The Amazing Mahavira
His real name was Nataputta Vardhamana, but he was better known to his followers as Mahavira or “Great Hero.” He is traditionally identified as the founder of Jainism. As stated, Mahavira and the twenty-three prior to him who established Jainism are Tirthankaras, or “crossing builders,” so called because they forged a bridge between this life and Nirvana or release from this world.
Mahavira's birth and death dates of 599–527
For a time, Mahavira joined an order of wandering ascetics. First, however, he waited until his parents had died and the business affairs of his family had been taken over successfully by his older brother. Then he bade farewell to his family, turned his back upon his wealth and luxury, tore out his hair and beard by the handfuls, and went off to join the ascetics.
However, Mahavira concluded that their asceticism was not extreme enough. For the soul to find release from this life, the asceticism must be more extreme. Extreme asceticism was necessary but not sufficient. Mahavira eventually thought that one must practice ahimsa (noninjury). So Mahavira carved his own path to find release. This combination of ahimsa and extreme renunciation gave rise to practices that form the legend of Mahavira's life. In an effort to stay detached from things and people, he never stayed more than one night in any place when he traveled.
Mahavira wandered naked, detached from the world, not answering questions put to him as he walked through villages. In return people turned their dogs on him. He was attacked by animals and humans. On some occasions, they drove nails into him to test the depths of his meditation and detachment.
As with many ascetics, he begged for his food. He preferred leftover food from people's meals rather than raw food so he didn't consume food that might cause his death. To heighten his self-torment, he sought out the coldest locations in the winter months and the most sweltering environments in the summer — always while naked.
He took his self-denial and seeking out of pain even further. If people were angry with him or just mean spirited, they would send dogs after him. Rather than resist, he allowed himself to be bitten. Following twelve years of the strictest asceticism, he achieved release (moksha), freeing himself from the bonds that tied his soul to the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Conqueror Develops a Following
Mahavira earned title of jina or “conqueror,” denoting a person who had heroically conquered himself and faced the harshest inconveniences of life. He was a renunciant, able to ignore the inconveniences of body longing and pain in order to achieve spiritual realization. Though he achieved moksha at age forty-two, he lived until seventy-two.
Once he had attained enlightenment, he had conquered his weaknesses, escaping the cycle of human biological and psychological needs. The story goes that he now sat in a lotus posture, was in a steady omniscient trance, and sent forth only a divine sound. Above his head at all times was a white umbrella, symbolizing that no mortal was higher or holier. His nature as a Tirthankara or spiritual leader attracted all of the Jain community around him, including monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.
A peerless ascetic, the Jain leader Mahavira lived most of his life without clothes, the most visible symbol of a renounced life. After some twelve years as an ascetic, he managed to overcome worldly desires and passions and become the “victor” or jina. Jains describe this state of mind as kevalajnana or perfect perception, knowledge, power, and bliss.
A Brahmin, Indrabhuti Gautama, came to Mahavira seeking an interpretation of a revelation of Jain teachings sent by the king of gods, Indra. All the teachings became clear to Gautama in the presence of Mahavira. Eleven Brahmins converted to become his followers. He continued teaching for thirty years. After his renunciation and detachment from the world, Mahavira attracted a very large congregation of devotees; the Svetambaras claim there were 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 laymen, and 318,000 laywomen.