Mahavira was born in 599 B.C. He lived for 72 years. He abandoned home in 569 B.C. He attained omniscience in 557 B.C. and entered into Nirvana in 527 B.C. He was the last Tirthankara.
Mahavira lived a life of absolute truthfulness, a life of perfect honesty and a life of absolute chastity. He lived without possessing any property at all.
Mahavira was born of Sidhatha, Raja of Kundalpura, and Queen Trisala, who was known by the name Priya Karni. ‘Maha’ means great and ‘Vira’ means a hero. ‘Tirtha’ literally means a ford, a means of crossing over. Metaphorically, it denotes a spiritual guide or philosophy which enables one to cross over the ocean of recurring births in this world. ‘Kara’ means one who makes. The whole word Tirthankara means a Jain holy teacher.
Mahavira is not the founder of Jainism. He revised the Jain doctrines. He was more a reformer than the founder of the faith. In Jain metaphysics, "Time" is divided into cycles. It is claimed that in each half-cycle, twenty-four Tirthankaras, at long intervals, preach anew the doctrines. Mahavira was the twenty-fourth, and like the others, is claimed to have been omniscient.
Mahavira was also known by the names Vardhamana (i.e., ever advancing) and Sanmati. At the age of eight he observed the twelve vows of Ahimsa, etc. He was obedient to his parents and served them with great faith and devotion. He was an able statesman. He did not marry.
Mahavira was immersed in Self-contemplation. He knew that the pleasures of this world were transitory and that they strengthened the letters of Karma. He knew that renunciation would lead to the attainment of eternal bliss.
People were quite astonished at the virtuous nature of Mahavira at such a tender age. He was very much interested in meditation. He cultivated the arts of music and literature. Thirty years of Prince Vardhamana’s life passed off in this way.
Vardhamana saw, through his clairvoyant vision, that he had been passing through innumerable births. He thought, "How many births have gone by fruitlessly! I clearly see that the Soul is essentially separate from the Karma matter. I have still wasted away thirty years of my life. I have not practised any penance. I have not renounced the world in order to attain pure Knowledge. The infatuation which is at the root of all evils is not yet destroyed".
Prince Vardhamana became extremely penitent. He resolved to give up everything worldly. He gave up attachment to his parents, friends and relatives. He thought over the twelve Anuprekshas or matters of deep thinking according to the Jain scriptures:
1. All worldly things are temporary.
2. The Soul alone is the sole resort.
3. This world is beginningless and crooked.
4. There is nothing to help the Soul, but the Soul itself.
5. Body, mind, etc., are essentially separate from the Soul.
6. The Soul is essentially pure and the body, etc., are essentially impure.
7. The Soul’s bondage is due to the inflow of Karma in it.
8. Every being ought to stop this inflow.
9. Emancipation is attained when Karma is absolutely got rid of.
10. The emancipated Souls remain fit the foremost top of the filled spaces.
11. In this world, to have the birth of a human being and to meditate on the nature of the Soul are the greatest blessings.
12. To have the three jewels as described by the Omniscient is the only morality.
Mahavira thought over these twelve things and decided finally that he must abandon home.
Mahavira’s mother said, "My beloved son, you will not be able to bear the severity of the austerities. There is time yet for it. You must help your father in governing the kingdom. You can become a monk after some years".
Mahavira said, "Adorable mother! All the objects of the world are evanescent like water bubbles. Where can one get happiness in this world which is the abode of disease, sorrow, pain and death? I must leave this world".
Mahavira distributed all his wealth to the poor with his own hands. He went to the forest. He took off even the piece of cloth which he was wearing and became absolutely nude. He turned to the north and said, "Salutation to the Siddhas!" He rooted out with his own hands five tufts of hair from his head and became a monk.
Mahavira practised rigorous austerities. He fasted for many days. He meditated on the pure nature of the Soul.
Mahavira was tested by the celestials. A group of handsome women surrounded him. But Mahavira remained unmoved and unperturbed. He attained omniscience. He preached his message of peace for thirty years after the attainment of omniscience. He wandered in Magadha, Mithila, etc. Many kings became his disciples.