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Jainism: the Legacy of Lord Mahavira Research Paper

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Updated: May 19th, 2020

Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It is a traditional Indian religion that has survived alongside other Indian religions since the pre-historic times (Tobias, 2000). Currently, it has less than 5 million followers. This adds up to almost 1% of the total Indian population. This traditional religion has withstood the test of time since it is influential beyond its few followers. The name Jainism is a Sanskrit derivative word meaning “followers of the conqueror” (Sangave, 2001). Lord Mahavira was a great hero of the 16th century who established this traditional Indian religion as it is practiced today (Tobias, 2000). This paper will examine how Lord Mahavira is viewed by Jains today, what he advocated for in his teachings, and the essential teachings of Mahavira that have been handed over by his followers from one generation to another.

Lord Mahavira is a well-recognized figure in the Jain religion. He was the 24th and the last Tirthankar. The latter is an individual who helps in attaining enlightenment and liberation by becoming a leader and hence a role model for those who are in search of spiritual guidance (Tobias, 2000). Sometimes, the term Tirthankar among the Jains may be used to mean the full moon. All the same, he was a great leader who is still respected by the followers of this religion up to date. According to the Jain’s philosophy, an individual can only become a Tirthankar if he has attained a state of perfection which is achieved through self-realization and continued meditation (Sangave, 2001). These individuals become gods with utmost respect among the Jains although they are born as normal human beings. Some of the other names used to identify the Tirthankar are Arihant and Jina (Sangave, 2001). All the three names have symbolic meanings, attributes of greatness that graduate an individual into a god. Lord Mahavira possessed all these attributes and hence elevated his status to a god amongst the Jains (Sangave, 2001).

The name Mahavira, meaning the brave one, is believed to have been given to him by an angel while he was playing with his friends as a young boy (Sangave, 2001). Mahavira was born in a well to do family but he left all the wealth behind and decided to become a monk where he led an exemplary life of perfection and avoided harming any form of life including animals and plants. Among the Jains, an individual that had become a Tirthankar knew everything from the past, present and even the future (Sangave, 2001).

He was therefore, respected greatly amongs the Jains. His childhood was a bit challenging to him, whereby he had to endure many sufferings. At the age of 30 years, he left his home and decided to become a monk. He spent twelve years of his life fasting and meditating before he attained the state of a Tirthankar. This is a significantly longer period for an individual to endure any form of suffering and deal with it in the most humane manner since he was able to deal with all the sufferings. He was also able to forgive any individual who wronged him and he remained extremely calm and peaceful during the twelve years. As such, he is considered to be an important individual among the Jains. He attained the status of a god at the age of 42 years and became a Jina. He is currently recognized by his followers as the last Tirthankar to have ever existed in this world (Sangave, 2001).

Lord Mahavira is recognized by the Jains for having revived their religion and revitalized it in such a way that it has withstood the test of time. He came up with a religious order that is currently being observed by the Jains (Sharma, 2001). He devised four major categories that were used in grouping people in this religion. These groups are the Monks, Nuns, Shravikas, and the Shravaks (Sangave, 2001). These groupings ensured all people in this religion had a group to identify with. These groupings were composed based on the clergy, the ordinary religious followers, and the gender factors. These were also the founding principles that ensured that the followers of this religion maintained a particular line of faith. The routine of carrying out their religious practices was also put in place. This order is currently known as the Jain Sangh (Sangave, 2001).

Lord Mahavira had twelve disciples who helped in preserving his teachings for the sake of the future generations (Sharma, 2001). These disciples were known as Ganadhars. They were also the great scholars of ancient times among the Jains. These twelve Ganadhars are the ones who compiled Lord Mahavira’s teachings into twelve scriptures called Agamas (Sharma, 2001). Each scripture was written by a one of the twelve Ganadhars. Before these scriptures were compiled, they were passed by word of mouth from one generation to another. These disciples wrote these scriptures about 890 years from the time Lord Mahavira died (Sharma, 2001). The teachings of Lord Mahavira as recorded in the scriptures are what define the Jainism religion.

Jainism is a religious practice founded during the reign of Lord Pärshvanäth. This religious leader was characterized by violent and inhuman sacrifices (Sharma, 2001). These sacrifices were carried out in order to appease the gods. When Lord Mahavira came into being, he was completely against such practices. The followers of Jainism recognized him for his non-violent approach towards religious practices (Sharma, 2001). He is said to have opened the eyes of the Jains as far as building a harmonious and happy society is concerned.

His preachings and sermons encouraged peaceful coexistence among all living things. The latter is what revitalized the traditional Jain religion to its modern status. His service to the Jain people took around thirty years when he was a preacher and believer in the rule of non-violence. Towards the end of his service to the people, he was upgraded to a Nirväna (Sharma, 2001). He was thereafter, released from the cycle of life due to this status. Therefore, he could not undergo reincarnation again. He rather became a god called Saddha. These are some of the achievements that make him an important god of the Jains.

Lord Mahavira was a non-radical atheist. His teachings were centered on peaceful coexistence among all people. He believed that the most important thing in human’s life was developing internal truth that leads into the attainment of spiritual freedom by an individual. He traversed many places all over India passing the same message. Contrary to his predecessor, he believed that peace was an extremely important part of religious practice. This explains why he advocated for non-violent approach to religious matters (Sharma, 2001). However, he had some form radical behavior while conducting his practice as a believer of the Jain religion. He putting on some kinds of clothing and also travelled on foot without putting on shoes. He believed in the sanctity of life and the importance of protecting it and not harming any form of life in any way. He took radical measures to ensure that any form of life is not interfered with throughout his life. It may appear to be grossly radical if some of his belief systems are practiced in the world today.

