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Mahavira and Jainism


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Vedas and Upanishads

Sanderson Beck's video on Mahavira and Jainism can be seen below.


The legendary founder of Jainism was called Rishabha, but claims that he lived many millions of years ago are obviously exaggerated. This first Tirthankara (literally "maker of the river-crossing") is said to have invented cooking, writing, pottery, painting, and sculpture, the institution of marriage and ceremonies for the dead. Not much else is recorded about Rishabha and the next twenty Tirthankaras, but the ancient Jaina tradition that there were ascetic religious teachers in India before the coming of the Vedic Aryans is likely from evidence found in the Harappan culture.

The twenty-second Tirthankara, Arishtanemi, is mentioned in the Kalpa Sutra. All of the Tirthankaras were Kshatriyas, and Arishtanemi was the son of King Ashvasena of Varanasi (Benares) and cousin of Krishna, who is supposed to have lived during the great Bharata war probably about 900 BC. According to legend Krishna negotiated his marriage to princess Rajamati. However, when Arishtanemi discovered the great number of deer and other animals to be sacrificed at his wedding, he changed his mind to prevent their slaughter, brooded over the cruelty and violence of human society, and soon renounced the world to seek and find enlightenment.


The twenty-third Tirthankara, Parshva, probably lived in the eighth century BC. Legends connect him with snakes, one of whom he saved from fire when a Brahmin ascetic was about to burn a log where it was hiding. He married a princess, and up to the age of thirty he lived in great splendor and happiness as a householder. Then he gave up all his wealth to become an ascetic. After 84 days of intense meditation he became enlightened and taught as a saint for seventy years.

Parshva was called "Beloved" and organized an order (samgha) of monks, nuns, and lay votaries of many thousands, though the numbers are probably exaggerated. He had eight or ten disciples (ganadharas) according to different sources. His religion was open to all without distinction of caste or creed, and women were a large part of the order. He allowed his followers to wear an upper and lower garment.

The main emphasis of Parshva was on the first vow of non-injury (ahimsa) or abstinence from killing any living beings. The other three vows Parshva required were truthfulness, not to steal, and freedom from possession. These vows are exactly the same as the first four vows of the sannyasins of the Vedic tradition who renounce the world. The Brahmanic fifth vow of liberality could not be practiced by mendicants without possessions.

Two centuries later during the life of Mahavira there were still followers of Parshva, and they are mentioned in Buddhist texts as well as in Jaina scriptures. In addition to Brahmanical sects of ascetics like those described in the Upanishads who acknowledged the authority of the Vedas, new shramana (ascetic) sects were appearing which challenged the Vedas and their rituals, emphasizing ethics and allowing those of any caste and women to renounce the world as well.


Before turning to Mahavira and the Buddha, let us briefly examine a few of the other teachers who appeared in India in that spiritually rich sixth century BC. Purana Kassapa was a respected teacher who promulgated a no-action theory (akriyavada). Once he explained to King Ajatashatru that there is no guilt for causing grief or torment or killing, robbing, etc., and no merit for offering sacrifices, self-mastery, or speaking truth; because the soul is passive, no action can affect it. Nothing can defile one nor purify one. Purana Kassapa claimed that only an infinite mind could comprehend a finite world, and it was said that he could perceive anything. The Buddha even credited Kassapa and other heretical teachers with the ability to know where a particular dead person was reborn.

Another esteemed religious leader was Pakudha Katyayana, who may have been the one who asked Pippalada in the Prashna Upanishad about the roots of things. His doctrine classified everything into seven categories: earth, water, fire, air, pleasure, pain, and soul, all of which are eternal. Like Kassapa, Katyayana denied the reality of action, asserting that the soul is superior to good and evil and untouched by any change. His doctrine was called Eternalism by Mahavira and the Buddha, who both considered it another theory of non-action.

