Stories from Mahavira's life

Jainism: give life, take not

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

“If you know one, you know all.
If you know all, you know one.
One and all are the same.”
— Lord Mahavira

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 dreams

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.

Vardhamana’s fearlessness

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

Vardhamanapractised 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.

Mahavira is unnecessarily tortured

One day Mahavira was meditating peacefully at the foot of a tree. A cowherd brought his cow to that place and said to Mahavira, “Please take good care of my cow. I will return later.”

Mahavira was in deep meditation and he did not reply to the cowherd. The cowherd felt that the sage’s silence meant that he agreed to accept the responsibility of the cow and so he went on his way quite happily, leaving the cow behind.

Mahavira continued in his meditation as before. After a few hours, the cowherd came back. He was shocked to discover that his cow was no longer there. It had wandered away. He was furious with the sage and began striking Mahavira mercilessly. Then the cowherd climbed up the tree and broke off a small branch. He started thrashing Mahavira with the branch, but Mahavira did not utter a word.

Finally, the cowherd took two sharp sticks and drove them deep into Mahavira’s ears to seal them up. He shouted, “Since you pretend to be deaf, let me make it true!” Then he left the place.

Mahavira’s ears were now bleeding profusely and he was in acute pain. He rose to his feet and walked to the next village. When the villagers saw him, they were simply horrified that someone could have treated him so badly. They gave Mahavira proper medical treatment and they were able to cure him.

The question of fate

Mahavira’s first disciple was called Goshalak, but Mahavira used to call him Goshal. Goshal stayed with Mahavira for six years. Then they had a difference of opinion and Mahavira had to ask Goshal to leave.

The main reason they disagreed had to do with Mahavira’s philosophy on fate. Goshal believed that, as human beings, we have to reap the fruits of our past actions. Everything depends on what we did in the past.

Mahavira said, “It is true that we reap the fruits of our past actions, but at the same time we have the capacity to go beyond our past. We are not completely subject to fate. If we pray and meditate, we can go far beyond the results of our past actions.”

Goshal felt that fate is the last word in human existence, and Mahavira was of the same opinion as Sri Aurobindo, who said: “Fate shall be changed by an unchanging Will.”

Eventually Goshal left his Master. He went out and started practising austerities on his own. He practised for many years and was able to acquire great yogic powers. He also gathered a number of disciples. Unfortunately, on several occasions his moral conduct was deplorable.

Many years later, after Mahavira’s enlightenment, Goshal was to reappear in the life of his former Master.

Mahavira accepts female disciples

A particular king was killed in a battle and all his wealth was taken away. As a result, his young daughter, whose name was Chandana, was left completely helpless. One day she was walking along the street in a very sad mood. A rich merchant passed by. Seeing the princess, he enquired after her welfare. Chandana asked him if she could obtain work in his house as a maid. The merchant felt very sorry for Chandana and immediately offered her a position in his household.

Unfortunately, Chandana was so beautiful that the merchant’s wife became very jealous. “This girl will create all kinds of problems for me,” she said to herself. The wife did not dare to ask Chandana to leave the house but she took the opportunity to torture her whenever she could.

It happened that Mahavira once came to the merchant’s house. As soon as Chandana saw him, she ran and fell at his feet. She begged Mahavira to accept her as his disciple. Mahavira gladly accepted Chandana, and with her he began his order for women.

Mahavira and the learned pandit

In the course of time, Mahavira became very well known. When he gave talks, he used to speak in Prakrit, which was the language of the people. He used simple words that they could understand. Most of the sages and pandits of that time spoke in Sanskrit, which was infinitely more difficult.

People used to flock to hear Mahavira’s lectures. He would stay one or two nights in each village and then move on. He never stayed more than a few nights in any one place.

Once he entered a certain village and, as usual, all the villagers left their places of work to come and listen to him speak. In that village there was a very learned pandit. He had studied the shastras and he was a supreme authority on the teachings of the sacred scriptures.

The pandit noticed that everybody seemed to be hurrying somewhere and he asked one group, “What is happening? Is there a circus or something of that nature?”

The men replied, “We are going to hear Mahavira. He is fully illumined.”

“What!” exclaimed the pandit. “He is nothing but an upstart! I have read all the scriptures. There is nothing he can tell you that I cannot. I will punish this rogue for fooling innocent people. I will expose him!”

So saying, the pandit followed the crowd to where Mahavira was seated in meditation. Thousands of people had gathered. Mahavira gave a very simple talk. He asked them to pray and meditate, to have more compassion for each and every soul on earth and to renounce the life of pleasure.

Towards the end of his talk, Mahavira started calling out, “Indrabhuti, Indrabhuti!” It was the name of the pandit. Mahavira said to him, “What are you doing there at the back of the crowd? Come closer to me.”

The pandit was astonished. He asked, “How could you know my name? I did not reveal it.”

“I know your name,” answered Mahavira compassionately. Then he continued his talk. Everybody listened enraptured and nobody paid any further attention to the pandit.

When Mahavira had finished speaking, Indrabhuti said to him, “How do you know all these things? Have you studied the scriptures?”

“No, my son,” replied Mahavira. “I know these truths because of my inner realisation. Books can never give us illumination. Illumination can only come from prayer and meditation. I want everybody to pray and meditate. This path is for everyone.”

