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Karma, not birth determines the social status

April 15
02:01 2011

Lord Mahavira

The two hundred and fifty years which are supposed to have elapsed between Parshvanatha and Mahavira possibly saw, as evidenced by the Sutrakritanga, the rise of numerous sects and subsects loosely grouped into several monastic communities. The ritualistic practices in Brahmanism were again coming up to the forefront.

The ideas about the superiority by birth and the privileged position of the priestly class were gaining ground. The commanding personality of Parshvanatha was no more on the scene. Against such a chaotic background Mahavira had to work.

He immediately grasped the situation and had the courage to declare, “The external appearances are no test. What is really required is the mental purity and the behavior which would lead to such mental purity and the consequent equanimity…Otherwise fake ascetics would take the field.

“It is the penance and celibacy that make a real Brahmin. It is the ideal behavior which implies non-attachment towards worldly matters that idealizes a person.”

Once this emphasis on actual behavior, rather than mere sermons on it, was laid bare before the then somewhat demoralized society, Mahavira led this attack on the caste system. He had the courage to declare that “It is the Karma and not the birth that determines the social status of a person.”

“These ideas were revolutionary! And the receptive intelligent ideological elements in Brahmanism welcomed these ideas. It is significant to note that the Ganadharas of Lord Mahavira were Brahmins!

And yet more significant reformist aspect of Mahavira’s life is that he did not simply point the faults of others, and rest content. With the sweeping grasp of a real reformist, he expanded the chaujjama dhamma of Parshvanatha into the panchajama dhamma.

Dr. Jacobi points out that there might have been decay in the morals of the monastic order during the period intervening Parshva and Mahavira. Therefore he thought it fit to put the Jaina church first in order and whatever was helpful for that he advocated boldly, for celibacy was essential to mental purity. Therefore he said, “For out of sex, attachment comes and attachment indeed is the worst possession which a nirgrantha shall never think of.”

“What is, however, still more important is that Mahavira showed the timely courage to emphasize this most important aspect of monastic life.

Lord Mahavira kept the doors of his church open to all deserving persons and thus became pioneer in the field of spiritual democracy.

“This spiritual democracy was applicable to all irrespective of caste or class. Therefore, besides persons belonging to the kshatriyas, Brahmans or vaishyas, even high dignitaries like kings, queens and princes, became the disciples of Mahavira. Kings like Seniya, Pajjoya, Udayana, queens like Pabhavai, Migavai and others became his devotees. Thus it goes to the credit of Mahavira that he channeled the political personalities of his times into the more ennobling field of spiritualism.

“In conveying the principles of his system to the people, Lord Mahavira had a unique system. He always preferred to preach to the masses in their own language. He never prevented his disciples from asking difficulties. The whole of the Bhagavati Sutra is an embodiment of the remarkable relation between an inquisitive disciple and a guru who was ever willing to satisfy intelligently his pupils.

The writer was Reader in Ancient History, University of Poona
The 2610th birth anniversary of Lord Mahavira was observed on April 16
Dr S.B. Deo

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