The founder of materialism in India was Ajita Keshakambalin. He found no merit in sacrificing or offering or doing good either, because nothing exists but the material world - no other world, no afterlife, no benefit from service, no ascetics who have attained enlightenment or perfection. When a person dies, the body returns to earth, fluids to water, heat to fire, and breath to air, the senses into space, and no individuality remains. He criticized the view of Katyayana and others that the soul existed independently of the body. Ajita saw the individual as a whole, which the apprehending mind can conceive. Mahavira criticized Ajita's philosophy for encouraging people to kill, burn, destroy, and enjoy the pleasures of life, but actually Ajita taught people to respect life and honor the living while they are alive rather than death and those who are dead.

The leader of the agnostics (Ajnanavada) was Sanjaya Belatthiputta. He found so many contradictory views of the soul and body current that he believed it was better to realize that one is ignorant of these things than to adopt one folly or another. His followers were described as wriggling out of answering questions like an eel and were criticized by Jainas for walking around in ignorance. However, in disregarding speculative questions he did attempt to focus the attention of his many followers on the attainment and preservation of mental equanimity. Sanjaya may have prepared the way for Mahavira's doctrine of antinomies (syadvada) and the Buddha's method of critical investigation (vibhajyavada), for they both found that there could be no final answers to some of the difficult questions of cosmology, ontology, theology, and eschatology.

The leader of the Ajivaka sect at this time, Mankhali Gosala, became closely associated with Mahavira. Gosala traveled with Mahavira for six years, but then he left because of doctrinal differences and was the leader of the Ajivaka sect for sixteen years in Savatthi at the pottery workshop of the woman Halahala.

Gosala taught a theory of transformation through re-animation like the seeds of plants. Humans are purified through transmigration, and the complete cycle of reincarnation periods is said to be eighty-four hundred thousand, possibly the origin of the term "wheel of eighty-four." He believed that everything was pre-destined, and nothing could change fate. Thus he denied the usefulness of effort or manly vigor, rationalizing that these, like all things, are unalterably fixed and predetermined. Everything acts according to its own nature, and nature is a self-evolving activity making things come to pass and cease to be.

Gosala believed that karma is independent of individual will and follows its own logic. He categorized humanity into six groups and put himself with only two other individuals in the "supremely white" category. He described eight stages of life from babyhood to renunciation, and his followers practiced the fourfold discipline of asceticism, austerity, comfort-loathing, and solitude. Although criticized by Jainas and Buddhists as amoral, Gosala taught that although it was predetermined, it was still one's duty to be lawful, not trespass on other's rights, make full use of one's liberties, be considerate, pure, abstain from killing, be free from earthly possessions, reduce the necessities of life, and strive for the best and highest of human potential. Aside from the determinism one can find many similarities in the teachings of Gosala and Mahavira. They divided living beings into the same six categories, and both recommended nudity for the saints and believed in the omniscience of the released.

Mahavira was born in Kundapura near Vaishali. The traditional Jaina date for Mahavira's birth is 599 BC, but comparison with the life of Buddha and the Magadha kings Bimbisara and Ajatashatru indicate that his death at the age of 72 was probably about 490 BC. An elaborate legend is told in the Acharanga Sutra and in the Kalpa Sutra how he was conceived in the womb of the Brahmin Devananda, who had fourteen prophetic dreams but then after three lunar cycles divinely transferred to the womb of the Kshatriya Trishala, who also had the same fourteen prophetic dreams. These fourteen dreams are supposed to indicate that the child will become either an emperor or a great Tirthankara (prophet). This unbelievable story probably resulted from the Jaina tradition that all the Tirthankaras were Kshatriyas, perhaps converting his stepmother into a second mother.

The father of Mahavira was King Siddartha; he and Trishala were both pious and virtuous followers of Parshva. Trishala was the sister of King Chetaka of Vaishali, the capital of a federation where the Jainism of Parshva was popular. King Chetaka had seven daughters, one of whom was initiated into the Jaina order of ascetics while the other six married famous kings, including King Shrenika (Bimbisara) of Magadha and Mahavira's own brother, Nandivardhana.

