Life of Vardhamana Mahavira
Vardhamana Mahavira, the twenty-fourth and last Tirthankaras of the Jains is the most important figure in the history of Jainism. It was he who consolidated the Jain Church and laid such a firm foundation for it that it has existed almost unchanged for more than twenty-five centuries. As already mentioned, his name, Nigantha Nataputta, occurs in the early Buddhist records. Since these sources are independent, they establish the historicity of Mahavira. The Buddhist records do not give any details about the life of Mahavira, except to state that he was a leader of the Nigantha sect. The Buddhist also record the time of his death.
The Jain sources also do not give any particulars about his life as a teacher. The events before his birth, such as the dreams his mother had when he was conceived are described in great detail, but few details are given about him after he was born. At the age of thirty Mahavira became an ascetic, and wandered about for twelve years. But of Mahavira's life as a teacher for nearly thirty years until his death at the age of 72, the sources are reticent.
The life of Mahavira as we can gather from the Svetambaras sources is as follows:
Mahavira was Kshatriya of the Jnatri clan and a native of the (Kshatriya) Kundagram, a suburb of the town of Vaishali (near Patna). He was the second son of Siddhartha and Trishala, a highly connected lady. In fact Trishala was the sister1 of king Chetaka of Vaishali whose daughter Chellana was married to Shranik Bimbisara king of Magadh. Mahavira's family tree can be drawn up as follows.2
Suparshva----Siddhartha Trishala or----Cetaka Subhadra
Videhadatta king of Vaishali
Kunika or Ajatashatru
Founder of Pataliputra
VARDHAMAN married to YASHODA
Anojia or Priyadarshana married to Jamali
The Svetambaras say that the soul of this Tirthankara had first descended into the womb of the Brahman Devananda. There after his fetus had been, by the order of Shakra (Indra) removed thence to the womb of Trishala who actually gave birth to Mahavira. One may rightly ask how people came to know of this incident of the transfer of the fetus. According to the Svetambaras it was Mahavira himself who revealed this to his disciples when Devananda once came to see him. This is how it is described in the Bhagavati Sutra.
(The Brahman Rishabhadatta and his wife Devananda went on pilgrimage to Mahavira). Then milk began to flow from the breast of Brahman woman Devananda, her eyes filled with tears, her arms swelled inside her bangles, her jacket stretched, the hairs of her body stood erect, as when a Kadamba unfolds itself in response to a shower of rain; thus she gazed at the holy monk Mahavira without averting her eyes. "Why master, " said the venerable Gautam to the holy monk Mahavira, "does the Brahman woman gaze... (Thus).... without averting her eyes?" "Hear, Gautama" Said Mahavira, "The Brahman Woman Devananda is my mother, I am the son of the Brahman woman Devananda. That is why the Brahman woman Devananda gazes at me with tender love, the cause of which is that I first originated in her."3
All the five important events in the life of Mahavira, his conception, birth, renunciation of home life, attainment of supreme knowledge, and death occurred when the moon was in conjunction with the asterism Uttaraphalguni. His parents who were pious Jains (i.e. worshippers of Parshva4) gave him the name Vardhamana. (Vira or Mahavira is an epithet used as a name). He married Yashoda and by her had a daughter Anojja (also known as Priyadarshana). His parents died when he was 30 years old; and his elder brother Nandivardhana succeeded of his father in whatever position he had held. With the permission of his brother and other authorities, he carried out along cherished resolve and became monk with the usual Jain rites. Then followed 12 years of self-mortification. Mahavira wandered about as a mendicant friar bearing all kinds of hardships; after the first 13 months he even discarded clothes. At the end of this period dedicated to meditation and travels, he reached the state of omniscience (kevala) corresponding to the bodhi of the Buddhists.
We have some details of Mahavira's itinerary during the twelve years that he roamed about in eastern India before he reached the state of omniscience. Mahavira's life during these twelve years was spent in great difficulties. Sometimes he was taken for a thief by the villagers. Sometimes he and Goshala, his companion for six or seven years were suspected to be spies. The details of his journeys during these twelve years are given in Jinadasa's churni to the Avashayaka Sutra. This churni according to Schubring cannot be dated earlier than the 7th century AD, but it is generally taken to be more or less reliable.
