Death of Vardhamāna, Founder of Jainism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Vardhamāna broke with certain aspects of contemporary Hinduism and established the movement that resulted in the religion of Jainism.

Summary of Event

Vardhamāna’s original name was Nataputta Vardhamānam, and he was also known as Māhavīra, which means “great man” or “great hero.” Vardhamāna is generally recognized as the founder of Jainism, one of several important religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, which developed in the Indian subcontinent before the common era. Vardhamāna

The traditional dates for his birth and death are 599 b.c.e. and 527 b.c.e., but some scholars suggest that a more accurate chronology might place his dates about sixty years later. Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha (c. 566-c. 486 b.c.e.), was a near contemporary of Vardhamāna, and their traditional histories show similarities, as do some, but not all, of their religious ideas and practices. As with many other figures from the ancient world, there are no existing written historical sources about the life of Vardhamāna from his own era. The earliest surviving written accounts of his life and accomplishments were composed approximately one thousand years after his death.

Vardhamāna was born in Magadha, present-day north Bihār in northeastern India. His family, the Jnatrikas, belonged to the Kṣatriya caste, the second of India’s traditional four-caste system, which included Brahmans, or the priests, Kṣatriya, or the warrior-rulers, Vaiśya, who were the small landholders and artisans, and the Śūdra, or the workers, the lowest of the four castes. Below the four castes were outcastes. Vardhamāna’s father was a raja, or local ruler, and his mother was belonged to the Licchavis, an important royal family, and his childhood and youth was a life filled with material comforts. Here, too, is a parallel with the Buddha, whose father was also a local chieftain in northern India, and whose early life was equally privileged. As young adults, both turned their backs on their luxurious pasts and pursued their separate quests for spiritual and theological understanding.

Because Vardhamāna was a younger son, his elder brother would inherit their father’s position, thus making it less difficult for Vardhamāna eventually to leave his family. At about the age of thirty, after the death of his parents and with his brother’s consent, he seriously began his spiritual search, leaving the palace to join a body of ascetic monks. For the next twelve years, he followed an itinerant existence, wandering in woods and forests and the hills of north India, begging for his food, and living a life of increasing austerity.

Unlike the Buddha’s Middle Way between the extremes of material pleasure and excessive asceticism, Vardhamāna practiced a rigorous ascetic discipline in his pursuit to free himself from the desire for material things and to achieve deliverance and release, mokṣa or nirvana, from this world. Vowing to neglect his physical body, he pulled out the hair on his head, abandoned his clothes, and wandered naked, a practice that he followed for the rest of his life. He never spent more than a day or two at any single location, and he conversed only rarely, as he wished to form no attachments to anything that would tie him to the material world. In his early forties, while meditating, he achieved nirvana. He had overcome the desires that held him to this world, becoming the Jina (the Sanskrit word for conqueror) or Kevalin (completed soul). Vardhamāna’s followers would be known as Jains. The remainder of his life was devoted to preaching his beliefs and gathering around him a group of naked ascetics like himself who would continue his practices and preserve his teachings.

As with Buddhism, it is difficult to ascertain entirely which beliefs and practices were those of the founder and which were adopted later. Both Vardhamāna and Buddha rejected certain aspects of the prevailing religion of their era, the religion known as Hinduism. Whether Vardhamāna and Buddha were intentionally founding new religions is a disputed point among scholars. Jains believe that Vardhamāna was the twenty-fourth and last of the savior beings, and that there were twenty-three previous tīrthaṅkaras who taught the way to salvation, or nirvana.

Jains believe the world to be divided into lifeless matter (ajiva) and living beings, or souls (jiva), which exist everywhere, in both animate as well as inanimate objects. Both lifeless matter and souls are eternal. Matter is made up of atoms that come together to form all things, some being heavy and some light, the latter of which is called karma-matter. Desires and unethical conduct thicken the karma-matter, but ethical conduct and the abandonment of desire rids the soul of its karma-matter, eventually freeing the soul from its cycle of rebirth or reincarnation (samsāra), and thus nirvana is finally achieved. There are five levels of souls, with gods, men, and animals having five senses, down to plants, earth, water, and fire, having only one sense. Jains strive to limit the pain caused to the numerous souls in order to avoid as much bad karma as possible.