Since the wealth of his father's kingdom had increased during the pregnancy, the child was called Vardhamana. He was raised in princely opulence and showed his courage as a child by mounting a charging elephant by the trunk and on another occasion picking up a large snake and casting it aside. For his courage and self-control in enduring the rules of penance, Vardhamana was given the name Mahavira, which means great hero. Jaina comes from jina meaning victor or conqueror. He probably received the usual education for an aristocrat in philosophy, literature, military and administrative sciences, and the arts.

Mahavira married a princess named Yasoda, and they had a daughter, Anojja. She eventually married his nephew Jamali, who later caused a schism in the order. When Mahavira was 28 years old, both his parents died. He wanted to renounce the world; but to please his elder brother he agreed to live at home for two more years during which he practiced self-discipline, giving up all luxuries and giving charity to beggars every day of the last year.

At the age of thirty Mahavira renounced all his wealth, property, wife, family, relatives, and pleasures. In a garden of the village Kundapura at the foot of an Ashoka tree, no one else being present, after fasting two days without water he took off all his clothes, tore out the hair of his head in five handfuls, and put a single cloth on his shoulder. He vowed to neglect his body and with equanimity to suffer all calamities arising from divine powers, people, or animals. Having already attained before marriage the first three levels of knowledge (knowledge from the senses and mind, knowledge from study, and knowledge from intuition), at this initiation it was said he attained the fourth level of knowledge that includes the psychological movements of all sentient beings.

Thus Mahavira became homeless. As he was leaving the garden, a Brahmin beggar, who had missed out on the last year of Mahavira's almsgiving, asked him for alms; he gave him half of the garment on his shoulder. After thirteen months he gave up clothes altogether.

Neglecting his body,
the venerable ascetic Mahavira meditated on his self,
in blameless lodgings and wandering,
in restraint, kindness, avoidance of sinful influence,
chaste life, in patience, freedom from passion, contentment;
practicing control, circumspectness, religious postures and acts;
walking the path of nirvana and liberation,
which is the fruit of good conduct.
Living thus he with equanimity bore,
endured, sustained, and suffered all calamities
arising from divine powers, men, and animals,
with undisturbed and unafflicted mind,
careful of body, speech, and mind.1

After a few months of wandering Mahavira went to an ashram in Moraga, where he was invited to spend the four-month rainy season by its abbot who was a friend of his father. Mahavira was assigned a hut with a thatched roof. The previous summer had been so hot that the grass in the forest was destroyed, and the cattle ran to eat the ascetics' grass huts. The other ascetics beat off the cattle, but Mahavira just let the cattle eat the thatched roof. The ascetics complained to the abbot, and so Mahavira decided to leave the ashram and spent the rainy season in the village of Ashtika.

Reflecting upon this experience, Mahavira resolved to follow the fivefold discipline of never living in the house of an unfriendly person, usually standing with the body like a statue (kayostarga), generally maintaining silence, eating out of his hand as a dish, and not showing politeness to householders. Thus he practiced meditation and severe austerities. In the summer he would meditate in the sun or walk through sun-baked fields, and in winter he would meditate naked in the open air. Each year during the rainy season he stayed in one place. He walked quietly, carefully keeping his eyes on the ground so as to avoid stepping on any insects. He stayed in deserted houses, crematoriums, gardens, or any solitary place.

What little food he ate he got from begging. If he saw any other beggar, animal or bird waiting for food at a house, he would silently pass by to another house. He fasted for fifteen days at a time and up to a month. He passed the second rainy season at Nalanda, where he met Gosala, who was impressed by Mahavira and joined him. Traveling with Gosala, his fasts now extended as long as two months. According to Jaina biographies of Mahavira, Gosala often insulted others and misbehaved, while Mahavira remained silent and still (in kayostarga). This brought upon them abusive behavior.

In Choraga of Bengal they were taken for spies and imprisoned. Another time they were both tied up and beaten. In Kuiya they were once again imprisoned as spies but were released at the behest of two sisters. In the sixth year Gosala left Mahavira for six months; but he returned until the tenth year when he left Mahavira and proclaimed himself a prophet and leader of the Ajivika sect. Mahavira went to Vaishali where the republican chief Sankha rescued him from trouble caused by local children.

