Mahavira, the “Great Hero”.

BEN_2861A devout Pilgrim worships at the huge, flower-strewn feet of statue of Gommatesvara, one of the Jain sect’s major saints. Since the sixth century B.C., followers of this religion have taught ascetic self-denial.

The founder of Jainism was a youth named Vardhamana. He was born about 540 B.C into a setting of wealth, nobility and pride. His father was Indian lord, a powerful chieftain of the Jnatrika clan that lived south of Nepal.

He devoted 12 years to austerity, debate with other wanderers, and meditation, and finally he reached the goal of all ascetics: an instant of perceiving the meaning of life and death. Then he set about sharing his enlightenment with others. So persuasive was he that disciples quickly rallied to him, calling him Mahavira, the “Great Hero”, and Jina, the “Conqueror”. From that word came the name oh his cult, Jainism—–“Religion of The Conquerors”.

Mahavira accepted without quarell the fundamental principles of established doctrine, but challenged the ruling hierarchy. Mahavira accepted karma and reicarnation and the concept of Atman and Brahman, but he provided new interpretations of the ideas. He taught that karma consisted of impurities that clung to the soul like spiritual barnacles. Everything had a soul-not only man and animals, but trees, rivers, even stones as well. The soul of man was clear and pure at first but actions sullied its purity. By rigorous abstention from evil behaviour, man could shed his impurities just as by action he had gathered them; then, free of it masses of impurities and restored to its pristine state, the soul would cease to be reborn. To a Jain, then, the purpose of life was to clean the soul.

Mahavira warned against such actions as stealing and lying, which would add to the impurities already covering the soul. Especially did he warn against violence to other souls. Since everything in the universe had a living soul, killing any form of life would produce terrible spiritual results. So seriously did Mahavira and his monks take the ban of killing that they carried whisks to brush aside insects that they might otherwise step on, and wore masks over their noses and mouths lest they accidentally breathe in any living creature. All beings, Mahavira said, “Shun destruction and cling to life. they long to live. To all things life is dear”.

Today, orthodox Jains consume no meat and eat only in the daytime to prevent accidental harm to insects in the dark.


Drawing by abbysoekarno, 2011.


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