“How can it be?” protested Indrabhuti. “How can monks and householders, men and women, all follow the same path and keep the same standards?”

“Everybody can follow the same Truth,” said Mahavira. “By forgiving all beings, having friendship towards all and malice towards none, you will realise the Truth.”

Indrabhuti felt so much love and compassion in Mahavira that he became his disciple.

Goshal’s curse

Many years after he had attained enlightenment, Mahavira went to a particular village to spread his message. His former disciple, Goshal, was also in the same village with his own disciples. Mahavira said publicly, “Some people have sincerely realised the Truth, while others have only false realisation. My ex-disciple, Goshal, is one of that type.”

Goshal soon came to hear what Mahavira had said concerning him and he became furious. He came with some of his disciples to challenge Mahavira.

“Withdraw what you have said about me!” demanded Goshal.

“No, I cannot do that,” replied Mahavira.

“Then tell me why you said ‘my ex-disciple Goshal’,” said Goshal. “How dare you claim that I was your disciple? I was never your disciple.”

Mahavira looked at Goshal. “You were our Goshal,” he said. “You stayed with us for six years.”

“No,” insisted Goshal. “I am not your Goshal. I have changed my name. It is now UdayeKundiyajan.”

“Oh, I was only talking about our Goshal,” said Mahavira. “If you were not our Goshal, then why do you have to identify with him? Why do you have to be affected at all? If it is true that Goshal was someone else, then why do you have to worry about what I said?”

But Goshal was not satisfied with Mahavira’s reasoning. He began to threaten Mahavira verbally. “You must never again say that I was your disciple,” he screamed.

Mahavira remained unmoved. “I know you were my disciple,” he said. “You were with me for six years.”

Then a heated discussion ensued. Goshal became so enraged that he literally wanted to kill Mahavira. He used a special kind of occult power to attack Mahavira. The name of that occult force is tejoleshya. It is a kind of deadly heat.

When Goshal directed this force towards Mahavira, the destructive force penetrated Mahavira’s body and then rebounded back to Goshal. Both of them were in severe pain. Their bodies were burning, burning.

Then Goshal faced Mahavira and said, “I am cursing you! Within six months you will die!”

Mahavira said, “I am sorry, but you will die in seven days and I will live sixteen more years.”

Mahavira’s disciples and Goshal’s disciples all witnessed this scene. They saw that Mahavira was protected by his purity and spiritual height.

It came to pass that on the seventh day after this encounter Goshal died, while Mahavira went on to live for another sixteen years.

Occultly Mahavira knew that Goshal was in the village when he first gave the message about Goshal’s false realisation. Goshal had misused his occult power on many occasions and the time had come for him to be exposed to the whole world.

Revati cures Mahavira

Although Goshal could not kill Mahavira, he did create serious physical problems for this great soul. Because of Goshal’s destructive attack, Mahavira suffered from a burning sensation in his body. This went on for many years.

Mahavira’s disciples were very distressed to see their Master in this condition. They begged him, “Please tell us how you may be cured.”

“Only one person can cure me,” Mahavira said. “Her name is Revati. She is an extremely devoted seeker. She is beautiful in her heart and in her life. You will find her in the village of Shavasti. If you go there and beg for alms, she will give you sweetmeats. Those sweets will immediately cure me.”

The disciples hurried to that village and Revati gave them sweetmeats. As soon as Mahavira ate them, his pain disappeared completely.

Mahavira attains Nirvana

Lord Mahavira was now 72 years of age. It was the rainy season and he was staying in Pava. Tirelessly and selflessly, Mahavira passed his days and nights in giving discourses and answering questions in a large hall. Many people had gathered, including the members of various royal families. All gazed at the sage, who was seated in the lotus position before them, and drank in his every word.

After preaching more than 110 sermons — the final one lasting no less than 48 hours — Mahavira entered into deep meditation and withdrew from his physical body. This is the fifth and final auspicious event in Lord Mahavira’s life. Like the Buddhists, the Jainas refer to this state as nirvana.

When the assembled crowds realised that Mahavira’s soul had departed, they said, “The light has gone from this world. Let us now light clay lamps.” Countless small lamps were lit to soulfully observe the passing of their beloved Teacher. Some people believe that this is one of the origins of our Indian Dipavali festival.

Lord Buddha was residing nearby at Samagrama at the time. Within a few fleeting hours, messengers brought him the news that Mahavira had attained nirvana. Although Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavira did not meet on the physical plane, they had tremendous respect for each other.

Mahavira’s dearest disciple

Mahavira had eleven main disciples. The Jainas refer to them as ganadharas. Among them, the first and foremost was Indrabhuti Gautama, the learned pandit who had come to one of Mahavira’s discourses with the intention of exposing him as a fraud.

Like Ananda, who was the Buddha’s dearest disciple, Indrabhuti was deeply devoted to his Master. On the last day of Mahavira’s life, in the year 527 BC, Mahavira gave a most moving sermon for Indrabhuti’s benefit. In it, he urged his disciple not to halt before reaching the final Goal, but to make all haste to cross to the other Shore.

It is said that Indrabhuti was so inspired by the words of his Master that he achieved enlightenment the same day.

(Jainism: give life, take not, Sri Chinmoy, first published by Agni Press in 1998.)


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We are all leaves, flowers
And fruits
On the different religion-branches
Of the birthless and deathless

(Sri Chinmoy)

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