Mahavira Research Paper

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The historical significance of the Indian religious leader Mahavira—who lived in the sixth-century BCE, a time when India society was rooted in the inequity of its caste system and relied for its well-being on the widespread use of slavery and the large-scale sacrifice of animals—lies in his revolutionary worldview of amity and harmony with all living beings. His teachings became the foundation of one of the world’s oldest religions, Jainism.

The Indian religious leader Mahivira lived in the sixth century BCE. Two of his core teachings—the principle of ahimsa (nonviolence) and the philosophy of anekanta (many-sided reality)—have universal significance and are relevant to contemporary inquiries in peace building, ecology, bioethics, and animal rights. His teachings are also the basis of the canonical literature (Agama) of Jainism, which not only plays a significant role within the religion but also is regarded as a primary source for understanding the history of ancient India.

Jainism regards Mahavira as the twenty-fourth tirthankara (ford maker) or jina (spiritual conqueror). Having overcome attachment and aversion he attained omniscience and preached the way to overcome worldly suffering and attain moksa (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). Jainas (the followers of the jina) use the epithet “Mahavira” (great hero) instead of his given name, Vardhamana, and follow his adherence to ahimsa in thought, word, and deed amid adverse circumstances.

Vardhamana was born to mother Trishala and father Siddhartha, members of a royal clan, at Kundagrama in the ancient kingdom of Vaishali near the modern city of Patna in eastern India. His parents were followers of Parshvanatha, the twenty-third tirthankara, who is said to have lived during the ninth century BCE. At age thirty Vardhamana renounced his kingdom and became a mendicant practicing austerity in search of enlightenment for thirteen years. Throughout this period he frequently fasted, sometimes for long periods of time and often without even water. During the thirteenth year Mahavira attained kevalajnana (infinite knowledge) and became omniscient. For the next thirty years Mahavira taught about ahimsa and compassion and attained nirvana (liberation) in 527 BCE.

Although ahimsa was recognized as a virtue in the Vedas (Hindu sacred writings), such recognition remained a mere scriptural knowledge. In reality Vedic society during Mahavira’s time operated on a fundamental inequity rooted in the caste system and relied for its well-being on the widespread use of slavery and the large-scale sacrifice of animals (yajna). In this context Mahavira’s teachings were revolutionary. He taught the true meaning of ahimsa and compassion. A precondition of the practice of ahimsa, according to him, is knowledge of the various forms of life: earth, water, fire, wind, vegetation, and mobile beings with two or more senses. Equally important is the awareness that in essence all living beings, regardless of their life form, are equal; all experience pleasure and pain; and all desire to live. Violence against others, in his view, is violence against oneself. This sense of our being the same as other beings, explained Mahavira, is at the core of compassion and nonviolence. Therefore, he preached the principle of universal amity and friendship. Salvation of the self, according to Mahavira, is deeply connected with one’s concern for universal well-being. Every thought, word, and deed has a result and creates happiness or suffering for oneself and for others.

In addition to the virtue of being nonviolent, Mahavira emphasized the virtues of telling the truth, not stealing, being celibate, and not being possessive. He prescribed these as the mahavrata (great vows) for mendicants; lay Jainas may observe these vows in a limited manner as anuvrata (small vows).

Mahavira’s philosophy of understanding reality with respect to a given context (naya) became the basis for the Jain philosophy of anekanta. Jainas not only evolved their own theory of knowledge (anekantavada) in the context of their metaphysics and ontology (a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of being), but also, more importantly, were concerned about questions such as, “What constitutes valid knowledge, and how is such knowledge acquired?” In the latter sense the philosophy of anekantavada allows room for multiple views of reality and reduces conflict often arising from absolutist views of reality. Based on Mahavira’s teachings of ahimsa and anekanta, Jainas observe vegetarianism, reject the slaughter of animals for human consumption, and, in the context of world religions, advocate harmony and peace, acknowledging the equality of all spiritual traditions. Many people see Mahavira’s emphasis on simplicity and aparigraha (nonpossession, nonattachment) as a valuable antidote to the rising culture of consumerism at a global scale.


  1. Dundas, P. (2002). The Jains. New York: Routledge.
  2. Jaini, P. S. (1979). The Jaina path of purification. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  3. Mahapragya, A. (1974). Sramana Mahavira. Ladnun, India: Jain Vishva Bharti.
  4. Schubring, W. (2004). Mahavira’s words by Walther Schubring (W. Bollee & J. Soni, Trans.). Ahmadabad, India: L. D. Institute of Indology.
  5. Sethia, T. (Ed.). (2004). Ahimsa, anekanta and Jainism. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass.
  6. Soni, J. (2000). Basic Jaina epistemology. Philosophy East and West, 50, 367–377.

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