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.


Mahavira’s Biographies:


Thus, there is no dearth of biographical material for Mahavira, who holds the honored position of being the twenty-fourth and last in the galaxy of Tirthankaras of the present age and who is also the ruling personality of the present patriarchate; but this material is primarily and essentially concerned with the details of the spiritual activities of Mahavira. Of the purely material side of his life, the details provided are not many and not sufficiently lucid or specific.


Jacobi is of the opinion that the first book (Shrutskandh) of the Acarangasutra and of the Sutrakrtanga sutra may be reckoned among the most ancient parts of the Jaina siddhanta. Their style and meter prove the correctness of this opinion.

The date of these Sutras would be somewhere between the Pali literature and the composition of the Lalitavistara, and has been worried out by Jacobi to be in the 4th century B.C. It is in the first book of the Acaranga that the outlines of Mahavira’s life appear for the first time, but these outlines have been drawn in a rather rough and limited way. There is no mention here of early or householder’s life at all; the story begins with Mahavira’s ‘entry into the order’ and goes on to the narration of his daily habits of life as a monk and the numerous penance’s he went through. The second book of the Acranga, which obviously is a later composition and which does not even fit in with the scheme of writing adopted in the first book, refers possibly, in point of time, to the first part of the 3rd century B.C. when the whole canon was brought together under the patriarchate of Sthulibhadra; and in this book we can obtain the first glimpse of the detailed account of Mahavira’s birth and early life. Certain specific details mentioned here, like the change of embryo, the periodic attendance upon Mahavira of the four orders of Bhavanapati, Vyantara, Jyotiska and Vaimanika gods and goddesses, the enunciation of the five great vows, etc. were described more elaborately and certainly with an element of exaggeration by later writers on the life-history of Mahavira.


The Kalpasutra, written and composed by Bhandrabahu I, is elaborated upon these details with poetic imagery and in picturesque style and further added to them the new element of the fourteen dreams according to Svetamber and 16 according to Digambara sect-the dreams of (1) an elephant; (2) a land; (3) a lion; (4) the anointing of the Goddess Sri; (5) a garland; (6) the moon; (7) the Sun; (8) a flag; (9) a vase; (10) a lotus lake; (11) the ocean; (12)a celestial abode; (13) a heap of jewels; and (14) a flame which a Tirthankara’s mother was believed to have seen. The final forms of Mahavira’s life was attained in the Avasyaka-Niryukti of Bhadrabahu II, which may be ascribed to the 5th century A.D. and in an anonymously written commentary on it added some time in the 6th or 7th century A.D. These books, however, represent the Svetambara version of Mahavira’s life. At the hands of the Digambara acaryas a somewhat different version was prepared on the basis of pumchriya written by Vimala, whose date may be somewhere between the 1st and 3rd century A.D., fist in the Padmapurana, which may be ascribed to the 8th century A.D. and later on by others in various Puananas. The Digambara version gave the facts of life with the usual and in certain ways with more than usual embellishment, but it differed from the prevailing Svetambara version in one or two major details.


Parentage and Birth:


The first difference between the Svetambara and Digambara version relates to the fact of Mahavira’s birth. Both versions agree that Mahavira was the son of Siddharatha and Trisala, that he belonged to a clan of the Ksatriyas called Jnatrkas (known as Natikas in the Buddhist works), and that he was a Kasyapa by gotra. But the Svetambara version speaks of a transfer of embryo; the Acaranga says-


“Here, forsooth, in the continent of Jambudvipa in Bharatavarsa, in the southern part of it, in the Brahamanical part of the place Kundapura, he took the form of an embryo in the womb of Devananda, of the Jalandhrayana gotra, wife of the Brahmana Rsabhadatta, of the gotra of Kodala....... “Then in the third month of the rainy season, the fifth fortnight, the dark (fortnight) of Asvina, on its thirteenth day, while the moon was in conjunction with Uttaraphalguni, after the laps of eighty-two days, on the eighty-third day current, the compassionate god (Indra) reflecting on what was the established custom (with regard to the birth of the Tirthankaras), removed the embryo from the southern Brahmanical part of the place Kundapura to the northern Ksatriya part of the same place, rejecting the unclean matter, lodged the fetus in the womb of Trisala of the Vasistha gotra, wife of the Ksatriya Siddhartha, of the Kasyapa gotra, of the clan of Jnatrs, and lodged the fetus of the Ksatriyani Trisala in the womb of Devananda, of the Jalandhrayana gotra........”