Within a few days of Mahavira's renunciation of the world, he went to a village called Kummara. He stood there in meditation for sometime. One cow- herder took him to be a thief and wanted to hit him, and Mahavira had to leave the village. Mahavira spent the first rainy season of his ascetic life in Atthiyagama.
During the second year, while Mahavira was crossing the river Suvannakula, his garment was caught in the thorns on the bank of the river. From this time onwards he remained naked. Mahavira passed his second rainy season in a weaver's shed in Nalanda near Rajagriha. Here Makkhali Goshala met him and became his companion. The two of them left for Kollaga. The third rainy season was passed by Mahavira and Goshala in Champa.
While Mahavira and Goshala were traveling through Coraga Sannivesa they were suspected to be hostile spies, and thrown into well. They were however recognized by two female followers of Parshva and were released. They passed the fourth rainy season in Pitthichampa.
The next year of their ascetic lives was very difficult for Goshala and Mahavira. Goshala was apt to mock at people and therefore, was beaten up by them many times. They also traveled to Ladha (south-west Bengal) in this year and were ill-treated by the people. They spent the fifth rainy season in Bhaddiya.
In their travels in this year the two were again taken as spies at a place called Kuviya Sannivesa. They were later released by the intervention of two sisters called Viyaya and Pragalbha. At this time Goshala refused to move in the company of Mahavira, saying that since he was made to bear insults every now and then he would prefer to travel alone. They parted company for the time being, but after about six months, when Mahavira was in Salsisygama, Goshala joined him again. They passed the sixth rainy season in Bhaddiya.
They passed their seventh rainy season in Alabhiya. In the next year Goshala was again beaten-up by the people for his mocking behavior. At one time while the two were in Lohaggala, a place described as the capital of king Jiyasattu, the royal servants took them to be enemy spies and tied them up. Later they were set free by Uppala who is said to have arrived there from Atthiyagama. The eighth rainy season was passed by Mahavira and Goshala in Rayagiha (Rahagriha).
From Rahagriha, Mahavira and Goshala proceeded to Ladha and traveled in Vajjabhumi and Subbhabhumi where Mahavira had to undergo all sorts of torture. These have been described in detail in the Acharonga Sutra. An extract is as follows:
"He traveled in the pathless country of the Ladhas in Vijjabhumi and Subbhabhumi; he used there, miserable beds and miserable seats. In Ladha (happened) to him many dangers. Many natives attacked him. Even in the faithful part of the rough country the dogs bit him, ran at him. Few people kept off the attacking, biting dogs. Striking the monk, they cried "Chhuchchhu" and made the dogs bite him. Such were the inhabitants. Many other mendicants, eating rough food in Vijjabhumi, and carrying about a strong pole or a stalk(to keep off the dogs), lived there. Even thus armed they were bitten by the dogs, torn by the dogs. It is difficult to travel in Ladha".
They passed the ninth rainy season in this country.
In the tenth year while the two were in Siddhatthapura, Goshala finally severed all connections with Mahavira, and went to Savatthi. Mahavira then traveled alone for the rest of the year and passed his tenth rainy season in Savatthi.
The exact reason why Mahavira and Goshala parted company is not clear. Perhaps the reason was that Goshala did not care much for chastity and this Mahavira did not like. We have in the Sutrakritanga a statement which Goshala, made to Ardraka, a disciple of Mahavira. "As your Law makes it no sin for Mahavira to surround himself by a crowd of disciples, so according to our Law an ascetic, who lives alone and single, commits no sin if he uses cold water, eats seeds, accepts things prepared for him, and has intercourse with women."
Goshala spent the last days of his life in Shravasti in the house of a potter woman called Halahala.
It was perhaps after seeing this sort of behavior that Mahavira thought it prudent to make the vow of Brahmacharya as one of the necessary conditions of monk-hood, and added it to the list of the four vows of Parshva.
The eleventh year of Mahavira was one of his most difficult years. At Tosali he was taken for a robber and hit hard. Then he went to Mosali where he was arrested as a robber but was released by king's court. When he went back to Tosali the people tried to hang him but he was rescued by a Tosali Kshatriya. The whole of the year was a period of torture and humiliation. He passed his eleventh rainy season in Vesali.
