I bow to the enlightened ones.
I bow to the liberated souls.
I bow to the spiritual leaders.
I bow to the learned preceptors.
I bow to all the saints and sages.
Everywhere in the world.

— Namaskar Mantra
  or Universal Prayer of the Jainas

Part I — Lord Mahavira

Mahavira: pilgrim of the highest

Mahavira, Mahavira, Mahavira!
In prayerful supplication I bow my head to you.
Do accept my soulful obeisance.
O Pilgrim of the Highest, ever wandering free,
Your Heart is a ceaseless Compassion-Fountain.
O Vardhamana, O Vardhamana, O Vardhamana!
By virtue of sleepless and breathless askesis
You made the discovery supreme:
Each bondage-life can and shall attain
Liberation of the Beyond.

The 24th Tirthankara

Lord Mahavira was not the founder of the Jaina religion. Jainism has a long and illustrious line of teachers who are called Tirthankaras. Tirthankara means "one who finds a place to cross the ocean of suffering." Another translation is "ford-finder."

The very first Tirthankara was Rishabha who lived at the dawn of human civilisation. Lord Mahavira was the 24th Tirthankara and the last one in this particular cycle of time.

Mahavira's conception

There are five very special and auspicious events in Mahavira's life which are celebrated by devout followers of the Jaina path. The very first of these is Mahavira's conception, or garbha.

According to our Indian philosophy, kings are traditionally of the Kshatriya or warrior caste, while the role of the Brahmins is to act as priests. When it comes to the Avatars and spiritual Masters of a very high order, Hindus, Jainas and Buddhists believe that they should also come from the Kshatriya class, since these great figures are actually kings in the spiritual realm. Sri Ramachandra, Sri Krishna and Lord Buddha were all Kshatriyas.

In the case of Lord Mahavira, it is believed that his soul originally descended into a Brahmin family. Indra, the king of the cosmic gods, could not brook this untoward circumstance, and so he occultly transferred the embryo to a devout Kshatriya woman by the name of Trishala. She was the wife of a wealthy /zamindar,/ or chieftain, whose name was Siddhartha. He was the ruler of the Naya tribe.

Siddhartha and Trishala were already of the Jaina faith. They were devoted to the 23rd Tirthankara, Parsva, who had lived 250 years earlier.

Trishala's most illumining

One night, before Mahavira was born, his mother Trishala had fourteen most significant dreams. She awoke, trembling with joy, and called her husband. She described each dream and asked him its significance. Trishala had dreamt of a lion, the rising sun, a lake filled with lotuses, a vast sea composed entirely of milk and many other sacred symbols.

In profound silence, Siddhartha meditated on the inner meaning of each one. Finally, he said to his wife, "I am fully convinced that you will give birth to a boy who is a very high soul. He will bring great honour and glory to our family. One day he will be crowned king and he will command a large army."

Trishala was very happy with the meaning her husband ascribed to her dreams. She stayed awake the rest of the night so that these good dreams would not be counteracted by any bad dreams.

When morning dawned, Siddhartha summoned the wise men of the village to come and interpret the dreams. They discussed all the symbols at great length and concluded that Siddhartha's son would be either an emperor or a Jina. A Jina is one who is victorious in the inner world. He is the conqueror of the self. It is from this word that we derive the word "Jaina."

Siddhartha accepted this interpretation and rewarded the wise men with food and gifts. Trishala was overjoyed to receive the news that their child was destined to achieve great things.

Mahavira's birth

Mahavira's birth, or /janma,/ is the second of the five auspicious events in his life. His birthplace was Kundragrama in the kingdom of Vaisali in northern India. Mahavira's birth took place long 599 years before the birth of Jesus Christ and 32 years before the birth of the Lord Buddha. By divine coincidence, Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha were born in the same vicinity.

Mahavira's parents gave him the name Vardhamana. Vardhamana means "the ever-increasing one." They chose this name because they noticed that ever since Trishala had conceived, their material prosperity had begun to increase immeasurably.


As a young boy, Vardhamana was physically very strong and he possessed tremendous courage. One day he was playing with some friends when a terrifying cobra appeared. All the other boys ran away in fright. But Vardhamana grabbed the cobra by its tail and threw it far away. Then he went and joined his friends.

This cobra was actually a cosmic god who had become jealous of Vardhamana's fearlessness. He wanted to test the child by assuming a most frightening form, but he was badly defeated.

Vardhamana decides

In the course of time, Vardhamana married. His wife's name was Yashoda and they were blessed with a daughter whom they called Priyadarshana. When the child was still very young, Vardhamana decided to leave his family and begin his spiritual life. By this time, his parents had passed to the other world and he felt that he should not delay his search for the highest Truth any longer. But his elder brother, Nandivardhan, came to know of his plans and requested him to wait a few more years. In obedience to his elder brother's wishes, Vardhamana agreed.

The great renunciation

Now comes the third auspicious event of Lord Mahavira's life — his renunciation, or vairagya. When Vardhamana was thirty years old, he had certain profound inner experiences by which he knew that the choice Hour had arrived for him to renounce the world.

