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Mahavira: Contemporary of the Buddha

Mahavira or Niganta Nathaputta was one of the six religious leaders lived at the time Buddha was born into the Indian society. Out of the six Mahavira was the most popular and had about 37,000,000 followers at one point of time. Even today there are jain temples in every city in India and millions follow Jainism.

Nigantha Nataputta statue

Mahavir means “Great Hero” who established what are today considered to be the central tenets of Jainism. According to Jain tradition, he was the 24th and the last Tirthankara. Tirthankara is one who establishes the four fold order (Monk, Nun, Layman and Laywoman) of religion. In Tamil, he is referred to as Arugadevan. He is also known as Vira, Sanmati, Ativira and Gnatputra and Bhagvan Mahavir. In the Buddhist Pali Canon, he is referred to as Nigantha Nataputta.

Mahavira was born in a place called Kundalagrama in Vaishali, Bihar. Mahavira was born to King Siddartha of Ikshvaku dynasty, and Queen Trishala (Priyakarini). Trishala was a member of the Kshatriya caste. She was the eldest daughter of Chetaka, the King of Vaishali. Trishala had seven sisters. One married king Bimbisara of Magadha. She and her husband were forrlowers of Parshvanath, the 23rd Jain Tirthankar. Shvetambars generally believe that he was conceived by Devananda, the wife of a Brahmin and was transferred to Trishala’s womb by Indra because all Tirthankaras had to be Kshatriyas. While still in his mother’s womb it is believed he brought wealth and prosperity to the entire kingdom, hence the name Vardhaman. Trishala had 14 auspicious dreams before giving birth to him - a great soul.

Jain tradition states that after his birth, Indra bathed him in celestial milk with rituals befitting a future Tirthankar and he was returned to his mother, Trishala. Vardhaman’s birthday is celebrated as Mahavir Jayanti, the most important religious holiday of Jains around the world.

Early years

As King Siddartha’s son, he lived as a prince. However, even at that tender age he exhibited a virtuous nature. He started engaging in meditation and immersed himself in self-contemplation. He was interested in the core beliefs of Jainism and distanced himself from worldly matters. At the age of eight he observed the twelve vows of Ahimsa, etc. People were quite astonished at the virtuous nature of Mahavira at such a tender age. He showed extraordinary skills even during his childhood.

Spiritual Pursuit

Mahavira married Yasodha and had a daughter, Anojja. At the age of thirty Mahavira renounced his kingdom and family, gave up his worldly possessions, and spent twelve years as an ascetic. During these twelve years he spent most of his time meditating. He gave utmost regard to other living beings, including humans, animals and plants, and avoided harming them.

He took off even the piece of cloth which he was wearing and became absolutely nude. He exhibited exemplary control over his senses while enduring the penance during these years. His courage and bravery earned him the name Mahavira. These were the golden years of his spiritual journey and at the end of 12 years he achieved arihant status. Arihant or Jina is one who destroys his inner enemies like anger, greed, passion, ego, etc. and realizes perfect perception, knowledge, power, and bliss. This attainment of omniscience is known as keval-jnana. He preached his message of peace for thirty years after the attainment of omniscience. The followers of Jina are Jains. Mahavira lived a life of absolute truthfulness, a life of perfect honesty and a life of absolute chastity. He lived without possessing any property at all.

Mahavira is not the founder of Jainism. In Jainism there were twenty-four Tirthankaras. Mahavira was the twenty-fourth. Mahavira revised, reformed and propagated the Jain doctrines. He followed the well established creed of his predecessor Tirthankar Parshvanath. However, Mahavira reorganized the Jain philosophy to correspond to his times.

After attaining arihanthood Mahavira devoted the rest of his life to preaching the eternal truth of spiritual freedom to people around India.

He travelled barefoot and without clothes, enduring harshest of climates, meeting people from all walks of life who came to listen to his message. Mahavira’s preaching and efforts to explain Jain philosophy is considered the real catalyst to the spread of this ancient religion throughout India.

At the age of 72 years he attained Nirvana in Pavapuri, Bihar on the last day of the Indian and Jain calendars, Deepavali.

Jain philosophy

Many teachings in Jainism is similar to those in Buddhism. Mahavira’s philosophy has eight cardinal principals - three metaphysical an five ethical. The objective is to elevate the quality of life.

