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The preceding description of Indian society in 6th century B.C. has been given in such detail, for it is only with a full knowledge of that background that a correct evaluation of the noble work and achievements of Mahavira is really possible. Mahavira was born in the year 599 B.C. at Kundagrama, which was a suburb of the flourishing town of Vaisali, about twenty-seven miles north of Patna. His father Siddhartha was apparently the chieftain of the place and his mother, Trisala, was the sister of the Vaisali ruler, whose name has been given in the Jaina texts as Cetaka. According to the Jaina belief, Mahavira�s parents were worshippers of Parsva and followers of the Sramanas.


Tirthankara Parsva:


There is a Jaina tradition that Jainism is as old as the human race, that the religion shall remain in existence till eternity, and that it has been and will be revealed again and again in the endless succeeding periods of the world by innumerable Tirthankaras. In each of these periods there are twenty-four Tirthankaras, the first Tirthankara of present age being Rsabha and the last two being Parsva and Mahavira. Historical research in India was so crude and unorganized at one time that all these Tirthankaras, including Mahavira, were looked upon by the historians of ancient India as just mythical personages. The credit of recognizing the historical existence of Mahavira goes surprisingly enough, to a German scholar in the field of Indology, Professor Herman Jacobi, who made an English translation of the first Jaina Anga: Acaranga, and published it with a masterly introduction in the series called the �Sacred Books of the East� in 1884. Ancient historical research has made some progress since then, and today Indian historians are prepared to freely recognize not only that Mahavira was a historic personage but also that the twenty-third Tirthankara, Parsva, and some at least of his predecessors had historical existence.


Parsva was the son of King Asvasena of Benares, who belonged to the Iksvaku race of the Ksatriya. In his marital relations he was connected with the royal family of King Prasenajit, whose father Naravarman designated himself as the lord of the universe. It has not been possible so far to historically identify Asvasena of Benares or Prasenajit and his father Naravarman of Kusasthala; but in spite of that limitation historians have been willing to accept the historicity of Parsva because of certain other historical and geographical coincidences. The existence of the great tirtha, the hill of Samet-Sikhara (which is locally known as the Parsvanatha Hill), on the spot at which the twenty-third Tirthankara attained his final liberation (Nirvana) affords a monumental proof of his historicity. Jaina literature, of course, contains numerous references to Parsva and records the facts of his life, but even contemporary Buddhist and other literature affords striking evidence about the existence of Nirgranthas before the time of Mahavira.


These Nirgranthas or followers of Parsva were undoubtedly Jaina monks; Mahavira himself was referred to as such, and he insisted on calling his followers by the same name. This system preached by Parsva must have been philosophically founded upon the same presuppositions that mark the present-day Jaina Siddhanta, but it is presumable that it did not quite offer the same pattern of ethical conduct or moral discipline. First, the religion of Parsva laid down only four vows (chaturiam) for the observance of his followers: ahinsa (non-killing); sunirij (truthful speech), astay (non-stealing), and aprigreh (renouncing of all illusory objects) ; while Mahavira specified, and present day Jainism recognizes, five great vows, the vow of chastity being given the same status as the vow of ahimsa. Jacobi is of the opinion that �the augmentation in the text presupposes a decay of the morals of the monastic order to have occurred between Parsva and Mahavira.� It was possibly a reflection in the domain of social ethics of the newly growing ideas of sanctity of property which marked the rise of economic capitalism in Indian society. Secondly, although it is clear that Parsva�s sanha as well as Mahavira�s comprehended the monk and the nun, and the layman and the laywoman, the type of distinction between an ordinary layman (shravak) and a layman who took a special type of diksha and undertook to observe the twelve lay vows (shramano pasak), which undoubtedly formed a peculiar feature of Mahavira�s sangha, did not seem to characterize Parsva�s sangha at all. The difference between a sravak and sramano pasek in Mahavira, sangha consisted presumably in this, that a Sravaka took no definite vows but merely expressed sympathy and his faith as a Jaina while a Sramanopasaka took definite vows: Mahavira drew a distinction between the five great vows which laid down the practice of right conduct for the ascetic, and the five lesser vows which indicated the rules of discipline for the layman and were reinforced by seven more lay vows under which the layman imposed on himself voluntary limitations regarding the areas of his desires, his travel, the things of his daily use, the performance of meditation every day and every month, and the giving of alms to the ascetic. There is an occasional mention of the twelve vows of the sravaka in Parsva�s sangha also, but that appears to be no more than a conventional way of writing for it is obvious that there could not be twelve-there could be at best only eleven-vows of Parsva�s sravakas. What is significant is that Parsva�s sravakas. What is significant is that Parsva�s system is invariably spoken of as catuyram in the Buddhist and the Jaina texts, and such invariable use of the term does not warrant the type of distinction which Mahavira felt impelled to draw between the great and the lesser vows.