When the villagers came to know of his decision, a huge procession formed. Vardhamana was carried in a magnificent palanquin to a park beyond the city. There he came down from the palanquin and began to renounce all his possessions one by one.

He took off his flower garlands and discarded his robes. Then he put on a single piece of cloth which was very simple. (Some years later, this cloth became caught on a thornbush and he never wore clothing again.) Finally, Vardhamana plucked out his own hair in five handfuls and silently walked away, in the opposite direction from his home.

"Happy are we, happy live we, who call nothing our own" was his motto.

The path of austerity

Vardhamana practised austerities to the extreme. He meditated day and night, under the blazing sun or in the freezing depths of caves. He fasted for long periods of time. He even abstained from water for weeks on end.

When he felt the need to take food, Vardhamana would go to the house of a villager to beg for alms. If he saw that another monk was there ahead of him, or even if he saw a dog or cat moving around, Vardhamana would quietly go away from the place. He would say, "All souls are equal. They have come here before me, so they are more deserving than I am. If I stay, then their share will be less. I do not want to deprive them. Let me go somewhere else to beg for food today." Such was his compassion-heart.

While he was seated in meditation, many kinds of insects gathered on his body, causing him great discomfort. But he valued the souls of these little creatures and he would not remove them or bathe.

Living in this way, immersed in prayer and meditation, Vardhamana walked all over India. He acquired the epithet 'Mahavira', meaning 'Great Hero', because of his unimaginable austerities.

Mahavira's supreme silence

Sometimes for months and even years, Mahavira observed a vow of silence, specially at the beginning of his spiritual life. It was his practice to get up at three o'clock in the morning and roam from place to place meditating, completely naked. He believed that if you have any possessions, it prevents you from realising God.

Mahavira was a strong man physically and people misunderstood him when they saw him in the streets at night. They used to insult him and even pelt him with stones or set dogs after him but, since he had taken a vow of silence, he never complained. He maintained his perfect equanimity towards all living beings.

One night he wandered into a particular village. It happened that there had been a considerable number of thefts in this village, and so people were in the streets looking for the thief. When they saw Mahavira, they were convinced that he was the culprit. Why else would he be roaming around the streets in the middle of the night?

So a group of men grabbed Mahavira and began asking him all kinds of questions.

"Tell us how much money you have stolen!"

Mahavira remained silent.

"Why did you take all those things?"


The men became frustrated because Mahavira was not responding and they began beating him up. Still he would not speak. Finally, they decided to take him to their superior, the village chief. The chief was completely drunk. He said, "Let us strangle this villain!"

They brought a very thick rope and tied it around Mahavira's neck. Seven times they tried to strangle Mahavira, but nothing happened. The villagers realised that Mahavira had tremendous spiritual power, so they begged his forgiveness and released him.

The ideal of ahimsa

Many times it happened that Mahavira was persecuted by inconscient people. Sometimes they would cover him with dirt while he was in deep meditation, or they would pick him up and drop him to try to disturb his trance. But Mahavira never retaliated. For him, ahimsa or non-violence was the highest religion. He used to preach,

"Towards your fellow creatures be not hostile; that is the Law of Him who is rich in control."

Mahavira's enlightenment

Throughout many long years, Mahavira never swerved from his austerities. When he was 42 years old, in his thirteenth year as a wandering mendicant, the fourth most auspicious event of his life took place. On that particular day, he sat on the bank of a river, under the blazing sun, and entered into a deep state of meditation, as was his wont. It was there that he achieved his enlightenment, which the Jainas called kevalajnana.

Mahavira's first words were: "I am all-knowing and all-seeing, and possessed of an infinite knowledge. Whether I am walking or standing still, whether I sleep or remain awake, the supreme Knowledge and Intuition are present with me — constantly and continuously."

Afterwards, Mahavira continued to walk from place to place for thirty more years. Everywhere he went, he preached compassion, tolerance and austerity.

Mahavira's five vows

This story took place during the monsoon season. During these four months of the year, the Jaina monks cease from their wanderings lest they hurt the tiny creatures which abound at that time. Mahavira arrived at a hermitage and the ascetics who dwelt there invited him to stay with them. He accepted their kind invitation and took up his abode in a grass hut.

Food being scarce, some cows came and began to eat the roof of the hut. Mahavira was happy to see them eating to their hearts' content and he continued with his meditation. But the head ascetic became furious. He insulted Mahavira mercilessly, saying, "Even the birds know how to look after their nests, and yet you do not know how to protect your own hut! Hard is it to believe that you were once a Kshatriya and the son of a chieftain."

As usual, Mahavira maintained his silence and did not make any reply. But from that day on, he took five vows which he observed for the remainder of his life. He decided never to stay at places where his presence would cause trouble to others. He determined to give all importance to the soul and not to the body. He resolved only to speak in answer to seekers' questions, or to beg for alms. In connection with alms, he vowed to accept only what he could hold in the palm of his hand. And, lastly, he made up his mind not to render service to householders for the sake of fulfilling his own needs.