Vardhamana (599–527 BCE according to traditional sources), later known as Mahavira or Mahavir, was the last of the 24 Tirthankaras, the spiritual teachers and saints of the Jain tradition. The first 22 are mythical, only the 23rd, Parshvanatha, and Mahavira are regarded as historical figures. Mahavira was born into a royal Kshatriya Jain family in Bihar, India. Mahavira abandoned all worldly possessions at the age of about 30 and left home in pursuit of spiritual awakening. Mahavira was the prototype of an ascetic yogi. He lived most of his life without clothes, the most visible symbol of the renounced life. After 12 years as an ascetic, he overcame worldly passions and attained Moksha (liberation). Jains describe his state of mind as kevalajnana, or perfect perception, knowledge, power, and bliss. He lived another 30 years traveling around India and attracted many followers. A large lay community emerged to supplement the small monastic community created three centuries before by Parshvanatha (the 23rd Thirthankara). Mahavira reorganized the Jain movement with followers assuming one of four roles: monks (sadhu), nuns (sadhvi), laymen (shravak), and laywomen (shravika). Mahavira articulated the primary principles by which Jains live: nonviolence (Ahimsa), or the refusal to cause harm to any living things; truthfulness (satya), or the speaking only of harmless truth; nonstealing (asteya), not to take anything not properly given; chastity (brahmacharya), or refusal to indulge in sensual pleasures; nonpossession (aparigraha), or detachment from people, places, and material things. Monks took these as their law of life, while laypeople adopted a less austere existence. Mahavira emphasis on ahimsa (non-violence) is greater than that in other Indian religions.

Mahavira in a Cave in Ellora (By G41rn8 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Several hundred years after Mahavira, the oral tradition that had until then guided the Jain community began to be written. According to Jain tradition, Mahavira had 11 chief followers, or ganadharas. All these disciples are said to have achieved omniscience after 12 years of mendicancy. The last of the 11 to reach omniscience were Indrabhuti Gautama and Sudharman, who were left to lead the fledgling Jain community. They also figure prominently as the chief questioners of Mahavira in the canonical dialogues. Mahavira’s teachings were compiled by Indrabhuti Gautama (his chief disciple) as the Jain Agamas. For later teachers within the Jain tradition see Acharya Kundkund’s Samayasara and the contemporary Akram Vignan movement.