The Mahavira (Great Hero) Vardhamana was one of the 24 Tirthanakras (Conquerors, or Ford-makers) who were founders of the Indian religious philosophy of Jainism.
Vardhamana was born in Ksatriyakundagrama in India in approximately 599 b.c.e. and died in 527 b.c.e. Jainism, or its antecedent, was developed by the first Tirthanakra, Rishabhadeva, who lived c. 1500 b.c.e. Through the example of his life and teachings, Vardhamana helped establish Jainism throughout India. The facts of his life may have become distorted by the desire of followers to lend additional spiritual meaning to them. Nevertheless, he was born a prince of the Kshatriya, or military caste, and lived his youth enjoying the perquisites of wealth before renouncing this at the age of 30.
Jainism depends on the concept of ahimsa, which means avoiding injury to all living beings. In addition, it requires obedience to various vratas, or vows relating to the correct behavior. Vardhamana lived a life of extreme asceticism and obedience to the five great vratas of renunciation of the physical world. These vows are similar to Buddhist precepts and call for avoidance of all violence, speaking the truth, avoiding theft, chastity, and the avoidance of attachment to any physical thing or person. Jainists reject the concept of a universe created by God and focus on the perfectibility of humanity and the attainment, therefore, of freedom from the physical world. Vardhamana attained the state of kevala, which means a form of omniscient perception beyond that possible for the average person. As a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, who was born in the same region of India, Vardhamana lived in an era of considerable religious excitement and development. Jainisim had similar characteristics to Buddhism but stood in contrast to Hinduism, which in its earliest form was influenced by Brahmanical ritualism.
Recognized as the final Tirthanankra of the current age, Vardhamana attracted many followers and disciples. He appointed 11 Ganadharas (disciples) to continue his work—each were converts from Brahmanism— but only two survived him. At the time of Vardhamana’s death, some 14,000 monks and 36,000 nuns served in his congregation. These then split according to various schisms, the most notable of which continues to the current day and features on one side the Shvetambaras (white-robed) and the Digambaras (naked), who believe theirs is the appropriate costume for monks and who deny the possibility that souls can transcend from the female body. Vardhamana’s disciples collected his thoughts and teachings in works known as the Agam Sutras but the originals of these have been lost.