Mahavira preached that from eternity, every living-being (soul) is in bondage to karmic atoms accumulated by good or bad deeds. In a state of karmic delusion, the individual seeks temporary and illusory pleasure in material possessions, which are the root causes of self-cantered violent thoughts and deeds as well as anger, hatred, greed, and other vices. These result in further accumulation of karma. Mahavira taught the necessity of right faith (samyak-darshana), right knowledge (samyakgyana), and right conduct (samyak-charitra’) which together will help attain the liberation of one’s self. At the heart of right conduct for Jains lie the five great vows:

* Nonviolence (Ahimsa) - to cause no harm to any living being;

* Truthfulness (Satya) - to speak the harmless truth only;

* Non-stealing (Asteya) - to take nothing not properly given;

* Chastity (Brahmacharya) - to indulge in no sensual pleasure;

* Non-possession/Non-attachment (Aparigraha) - to detach completely from people, places, and material things.

Mahavira taught that men and women are spiritual equals an that both may renounce the world in search of moksha or ultimate happiness.

Mahavira was quite successful in eradicating from human intellect the conception of God as creator, protector, and destroyer. He also denounced the worship of gods and goddesses as a means of salvation. He taught the idea of supremacy of human life and stressed the importance of the positive attitude of life.

Bhagvan Mahavir also preached the gospel of universal love, emphasizing that all living beings, irrespective of their size, shape, and form how spiritually developed or underdeveloped, are equal and we should love and respect them.

Mahavira attracted people from all walks of life, including untouchables. He organized his followers into a fourfold order; monk (Sadhu), nun (Sadhvi), layman (Shravaka), and laywoman (Shravika). This order is known as Chaturvidh Jain Sangh).

Jainism has managed to survive in India in spite of various foreign invasions and it has stood the test of time.

Going forth with meditation

Is there one way for purification of beings, another way for escaping from suffering and sorrow, still another way to achieve the unique wisdom and another way for understanding Nibbana? Are there several ways like that? No. There is only one way. If one wants to obtain unique wisdom like mystic power or psychic powers, or to annihilate defilements has he got to do different things? If one wants to annihilate Raga has he got to do something else? Is there still another thing to be done to get rid of the penitent nature or grieving nature. Is there something different to be done by someone who thinks of purifying one’s mind? If one thinks of understanding Nibbana has he got to do something different? No. For all these there is only one way. What is that? The four fold Satipatthana.

If one is pleased with this word of the Buddha the understanding of the Buddha, will a hurry arise in him? Or will patience arise? There are no reasons for being in a hurry. Why are there no reasons for hurrying? He has come across what he wants. If we come across what we want there is no reason for us to hurry up. If we want to get liberated from suffering and if we come across the necessary way and if we found the way is there a need to hurry up? If one wanted to get liberated from the nature of grieving and if he found the relevant way is there a need for him to be in a hurry? If one wanted to purify one’s mind and he found the required way is there a need for him to hurry up? If one wanted to achieve unique wisdom and if he came across the way for it will he be in a haste? If one wants to attain Nibbana and he finds the way will he get into a hurry? No. Do you now accept that one who has confidence in Satipatthana, one who believes in Satipatthana does not become excited.

If there is hurry in us what does that indicate? That there is no confidence in Satipatthana. If there is confidence in Satipatthana what does that indicate? That he has accepted the understanding of the Buddha. If there is no confidence in Satipatthana what does that indicate? That he has no confidence in the understanding of the Buddha. If there is confidence in the understanding of the Buddha what does it indicate? That there is Saddha. If there is no confidence in the understanding of the Buddha what does it indicate? That there is no Saddha. Now can one come to a conclusion about oneself? If one is in too much of a hurry to practice the Dhamma what does it indicate? That there is no Saddha. If one has patience (with regard to the practice of Dhamma) What does it indicate? That there is Saddha.