In the eleventh year Mahavira was tested by a god named Samgamaka, who gave him terrible physical pain, accompanied him begging, and contaminated his food. Mahavira gave up begging and sat in meditation. For six months Samgamaka inflicted tortures on him, but unable to disturb him he finally fell at his feet and begged his forgiveness before returning to his own place. Government officials in Tosali took Mahavira for a thief and tried to hang him, but he was rescued in time.

In the twelfth year Mahavira took a vow that he would fast until an enslaved princess with a shaven head and fettered feet, in tears and tired after three days fasting, would lean out a window and offer him boiled pulse. It was five months and twenty-five days before such an event occurred in Champa. While in this town a Brahmin questioned him about the soul and its characteristics. Mahavira explained that what one understands by the word "I" is the soul.

In Chammani a bull strayed while grazing, and a cowherd asked Mahavira about it. Met with silence, the cowherd became enraged and pushed grass sticks into Mahavira's ears. Remaining peaceful and undisturbed, Mahavira continued his wanderings until eventually a physician noticed the condition, removed the painful plugs from his ears, and cured the wound with medicine. Seeking the highest enlightenment, Mahavira meditated for six months sitting motionless, but he failed. He did penance in a cemetery when Rudra and his wife tried to interrupt him.

Finally in the thirteenth year of this ascetic life while meditating after two and a half days of waterless fasting, Mahavira attained nirvana and the highest awareness called kevala or absolute knowledge. The first message of Mahavira after his enlightenment is recorded in the Buddhist text Majjhima Nikaya:

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.
There are, O Nirgranthas, some sinful acts
you have done in the past,
which you must now wear out
by this acute form of austerity.
Now that here you will be living restrained
in regard to your acts, speech and thought,
it will work as the nondoing of karma for future.
Thus, by the exhaustion of the force of past deeds
through penance and the non-accumulation of new acts,
(you are assured) of the stoppage of the future course,
of rebirth from such stoppage,
of the destruction of the effect of karma,
from that, of the destruction of pain,
from that, of the destruction of mental feelings,
and from that, of the complete wearing out
of all kinds of pain.2

After attaining omniscience Mahavira attended a religious conference by the river Ijjuvaliya, but his first discourse had little effect. Then he traveled to another conference in the garden of Mahasena, where in a long discussion he converted eleven learned Brahmins, who had gone there to sacrifice. Breaking the tradition of speaking in Sanskrit, Mahavira spoke in the Ardhamagadhi dialect, and all the Jaina Agama scriptures are written in Ardhamagadhi.

Hearing of a magician, the Brahmin Indrabhuti Gautama went to expose him; but as he approached the garden, Mahavira called him by name and reading his mind, said, "Gautama, you have a doubt in your mind about the existence of the soul." Then Mahavira explained how to interpret a passage in the Vedas so as to understand that, although categories of knowledge may disappear, this does not affect the existence of the soul. This mind-reading and wisdom convinced Indrabhuti of the omniscience of Mahavira. After hearing Mahavira's discourse on his essential teachings, Indrabhuti decided to renounce the world and was initiated by Mahavira into the religion.

Having heard of his brother's defeat by Mahavira, Agnibhuti Gautama came to debate with Mahavira; but he too, won over by Mahavira's explanation of the reality of karma and the soul's bondage to it, also became initiated. According to tradition nine more scholars argued with Mahavira and were converted, becoming his eleven disciples. Jaina tradition also claims that these eleven brought along 4400 of their pupils into the new faith.

Then Mahavira wandered in silence for sixty-six days until he reached Rajagriha, the capital of the powerful state Magadha. King Shrenika (Bimbisara) and his family attended, and he received satisfactory answers to his questions. Indrabhuti was quite learned and vain; but when an old man came to him for an explanation of a sloka Mahavira had quoted before becoming lost in meditation, Indrabhuti could not explain it. When Mahavira explained it, all of Indrabhuti's pride fell away in the presence of the great ascetic.

