Vardhamana Mahavira (ca. 540-470 B.C.), called the Jina, was an Indian ascetic philosopher and the principal founder of Jainism—one of the major religions of the Indian subcontinent.
Vardhamana Mahavira was born in northern India during the turbulent religious and political upheavals of the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. He was a contemporary of the Buddha, and in many respects their lives are similar. Mahavira's father was chief of the Jnatrika clan, an indigenous oligarchical tribe. Mahavira's tribal affiliation is reflected in one of his later epithets, Nigantha Nataputta, which means literally "the naked ascetic of the Jnatrika clan."
Despite his royal upbringing, his religious sensibilities drove Mahavira inexorably to renounce his worldly ties at the age of 30 and embark on a search for ultimate spiritual truth. Traditional religious practices were centered in an archaic magical and sacrificial cult dominated by a hereditary priestly elite. But for Mahavira and for many others the external rites could not solve the basic spiritual enigmas defined by the problem of transmigration: the soul of every sentient creature is entrapped in the phenomenal world, suffering an endless round (samsara) of deaths and rebirths as a result of inward moral defilements engendered through perverted attitudes and acts (karma).
The goal was to obtain spiritual release from this karmic bondage through an inward self-discipline (the yoga) designed to eliminate its libidinal and material causes. For 12 years Mahavira lived a life of radical physical asceticism, mortifying the flesh and struggling to purify his soul of its Karmic burden. Finally, at the age of 42, he achieved spiritual purification and enlightenment; he was now the Jina (conqueror)—the source of the traditional name applied to his followers, the Jains. He preached for another 30 years, founding an increasingly wide circle of monastic and lay followers, and died about the age of 72.
In Jain tradition Mahavira is represented as the twentyfourth—the last and most influential—of the great teachers of Jainism. Mahavira's teachings reflect a very ancient indigenous tradition. Every discrete natural phenomenon has a life-force (jiva), a soul which is a substantial entity. This includes gods, demons, human beings, animals, insects, plants, and even inanimate objects like stones. All contain souls, originally pure and translucent, entrapped in the material stuff of the phenomenal universe, moving up and down the scale of life-forms, from birth to birth—higher or lower—as the result of karma.
Furthermore, karma is not understood simply as a causal system. It is in itself a kind of malevolent and defiling substance which adheres to the soul like dirt. Every debased act or thought will bring in more karmic contamination, weighing the soul down like ballast and sweeping it into the rebirth process and a worldly status appropriate to the degree of moral contamination. To attain salvation the soul must be freed from these burdensome defilements, first by preventing the influx of fresh karma, principally through the practice of noninjury (ahimsa) to all creatures, and second, by rigorous physical asceticism in which the wasting away of the body is regarded as an outward sign of the sloughing off of karmic matter.
The greatest ascetic discipline in the tradition is the rite of sallekhana—voluntary self-starvation conducted systematically over a 12-year period. It combines the mandates of both asceticism and noninjury, since the eating of food, even of plants, and the drinking of water entail the ingestion and killing of vegetable and microorganic life. The fully committed Jain monk is obliged to sweep the path before him lest he step on an insect, to strain his water, and to avoid movement in the dark and even bathing since both actions might harm insects and organic life. But when final and complete purification is attained, the soul rises to a transcendental realm of pure omniscience far above the highest heavens—even of the gods.
The Jina's teaching appears to be profoundly pessimistic and in certain respects highly irrational; but in fact it is, given its presuppositions, supremely optimistic and has therapeutic consequences for the human personality and social organization. First, it is a basic tenet of the teaching that in the transmigratory process the soul attains rebirth in human form only once in a vast spectrum of cosmic time; and it is in this human state that one is privileged to hear and practice the Jina's message of salvation; consequently this lends immense dignity and urgency to the human life.
The monk is described as joyful and cheerful, enduring all hardships for the sake of this extraordinary blessing. Second, the believer abides by the rules of a generalized ethical system which has—like Buddhism—universal potential for social reconstruction. Third, the extreme emphasis on noninjury to sentient creatures, even inanimate objects, had an unusual consequence for the laity: occupations involving manual labor, cultivation, cutting, sawing, hammering, and so on, were excluded; and consequently the Jain laity found its social grounding chiefly among the mercantile and banking classes.
Added to this was the fact that the ascetic yoga promoted an economic ethic in which disciplined control over economic resources (analogous to the Puritan work ethic) resulted in capital accumulation and mastery for their own sake—not for self-indulgence. Lay piety is expressed in adherence to a strictly vegetarian diet and in fasts and penance emulating the monastic style at appropriate times during the year.
The relative simplicity of the ascetic yoga and clear-cut lines of patriarchal succession allowed for the maintenance of doctrinal discipline and effective integration of lay members. The only major schisms in the tradition occurred with the formation of the two primary Jain sects: the Digambaras ("space-clad"), holding to the old tradition of ascetic nudity; and the Shvetambaras ("white-clad"), allowing their adherents to wear clothes—probably as an accommodation to the preferences of adherents with middle-class sensibilities.
The worship of images of the Jain saints is common practice, but the teaching remains basically atheistic; the later incorporation of Hindu deities, however, provides possibilities for theistic worship. In its political theory Jainism was basically patrimonial, but it stressed, as did early Buddhism, the necessity of virtuous self-discipline as a moral precondition for legitimate rule.
Because of the difficult problems of historical reconstruction, there is no work on the life of Mahavira. Background works on Jainism include Hermann Jacobi, trans., Gaina Sutras, "Sacred Books of the East Series," vols. 22 and 45 (1894 and 1895; repr. Delhi, 1964); Margaret Stevenson, The Heart of Jainism (1915); Jagmandar Jaini, Outlines of Jainism (1916); and Chimanlal J. Shah, Jainism in North India, 800 B.C.-A.D. 526 (1932). Indian sources include Herbert Warren, Jainism in Western Garb (Madras, 1912); Nathmal Tatia, Studies in Jaina Philosophy (Benares, 1951); and Mohan Lal Mehta, Outlines of Jaina Philosophy (Bangalore, 1954). For general background consult W.H. Moreland and Atul Chandra Chatterjee, A Short History of India (1936; 3d ed. 1953); A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (1937; rev. ed. 1963); J.C. Powell-Price, A History of India (1955); and Michael Edwardes, A History of India (1961).