The nest year was of comparative peace. Mahavira passed his twelfth rainy season in Champa.
From Champa Mahavira reached Jambhiyagama, and then journeyed to Mendhiyagama. Then he proceeded to Chammanigama where a cowherd is said to have thrust iron nails into his ears. Mahavira arrived at Majjhima Pava in this condition where the nails were removed from his ears. From here he traveled towards Jambhiyagama, where on the northern bank of the river Ujjuvaliya, in the farm of the householder Samaga, under a Shala tree, in the north-east of Veyavatta shrine, after a period of 12 years 6 months and 15 days, Mahavira attained omniscience (kevala) on the bright tenth day of Vaishakha.
After Mahavira attained Kevala, a Samavarsana (religious conference) was held on the bank of the river Ujjuvaliya, but it is said that the first preaching of Mahavira remained unsuccessful. Then after traversing twelve Yojanas, Mahavira is said to have returned to Majjhima Pava where the second Samavarsana was convened in the garden of Mahasena. Here, after a long discussion on various religious and philosophic points, Mahavira ordained eleven learned Brahmans.7
These eleven Brahmans later became the eleven ganaharas (Ganadhara) of Mahavira. Nine of them died within the life time of Mahavira and only two of them Indabhui Goyama (Indrabhuti Gautama) and Suhamma (Sudharman survived him. Schubring remarks: There can be scarcely any doubt that the other nine ganaharas are fictitious."8 In fact in the Jain canonical books there is scarcely any mention of these nine ganaharas.
Mahavira lived for about 30 years after attaining omniscience at the age of forty-two. The Jain rules prescribe that during eight months of the summer and winter seasons a monk may stay in a village for one night only and in a town for not more than five nights. During the four months of the rainy season he should stay at one place. The places where Mahavira spent his forty-two rainy seasons are given in the Kalpa Sutra. These were as follows:
Places of Rainy Season Stay
1. Atthiyaggama - 1 (The first rainy season)
2. Champa and PitthiChampa - 3
3. Vesali and Vaniyagama -12
4. Rayagiha and Nalanda -14
5. Mithila - 6
6. Bhaddiya - 2
7. Alabhiya - 1
8. Paniyabhumi - 1
9. Savatthi - 1
10. In the town of Pava - 1 (this was his last rainy season.)
in the office the clerk
of king Hattivala
The area which Mahavira covered during his ascetic life of 42 years, e.g. from the time he left home and until his death, was roughly Bihar, a part of western and northern Bengal and some parts of eastern Uttar pradesh. Tosali is also mentioned in some works as a place to which Mahavira went. If this Tosali was in Orissa then Mahavira had gone to that region also.
Most of the early Jain works do not take much interest in describing the life of Mahavira after he attained omniscience and became a teacher.9 There are, however, scattered references here and there. The Bhagvati Sutra is the only early work giving comparatively more details of Mahavira's life both before and after he attained omniscience. The later Jain writers collected these and other bits of stories about his life and put them in the works called the "Lives of the sixty-three Supermen." Among these works the most well known is the Trishashti- Shalakapurushacharitra of Hemachandra.10 Mahavira's life is given in the tenth book of this work. Since Hemachandra was one of the most learned persons among the Jains, it may be presumed that he has given in his work, only those parts of the myths and legends connected with Mahavira's life which he found most believable. For mahavira's life. He had, therefore, filled-up most of his work with the histories of other important people such as the contemporary rulers and their spouses. Sometimes it is difficult to find relevance of these stories to the life of Mahavira).
Shortly after attaining omniscience Mahavira started wandering in villages, mines, cities, etc., to give help to souls capable of emancipation. Many people would come to see him. Among the first people to him were his natural parents Rishabhadatta and Devananda. It was during this visit that Mahavira recognized Devananda as his mother in whose womb he had first descended from heaven and stayed on for eighty-two days before being transferred to Trishala's womb.
Among the early visitors to Mahavira during his wandering were Jamali, his sister's son as well as his son-in- law. Jamali met Mahavira while the latter was in Kshatriya- Kundagram, the village where Mahavira was born. Priyadarshana, Mahavira's daughter, and wife of Jamali had heard a sermon and obtained his parents consent; he took the vow together with five hundred of the warrior caste. Priyadarshana, Jamali's wife, the Blessed one's daughter, together with one thousand women took initiation under the Master. Then the Blessed one went elsewhere to wander, and Jamali followed him with the warrior-sadhus. In the course of time Jamali, as he wandered, learned the eleven Angas and the Lord made him the head of his fellow-mendicants. He practiced penance’s, two-day fasts, etc. Priyadarshana followed Candana.