Mahavira organized his order into four groups of monks, nuns, male householders, and female householders. All those initiated had to take the five vows, which included the four vows of Parshva (nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, and non-possession) plus chastity. After spending the rainy season at Rajagriha, Mahavira went to Vaishali, where he initiated his daughter and son-in-law Jamali and spent the next year's monsoon season. Perceiving telepathically that the king of Sindhu-sauvira wanted to meet him, Mahavira traveled there and initiated King Rudrayana into the religion of the Shramanas.

Returning from this long journey through the desert of Sindhu, they suffered from lack of food and water but remained indifferent. At Benares a multi-millionaire and his wife were converted. Spending two more rainy seasons in Rajagriha twenty-five of King Shrenika's sons were initiated into the Shramana community. It was recorded that Ardraka Kumara, a non-Aryan prince, who knew his past births, traveled to Mahavira to join his order and on his way defeated in argument Gosala, Vedic Brahmins, and other ascetics.

At Kaushambi Mahavira converted King Prodyota and several queens, who were admitted into the order of nuns. After spending a rainy season at Vaishali he went back to Rajagriha, where he converted many followers of Parshva's religion who adopted the fifth vow of the Shramana community as well. Later he convinced Keshi Kumara, the leader of the Parshva religion, that he was the 24th Tirthankara, and Keshi brought his disciples into the new order. A few years later his son-in-law Jamali left the Shramana order with his disciples to form the Vahurata sect; but it was not successful, and most of his disciples returned to Mahavira's order.

A dispute arose when Mahavira said that Gosala was not omniscient. Hearing of it and approaching Mahavira, Gosala tried to explain to him that he was no longer his disciple, because he was a different soul, who had entered Gosala's body and founded a new religion. Mahavira asked why he was vainly trying to conceal his identity. The irate Gosala swore at him and abused two of the Jaina monks, according to tradition destroying them, although Mahavira had warned them not to argue with Gosala. However, the negative energy that Gosala aimed at Mahavira returned to himself. He said that he would cause Mahavira to die of a fever in six months. Mahavira replied that he would live on, but that Gosala would be struck by his own magical power and die from fever in seven days, which came to pass. Mahavira outlived Gosala by sixteen years, but the Ajivika sect Gosala founded lasted for many centuries.

When Kunika (Ajatashatru) forcibly took over his father's kingdom of Magadha, he moved the capital to Champa, where many princes and townspeople adopted Mahavira's religion. Although Ajatashatru liked to listen to Mahavira, it did not stop him from gathering a large army and allies to attack and defeat the Vaishali confederacy in a major war that killed King Chetaka.

Finally at the age of 72 Mahavira left his body and attained nirvana, liberated and rid of all karma, never to return again. His first disciple, Indrabhuti Gautama, died also at dawn the next morning.


According to Jaina tradition nine of the eleven disciples attained the highest knowledge of kevala during Mahavira's lifetime, usually many years before their nirvana and final death. Indrabhuti Gautama, the first disciple, attained kevala and nirvana the same night Mahavira died. The other disciple, Sudharma, became the leader of the Nirgrantha community (Nirgrantha means unfettered ones.) and attained kevala knowledge after twelve more years and died eight years later at the age of one hundred. Thus Sudharma led the Order (Samgha) for twenty years and was succeeded by Arya Jambu Swamy, who had been initiated at the age of 16, attained kevala knowledge twenty years later, and directed the community until his nirvana death when he was 80. According to Jaina tradition he is the last person to have attained omniscience and nirvana.

The essential metaphysical ideas of Jainism are nine cardinal principles. The universe is divided into that which is alive and conscious (jiva) and matter which is not (ajiva). Jivas (souls) are either caught by karma (action) in the world of reincarnation (samsara) or liberated (mukta) and perfected (siddha). Though their number is infinite, jivas are individuals and each potentially infinite in awareness, power, and bliss. Matter (ajiva) is made up of eternal atoms in time and space which can be moved and stopped.

The other seven principles explain the workings of karma and the soul's liberation from it. The soul (jiva) is attracted to sense-objects by the principle of ashrava which leads to the bondage (bandha) of the soul by karma, which covers up and limits the soul's natural abilities to know and perceive in its blissful state, resulting in delusions and a succession of births. The next two principles are virtue (punya) and vice (papa) by which all karma either works beneficially toward liberation or negatively toward bondage.