To avoid bad karma resulting from pain inflicted upon the jiva, the concept and practice of nonviolence, or ahiṁsā, is central to Jainism. This is not just a moral and ethical imperative, but also the knowledge that violence against souls or jivas will impede any hope for release from the cycle of death and rebirth, from reincarnation. Vardhamāna carried a soft broom to sweep the path before him so he would not inadvertently step on any insects. He would eat only food prepared for someone else so that he would not be the cause of the injury to any souls, even those of plants, and he would always search the ground before he sat or slept so that he would not injure any living beings.

By avoiding bad karma, ultimately the soul will be freed from matter and the cycle of reincarnation, becoming Siddha, or a liberated soul. Siddhas lack matter but they are conscious and eternal. Although there are various celestial “heavens,” there is no creator god in Jainism. There are higher beings that might be called gods, or arhats, but they provide no aid or help to the soul in freeing itself. Prayers will not help, and thus there is no role for priests, or Brahmans, as in Hinduism. Salvation is achieved by the self, by getting rid of one’s bad karma through proper conduct and avoiding causing pain to jivas.

Vardhamāna established a community of monks, as did the Buddha. Jain monks were to follow the Five Great Vows, including practicing nonviolence, telling the truth, taking only what is given, abstaining from sexual activity, and renouncing all attachments. The rigorous ascetic demands that Vardhamāna followed and laid down for Jain monks was too rigorous for ordinary people, so a modified series of rules was created for laypersons, which included allowing sexual relations for those who were married.

By the traditional accounts, in the year 527 b.c.e., near the modern city of Patna, at the age of seventy-two, Vardhamāna willingly starved himself to death, in a practice called sallakhana. According to Jain belief, he would no longer be subject to the pain of rebirth and reincarnation and would enter that place at the top of the universe, Siddha-sila, or the place of the perfect souls.

Significance

Like most religions, Jainism divided into several sects. Svetambaras monks allow the wearing of white clothes and allowed women into their monastic order, but the Digambaras hold to strict nudity whenever engaged in any religious duty. The latter do not allow women in their order, thus rigorously following Vardhamāna’s claim that women are only a temptation. The Digambaras believe that women can only achieve salvation after first being reborn as men.

Both Jainism and Buddhism were greatly influenced by earlier Hindu beliefs and practices, but both rejected certain aspects of Hinduism. Unlike Buddhism, Jainism has few adherents beyond the borders of India, perhaps because of its strict ascetic requirements. Tradition has it that Chandragupta Maurya (r. c. 321-301 b.c.e.), one of India’s greatest rulers, became a Jain monk late in his life and starved himself to death. Although the Jain community in India today is only about two million out of a total population of approximately one billion, its beliefs and practices, such as vegetarianism and ahiṁsā, as practiced by the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi, have been influential among non-Jains.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chapple, Christopher, ed. Jainism and Ecology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. A provocative collective of essays about Jainism, ecology, and the practice of ahiṁsā.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dundas, Paul. The Jains. London: Routledge, 2002. A comprehensive summary of Jainism by a western scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jain, Hiralal, and A. D. Upadhye. Māhavīra, His Times and Philosophy of Life. New Delhi: Bharatiya Jnanprith Publishers, 1974. A sympathetic account of Vardhamāna’s life and ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jain, Kailash Chand. Lord Māhavīra and His Times. One of a number of works written to commemorate the twenty-five-hundredth anniversary of Vardhamāna’s death and his nirvana. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laidlaw, James. Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society Among the Jains. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A discussion of the Jain community in the modern world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schubring, Walther. The Doctrine of the Jainas. Translated by Wolfgang Beurlen. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962. A classic account of the beliefs and practices of Jainism.
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