Article: Mahāvīra

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Mahāvīra is the last of the 24 Jinas of the present cycle of time.

The word Jina means 'victor' in Sanskrit. A Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma through practising extreme asceticism and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A Jina is also called a Tīrthaṃkara or 'ford-maker' in Sanskrit – that is, one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience.

This piece is a summary of the article "Mahāvīra". The full article will be available soon.

Story and images

Tradition holds that Mahāvīra was born in Kuṇḍagrāma and gained liberation on Pāvāpurī.

Mahāvīra’s symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem is a lion.

Like all Jinas, Mahāvīra has a pair of spiritual attendants, often shown in art. His yakṣa is Mātānga while his yakṣī is Siddhāyikā.

Titles

This manuscript painting shows the 24th Jina Mahāīra enduring some of the trials – upasarga – each Jina goes through to test his spiritual resolve. He takes the kāyotsarga meditation posture though animals attack and two men push spikes into his ears.

Mahāvīra is tested
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

‘Mahāvīra’ is a title meaning ‘great hero’ in Sanskrit. Other titles of the 24th Jina are:

  • 'Sanmati' – 'of righteous thoughts' – which is hardly used
  • 'Niggantha' in Pali or 'Nirgrantha' in Sanskrit – 'without knots' – which is a title given to ascetics because 'knots' mean the household life of desires, duties and worries. This is how he is referred to in Buddhist texts
  • the Pali name Nataputta in Buddhist texts, which means 'son of the Jnatri clan'.

His name at birth was Vardhāmana, which means 'ever increasing'.

Historical existence

This statue of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, is in the lotus position of meditation. Typically of Digambara idols, he is naked and has closed or downcast eyes, with no headdress or jewels. Mahāvīra is identified from his lion emblem, flanked by svastikas.

Idol of Mahāvīra
Image by Dayodaya © CC BY-SA 3.0

Mahāvīra’s existence is independently documented in Buddhist texts but the two main Jain sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras have slight differences in their accounts of his life. A near-contemporary of the Buddha, Mahāvīra lived about 563 to 483 BCE, which is around a century later than his earliest traditional dates.

In the early days of Jain studies, Western scholars thought Mahāvīra had founded the Jain religion but it is now widely accepted that he reformed an established religious tradition. He is credited with adding a fifth vow to the four preached by the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva.

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