Jainism is one of the world's oldest religions. Much of
its early history is not known, or has come down to us in a form in which
historical fact is difficult to distinguish from miraculous stories.
However we do know that this ancient religion was passed on to us through
the high spiritual genius of one of the greatest religious teachers of all
time, Mahavira. We must be clear, from the start, that Mahavira was not
the founder of Jainism. What he did was to bring together in a systematic
form the beliefs and philosophy of his predecessors, preach them widely
throughout his home country, and lay the foundations of an organized Jain
'church' with monks and nuns and lay people following his teachings. The
social order which he created has endured to the present day.
Mahavira was not some imaginary being. He was a real
man, and we know, with reasonable certainty, that his life on earth ended
just over 2500 years ago, in 527 B.C. We know details of his life. He was
born in 599 B.C. into a family of the ksatriya, or knightly, caste. His
father, Siddhartha, was a prince or lord, and his mother, Trisala, also
came from a noble family. His birthplace is believed to have been near the
modern city of Patna, in Bihar in north-eastern India. Although generally
referred to as Mahavira (which means 'great hero'), his original name was
Vardhamana. Until his late twenties he doubtless led a life not very
different from that of any other young man in his level of society.
Both his parents were followers of the religious
teachings of Parsva, the 'fourfold teaching', chaturyama dharma,
abstention from violence, theft, untruth and acquisitiveness. We should
nowadays call them Jains. Parsva, who had lived some 250 years before
Mahavira, is recognize as the twenty- third Tirthankara or prophet of
Jainism. It was shortly after his parents' death that Vardhamana, or
Mahavira, decided at the age of thirty to renounce a worldly life. He gave
up all his possessions, even his clothes, and lived for the next twelve
years a life of great hardship, training himself to endure the pains and
discomforts of the body until he became indifferent to them. The wandering
ascetic, seeking knowledge alone in the wilder places, or in company with
fellow seekers for truth, was (and still is) an accepted figure on the
edge of Indian society. The sixth century B.C. was an era of intellectual
ferment, an exciting period for a young man of inquiring spirit, when
various groups were searching beyond the bounds of the rather rigid
religious orthodoxy of the time. The best-known individual, at least in
historical perspective, was the Buddha, a near contemporary of Mahavira.
Some of the earlier Western scholars who encountered Jainism did not
distinguish it from Buddhism (for there are some similarities, as well as
very marked differences) and even confused the persons of Mahavira and the
Buddha. Mahavira persevered with this austere life style, marked by long
spells of fasting and other penances, and by deep meditation. At last,
during one period of meditation by the side of a river, he came to a
comprehension of the whole nature and meaning of the universe. This total
knowledge, omniscience, keval jnana; is very important to Jainism. Most of
us have had the experience, at some time, of puzzling over something we do
not quite understand, when, suddenly, almost as though a cloud clears, we
get a flash of understanding and we see the solution to our problem. Can
we imagine this flash of understanding spreading out, clearing the clouds
over not just our small problem but all the problems of the universe,
giving us an understanding of the whole nature and workings and meaning of
the universe? This is what happened to Mahavira. And it can happen, and
has happened, to other people as well. This total knowledge does not come
easily: for Mahavira, as we have seen, it was the result of years of
austerity and meditation. This was the fourth of the five great events of
Mahavira's life which are celebrated by Jains today: his conception,
birth, renunciation, and now enlightenment. The fifth great event, nirvana
or moksa came thirty years later.
During these thirty years Mahavira, strengthened by his
knowledge, spread his message among the people. He spoke in the language
of the region, Ardhamagadhi, not in the classical Sanskrit of the
scholars, and the oldest Jain scriptures are preserved in that language.
Some people, men and women, were inspired to give up all possessions and
become monks and nuns. Others were unable to go that far but followed
Mahavira's teachings without giving up their homes and families and work.
Mahavira taught a scientific explanation of the nature
and meaning of life and a guide as to how we should behave to draw this
real nature and meaning into our own life. We must start with three
things. First, we must have RIGHT FAITH , we must believe in truth.
Second, we must have the RIGHT KNOWLEDGE, we must study to understand what
life is all about. Third, we must follow RIGHT CONDUCT, the conduct which
our faith and knowledge show us to be correct. These are the 'three
jewels', ratnatraya. of Jainism.
