Jains, before Mahavira /jains-before-mahavira/

Jains, before Mahavira

From Danielou’s history of India: on the Jains

It is likely that the naked sages of India-known in Greece and
throughout the ancient world-were Jains. At the outset of the Christian
Era, the populace of India belonged to one of the four major religions:
Brahmanism, Shaivism, Jainism, and Buddhism. These four religions
were close together during the historical period and lived in relative har-
mony, as can be seen from the Shilappadikaram, the Tamil novel of the
third century C.E., mentioned earlier. However, whereas Buddhism grad-
ually declined in India, Jainism still has many followers today.
Many historians of the nineteenth century were greatly attracted by
Buddhism and wished to see it as the source of a certain current of reli-
gious thought. They consequently asserted that the last Jain prophet,
Mahavira (559-487 or 468 B.C.E.), was the founder of Jainism and that
the long list of his predecessors was a fiction invented afterward. This the-
ory does not stand up to serious study. The historical reality of
Parshvadeva-the Jain prophet who preceded Mahavira by two-and-a-
half centuries-is now recognized. There is no real reason to doubt Jain
tradition with its twenty-four prophets, or tirthamkaras, according to
which the origins of Jainism go back several millennia, thus making it
one of the great currents of Indo-Mediterranean religious thought,
reflected in the most ancient currents of thought of both West and East.
According to Jain texts, the founder of Jainism was a king called
Rishabha who renounced his throne after transferring power to his son
Bharata. Bharata became the first of the “Sovereigns of the Universe”
(chakravartin) and gave his name to the Indian subcontinent. Rishabha and
Bharata are to be found among the most ancient characters mentioned by
the Puranas. These historical characters, who pre-date the Mahabharata
war, can only belong to the pre-Aryan civilization. Information about the
first twenty prophets or tirthamkaras (ferrymen of the ford) who followed
Rishabha Deva is very limited, and comes from the Jain Lives of the Saints.
The nineteenth prophet, Malli, appears to have been a woman. The

twenty-second prophet, Arishkanemi, is a contemporary of Krishna and
the Mahabharata epic thought to have been of the Aryan conquest ofIndia.
When serious study has been performed on the historical data of the
Puranas (similar to what has been done with the Bible), the historical real-
ity of the traditions narrated by these vast works will no longer be put in
doubt. “An old text among the sacred lore of the Buddhists mentions sixty-
three different philosophical schools-probably all of them non-
Brahman–existing at the time of Buddha, and there are passages in Jain
literature exhibiting a far larger number of such heretical doctrines …. We
may therefore suggest that revolts against the Brahman doctrines date from
a much more remote age than the time of Gautama Buddha . . . and
Vardhamana Mahavira, the founder or rather reformer of the Jain church.”
There is a vast literature about Parshva, the last-but-one of the Jain
prophets, who died two hundred and fifty years before Mahavira and
thus lived in the eighth century B.C.E.32 The Jain Kalpasutra-written by
the pontiff Bhadrabahu in the fourth century B.C.E.-tells us that
Parshva was a nobleman belonging to the warrior caste (Kshatriya), not
to that of the Brahmans. He was son of King Ashvasena ofVaranasi and
his wife Vama. There is no king of this name in the Brahmanic genealo-
gies, only a king of the Naga (snakes). This indication may be interest-
ing, because the title Kshatriya was often given to royal families of
Dravidian descent. This is still the case today for certain royal families,
such as the Vijayanagar, who are certainly of Dravidian origin and only
marry with other non-Aryan families, but have falsified their genealogy
to be officially considered Kshatriya Rajputs, and thus Aryans.
Parshva lived for thirty years in the splendor of the royal palaces and
married. Subsequently, he renounced the world and became a monk. He
spent eighty-four days in meditation, at the end of which he attained
enlightenment. He became a prophet and lived a life of perfect saintliness.
At the age of one hundred, he attained liberation, nirvana, on the summit
of Mount Sammeta, surrounded by his disciples. Mount Sammeta-today
called Parshvanatha-is a steep hill located in Bihar, between Varanasi and
Calcutta, and continues to be one of the important centers of Jainism.
Parshva’s doctrine was a continuation of that of his predecessors,
requiring four vows: “Not to destroy life, not to lie, not to steal, not to have
possessions.” Chastity was not part of his program, but was introduced by
Mahavira. Moreover, Parshva allowed his disciples to wear two pieces of rai-
ment. Complete nudity-which seems to have been the ancient rule-was
reestablished by Mahavira, causing a schism. The community divided into
“white-clothed Jains” (shuetambara) and “Jains clothed with space” (digam-
bara), meaning naked. It was Keshin, a strict adherent ofParshva’s doctrine,
who opposed Mahavira and founded the dissident sect.
The life and teachings of Mahavira are known through numerous
texts, particularly the Acharanga and the Kalpasutra. Mahavira is said to
have been begotten by a Brahman, Rishabhadatta, with his wife
Devananda at Kundapura, a district ofVaishali in Bihar. The gods trans-
ferred the embryo to the womb of a princess of Magadha, called Trishala,
wife of Prince Siddhartha and related to King Bimbisara. This transfer is
clearly borrowed from the Krishna legend. Further marvelous events
accompanied the birth of the future tirthamkara.
Like Parshva, Mahavira was raised in princely pomp, cultivating the
arts and sciences, and married the noble Yashoda, with whom he had a
daughter. At the age of twenty-eight, he lost his parents, renounced the
world, and left his family with the permission of his elder brother. He wore
a monk’s robe and at first lived in a park close to his native city. After thir-
teen months, he abandoned clothing and led the wandering life of mendi-
cant monk for twelve years. He then became the disciple of an ascetic of
lowly birth called Gosala, also the master of Gautama, who became the
Buddha. After meditating for two days, preceded by lengthy mortifica-
tions, he received enlightenment beneath a tree, close to a village, and
became omniscient, that is,jina (conqueror). Mahavira continued his wan-
dering life and died near Patna at the age of seventy-two while reciting
sacred texts. The date of his death is uncertain. “The dynastic list of the
Jains … tells us that Chandragupta, the Sandrakottos of the Greeks, began

his reign … in 313 B.C.E., … and Hemachandra states that at this time
155 years had elapsed since the death ofMahavira, which would thus have
occurred in 468 B.C.E.33 Such a date cannot be far from the truth.
During the last thirty years of his life, Mahavira visited all the great
cities of Bihar, especially the kingdoms of Magadha, Anga, and Videha.
He frequently met King Bimbisara and his son Ajatashatru. He made
many conversions among the members of high society. He had frequent
discussions with Buddhists. These conversations are reported in Buddhist
texts, but not by the Jains. This is because initially Buddhism was not a
major religion compared to Jainism, which was very powerful and
ancient. Mahavira recommended total nudity, the severest of disciplines,
and suicide by inanition as the best ways of attaining “liberation.” He
separated from Gosala and the two became mortal enemies. Gosala was
the reformer of the Ajivika sect, which has left no written document. Of
the eleven priests or school leaders appointed by Mahavira, only one-
Sudharman-outlived him.
The Jain canon contains some highly interesting elements concern-
ing ancient history. Some of the historical works exist in Sanskrit versions
dating back originally to about the third century B.C.E. They have, how-
ever, been re-shaped and updated as late as the tenth century. We know
nothing about any texts earlier than the Sanskrit ones. However, the
immense libraries of the Jain monasteries have never been explored, and
ancient manuscripts in Dravidian languages, particularly in ancient
Kanada, could provide very important documents on certain aspects of
the history of Indian thought, very probably going back to the earliest
periods of the pre-Aryan civilization.

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