The Digambara account rejects this legend as ‘absurd’, but the Svetambaras strongly uphold its truth. As the legend is found in the Acaranga, the Kalpasutra, and many other books it cannot be doubted that it is very old; but it is not at all clear why it was invented and given such currency. There are, however, in the Bhagavati-another sutra in the Svetambara canon, two references that would throw further light on the question and would possibly help us in finding a solution. In Sataka V Uddesa IV, in reply to a question regarding the possibility and the procedure of the change of embryo, Mahavira declared that a change of embryo was quite possible and stated his position regarding the procedure by which the change might take place, but significantly omitted to mention- although it would have been quite proper for him in that context to do so- the change of his own embryo. Again, in Sataka IX, Uddesa XXXIII, there is reference to the visit to Mahavira’s camp of the Brhmana Rsabhadatta and his wife Devananda. On the sight of Mahavira, Devananda had a sudden maternal emotion and milk started coming out of her breast. Asked by his chief disciple Gautama to explain the reason of this unusual occurrence, Mahavira plainly stated that Devananda was his mother. He made no mention whatever of Trisala or of the episode of the change of embryo.


These two references are pointer to the fact that actually there was no change of Mahavira’s embryo. The Bhagavati, which makes a record of the actual conversations and sayings of Mahavira, is certainly more trustworthy as a source of information than the Kalpasutra. Which after all is the work of an acarya, however learned. It is not impossible that the story was invented by the author of the Kalpasutra as an occasion to express the prevailing sentiment of contempt for the Brahmanas, and that it was later on embodied in the second book of the Acaranga. But that alone does not solve the problem. In the Bhagavati Mahavira says that Devananda is his mother and in the Acaranga and the Kalpasutra the name of Mahavira’s mother is given as Ksatriyani Trisala. Of this Professor Jacobi offered a some what fanciful solution. “I assume”, he said “that Siddhartha had two wives, the Brahmani Devananda, the real mother of Mahavira, and he Ksatriyani Trisala; for the name of the alleged husband of the former, viz. Rsabhadatta, cannot be very old, because its Prakrit form would in that case probably be Usabhadinna instead of Usabhadatta. Besides, the name is such as could be given to a Jaina only, on to a Brahmana. I, therefore, make no doubt that Rsabhadatta has been invented by the Jainas in a order to provide Devananda with another husband. Now Siddhartha was connected with persons of high rank and great influence through his marriage with Trisala. It was, therefore, probably thought more profitable to give out that Mahavira was the son, and not merely the stepson, of Trisala, for this reason that he should be entitled to the patronage of her relations.” This is obviously far-fetched and also incorrect, for it is certain that in the days of Mahavira the marriage of a Brahmana girl with a Ksatriya was not at all an easy adventure and that anyhow the offspring of such a marriage would not be considered very respectable. What seems more likely is that Devananda was Mahavira’s foster-mother. This likelihood finds substantial support in the text of the Acaranga (second book) which specifically speaks of Mahavira as having been attended by five nurses, one of them being a wet-nurse.


Facts of Early Life:


The facts of the early life of Mahavira given in the several biographies whose names we have recounted above are very few indeed. The later accounts have connected him with certain anecdotes, myths and miracles; but they appear to have been allied from the other traditional sources and cannot, therefore, be justifiably recounted as the facts of Mahavira’s life. There is, for instance, an anecdote in one of the Digambara books, illustrative of Mahavira’s supreme valour, which runs thus: “One day, while playing with his friends in the garden of his father, Mahavira saw an elephant, which was mad with fury with juice flowing from his temples, rushing towards him. His companions, all boys, shocked and frightened on the sight of the impending danger, deserted their comrade and ran away. Without losing a moment, Mahavira made up his mind to face the danger squarely, went towards the elephant, caught hold of his trunk with his strong hands and mounted his back at once.”