If one says “It cannot be done here. I must go to the forest” What does it indicate? That he has no patience. What is there if there is no patience? That there is no Saddha. Now it is a good message for us to come to a conclusion about ourselves. Can we find the way to generate Saddha by going here and there? Cannot. Then what have we got to do to generate Saddha or to find the way to do so? We have to get pleased with the Satipatthana. Based on what does one get pleased with Satipatthana? By establishing confidence in the understanding of the Buddha. Based on what can one have confidence in the understanding of the Buddha. Saddha means having confidence in the understanding. Based on what can one arrive at the understanding. By thinking wisely. By the generation of Yonisomanasikara. By ariving at Yonisomanasikara. By applying Yonisomanasikara. Based on what does one arrive at Yonisomanasikara? By listening to Saddhamma. From where can one listen to Saddhamma? Is it by association with worthy friends or by staying near the worthy friend? By association with the worthy friend. Is there any use in staying with the worthy friend? No.

What is meant by associating with the worthy friend? Accepting as true and correct what the worthy friend says. He relates it to the Dhamma and checks. He accepts it. Thereafter he practises whatever he accepted. That is how one associates with the worthy friend. It has to be done extensively. Is it possible to carry out the association with worthy friend in an immature way? No. If one goes to engage in a superficial manner he always expects only pleasant things from the worthy friend. If the worthy friend says something sternly the association comes to an end. In order to maintain this association properly what is the quality that should be with us?

We must have the attitude that the worthy friend is sympathetic towards us. We must think that the worthy friend has our progress at heart. We must accept the fact that he is giving us instructions and advice. What happens if we think that he is doing it in anger? What happens if we think that he is doing it with jelousy? Whatever is said sweetly is accepted. If the language is a little strong he conflicts with it. Therefore if we accept the worthy friend is sympathetic towards us, he likes us to progress, he is advising and instructing us, we associate with him. In that association we get to hear the Saddhamma. When we think according to the Dhamma, Yonisomanasikara gets generated. We become able to develop confidence in what the Buddha has preached. We get the opportunity to develop Saddha. That enables us to develop belief in Satipatthana. Have you come across the preaching on Satipatthana? If so how long ago? Wasn’t it a long time ago? Do we still possess this quality of patience? Then what is it that we should cultivate? Association with worthy friends. We should develop the association with worthy friends. Then we get to hear the Saddhamma.

The association with worthy friends is something that has to be built up with a lot of difficulty. It is said to be difficult because it is something which comes to a person very rarely. I think it is the rarest thing in the world that one meets. What is that which happens rarely? The joining of one’s life with the association of worthy friends. That is why only a few people like the quantity of soil on the finger nail understand this Dhamma. A large number of people may listen to the Dhamma. A large number of people may recite the Dhamma.

Only a small number like the amount of soil on the finger nail will understand the Dhamma. What is the reason? What is called association with worthy friend is an extremely rare occurrence. Meeting the worthy friend does not happen frequently. Coming into association with the worthy friend does not often happen in the world. It is something that happens extremely rarely. Think of getting that rare occurrence to take place. Strive for it.

If some day we succeed in reaching that place it would be a big gain. Don’t think of doing it after this life. Entertaining hopes of doing it after this life is only a dream. The dream might sometimes get fulfilled but getting an opportunity like this may not happen. Therefore we must think of associating with worthy friends during this life itself somehow or other. Then we get the opportunity for hearing the Dhamma and for Yonisomanasikara in our lives. We get the opportunity to form admiration for the Dhamma preached by the Buddha. We gain the ability to form admiration for Satipatthana.

We get an opportunity to do so. We effortlessly become individuals with patience. The quality of a person with patience is practicing Dhamma and meditation attentively. The individual without patience is like one who had missed seven meals.

He tries to push the food into his mouth with both hands and if possible with the legs also. Such is the nature of the one lacking patience. He starts saying “I will do it now”. After a few days he gives up “This does not work. What is said to be there is not there”. One who has patience practices diligently. Does it in an orderly manner. He tries to do it with understanding. Makes inquiries and gets problems explained and tries to practice.

That is the nature of the person who has patience. There is clarity in his mind. There is delight in him. There is freshness in him. He does not live in sorrow. Why? He has confidence. In what? In himself. He knows that he has security. He is aware that he has come across a refuge. Therefore all his fears and suspicions leave him. That happens along with Saddha. It happens with admiration.

Compiled with instructions from Ven Nawalapitiye Ariyawansa Thera

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Abhidhamma in practice

Seven weeks after the recluse Siddhattha Gotama attained Supreme Enlightenment and came to be known as the Buddha, he gave his first discourse to the group of five ascetics with whom he had been associated six years earlier. These five ascetics were: Kondañña, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji. By the first discourse, the Buddha set in motion the Wheel of the Law.

