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Mahavira (540 BC - 467 BC) founded the sect of Jainism. Vardhamana Mahavira was born in a village near Vaishali in north Bihar. His father a ruler of that area and his mother a princess. At the age of thirty. he left home and started practicing penances in search of knowledge. After twelve years, he attained the state called Nirvana (enlightenment). He was acclaimed as the twenty-fourth Tirthankara and one of the great spiritual teachers. The 23 earlier Tirthankaras, about whom practically nothing is known, are prehistoric in character. Only the last one is a historical personage, Parshvanatha.

The sect of Jainism does not recognize caste, deities or sacrifices and is pledged to the non-taking of life. All Jains are strict vegetarians. Jainism stresses that there was no need for any vedic ceremonies and invoking the gods for help. It told its followers that their deeds should be based on the three jewels (Ratnas) - Right faith, Right knowledge, and Right action. The five vows of Jainism are: non-injury to living beings, truth, non-stealing, not to own property and to practice chastity. The first four vows were laid down by Parshva; the last one was added by Mahavira, who also asked his followers to abandon clothes and go about naked. This implied that the Jain monks had to observe absolute chastity, abandon all worldly pleasure and possessions and practice progressive tapas or asceticism with long periods of fasting, self-mortification, meditation and study.

According to Jains, the Vedas and Brahmanas are not reliable and may be disregarded. Jainism possesses it's own scriptures. At first, Jain teaching was preserved in an oral tradition. But, in the third century BC, at a council convened in Pataliputra, it was collated and recorded, the final version being edited in the fifth century AD. At the time of the council, Jains were divided into two sects - the Digambara and the Svetambara. Possibly, the split into two sects was due to a number of Jain monks moving down south and the subsequent differences in ascetic practices. The basic religious principles remained the same, but they differed among themselves on minor dogmas, mythological details and ascetic practices.

Jainism received patronage from the kings of the time, including Chandragupta Maurya. In the south, royal dynasties such as the Gangas, Kadambas, Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas patronized Jainism. In Gujarat, patronage came from wealthy merchants. The concrete expression of Jainism's religious zeal is seen all over the country in works of art and architecture.

The 57-foot high statue of Gommateshvara at Sravana Belagola in Mysore, erected in 983 or 984 AD is a marvel of its kind. The temples at Mount Abu and those at Palithana in Gujarat and Moodabidri and Karkala in the south make a rich contribution to the Indian heritage.