It is nevertheless a fact that the Jainas never attempted to give a connected account of the life of his great Master as the Buddhists gave a life of the Buddha in the Mahavagga, from the obtainment of the Enlightenment to the admission of Sariputta and Moggallana into the order and in the Mahaparinibbana sutta, which recounts the events of Buddha’s last days. The Kalpasutra used a somewhat conventional style while writing about the great rejoicing that took pace in the family and the town on the birth of Mahavira, about illumination of the streets, about he liberation of prisoners, and about the performance of numerous other charitable deeds. At the core of much that is conventional, however, a few facts would seem to clearly emerge. In person Mahavira seems to have been handsome and impressive; all descriptions agree on that point. The several names by which he is called in the Jaina books-Vira, Ativira, Mahavira, etc., all clearly indicate that the chief quality of his character was courage and valour. Being the scion of a Ksatriya chieftain and brought up in the free atmosphere of a republican society, he must have right from his childhood taken the most vigorous interest in the outdoor games and material exercises. He was naturally intelligent and possessed of a very keen intellect. The Kalapasutra mentions that from his very birth he possessed ‘supreme, unlimited and unimpeded knowledge and intuition’ and that he had the aspirations of a man of knowledge. That his education was carefully looked after may be safely presumed: the Jaina scriptures speak again and again of princes who were trained in “the seventy-two arts,” the list including dancing, music gambling, rules of society, fighting, archery, knowledge of birds, animals and trees, etc. besides purely literary and philosophical attainments.


The Svetambara books say that Mahavira had an elder brother, whose name was Nandivardhana, with whom he lived in his boyhood. This fact is omitted, but not positively denied, by Digambara books. Both books, however, agree that Mahavira was very well- connected. By birth he was a member of at least the ruling class in a republican democracy. The description of his father’s palace and the dimensions of rejoicing made there on the birth of Mahavira, who according to the Svetambara version was only a second son, would lead one to the conclusion that Siddhartha was a ruling prince. Jacobi, however, does not feel inclined to that view. According to him, Kundagrama (or Kundalapura) was “a halting place of caravans, an insignificant place and an outlying village and a suburb of Vaisali, the capital of Videha”, so that Siddhartha was only “a petty chief, a baron, no king, nor even the head of his clan, but only a landowner, and exercised only the degree of authority which in the East usually falls to the share of one belonging to the recognized aristocracy of the country.” Such description is belied by later historical research. Historians are now prepared to accept that Kundagrama was the headquarters of the Jnatrka Ksatriya, “who were already known for their piety and non-violence, and abstention from sin and meat-eating,” and that the republic was governed by an assembly of elders, one of whom assumed the position of the president. It is presumable that Siddhartha occupied the position of the president of this republic; for otherwise it might be somewhat difficult to explain his marriage with the sister of Cetaka, whom even Jacobi recognizes as ‘the powerful king of Videha,’ belonging to the Licchavi sect of the Ksatriya. Through his wife, Siddhartha-and following him, Mahavira-was related tot he ruling dynasty of Magadha and the dynasties of Sauvira, Anga, Vatsa (Vamsa) and Avanti. Cetaka had seven daughters, one of whom became a nun, but the other six were married in one or the other royal family of Eastern India. The youngest Celana became the wife of Srenika (Bimbisara), king of Magadha: one Prabhavati was married to King Udayana of Vitabhya, which has been identified at various places in Jaina literature with a town in Sindhu-Sauvira country; another Padmavati was married to King Dadhivahana of Campa, the capital of Anga; Mrgavati was married to King Satanika of Kausambi, the capital of Vatsa; and Shiva was married to Canda Pradyota of Ujjani, which was the capital of Avanti. That the tie of these relationships was real and strong, may be judged from the fact that the books are always very particular in stating the names and Gotra of all relations of Mahavira, although they have recorded little further information about them.


From the above it is clear that the environment in which Mahavira grew up was necessarily royal atmosphere tempered with healthy influenced of a republican character. His maternal relatives were practically all of them ruling princes, but his father was a republican chief and even his maternal uncle was a territorial ruler under the auspices of a republican confederacy- the famous Vajji confederacy of which eight republics, Vajji, were constituent units. The real strength of the republic in Mahavira’s time as, to a large extent, today lay not so much in its government as in the character of its people. The Buddha mentioned in one of his discourses that republican population was free from luxury and sloth, ‘sleeping on logs of wood as pillows and not on cushions of the finest cotton, active in archery, and not delicate, tender and soft in their arms and legs.’ The youths were rowdy, but by no means devoid of honor or lacking in moral courage; they frankly admitted their mistakes, and were inspired by a fundamental sense of respect for elders and women, and their national institutions. It was in this atmosphere that Mahavira’s early life was spent. His upbringing must have been quite exceptionally balanced and his development proportionate, for his life was a life of comfort but not luxury and his ambition was an ambition to conquer but not with view to mastery over others. He was deeply influenced by the democratic ethos of the society in which he lived. He was impressed by the inadequate application of this ethos in the political, economic and social life of the community without its being based upon a really democratic religious system; and he took it upon himself to workout and propagate a system of complete spiritual democracy in the form of Jainism.