The seventh principle samvara is how the soul prevents ashrava (the influx of karma) by watchfulness and self-discipline of mind, speech, and body. This eventually leads to nirjara, the elimination of karma. Finally moksha or liberation is attained. In one's last life at death, nirvana (literally "being extinguished") describes the end of worldly existence for the soul, which then rises to the highest heaven.

Although Jainas believe that souls may have some lives as gods and goddesses in heavenly worlds or suffer in hell and become demon-like, there is no total God lifting up souls or punishing them in hell. Rather each individual jiva is responsible for itself and completely determines its own destiny, although these jivas do have the divine attributes of infinite knowledge, power, and bliss. This doctrine of individual responsibility makes Jainism a primarily ethical religion, as does the severity of their five vows of nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and non-possession.

Ahimsa (nonviolence) means not injuring any living thing in any way, and the Jainas took it very seriously. Injuring an animal or causing anyone to do so was considered a sin. This meant walking carefully so as not to injure even the tiniest creatures. The mind had to be watched to prevent thoughts and intentions that might lead to quarrels, faults, pain, or any kind of injury. Similarly one's speech had to be carefully monitored. The Jaina must be careful in laying down their begging utensils so as not to hurt a living being, and food and water must be carefully inspected to make sure no living things are hurt or displaced.

As with nonviolence one must not speak any lies nor cause any lies to be spoken nor consent to any lies being spoken. Thus the Nirgrantha (Jaina) speaks only after deliberation and renounces anger, greed, fear, and mirth so that no falsehoods will be uttered. This vow combined with nonhurting (ahimsa) meant that speech must be pleasant and not painful or insulting in any way. Silence as a discipline was observed most of the time.

Non-stealing means that nothing must be taken that is not freely given. Thus the Nirgrantha begs only after deliberation and according to strict rules, consumes food and drink only after permission is granted, occupies only limited ground for short periods of time, continually renewing the grant to be there.

Chastity is the renunciation of all sensual pleasures. To achieve this discipline monks do not discuss women nor contemplate their lovely forms nor recall previously enjoyed pleasures nor occupy a bed or couch used by women, animals, or eunuchs. A Nirgrantha does not eat and drink too much nor drink liquor nor eat highly seasoned food.

Finally all attachments must be renounced, even to the delight in agreeable sounds or being disturbed by disagreeable ones. Similarly with all the five senses, one may not be able to avoid all experiences, but one is not to be attached to the agreeable ones, for those who acquiesce and indulge in worldly pleasures are born again and again. By these disciplines the wise avoid wrath, pride, deceit, greed, love, hate, delusion, conception, birth, death, hell, animal existence, and pain.

In order to find liberation four things must be attained: human birth, instruction in the teachings, belief in them, and energy in self-control. This meant freeing oneself from family bonds, giving up acts and attachments, and living self-controlled towards the eternal. Collecting alms one may be insulted and despised, but the wise with undisturbed mind sustains their insults and blows, like an elephant in battle with arrows, and is not shaken any more than a rock is by the wind. The sage lives detached from pleasure and pain, not hurting and not killing; bearing all, one's luster increases like a burning flame as one conquers desires and meditates on the supremacy of virtue, though suffering pain.

The great vows, which are a place of peace, the great teachers, and the producers of detachment have been proclaimed by the infinite victor (Jina), the knowing one, as light illuminating the three worlds (earth, heaven, and hell). The unfettered one living among the bound should be a beggar, unattached to women, and speak with reverence, not desiring this or the next world. The dirt of former sins committed by a liberated mendicant walking in wisdom, who is constant and bears pain, vanishes like the tarnish from silver in the fire. Free from desire with conquered sensuality, one is freed from the bed of pain like a snake casts off its skin. Renouncing the world, the sage is called "the maker of the end," for that one has quit the path of births.

