Jina Mahavira

(Buddhism and Jainism)

Jina Mahavira, also known by the name Nigantha Jnataputta, lived around the same time as the Buddha, the 6 century BC. Mahavira was probably a little older than Buddha. Mahavira was the founder of Jainism. The lives of Buddha and Mahavira have much in common: like Buddha, Mahavira was born to a noble family and was given a brilliant education and marital training. The name “Mahavira”, meaning the “great warrior”, was given to Mahavira after he tamed a cobra and a wild elephant. It was when Mahavira’s parents died (he was 30 at the time) that he left the society and became a wandering ascetic. While in search his path Mahavira studied different spiritual practices. When he was 40 years old he attained pure vision of all realms of existence, including realms of subtle beings and the realms of bodiless siddhis, called “the perfect”, who appear in the pure radiance of consciousness. Mahavira became jina, one who conquered karma and left the circle of births and deaths. Later he founded his own school, Jainism, tradition of builders of the crossing.

Jains are ascetics who have exhausted themselves with prolonged fasting, standing motionlessly with hands raised and other exercises, having their purpose in rejecting temptations of the world of incarnations by development of unshakable will.  “Creators of passage” made their purpose to stop suffering of entire universe by purifying their own mind. The basis of Mahavira’s sermon was the principle of “ahimsa”, non-harming of leaving beings, including animals and plants.

Mahavira was a severe ascetic, who ate only occasionally and only food which was obtained without violence, like fruits which fell from trees. He used to walk naked and often was persecuted for this, and even beaten by villagers. Torments did not break him but only strengthened his benevolence towards all living beings. Mahavira preached the truth relying only on his own experience of realization. He described the universe as a wheel, whose hub is made from realms of liberated beings and whose rim is made from worlds of suffering. He was speaking about the absolute value of benevolent attitude towards all leaving creatures.

Mahavira also described the theory of five bodies, which in their interaction compose a human being:

  1. Body-form, composed of material elements;
  2. Body of perception, energy;
  3. Body of mind – subtle body capable of magical transformations;
  4. Fire body or body of samskaras, mental imprints;
  5. Body of qualities of consciousness or body of will.

Mahavira passed at the age of 72 while dissolving his form in rainbow light and leaving behind only hair and nails.

Jainism, the teaching founded by Mahavira, proved to have a strong base and until now has many followers in India. One of the most prominent followers of Jainism was Mahatma Gandhi.


When we discussed the story of Mahavira with my Teacher, Vova Pyatsky, he made the following comments:

The history of relationship of Buddhism and Jainism.

To understand the influence of Jainism’s heritage in Buddhism it is important to investigate the history of Buddhism’s relationship to Jainism and to Mahavira. In the sutras there are many negative mentions of ascetics, in particular the ascetic Nagitha. We should bear in mind that many of the sutras were composed by Buddha’s followers after his death. Buddhism and Jainism existed almost at the same time and Buddhism inherited many Jain concepts: concept of 5 bodies, theory of universal wheel of rebirths, concept of dissolving of a body in pure light, and the theory of impermanence. By downplaying this connection, early commentators of Buddhism tried to demonstrate an advantage of Buddhism over Jainism. The negation of Buddhism’s roots make it impossible to practice Buddhism. This desire has nothing in it except a wish to be special, a pretension to be the only one who is right. To be Buddha’s follower is magnificent, but one needs to recognize the origin of Buddha’s concepts and to be grateful, as there is no path without gratitude. Not understanding this caused a division of the sangha into two hostile camps.  The Buddha’s words and their interpretation were attached an absolute meaning, and common sense was cut off. It was thought that all that was taught by Buddha was novel information, and disregarded, that there were other masters who attained realization. When a teaching gains self-criticism it also gains progress and life. Sutras are not sinless and their commentators are often “blind”, so the important part of Buddhist practitioner growth happens when he/she learns to take responsibility for the way he/she interprets meaning and when he/she learns to read sutras and other texts in attentive and critical manner. When that which is said or written is blindly accepted and declared to be the absolute, then this position turns out to be a fanatic one. In Buddhism, like in any other religion, there are enough thoughtless fanatics who bring their folly with them. This is not something what increases the vitality of the Teaching.

Trying to construct an ideal religion/school, which is not rooted in an experience of previous generations is destructive for a living teaching. It is only possible to overcome fanaticism with the help of gratitude. When there is gratitude we do not undermine the roots of the teaching. If  Jainism’s roots were removed from modern Buddhism there wouldn’t be much left.

When we try to modify everything, to make everything sterile and clean we undermine its roots. A prominent feature of Buddhism, which makes it different from other religions and schools, is its not-clinging to its own essence.  The same way a ripe fruit is different from an unripe fruit: it does not cling to its own form and is ready to become food for others.

Doubt is a subtle obstacle. There are two ways to overcome doubts.  Unskillful, when we suppress doubts with an absolute authority, like: “our teaching is the best one; our guru is the best one”. In this way we create in ourselves a feeling of being chosen, set ourselves against the world and find ourselves in isolation.  It is only an attempt to construct an enlightenment but not to recognize it in the own nature. A skillful way is when we perceive all our shortcomings and still follow the path, choose it while being led by gratitude. Knowledge is inherent in all living beings: in beetle, in cat, in dog, but only by recognizing of the own shortcomings, weaknesses and doubts and seeing them as the nature of mind are able to discover this knowledge. There is no sense in constructing absolute faith, it makes sense to recognize our own nature.

The question of heritage is in fact a question of status: of whether we feel that we are better and smarter than others. In the past the attitude of Buddhism towards Jainism has been one to attempt to construct Buddha as an absolute, to make us believe that he is better, smarter than “dirty” Jains.  This is a folly which we encounter everywhere: followers of Zen consider themselves special, Vajrayana followers think themselves to be more advanced than followers of Hinayana.

This is unskillful construction of status. We feel our own limited nature as sadness, and sadness brings us closer to a knowing of the nature of mind. When we understand that our nature is not exceptional we start to feel a quiet joy, as we need not strain ourselves and make “something” out of ourselves anymore. We need to investigate our own nature while bearing in mind gratitude. Jains are builders of crossing. ‘The Buddha incorporated their heritage and taught the middle way path. An attempt to build status only moves a person away from his/her source.

Marina Sherman