This Candana was the daughter of Dadhivahana, king of Champa. He had been defeated in a battle and his daughter Candana had been enslaved. Once Candana had given half the food that had been given to her while she was nearly starving to Mahavira as alms. At that time Mahavira had still not attained omniscience. He had taken a vow that he would fast for a long time. It was predicted by the gods, "This girl, who has her last body (before emancipation), averse to desire for worldly pleasures, will be the first female disciple, when Mahavira's omniscience had developed".
One day Jamali bowed to the Lord and said: "With your permission I and my group shall proceed with unrestricted wanderings." The Blessed One knew by the eye of knowledge that evil would result, and gave no answer to Jamali asking again and again. With the idea that what is not forbidden is permitted, Jamali and his group separated from the Lord to wander.
While thus wandering along with his followers Jamali once fell ill. He wanted to lie down and asked his men to spread a bed for him. After some time, he asked them whether the bed was spread or not. They were still spreading the bed and replied that the bed was spread. When Jamali saw that the bed had not until then been spread, he got annoyed with his followers. They replied that according to the teachings of Mahavira "What is being done is done". But now they realized their mistake and knew the truth that "What is being done is not done". This in fact was the sole point in the schism on which Jamali and his group separated from Mahavira. Jamali started boasting that he had attained omniscience. He told Mahavira that he had become all knowing, all perceiving, an Arhat here on earth. His wife Priyadarshana also joined him in his heresy. She, however, realized her mistake by a personal experience. Once a person had intentionally allowed a spark of fire to drop on her habit, which caught fire. When she saw that her habit was burning Priyadarshana said, "Look Dhanka, my habit is burnt by your carelessness". Dhanks said, "Do not speak falsely, Sadhvi, for according to your doctrine, it is proper to say such a thing when the whole habit has been burnt." Being burnt is burnt' the teaching of Mahavira. "Priyadarshana realized her error in following Jamali's teaching and came back with her followers to her father.
Jamali, however, continued with his false doctrine and at last died without confessing his sin. Jamali's doctrine died with him.
The next important episode described by Hemachadra, is the death of Goshala, the leader of the Ajivikas (Hemachandra spells it Ajivaka).
In his wanderings Mahavira had come to Shravasti and stopped there in the garden of one Kosthanka. Goshala had come there earlier and was staying in Shravasti in the shop of a potter woman called Halahala. Goshala used to call himself omniscient. Once while he entered Shravasti for alms, Gautama, one of the chief disciples of Mahavira heard that Goshala was making these claims. Gautama asked Mahavira whether Goshala was right in this matter. Mahavira said: "The son of Mankha, Mankhali, thinking himself a Jina though he is not a Jina, Goshala is a house of deceit. Initiated by me myself, taught by me, he resorted to wrong belief about me. He is not omniscient, Gautama".
When Goshala heard Mahavira's opinion about him, he was greatly annoyed. When he saw Ananda, another disciple of Mahavira, he threatened that he had a hot flash with which he would consume an enemy. He would destroy Mahavira and his disciples with his flash. When Ananda reported this to Mahavira, he remarked that Goshala indeed had this dangerous flash, with which he could consume anybody except the Arhat, who would only feel some discomfort. That is why Goshala should not be teased.
Ananda reported this to the people of Shravasti. This made Goshala angrier, and he came and started abusing Mahavira. Indeed, he was able to kill two of Mahavira's disciples with his hot flash when they tried to remonstrate.
Mahavira tried to pacify Goshala, but Mahavir's words made Goshala angrier, and he discharged his hot flash at Mahavira. "Powerless against the Master like a hurricane against a mountain, it (the flash) circumambulated the Lord, resembling a devotee. From the hot flash there was only warmth in the Master's body..... The hot flash, as if angry because he had used it for a crime, alas! Turned and entered Goshala's body forcibly".
