philosophy

Mahavira's philosophy has eight cardinal principals - three metaphysical and five ethical. The objective is to elevate the quality of life. These independent principles reveal exceptional unity of purpose, and aim at achieving spiritual excellence by ethically sound behavior and metaphysical thought. Mahavira's metaphysics consist of three principles - Anekantavada, Syādvāda, and Karma; and his Panchavrats, five codes of conduct - Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. He talks of Tri-ratnas - three gems, which are the means and the goal.

Mahavira preached that from eternity, every living being (soul) is in bondage to karmic atoms accumulated by good or bad deeds. In a state of karmic delusion, the individual seeks temporary and illusory pleasure in material possessions, which are the root causes of self-centered violent thoughts and deeds as well as anger, hatred, greed, and other vices. These result in further accumulation of karma.

To liberate one's self, Mahavira taught the necessity of right faith (samyak-darshana), right knowledge (samyak-gyana), and right conduct (samyak-charitra'). At the heart of right conduct for Jains lie the five great vows:



These vows cannot be fully implemented without accepting the philosophy of non-absolutism (Anekantvada) and the theory of relativity (Syādvāda, also translated "qualified prediction"). Monks and nuns adhere strictly to these vows, while the laypeople observe them as best they can.

Mahavira taught that men and women are spiritual equals and that both may renounce the world in search of moksh or ultimate happiness.

Mahavira attracted people from all walks of life, rich and poor, men and women, touchable and untouchable. He organized his followers into a fourfold order; monk (Sadhu), nun (Sadhvi), layman (Shravak), and laywoman (Shravika). This order is known as Chaturvidh Jain Sangh.

Mahavira's sermons were preserved orally by his immediate disciples in the Agam Sutras. Through time many Agam Sutras have been lost, destroyed, or modified. About one thousand years after Mahavira's time the Agam Sutras were recorded on Tadpatrismarker (palm leaf paper used then to form books). Swetambar Jains accept these sutras as authentic teachings while Digambar Jains use them as a reference.

Jainism existed before Mahavir, and his teachings were based on those of his predecessors. Thus Mahavira was a reformer and propagator of an existing religion, rather than the founder of a new faith. He followed the well established creed of his predecessor Tirthankar Parshvanath. However, Mahavira did reorganize the philosophical tenets of Jainism to correspond to his times.

A few centuries after Mahavira's Nirvana, the Jain religious order (Sangh) grew more and more complex. There were schisms on minor points, although they did not affect Mahavira's original doctrines. Later generations saw the introduction of rituals and complexities that some criticize as placing Mahavira and other Tirthankars on the throne similar to those of Hindu deities.

Mahavira in the visual arts

Images of Mahavira came to be sculpted more than six hundred years after his 'nirvana'. These images, or rather all Tirthankara images, are employed in Jain devotions. The Jain aesthetic does not focus on physical, but rather upon spiritual versimilitude. Therefore, instead of aiming at discovering a "true" likenesses the primary focus of such images is the depiction of the Tirthankara's spiritual form.

Tirthankara images are considered images of the sacred mind transformed into stone, metal or colors. With locks of hair falling on his shoulders,serpent's hood behind his head and lion's image on his thigh right from birth as a birthmark, the images of Rishabhadeva , Parshvanatha and Mahavirswami respectively have distinct iconographies. Nonetheless, such distinctions, excepting some regional variations and a few minor and remote features, are not seen in other Tirthankara images.

Images of Mahavira are distinguished by his lion emblem and a distinct modeling of the head, otherwise images of Mahavira are mostly identical with images of other Tirthankara. In most images - at least the ancient ones which number in the thousands - the pedestals, which bore emblems of different Tirthankaras, are not intact. Thus, the identity of any particular Tirthankara image is difficult to discern.

Mahavira images typically depict him in either 'kayotsarga-mudra' or 'padmasana' postures. Other postures are not as popular - even the 'godohana-mudra', which Mahavira had when he attained 'keval gyan' is rarely displayed. Images created for devotees of Digambara sect not only lack clothes but also lack all ornamentation. Images rendered for Svetambara devotees are represented with garments, jewels and even a crown. These images are often seated on a throne.

Episodes from Mahavira's life do not figure prominently in Jain visual arts. Both sculptors and painters depict his birth, sometimes with mother Trishala lying on a bed with a number of maids attending upon her, and sometimes as dreaming with sixteen auspicious signs around. A symbolic representation of Mahavira's 'tri-ratnas' is also found in various sculptural panels. Similarly, the diagram of his 'samavasarana' has been the theme of a number of miniatures and wall paintings.

Biographies of Mahavira

There are various Jain text describing life of Lord Mahavira. Most notable of them is Kalpasutra by Acharya Bhadrabahu I. First Sanskrit biography of Mahavira was Vardhamacharitra by Asaga in 853 CE

See also:"Sraman Mahavira" by Acharya Mahapragya

  • "Lord Mahavira and his times" by Kailash Chand Jain (1991) Motilal Banarsidass Publishers PVT LTD Delhi (India)
  • "Lord Mahavira (A study in historical perspective)" by Bool Chand ( 1987 ) P.V. Research Institute I.T.I Road Varanasi 5 (India)
  • "Lord Mahavira in the eyes of foreigners" by Akshaya Kumar Jain ( 1975 ) Meena Bharati New Delhi 110003 (India)


Quotes

  • "Once when he sat [in meditation]... they cut his flesh... tore his hair... picked him up and... dropped him... the Venerable One bore the pain." (from the Acaranga Sutra)


Footnotes

See also



External links




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