The Jaina Idea of Biography:


It is amazing that historical scholars should have ever been inclined to doubt the existence of Mahavira. Jaina literature, particularly Jaina canonical literature, which is avowedly older than the classical Sanskrit literature and which vies in its antiquity with the oldest books of the northern Buddhists, is replete with the facts of Mahavira�s life. Jacobi is of the view that European scholars were confounded by the similarities between Buddhism and Jainism and between Buddha�s and Mahavira�s life and that they came to this conclusion due to their lack of study on the subject. The numerous names and appellations by which these two prophets were called Jina, Arhat, Mahavira, Sugatta, Sarvajna, Tathagata, Siddha, Buddha, Sambuddha, Parinivrtta, Mukta, etc., and the fact that both of them were given the same titles and epithets further confused historical scholars. But, Jacobi has stated, with the exception of Jina and perhaps Sramana, which were quite commonly used by both the sects, the Buddhists and the Jainas made a preferential selection of certain titles only. Thus, Buddha, Tathagata, Sugata and Sambuddha are common titles of Sakyamuni and are only occasionally used as epithets of Mahavira. On the other hand, Mahavira is often referred to in the Jaina Agama as Vardhamana, Because of the �increase that had taken place in the popularity of his parents ever since the moment he had been begotten�, still more often as Jnatrputra. The Buddhist texts refer to him as Nataputta, and it was not until quite late that Jacobi identified the term Nataputta to be a variation of Janatrputra. He is also called Vira, Ativira, Sanmati and by a host of other names in the later literature of the Jainas.


These names are clearly qualitative names, that is to say, they are meant to draw attention to certain qualities possessed by Mahavira; and they are all indicative of a distinct point of view which underlay the Jaina idea of biography. The Jaina viewpoint while writing a biography is not that of the usual historical biographer. The Jaina interest is not diffused over the whole range of the subject�s activities; it is all centered at one point, and that point is the attainment by his subject of salvation. The Jaina biographer writes about other things only in so far as they have to do with the attainment of his ultimate object. Interest would be spread over the whole wide field of activity when a biography like that of Rama or Krishna, is written with a view to help the codification of the principles of dharma. The Brahmanic view, which was based on a desire for success in the world as well as the next and which linked up, in the significant phrase of Sir S. Radha-Krishna, �the realm of desires with the prospective of the eternal�, thought in terms of the purusharth or human values- Dharma, artha, kama, and moksa- and considered the acquisition of wealth and the enjoyment of the present life as worthwhile as the ultimate attainment of the moksa. But to the Jaina there is no such thing as a real enjoyment of material things.


The Jaina siddhanta is based upon the presupposition that the whole universe can be classified into one or other of the two everlasting, uncreated, coexisting but independent categories, the jiva and the ajiva; and the Jaina metaphysics proceeds on the assumption that the Jiva (which corresponds in general to the atman of the other schools of Indian thought) not only exists but that it also acts and is acted upon. The intrinsic nature of the Jiva is one of perfection and is characterized by infinite intelligence (anantgyan), infinite perception (anantdarshan), infinite peace (anantsukh), and infinite power (anantveeriya). During the period of the union, however, of the Jiva with matter which constitutes samsara, the characteristic features of the Jiva�s qualities are obscured, although not destroyed, and �the exterior semblance of the Jiva belies its innate glory�; and from this obscuration it becomes the duty of each individual soul to free itself. Man�s personality in this view consists of two elements, the spiritual and the material; and according to Jainism, the object of life is so to subdue the latter as to completely sake off its malignant influence and thereby enable the Jiva to all its inherent excellencies in their fullness. A man�s action in life may be of two kinds, that which maintains, or even strengthens, the bond of union between Jiva and the matter, and thus-whether it brings pleasure or pain to the doer-effectually keeps the Jiva in a state of bondage, and that which tends to cut asunder the union between Jiva and matter and thus helps the Jiva to attain its freedom and ultimately perfection. The first kind of action, and its is just this action which is germane to what we call worldly achievements, is from a spiritual point of view undeserving of very much attention; and so the Jaina biographer, whose main interest is centered on the attainment of the ultimate, has been on the whole inclined to omit it from his analysis. It is only the spiritual activity of the individual about which he has written.