The soul cannot be apprehended by the senses, because it possesses no corporeal form and thus is eternal. The fetters on the soul are caused by bad qualities, which cause worldly existence. The golden rule is a part of the Jaina teachings and is extended to all living beings:

Having mastered the teachings and got rid of carelessness,
one should live on allowed food,
and treat all beings as one oneself would be treated;
one should not expose oneself to guilt
by one's desire for life;
a monk who performs austerities should not keep any store.3

Once a disciple of Parshva, the 23rd Tirthankara, asked Gautama why Mahavira taught five vows instead of four. Earlier chastity was practiced as part of non-possession or detachment, but Keshi also explained that the first saints were simple and slow of understanding; they could practice the teachings better than they could understand them. The last saints were prevaricating and slow of understanding; though they might understand them, they had difficulty practicing them. Those in between were simple and wise; they easily understood and practiced them.

The three gems of Jainism are right attitude, right knowledge, and right conduct. The right attitude takes an unbiased approach, believes in the nine essential principles, and uses discriminating perception. Right knowledge proceeds through the five stages of sense perception, study, intuition, clairvoyance, and omniscience (kevala). Right conduct or character comes from self-discipline, renunciation, and pure conduct in practicing the five major vows. The rationale for self-discipline is explained in the Uttaradhyayana

Subdue yourself, for the self is difficult to subdue;
if your self is subdued,
you will be happy in this world and the next.
Better it is that I should subdue myself
by self-control and penance,
than be subdued by others
with fetters and corporal punishment.4

The rules for walking, sitting, begging for food, and evacuating one's bowels were very strict. In order to avoid causing anyone else even to do injury in preparing food, for example, monks must not accept food that is especially prepared for them. The monk must not encourage a lay person to give alms by playing with their children, giving information, praising charity, declaring one's family, expatiating on one's misery, curing the sick, threatening, showing one's learning, and so on.

Attending a sacrifice performed by a Brahmin, a sage named Jayaghosha explained that a true Brahmin is one who has no worldly attachment, who does not repent being a monk, who delights in noble words, who is exempt from love, hate, and fear, who subdues oneself and reaches nirvana, who thoroughly knows living beings and does not injure them, who speaks no untruth from anger or fun or greed or fear, who does not take anything that is not given, who does not love carnally divine, human, or animal beings in thought, words, or action, who is undefiled by pleasure as a lotus growing in water is unwetted, who is not greedy, lives unknown with no house or property or friendship with householders, who has given up former connections with relations, and who is not given to pleasure.

Showing that character and actions are more important to what one is than outward symbols or birth and color in regard to caste, Jayaghosha declared,

The binding of animals, all the Vedas, and sacrifices,
being causes of sin, cannot save the sinner;
for one's works are very powerful.
One does not become a Shramana by the tonsure,
nor a Brahmin by the sacred syllable aum,
nor a Muni by living in the woods,
nor a Tapasa by wearing kusha-grass and bark.
One becomes a Shramana by equanimity,
a Brahmin by chastity, a Muni by knowledge,
and a Tapasa by penance.
By one's actions one becomes a Brahmin
or a Kshatriya or a Vaisya or a Sudra.5

Then Jayaghosha warned the Brahmin that there is a kind of glue in pleasure. Those who are not given to pleasure are not soiled by it, but those who love pleasures wander around in Samsara (reincarnation) and are not liberated. He said that if you take two clods of clay, one wet and one dry, and fling them against the wall, the wet one will stick to it. So the foolish are fastened to karma by their pleasures; but the dispassionate are not, just as the dry clay does not stick to the wall.

Mahavira's theory of knowledge (syadvada) is relativistic and tentative to allow for the relativity of this world. Anything may be or not be or be indescribable or any combination of these to allow for various perspectives.