He explained to the five ascetics why he had discarded the two extremes of indulgence and mortification; he declared that he had discovered the Middle Way, which is the Noble Eightfold Path leading to Enlightenment; he expounded the Four Noble Truths and convinced the five ascetics that he had attained Supreme Enlightenment.

At the end of the first discourse, the “spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma” arose in Kondañña, thus: “all that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.” The Venerable Kondañña then told the Buddha that he wished to go forth under the Blessed One and asked for Full Admission, which he received. With further instruction by the Buddha, the “spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma” arose in the Ven. Vappa, the Ven. Bhaddiya, the Ven. Mahanama, and the Ven. Assaji in this order. They too knew thus: “all that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.” These four ascetics, too, expressed their wish to go forth under the Blessed One and asked for Full Admission, which they received.

At this stage, then, the first five disciples of the Buddha had insight only into the impermanence of anything which had a conditioned origin. It was at this stage that the Buddha gave his second discourse. Between the first and second discourses, the Buddha had, in his instructions to the five disciples, analyzed the sentient being into five aggregates. These five were material form, feelings, perceptions, volitional states (or mental formations), and consciousness. The Buddha showed that the sentient being was made up of these five aggregates only. The disciples had to have this knowledge to follow the second discourse.

Having thus instructed the five disciples, the Buddha gave the discourse on the No-self characteristic of existence. No-self is one of the three characteristics of existence, the other two being impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. These three are inter-related and one cannot be taken apart from the other two. They are found only in the teaching of the Buddha.

Impermanence (anicca) may appear obvious to some who see the gross origin and disappearance of animate and inanimate entities. However, the Buddha’s teaching goes beyond the gross and obvious and extends also to the mind, including its most subtle and sublime level. He taught that anything which has an origin exists only for a fleeting moment and that what appears to be compact and stable, both animate and inanimate, is from moment to moment arising and perishing. This fact can be experienced by one who follows the Noble Eightfold Path.

Unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) is a fact of life regardless of whether those critical of the Buddha’s teaching label this as pessimism or not. The First Noble Truth explains why this existence is essentially unsatisfactory. Some do not accept this view because, for the time being, all appears to be going well for them; some see it in others but do not give it much thought because it does not affect them; some are unable to see this unsatisfactoriness due to mental impairment or gross ignorance; some would accept that life has its suffering and resign themselves to it, stating that it is all due to “original sin.” The Buddha did not hesitate to focus full attention on this characteristic of existence and did so because he was aware of its cause and knew that others too could realize this for themselves. The cause of this unsatisfactoriness is found in the other two characteristics of existence.

No-self (anatta) means that there is no permanent, unchanging entity in anything animate or inanimate. With regard to the animate, this implies the absence of a soul which either emanated from a divine source or was created by a divine being. Biblical religions bless only the human being in the whole of the animal kingdom with this soul. The No-self doctrine is found only in the teaching of the Buddha. At least an intellectual grasp of this characteristic of existence is needed to appreciate the Buddha’s teaching. It is only when insight is gained in this respect that progress can be made along the Path to full enlightenment.

The second discourse can be analyzed into the following parts:

1. Introduction: A statement is made by the arahant Ananda to the First Council of the five hundred arahants who met at Rajagaha two months after the Buddha’s Parinibbana for the purpose of rehearsing the Law and the Discipline as expounded by the Buddha.

2. A categorical statement is made by the Buddha with reference to each of the five aggregates, namely the material form and the mental components which are feeling, perception, volitional states and consciousness. The Buddha also explains in this section of the discourse the reasons for his statements.

3. The Buddha questions the five disciples as to whether each of the five aggregates is permanent or impermanent. The disciples agree that the aggregates are impermanent. Then, on further questioning, they agree that what is impermanent is unsatisfactory. Going on to the next logical conclusion, they agree that what is impermanent, unsatisfactory and changing cannot really belong to anyone nor can it be said that these aggregates form an abiding essence in a sentient being.

4. Conclusions are drawn from the foregoing analysis in respect of each of the aggregates in any form whatsoever.

5. The result of this analysis, which is insight into the true nature of a sentient being, leads to initial disenchantment with the aggregates, then detachment and equanimity and final emancipation.


To be continued


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