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Mahavira's Natural Bend of Mind


All biographies of Mahavira are agreed upon one point, namely, that he led the life of a householder for thirty years. With what mental attitude this period of life was lived, of that we have no certain knowledge. Certain Digambara books suggest that Mahavira lived his life as a house-holder in a normal manner, taking a healthy interest in his environment and enjoying the many opportunities of work and play afforded to him by his exalted station in society, until all of a sudden in his thirtieth year he began to reflect and meditate and feeling dissatisfied with the prospect of an �unending mundane existence� made up his mind to renounce the world. The Svetambara accounts, on the other hand, depict Mahavira as having been an unusually reflective lad from the very beginning. Even in his early youth he seems to have thought of renouncing the world, but he was always prevailed upon by his affectionate parents to change his resolve. Nor did Mahavira desired to hurt his parents, if he could help it. It appears that Mahavira�s parents were quite assiduous in making attempts to engage the boy�s mind in worldly things and in creating around him a luscious atmosphere of amusement and pleasure. Fairly early in life he was married to a charming princess, Yasoda, belonging to the Kaundinya gotra.


On the question of Mahavira�s marriage there is a fundamental difference of detail between the Digambara and Svetambara accounts. While the Svetambara books distinctly mention that Mahavira lived married life for about 10 years and begot a daughter named Anojja or Priyadarsana, the Digambara books deny the fact of marriage altogether. But from a critical study of the several old biographies of Mahavira, it is possible to establish that the Digambara view is based upon a misconstruction of certain verses in the Paumacariya and Avasyaka Niryukti. These books give in a comparative form the various details about the life of the Tirthankaras; with reference to their status at the time of renunciation these books mention hat while the other Tirthankaras renounced the world after having been actual rulers over their states, Vasupujya (the 12th Tirthankara), Malli (the 19th Tirthankara), Nemi (the 22nd Tirthankar), Parsva (the 23rd Tirthankara), and Mahavira were still kumar (i.e. princes).


Mali Arithnaimee paso veero ya vasupunjay (57)

Aiai kumarsiya gayaho nigya jinrvarinda

Saisa vi hu rayanro puhee bhotunr nikhanta (58)



Veeram aritoothanaimee pasem malim cha vasupunjam cha

Aiai mutoonr jinrai avsaisa asee rayanro

Raikulaisu vi jaya visudhvanyaisu khtiykulaisu

Na ya ichhiyabhisaya kumarvsami pviya



 The same couplets, in Sanskrit, have been repeated in the Digambara books such as Padma-Purana and Harivamsa-Purana.


Vasupoojyo bhaveero mali pasharvo yadutam

Kumara nirgata gaihat prithveepatyoparai

                                  -Padyapuran 20.67


Nishkrantivrasupoojysy malairnaimijinantyo

Panchanan tu kumarakhyan ragyan -shaishjinaishanam

                       -Harivanshpuranr 60.214


It is clear that the word kumar in these verses has been interpreted in its other meaning of �celibate� by the later Digambara acaryas1; but it is also obvious that this meaning will not possibly bear in the context. There is no particular reason in these circumstances to disbelieve the facts of Mahavira�s marriage. It is possible, however, that the marriage when made was against his own inclination and desire and was made in difference to the wishes of the parents; but that he lived a marriage life for several years and became father seems to be well-founded.


The Digambara and Svetambara versions differ also on another point, whether in the thirtieth year of Mahavira�s life when he actually renounced the world his parents were alive or dead. The Svetambara accounts mention hat Mahavira had made a promise to his mother that he would not renounce the world so long as the parents were alive. This would seem to follow quite logically from what has been said before about Mahavira�s leaning toward ascetic life and the parent�s objection to his renouncing the world and taking up an ascetical career and from the further fact that Mahavira was naturally a dutiful and considerate son, although strong in his determination at the same time. The story goes that Mahavira�s parents died when he was in his twenty-eighth year, that �perceiving that the time of his renunciation had come� he repeated his desire to enter the Order to his elder brother who was now the eldest member of the family, and that the brother dissuaded him from acting on that desire forthwith, for �the deaths of our parents are still fresh in our memories, your leaving us at this time would render our bereavement the more unbearable and painful.� Mahavira lived for two years more in the palace and then �with the consent of those in power entered the spiritual career�. The Digambara books, on the other hand, mention that Mahavira�s parents were alive at the time when he renounced the world, that they tried first to dissuade him from his resolve but yielded in the end when they found that Mahavira was definitely bent upon executing it.




Be that as it may, the fact remains that disgusted with the non-finality of the things of the world and persuaded by a desire to search for the ultimate Truth, on the tenth day of Margasirsa Mahavira formally renounced all his secular bonds, left his silver, gold and riches, quitted and rejected his real, valuable property, distributed his wealth in presents, set out for the life of a homeless monk. The great event has been somewhat poignantly described in the Kalpa-sutra.