Mahavira taught 73 methods for exertion in goodness by which many creatures, who believed in and accepted them, studied, learned, understood, and practiced them, and acted according to them, obtained perfection, enlightenment, deliverance, beatitude, and an end to all misery. Briefly they are: longing for liberation, disregard of worldly objects, faith in the law, obedience to other monks and the guru, confession of sins, repenting to oneself and the guru, moral purity, adoration of the 24 Jinas, expiation, meditating without moving the body, self-denial, praises and hymns, time discipline, penance, asking forgiveness, study, recitation, questioning, repetition, pondering, discourse, sacred knowledge, concentration, control, austerity, cutting off karma, renouncing pleasure, mental independence, using unfrequented lodgings, turning from the world, not collecting alms in only one district, renouncing useful articles, renouncing food, overcoming desires, renouncing activity and the body and company, final renunciation, conforming to the standard, doing service, fulfilling all virtues, freedom from passion, patience, freedom from greed, simplicity, humility, sincerity of mind and religious practice and action, watchfulness of mind and speech and body, discipline of mind and speech and body, possession of knowledge and faith and conduct, subduing the five senses, conquering anger and pride and deceit and greed and wrong belief, stability, and freedom from karma.

In disciplining the mind, speech, and body, Jainas often stood in one position for a long time. Meditation might focus on such thoughts as the impermanence of worldly things, human helplessness, transitory quality of human relations, aloneness, separateness of the conscious soul from the unconscious body, the impurity of the body, how attachment binds the soul by karma, how good thoughts may release the soul, how karma may be eliminated, the difficulty of attaining perfection, and how the teachings may save one.

Mahavira's travels spread Jainism to various parts of northern India, and later migrations of monks enabled the religion to take hold in most of India. A poetic work on the rules of behavior for monks by Arya Sayyambhava written about 400 BC expresses concern that an act might "undermine the prestige of the Jaina order."6 This lapse of humility, one of the main virtues emphasized in this work, does indicate that Jainism was very likely respected by many. The examples of these extremely conscientious ascetics surely must have had their affect on people wherever they went; since they were homeless, they traveled constantly.

Though they seem to have argued over doctrinal differences, no major schism occurred in the religion until the first century CE, and that was only over whether monks ought to go naked or whether they could wear a garment.

In evaluating the ethics of Jainism we must keep in mind that the ascetic monks and nuns were probably far outnumbered by the householders, who practiced a minor version of the five vows. The primary goal of those who have renounced the world is spiritual liberation (moksha) from the wheel of reincarnation (samsara). Thus their lives were essentially motivated by this intention of removing their souls from the world. Though they lived lightly on the Earth, using as little of its resources as possible, they were still dependent on lay people for their meager survival needs. The complete focus on this other-worldly goal does seem to prevent them from contributing much to society except their example of self-discipline and possibly some teaching.

Yet the lay people, who practiced Jainism while earning a living and providing for their families, were contributing to society while doing their best not to harm others or any living creature. Thus they were vegetarians and, if true to the teachings, lived profoundly ethical lives. Although they provided examples of peace, Jainas often supported the wars that were common in ancient India. Their individual ethic somehow was not able to expand into a larger social ethic to convert society as a whole to the nonviolence they practiced as individuals.

The extremity of their ascetic disciplines seems to have disregarded personal pleasures and happiness so much that the religion never became as popular as Hinduism or Buddhism, although it managed to persist in substantial numbers. Jainism has contributed a marvelous example of individual harmlessness to our world, and though it may not be a complete solution to all human problems, it provided a spiritual path for those seeking liberation and an outstanding model of self-discipline and reverence for all life.

Buddha and Buddhism


1. Acharanga Sutra tr. Hermann Jacobi, 2:15:24.
2. Majjh. I, p. 92-93 quoted in Jain, K. C, Lord Mahavira and His Times, p. 56-57.
3. Sutrakritanga tr. Hermann Jacobi, 1:10:3.
4. Uttaradhyayana tr. Hermann Jacobi, 1:15-16.
5. Ibid., 25:30-33.
6. Sayyanmbhava, Arya, Dasa Vaikalika Sutra, 5B:12.

Copyright © 1998-2004 by Sanderson Beck

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SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950

Vedas and Upanishads
Mahavira and Jainism
Buddha and Buddhism
Political and Social Ethics
Hindu Philosophy
Literature of Ancient India
India 30 BC to 1300
Delhi Sultans and Rajas 1300-1526
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Marathas and the English Company 1707-1800
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Summary and Evaluation


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