"Burned internally by it, Goshala had recourse to audacity and said arrogantly to the Blessed Mahavira: "Consumed by my hot flash, you will die at the end of six months succumbing to a bilious fever, still an ordinary ascetic, Kashyapa".
"The Master said: "Goshala, your speech is false, since I, omniscient, shall wander for sixteen years more. But you suffering from a bilious fever from your own hot flash, will die at the end of the seven days. There is no doubt about it".
"The miserable Goshala, burned by his own hot flash drank wine to allay the great heat, accepting a bowl of wine. Intoxicated by the wine he sang and danced and frequently bowed to Halahala (the potter woman), making an anjali..... He spoke disconnected and contradictory speeches; and he passed the day nursed by his sorrowful disciples". Thus he suffered for a week.
At the end of seven days, Goshala repented, confessed his errors and died.
(The story of Goshala, taken by Hemachandra mostly from the Bhagavati-Sutra probably gives the history of a serious quarrel between the sects of Ajivikas led by Goshala and the Nigganthas led by Mahavira. As described later, Hoernle say in it the signs of the beginning of the Digambara Community).
In the course of a few days, Mahavira also became weak from dysentery and bilious fever from the effects of Goshala's hot flash, but he did not use any medicine. Rumour spread that he would, as predicted by Goshala, die within six months. His disciples became greatly alarmed, and requested Mahavira to take some medicine. At last, Mahavira agreed and said that his disciples should bring that had been cooked by Revati, a housewife, for the household.
"Sinha (one of the disciples) went to Revati's house and got the prescribed remedy which she gave. Immediately delighted gods made a shower of gold. Lord Vardhamana made use of the excellent medicine brought by Sinha and at once regained health, the full moon to the partridge (chakora) of the congregation.
Mahavira lived for sixteen years more after this. He wandered about north Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, teaching people the ethics of his religion. Perhaps nothing very much noteworthy happened during these years.
Mahavira died twenty-nine and half years after he had attained omniscience. The death took place in the house of king Hastipala's scribe in the town of Pava, near Rajagriha. Out of the eleven Ganadharas, nine had already died. Only (Indrabhuti) Gautama and Sudharman survived him. A day before his death, Mahavira had sent away Gautama for a day. Perhaps he had feared that Gautama might be too demonstrative of his grief. However, Gautama attained omniscience instantly on the death of Mahavira. He remained in this state for twelve years and on his death Sudharman attained omniscience. Sudharman was the first leader of the Jain Church after Mahavira, for Gautama never acted as a teacher.
Svetambaras place the year of the death of Mahavira, which is the initial point of their era, 470 years before the beginning of the Vikram era, or in 527 BC.12
On the death of Mahavira, "The light of knowledge having been extinguished, all the kings made material lights. From that time among the people also a festival called Dipotsava, takes place everywhere on that night by making lights".
(Hemachandra in this last part of his Trishashtishalakapursha- charitra has covered nearly all the facts known to the Jains about the life of Mahavira. It is, however, interesting to note that he has not mentioned the second schism of the Jain Church. This was started y Tissagutta during Mahavira's lifetime, sixteen years after the latter had attained omniscience).
What kind of man was Mahavira? We do not know much about his character from the Jain canon, but some conclusions can be draw from his behavior and sayings. He must have been a man of strong will power and patience. Otherwise he could have not withstood the tortures and privations he suffered during the period of twelve years he was travelling either alone or with Goshala. His constitution must also have been quite strong.
He was evidently not of a cheerful disposition, and disliked mirth among his disciples. We have in the Acharanga-Sutra, "A Nirgrantha comprehends (and renounces) mirth, he is not mirthful. The Kevalin says: " A Nirgrantha who is moved by mirth, and is mirthful, might utter a falsehood in his speech."13
He must have also had charisma and the quality of attracting people. This conclusion can be drawn from the success he obtained in combining the Nigrantha Church into one, and creating a religious system, which has lasted almost unchanged these 2500 years. His power of attracting people was a cause of envies to his one time companion and later his rival Makkhali Goshala who complained to Ardraka. "Listen, Ardraka, to what (Mahavira) has done. At first he wandered about as a single monk; but now he has surrounded himself by many monks, and teaches every one of them the Law at length."14
As Jacobi says, "Mahavira must have been a great man in his own way, and an eminent leader among his contemporaries; he owed the position of a Tirthakar because of the sanctity of his life and his success in the propagating of his creed"15.