       �In that period, in that age, in the first month of winter, in the first fortnight, in the dark (fortnight) of Margasirsa, on its tenth day, when the shadow had turned towards the east and the (first) Paurusi was full and over, on the day called Suvrata, in the Muhurta called Vijaya, in the palanquin Candraprabha, Mahavira was followed on his way by a train of gods, men, and asuras, and surrounded by a swarm of shell-blowers, proclaimers, pattivalas, courtiers, men carrying others on the back, heralds, bell beaters. They praised and hymned him with kind, pleasing, sweet and soft words.............


�Then the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira-gazed on by a circle of thousands of eyes, praised by a circle of thousands of mouths, extolled by a circle of thousands of mouths, extolled by a circle of thousands of hearts, being the object of many thousands of wishes, desired because of his splendor, beauty, and virtues, pointed out by a circle of thousands of forefingers, answering with (a greeting) of his hands a circle of thousands of jointed hands of thousands of men and women, passing along a row of thousands, of palaces, greeted by sweet and delightful music, as beating of time, performance on the Vina, Turya and the great drum, in which joined shouts of victory, and the low and pleasing murmur of the people; accompanied by all his pomp, all his splendor, all his army, all his train, by all his retinue, by all his magnificence, by all his grandeur, by all his ornaments, by all the tumult, by all the throng, by all subjects, by all time-beaters, by the whole seraglio, adorned with flowers, scented robes, garlands, and ornaments, and under the continuous din and sound of trumpets, with great state and splendor, with a great train of soldiers, vehicles, and guests, under the sound, din, and noise of conches, cymbals, drums, castanets, horns, small drums, kettle drums, Muajas, Mrdangas, and Dundubhis, which were accompanied at the same time by trumpets-went right through Kundapura to a park called the Sandavana of the Jnatrkas and proceeded to the excellent tree Asoka. There under the excellent tree Asoka he caused his palanquin to stop, descended from his palanquin, took of his ornaments, garlands and finery with his own hands, and with his own hands plucked out his hair in five handfuls. When the moon was on conjunction with the asterism Uttaraphalguni, he after fasting two and a half days without drinking water, put on a divine robe, and quite alone, nobody else being present, he tore out his hair and leaving the house entered the state of houselessness.�


The Ascetic Life:


Mahavira�s ascetic life before his attainment of the highest spiritual knowledge lasted for more than twelve years. Since his parents were lay disciples of the Order of Parsva, it would be justified to infer that he began his novitiate as an ascetical member of the same Order. At the same time it appears that he did not abide rigorously by all the specified rules of the Order: there is a tradition current in Jaina literature that a Tirthankara does not adopt a guru and, presumably, the prevailing practice of an earlier Tirthankaras Order. There seems to be no doubt that the monks of Parsva�s Order wore clothes. In the Uttaradhyayayana sutra there is an account of a meeting between Kesi, a young Sramana of the school of Parsva, and Gautama, the chief disciple of Mahavira, in which �knowledge and virtuous conduct were for ever brought to eminence and subjects of the greatest importance were settled.� The matter that had been occasioning controversy was hat Parsva�s law recognized only four vows and permitted the wearing by the monks of an under and an upper garment, while Mahavira�s law enjoined five vows and forbade the wearing of clothes altogether; and Gautama explained away the difficulty by stating that �the various outward marks of religious men introduced to distinguish them do not count towards final liberation but only knowledge, faith and right conduct. In conformity with the rules of Parsva�s Order, Mahavira also wore clothes for a year and a month, but then adopted nudity and stuck to it throughout the rest of his life. The Digambara tradition credits him with having adopted nudity from the start.


His habits of life during this period may be briefly mentioned. He went about naked and without any outfit of any kind. He did not even possess a bowl for collecting food, which he collected in the hollow of his hands. He completely neglected his body and abandoned care of it. Many insects crawled on his person, bit him and caused him pain, but he bore it with patience. People were shocked at the sight of him; they shouted at him and at time even struck him. He bore everything patiently and with equanimity. For days and months he would observe silence and remain absorbed in his own thoughts. The Digambara tradition mentions that he observed the vow of silence for twelve years, but that is possibly an exaggeration. He avoided men as well as women, often gave no answers to questions put to him and omitted to return greetings. Diversions of all kinds he positively avoided. The ascetic life of Mahavira strongly contrasted with the probationary period in Buddha�s life. The Buddha created an agreeable impression wherever he went; he was welcomed by teachers like Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta and their pupils, and even when he followed a graduated course of austerities and consequently reduced himself to a mere skeleton, skin and bone, he did not arouse the hostility of the onlooker. Mahavira�s troubles were partly due to his unkempt appearance and partly to his somber silence and look of grim determination. Not without justification do the Jaina accounts say that unusually large for a Tirthankara was Mahavira�s share of the defilement of Karma which he had to suppress before obtaining enlightenment.