Lord Mahavira preached to people from all spheres of life including the poor, rich, women, men, political leaders and ordinary people, priests as well as the nobles. This expanded the number of followers of the Jainism from a small tribal religion into one of the second largest religions in India after Hinduism. He achieved this since he had organized his followers into four groups as earlier mentioned. This necessitated efficient passing of messages bearing in mind that he had to uniquely deal with individuals depending on nature of the ginven group.

The ultimate message of Lord Mahavira’s teaching was based on attaining freedom from the basic cycles of life (Jain, 2009). In his message, he came up with the major ways that his followers could use in order to overcome the cycles of life and its challenges and hence attain the ultimate status. Once an individual had freed himself from challenges in life such as pain and death, then he or she would have attained a permanent heavenly state. These are some of the teachings that completely differentiated him from the rest of his predecessors.

Lord Mahavira’s teachings are known to have transformed the religious practice of the Jains. His teachings became a way of life among the followers. The most important part of his religious practice was the inclusion of the four groups of people as the major groupings that the Jains had to belong. This practice is still observed to date. He was known to be a reformer who is still being respected for the changes he brought in Jainism. Therefore, he laid the foundations of the current faith of Jainism. He equally expanded the pillars of this religion from four to five (Jain, 2009). These pillars are also vows that all Jainism followers undertake. They include nonviolence, truthfulness, avoiding theft, chastity, and non-attachment. Lord Mahavira developed the non-attachment vow.

The spiritual understanding of the Karma is another important teaching of Lord Mahavira that is still in use up to date. He believed that every creature is born with natural instincts that control its daily deeds (Sethia, 2004). A human being has the ability of differentiating good deeds from bad ones and the use of this ability defines how life cycle transforms (Jain, 2009). The accumulation of bad deeds amounts to Karma. In this state, the heart of an individual seeks worldly pleasures and material possessions. His teachings suggested that the accumulation of Karma because of becoming worldly results into self-centeredness. This in turn results to anger, greed, hatred, and any other form of vise that make the soul impure. The Jain religion believes in avoidance of any practice that is worldly as it accumulates to committing Karma. This is an important pillar of Jainism (Jain, 2009).

Mahavira taught his followers about nature from a scientific point of view. He emphasized the meaning of life as defined by scientists and how the real meaning of nature and life can be realized in one’s life (Jain, 2009). He devised three fundamental factors that are to be observed by an individual in order for him/her to realize the meaning and nature of life. His philosophy was based on having the right faith, the right knowledge, and the right conduct. His followers have retained his detailed explanations of these teachings for several generations.

The right faith is the most cumbersome thing for an individual to decide. However, his followers believe that he offered them the direction to choose the right faith (Sethia, 2004). Therefore, he offered his followers an option of choosing the right faith. Once an individual has the right faith, it is necessary to follow the requirements of this faith in order to realize the other two fundamentals that were put in place by Lord Mahavira.

Mahavira’s message was rich with pieces of advice that offered his followers the knowledge needed to face life as religious people. He believed that life was a puzzle (Sethia, 2004). He did not base his teachings on some distant god. He derived the teachings and taught them according to his own understanding. This gave his followers an understanding that they needed to maintain a dignified life. The latter is one of the basic principles of Jainism. He also believed that the accumulation of Karma obscured an individual’s knowledge. Therefore, attaining knowledge can only be realized if an individual is free from Karma.

The right conduct is yet another major teaching of Mahavira that is still observed by people who believe in Jainism (Tobias, 2000). The only way an individual could have reached this point was by identifying the correct path of faith (Sethia, 2004). Mahavira’s teachings as well as his life are based on what he believed constituted the right conduct in life. Most people who observe Jainism try to emulate his teachings and way of life in an attempt of conducting themselves in the right manner. He treasured life and preached the non-violent philosophy which was intended to ensure a life full of kindness to all living things. He came up with the rules of good conduct as being truthful, non-violent, ability to control sexual desires, and not stealing from one another (Tobias, 2000).

From Lord Mahavira’s teachings, many of his followers were impressed. He offered a way that made religious practice to be natural and simple. He simplified Jainism by abandoning complex ritual practices such as performance of sacrifices. Through his messages, the followers were able to attain spiritual freedom and internal satisfaction (Sethia, 2004). His successful eradication of the “god” concept among his followers is also one of his greatest achievements (Tobias, 2000). He came up with a philosophy of human supremacy that his followers believed. Moreover, the most important aspect of this belief system was the need to possess positive attitude in life.

His teachings treated both men and women equally (Tobias, 2000). This is also a distinctive feature that helped him establish influence over many women who decided to abide by his teachings. All of them were determined to attain the ultimate happiness as he had promised. Due to the diversification of his preaching, Jainism grew in India in terms of influence and become more complex with time. This made Jainism to become a major traditional religious practice in India. In the modern India, it is recognized as one of the oldest religious practices.


Jain, A. K. (2009). Faith & Philosophy of Jainism: Indian religions series (Vol. 6). New Delhi, India: Gyan Publishing House.

Sangave, V. A. (2001). Facets of Jainology: Selected Research Papers on Jain Society, Religion, and Culture. Mumbai, India: Popular Prakashan.

Sethia, T. (2004). Ahiṃsā, Anekānta and Jainism: Lala Sunder Lal Jain research series, (Vol. 21). New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sharma, A. (2001). A Jaina Perspective on The Philosophy of Religion: Lala Sunder Lal Jain research series (Vol. 16). New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass.

Tobias, M. (2000). Life Force: The World of Jainism. Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing Company.

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