RIGHT FAITH is perhaps the hardest of all. Nobody can
tell us what we can believe, but we can look at the message of Mahavira
and believe that he really did know what he was talking about and that his
message makes sense.
Mahavira's message contains the basis of RIGHT
KNOWLEDGE. Life is a puzzle. Where did we come from before birth? Where do
we go after death? Nobody's life is completely and totally happy, but why
do some people have lives of great misery and others have much joy?
Mahavira teaches us that this is not the result of the whims of some
distant god. No, each one of us is what we have made ourselves by our
actions in this life and in previous lives. Every individual (and not only
humans, but animals and plants) is basically a pure spirit or soul (jiva
is the Jain word for it) which is capable of complete knowledge and
complete freedom. But by our actions and thoughts we have, as it were,
covered this pure spirit with the gross material of karma which obscures
our knowledge and limits our freedom and ties us down to one life after
another. Although we may have a lot of happiness in life we also, all of
us, have a great deal of unhappiness. We want to know the way in which we
can get rid of the restrictions of karma and gain the state of complete
knowledge and glorious freedom which is known as moksa or nirvana.
Although this may be a very long, very slow process for most of us, over
countless lives, Mahavira teaches us how to make a start in freeing
ourselves from the restrictions and miseries of karma.
So we come to RIGHT CONDUCT. Strength of passions is
the worst thing, passions of violence and desire and possession. The most
important principle which runs through the whole of Mahavira's attitude of
life is ahimsa. This is usually translated as 'non-violence', but it goes
beyond that and really means the greatest possible kindness to all living
things. This is the first and fundamental rule which we should try to
follow, to get rid of violence in all our actions and even in our
thoughts. Yes, in our thoughts as well, for violent thoughts can be
potentially as harmful as violent deeds.
Mahavira's teachings, if faithfully followed, have two
results. Firstly, they produce a better society for every creature to live
in, and secondly, they enable the individual to improve his or her own
inner feelings and character. So, following on from ahimsa, we are taught
to be truthful and honest, to create both individuals and a society in
which lies and theft, and general insecurity, are absent. Lies and theft
are the result of our passions and possessiveness. True peace and harmony
in society and in the individual are possible only if we can restrain our
passions and desires. So Mahavira tells us to reduce our longing for the
things of the world, for material possessions and for sexual activities.
We can never have real peace of spirit so long as we are constantly
seeking more and more possessions and pleasures.
These then are the five rules of conduct which Mahavira
taught, non-violence, truthfulness, no stealing, non- acquisition and
control of sexual desires. It is a hard program and not everybody can
follow it all at once. So Mahavira set up a society in which some people,
monks and nuns, try to follow his program as far as is humanly possible.
Others, ordinary lay people, men and women, do not give up their homes and
jobs and families, but they try as far as possible in the circumstances of
daily life to follow the five rules of conduct. While the monk or nun can
take precautions to avoid harm even to the tiniest living creature, the
rule of non-violence must mean something less for ordinary people caught
up in the ordinary business of our lives. A monk or nun can give up all
possessions and seek no more: for most of us non-acquisition must mean
trying to reduce our craving for possessions and the pleasures of the
world. Monks and nuns can go very much further than married men and women
in subduing their attachment to sex.
Mahavira taught his message for thirty years until his
life on earth ended and he passed on to that state of complete freedom and
bliss and peace which we call moksa. For most of us moksa is a very long
way away. But he taught us how we can approach it ourselves by rules which
lead to inner peace and harmony inside ourselves and outward peace and
harmony in human society. He taught more than that, a democratic
organization in the society which he set up, with all men and women
playing their part and with no barriers of class or caste. He also taught
tolerance and an appreciation that things can be seen from more points of
view than one. Above all he taught that we ourselves produce our own fate
by our own actions and emotions: we should not look outside for some god
to praise or blame or ask for favors. When we honor Mahavira we do not ask
him for present help, but we meditate on his example and teachings and
seek to draw the real meaning of these into our own life and spirit.
This is the essence of Mahavira's teachings. Jainism is
one of the world's oldest religions: the modern Jain may well see it as
scientific, practical and fitted for the modern world.