Yoga History – Who was Lord Mahavir?

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Yoga History – Who was Lord Mahavir?

yoga teacher trainingBy Dr. Paul Jerard, E-RYT 500

Researching Yoga history is a fascinating pastime.  Yoga teachers know who Patanjali was and many have read his compilation: “The Yoga Sutras.”  However, history does not always point toward the sources of Patanjali’s work.  Lord Mahavir, or Prince Vardhaman, is most commonly believed to have been born in 599 B.C.E. He was born to King Siddartha and Queen Trishala, in the Kingdom of Bihar, in Kundalagrama, India, a few miles from Patna. It is said that he brought prosperity to the kingdom, while still in the womb, including – even an abundance of blossoming flowers.

As a child, he began meditation and self-contemplation. Raised in the core beliefs of Jainism, he distanced himself from worldly concerns.  Renouncing his kingdom at the age of thirty, after his parents died, Mahavira gave up all possessions, including clothing, and spent twelve years living an ascetic life. He deferred to all living things – whether humans, animals, or plants – doing everything in his power to avoid harming them, including frequent fasting. At the end of the twelve years, he achieved arihant status, enlightenment, or “the attainment of flawless identity with reality,” while still embodied.

Mahavira then spent the rest of his life teaching the eternal truth of spiritual freedom. Enduring all climates, traveling without clothing and barefooted, he met and taught people from every walk of life. It’s recorded that he had over 37 million followers. His philosophy and teachings are the catalyst to the spread of Jainism throughout India.  When he was seventy-two years old, he attained Moksha, or Nirvana, at Pavapuri, Nalanda, Bihar, India. This event is celebrated as Diwali (Deepavali), the festival of lights, the observation of good triumphing over evil.

Mahavira’s numerous births, in the cycle of samsara, are a subject of Jain scriptures, particularly the twenty-six births before attaining Tirthankara. He is believed by some to be the twenty-fourth and last Tirthankara.  A Tirthankara has achieved enlightenment, or “perfect knowledge,” thus becoming a role mode. A Tirthankar also establishes a four-fold religious order, composed of nuns, monks, and men and women laypeople. “Tirth” translates into “ford.” The Tirthankar provides a ford across the river of misery, in which humanity lives.  Mahavira taught that every living being is in karmic bondage, incurred over lifetimes, from accumulated good and bad deeds. His philosophy demonstrated liberation from this karmic cycle through eight cardinal principals. Five are ethical and three are metaphysical.

The three metaphysical principals are:

1. Right faith

2. Right knowledge

3. Right conduct

Right conduct is clarified by the five great vows, which are:

1. Nonviolence to any living thing

2. Truthfulness

3. Not taking anything not freely given

4. Chastity

5. Non-attachment to material items, places, and people

The above five principles of right conduct are also well known in Patanjali’s Yoga as Yama. For this reason, Lord Mahavir is thought to be the original creator of Yama. It is also possible that he learned this system of right conduct from one of his teachers.

The most important Jain religious holiday is Mahavir’s birthday, known as Mahavir Jayanti, which occurs during March or April.

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