Jainism: The story of Mahavira

Both Mahavira and the Buddha belonged to the Vedic Indian tradition. They were born into the warrior caste (ksatriya), and lived in eastern India, in an area of the Ganges valley including the modern state of Bihar. The new thinkers questioned the dominant Vedic Brahmanical orthodoxy (in which an entity called brahman was considered supreme) and its stratified caste system with brahmins (priests) at the top. They rejected animal sacrifice. For Jains in particular, a central tenet of their faith was a renunciation of violence in all its forms and a concern for all forms of life.

Mahavira is believed by Jains to be the most recent of the 24 Jinas (liberated beings who help others acheive liberation through acting as a teacher and role model). He is thought to have lived in the sixth century BC. His historical existence is not in doubt, but recent scholarship suggests that the Buddha, of whom Mahavira was a contemporary, may have lived at a somewhat later date, perhaps in the fourth century BC. It is therefore possible that Mahavira's dates are later than generally thought. Some scholars also believe there is historical evidence for the existence of Parsvanatha, the 23rd Jina who immediately preceded Mahavira.

The traditional biography of Mahavira is quite similar to those of the preceding Tirthankaras (Jinas). Certain important events occur in the lives of all the Jinas,and some of these events became popular subjects for Jain art, notably in manuscript paintings.

Below are a selection of pages from the Kalpasutra (The Book of Ritual), an important text for the Svetambara Jains, that tell the story of Mahavira.

Page from a Kalpasutra showing Harinegamesin removing the foetus of Mahavira, Western India, about 1450-1500. Museum no. IM.7-1931

Page from a Kalpasutra showing Harinegamesin removing the foetus of Mahavira, Western India, about 1450-1500. Museum no. IM.7-1931


According to the Kalpasutra, before Mahavira's final rebirth, when he was after many lifetimes ready to achieve enlightenment, he took the form of an embryo in the womb of Devananda, a brahmin woman. Sakra, or Indra, the king of the gods, believed that it was not fitting for a future great spiritual leader to be born to a woman of the brahmin caste and that he should be born instead into a royal family of warrior caste. Accordingly the commander of Indra's army, Harinegamesin, who is depicted with a goat's head (or sometimes an antelope's), removed the embryo and transplanted it into the womb of a woman of the warrior caste (ksatriya) called Trisala.

Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing the birth of Mahavira, Gujarat, Western India, 16th century. Museum no. IM.161-1914

Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing the birth of Mahavira, Gujarat, Western India, 16th century. Museum no. IM.161-1914


Trisala experienced 14 auspicious dreams, interpreted as foretelling the birth of a universal sovereign or a spiritual leader. The dream images had also been seen by Devananda when Mahavira was in her womb. Mahavira was subsequently born to Trisala and her husband, King Siddhartha, and was given the name Vardhamana.

Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing Mahavira giving alms, Western India, late 15th-early 16th century. Museum no. IM.9-1931

Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing Mahavira giving alms, Western India, late 15th-early 16th century. Museum no. IM.9-1931


In adult life Mahavira renounced the householder's life and all his worldly wealth and power, and became a homeless mendicant. He is often shown giving away his possessions to the poor.

Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing Mahavira plucking out his hair, attended by Indra, Western India, late 15th - early 16th century. Museum no. IS.46-1959 (45r)

Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing Mahavira plucking out his hair, attended by Indra, Western India, late 15th - early 16th century. Museum no. IS.46-1959 (45r)


Mahavira is seen here plucking out his hair to embark on their path of austerities. Today, Jain monks and nuns still pluck their hair in their initiation ceremony.

Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing Mahavira preaching (left) and discoursing (right), Gujarat, Western India, 2nd half of 15th century. Museum no. IM.12-1931

Page from a Kalpasutra manuscript showing Mahavira preaching (left) and discoursing (right), Gujarat, Western India, 2nd half of 15th century. Museum no. IM.12-1931


During years of wandering as a homeless ascetic, Mahavira endured great hardships, including cruel treatment by men and attacks by animals, and earned the name Mahavira or 'great hero'. In the 13th year of wandering he gained enlightenment. This event is seldom depicted. However, the gods constructed a heavenly preaching hall, the samavasarana, for him when he had attained enlightenment. Mahavira is depicted in the centre of a samavasarana, where gods, men and animals come together in peace to hear him preach. Jain temples are conceived as replicas on earth of these celestial assembly halls. Finally, in the town of Papa or Pava, in Bihar, he attained final release (moksa) and became a Jina.

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