Mahavira - Oxford Reference

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A Dictionary of World Mythology

Arthur Cotterell

Mahavira (South and Central Asia)  

The last Jaina saviour, he was a contemporary of the Buddha, and died about 500 bc. His childhood was distinguished by miracles. One day he overcame a serpent that threatened his friends, thus earning the title Mahavira, ‘great hero’. During the lifetime of his parents Mahavira was an ordinary householder, married with a daughter, but as soon as his mother and father who were devotees of Parsva committed the rite of sallekhana, fasting unto death, he decided that there was no longer any hindrance to his own ascetic inclinations. At the age of thirty-two he distributed his personal possessions to the needy and commenced his inner quest, a terrestrial event that brought an immediate response from the heavens; the firmament glowed like a lake covered in lotus flowers, the air was filled with the sounds of celestial music, and gods descended to pay their respects to Mahavira.

For a time the names of Mahavira and Makkhali Gosala were linked together, possibly they inhabited the same religious community. The teachings of Gosala had the distinction of the Buddha's condemnation as the very worst of all contemporary erroneous doctrines. He likened them to an hempen garment—uncomfortable and giving no protection against the cold of winter or the heat of summer. Gosala argued that all beings, all created things, attain perfection in the course of time. There was nothing that could be done to hasten this process spread over the span of countless rebirths. The split between the two hermits was caused by their different views on the freedom of the will. Asserting traditional Jaina belief, Mahavira taught that the individual soul, the transmigrating jiva, was free to make its own escape through a sustained act of self-renunciation. In contrast with the attitude of the Buddha, Mahavira regarded the soul as physically bound and fettered by karmic matter, so that the path to release, spiritual ascension to the top of the universe, involved complete disentanglement. Jaina monks wore a veil over the mouth and even lay folk were forbidden to drink water after sunset, lest some small insect be swallowed. Thus ahisma, ‘non-violence’, is carried to an extreme.

The utter renunciation of the tirthankara, the last of whom was Mahavira, is perhaps the most austere symbol ever devised. It stands at the impersonal end of the spectrum of ancient myth, far removed from the Occidental belief in the survival of the personality. In India there has never existed a Hades for the shadowy dead, nor an Elysium for the translated living. Reincarnation excludes individual personality.

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