The report about Mahavira's death is also recorded in the Buddhists texts. In fact the report appears at three places. These are Majjhima Nikaya, Samagama Sutta, 3.14; Digha Nikaya, Pasadika Sutta 3.6; and Digha Nikaya, Paryaya Sutta 3.10. The purport of these records is as follows:
Chunda Samanuddesa, a Buddhist monk was passing his rainy season in Pava. At that time the Buddha was dwelling among the Shakkas at Samagama. "Now at that time Nigantha Nataputta had just departed from life at Pava. After his death the Niganthas were divided into two groups. They were making quarrels, making strife, falling into disputes were wounding each other, "You do not know this law of discipline, I know this law of discipline.....You are having false beliefs, I am having true beliefs" etc. Thus the Niganthas of the Nataputta were as if warring with each other.
Chunda Samanuddesa after passing the rainy season at Pava went and reported the whole matter to Ananda. Thereupon the venerable Ananda said to him: "Reverend Chunda, this news is worthy to be presented to the Blessed One. Come let us go to the Lord".
Then, the venerable Ananda and Chunda Samanuddesa approached the Buddha, and saluted and sat down at one side and so seated, the venerable Ananda said to the exalted one: "Lord: this Chunda Samanuddesa says "Nigantha Nataputta has just departed...."
This record in the Buddhist text is so vivid, that the obvious inference from it that the Buddha was living at the time of Mahavira's death ought to be accepted. The belief among some scholars, on the other hand, is that it was the Buddha who had died earlier. This later hypothesis is supported among others by Snhalese Buddhist tradition that the Buddha died in 544 BC Since the Jains believe that Mahavira died in 527 BC, this would put the year of death on the Buddha 16 to 17 years earlier than the year of Mahavira's death. Things are, however, not free from complications. Hemchandra, the historian of the Jain Church, has written that Chandragupta Maurya became emperor 155 years after the death of Mahavira. This would bring the years of the death of Mahavira to 468 BC There are other traditions also about the years of death of Mahavira and the Buddha.
1. The fact that Trishala, the mother of Mahavira, was a sister of king Chetaka is not mentioned in the canon. We learn about this only from Avashayakachurni of Jinadasagani (7th century AD)
2. Sacred Books of the East Vol. XXII. p. xv
3. Winternitz, op. cit. 443
4. Acaranga Sutra in Sacred Books of the East Vol. XXII, p. 194
5. Sacred Books of the East Vol. XXII. p.84
6. Sacred Books of the East Vol. XXII, p.411
7. The account of Mahavira's travel as given in the Avashakchurni has been summarized above from J. C. Jain Life in Ancient India, pp. 257-261
8. Schubrihg, op. cit. P. 44
9. There is some similarity here with the life of the Buddha. The Lalitvistara describes the life of the Buddha in some detail to the time he attained Buddhahood and traveled to Sarnath to preach his first sermon. This was when he was 36. For the remaining 44 years of the Buddha’s life we have little connected details.
10. Helen M. Johnson has translated this work by Hemachandra in six volumes. The Oriental Institute, Baroda, published the translation. Vol. VI, which is used here extensively, was published in 1962.
11. That Jamali was Priyadarshna's husband, is not mentioned in the canon though his name occurs several times in the canonical texts. The later commentaries however say that Jamali was the husband of Priyadarshana, daughter of Mahavira.
12. H. Jacobi mentions in his article on Jainism in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. VII, that 527 BC was the date given by Shvetambera of Mahavira's Nirvana, while Digambers place the event 18 years later. This does not seem to be correct. Trilokasara (shloka 850), a Digambra's work mentions that Mahavira's Nirvana took place 605 years and 5 months before the shaka king
(AD 78). This gives 527 BC as the date of Mahavira's Nirvana. Another Digambera work Tiloypannati gives three dates dates for Mahavira's Nirvana . Two of them absurdly give old dates, but the third one (sl. 1499) agrees with Trilokasara.
13. Sacred Books of the East Vol. XXII, p.205
14. Sutrakritanga in Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XLV, p.409
15. Sacred Books of the East Vol. XLV, p. xxxii
16. See chapter v