Founders and Exemplars of Faith

The Jain tradition is believed to be at least three thousand years old. Mahavira was the 24th in the line of Tirthankaras (Prophets / Ford Makers) and he was born in north-east India in 599 BCE. There is scientific and historical evidence of his existence and that of Parshva, the 23rd Tirthankara who was born 250 years before Mahavira.

Mahavira was born into the Hindu Kshatriya caste in the Indian town of Vaisali, near the Ganges River. His father was a local prince and according to legend, his mother had dreams and portents that foretold the birth of a prophet son. Mahavira was brought up as a Jain and followed ascetic practices. At the age of 30, Mahavira himself became an ascetic, left his home and family and became a wandering teacher, begging for his food. He lived on gifts for twelve years spending most of the time in meditation. Then at the age of forty three, he became enlightened and a jina, or conqueror of life and death. For the next thirty years of his life, Mahavira taught his ideas, gathered disciples who were willing to renounce all possessions, and ordained them as monks and nuns. He attained liberation (nirvana) at Pavapuri near Patna in 527BCE – Jains celebrate this liberation during the festival of Diwali every year.

A Jina is a victor over the inner vices and weaknesses, one who not only carves his own path to enlightenment, but also leaves a torchlight of wisdom for others to follow in this journey. They were great teachers and wise and enlightened souls, and stories of their lives and accomplishments abound in the scriptures, with much more known about the life of Mahavira than any other Tirthankara.

The lives of the Jinas were simple, their sacrifices immense and their compassion boundless. Their lifetime was dedicated to the pursuit of truth in all its manifestations and encouraging others to follow truthful living through a minimization of harm to other living beings. Many were often born in royal households and had access to all material comforts, but chose to give these up to pursue spiritual enlightenment. They were truly courageous and victorious, not in the sense of victory or power over others, but in the sense of providing genuine and democratic leadership and vision. They espoused the values they preached and there was no hypocrisy and significant humility.

Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most venerated leaders of the twentieth century, was strongly inspired by the Jain faith in his movement of non-violent resistance. His mentor, Shrimad Rajchandra, was a distinguished businessman, poet and philosopher who was able to translate the practical dimensions of the faith with great lucidity and insight.

Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara is the most celebrated of heroes, but there have also been several monk heroes such as Hemchandraacharya who was a great scholar and poet around the 11th century and Pandit Sukhlalji, one of the greatest Jain scholars of the twentieth century.

All the heroes lived simply and humbly, but had very strong aesthetic and intellectual wisdom. They provided vital leadership in many dimensions of life and were able to influence individuals, leaders and whole societies toward positive transformation. Pandit Sukhlalji was blind, but this disability did not in any way get in the way of his scholarship – he had opened his third eye to seek and translate ancient wisdom. Their very life was their message, showing people how to live with integrity, non-violence, simplicity, respect and selflessness. These are the lasting values of sustainable living.

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