Tirthankaras: the 24 Conquerors
The name Jainism comes from jina which means “conqueror.” Those who have spiritually conquered in the past are called tirthankaras which means “makers of the river crossing.” Jains believe twenty-four people have made a river crossing during the present world cycle. Since, however, the world cycles are endless, the total number of tirthankaras are infinite. The last two tirthankaras are Parshva (700s BC) and Mahavira (“great hero” – 500s BC).
Mahavira: the 24th Tirthankara
Mahavira, the 24th tirthankara, has several similarities with Gautama (Buddha): born into the warrior caste, lived during the time of Gautama (500s BC) and in the same general location—northeast India, father was a ruler, lived in luxury in a palace, grew up, married, and had a child (daughter), left everything and joined a group of ascetics, attained enlightenment (called kevala) while meditating, after attaining enlightenment spent the rest of life preaching to others.
Comparing Mahavira and Gautama
Mahavira is different from Gautama in the following ways: 1.) Mahavira remained on the ascetic path; he didn’t move toward the Middle Way. He even walked around naked and refused to cause violence to insects. 2.) While Gautama went off on his own to attain enlightenment, Mahavira learned the practices of Jainism from others. 3.) Mahavira ended his life by starving himself to death at the age of 72, whereas Gautama died from food poisoning.
Jiva and Ajiva
Jains believe “river crossings” are needed because pure jivas (living things including “souls”) are weighed down by impure ajiva (nonliving things including all forms of matter). Since ajiva keeps us from attaining moksha, the goal is to free the jiva from ajiva. (The reason why jivas intertwined with ajiva is a mystery.) According to the Jain understanding of karma, all human actions tarnish the soul (jiva) with matter and it is this matter that keeps the soul from reaching moksha. Therefore, we should only act in moral ways that leave a light and temporary residue on the soul rather than in immoral ways that leave a heavy matter on the soul. When kevala (enlightenment) is reached, karma can no longer weigh the soul down with matter.
The central principle of Jainism is ahimsa (nonviolence). As a result, the Jain diet is strictly vegetarian. “All life-forms, because they are inhabited by soul, are to be regarded as fellow creatures worthy of respect and care” (97). Since even plants can express desires they are also able to participate to some degree in religious life. Therefore, certain fruits and vegetables should not be eaten as well. A strict Jain lifestyle also involves abstaining from killing insects.
Jain ascetics (monks and nuns) take extra care in living according to Mahavira’s example. (The number of Jains is approximately 4 million, but less than 1% are ascetics.) Moksha is only possible for humans who live an ascetic lifestyle. Ascetics must reach kevala on their own “because Jainism denies the existence of any deity who can offer divine assistance” (103). Also since the tirthankaras are completely liberated from the material world they are beyond contact. There are, however, Jain temples dedicated to the worship of the tirthankaras. Unfortunately, because of the current state of evil, salvation cannot be attained in the present world—Mahavira and his disciples were the last to attain salvation—so the goal is to attain a good rebirth.
There are two groups of Jain ascetics: 1.) Shvetambaras – “those whose garment is white” 2.) Digambaras – “those whose garment is the sky” (naked). Ascetics repent twice daily stating, “I ask pardon from all living creatures. May all creatures pardon me. May I have friendship for all creatures and enmity towards none.”
Memory Tool: Jiv.Ajiv.NonV.Tirth.Mah (Jiva, Ajiva, Nonviolence (ahimsa), Tirthankaras (24), Mahavira)
Recommended Youtube Video: Jainism (1/5-5/5) (This is only the link to the first of five videos.)
Recommended Textbook: Brodd, Jeffrey. World Religions, A Voyage Of Discovery, 3rd. ed. Terrace Heights, Winona, MN.: St. Mary’s Press, 2009.