Mahavir Jayanti 2022: Four books to ponder upon emphasising on Mahavira's principal of ahimsa

Check out book recommendations on Mahavira that will give you a picture of who he was and what he stood for.

Chintan Girish Modi April 14, 2022 08:50:39 IST
Mahavir Jayanti 2022: Four books to ponder upon emphasising on Mahavira's principal of ahimsa

Mahavir Jayanti is a birthday celebration for Mahavir or Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankar in Jainism. Tirthankars are spiritual exemplars whose deeds and teachings guide Jains to lead an ethical life that involves abstaining from violence, lying, stealing, adultery, and hoarding. 

Having grown up in a Jain family, I have learnt about Mahavira mainly through oral storytelling but it has been a pleasure to read books about him in the last few years. There are very few in English, so I bring you some recommendations that will give you a picture of who he was and what he stood for since Jains compromise a miniscule percentage of India’s population. Writing about him is so much easier than practising the principles he left us with.

Mahavira (2006) 

Mahavir Jayanti 2022 Four books to ponder upon emphasising on Mahaviras principal of ahimsa

This is an Amar Chitra Katha comic written by Rishabhdas Ranka and illustrated by Pratap Mulick. It will introduce you to the life story of Mahavira by highlighting some of the major events that shaped his journey, and continue to be memorialised by people who follow him. 

According to this book, Mahavira was born 2500 years ago in Kundagram near Vaishali. If you are looking for this place on a map, you will have to turn your attention towards present-day Bihar. This book will give you some basic information about his family – his mother Trishala, his father Siddhartha, and his brother Nandivardhana. His wife is missing in this book. The biography of Mahavira is narrated differently across different sects of Jainism.

Mahavira is portrayed as a hero in this book. His heroism is predicted by an astrologer who interprets his mother’s dreams at the time of pregnancy. What I enjoyed in this book is the little detail about how everyone, rich and poor, is invited to a feast when Mahavira’s parents learn that Trishala is going to bear a child destined for greatness. When the child is born, even prisoners are included in the celebration. They are released from captivity.

The book touches upon various heroic acts that are attributed to him, which share similarities with stories that I have heard about Krishna and Jesus Christ. Mahavira protects his friends from a cobra, he tames bullies, and he pacifies a raging elephant. However, the understanding of heroism is quickly subverted in the book. It does not have to do with physical strength but with liberation from karma. If you are keen to know how the concepts of keval jnana and nirvana are understood in Jaina philosophy, this book might strike you as too elementary.

Books about spiritual heroes can seem distant but this one is written in a manner that should interest people like you and me. I say this with reference to Trishala’s response in the book when Mahavira expresses his desire to become an ascetic. She is aghast at the idea. Doesn’t this sound familiar? So many people have parents who do not approve of their career choices. Similar is the case with Mahavira in the book. His mother is adamant about what she wants. Mahavira promises that he will not become an ascetic as long as his parents are alive.

I will spare you the details so that you can read the book for yourself. I was particularly moved by the hardships that he is shown going through in order to achieve his goal. People insult him, mistake him for a thief, and physically assault him. He remains unfazed. When attains knowledge through meditation, and he begins to give sermons, he welcomes people of all castes, sexes, ages and classes. I wish all Jains would imbibe this spirit of inclusion.

Mahavira: The Hero of Nonviolence (2014) 

Mahavir Jayanti 2022 Four books to ponder upon emphasising on Mahaviras principal of ahimsa

Mahavira: The Hero Of Non-violence

Written by Manoj Jain, and illustrated by Demi, this book takes one particular aspect of Mahavira’s teaching and explores it in depth. The book has been published by Wisdom Tales, an imprint of World Wisdom Inc. It has been produced with the support of JAINA, a federation representing Jains in North America who want to share about their faith. 

The author writes, “A contemporary of Gautama Buddha, Mahavira propagated the universal ethic of nonviolence in the sixth century BCE. Renouncing the world at the age of 30, he devoted 12 years to deep meditation, after which he attained enlightenment. For the next 30 years, he travelled from village to village teaching nonviolence towards all living beings.”

The author emphasises that the principle of ahimsa in Jainism was a great inspiration for MK Gandhi in India’s freedom struggle as his mother was influenced by Jain monks.

I appreciate the fact that this book discusses non-violence in a broader sense instead of equating it merely with a vegetarian diet. Non-violence is not only about abstinence from killing but also about how we “manage our anger, ego, deceit and greed”, how we conduct ourselves when we encounter people whose ideas we disagree with. The author talks about the principle of “non-absolutism”, which means realizing that “truth has multiple facets”.

The illustrations in this book are quiet and meditative unlike the Amar Chitra Katha comic. I enjoyed lingering over them as I thought about Mahavira’s teachings. I was particularly happy to note that this book mentions Samvatsari, a day of forgiveness and repentance that is integral to Jainism. It invites us to let go of our grudges, and to give people a second chance.

Mahavir: Conqueror of the Self (2020)

Mahavir Jayanti 2022 Four books to ponder upon emphasising on Mahaviras principal of ahimsa

This work of fiction, based on Mahavira’s life, has been written by Arvind Bhandari who describes himself as a practising Jain, and it has been published by Hachette India. I found the book quite engrossing. The artistic license taken by the author preserves the spirit of Mahavira’s teaching, and also produces a compelling narrative in terms of plot and character.

The story foregrounds how Mahavira’s wife Yashoda and his daughter Priyadarshini view him. The author skilfully presents their point of view without pitting them against each other. In doing so, he illustrates how the Jain philosophy of anekantavada can be practised at a time when we are so dogmatic about our positions that we are not willing to listen or dialogue.

Yashoda and Priyadarshini’s experiences and evolution determine how they approach events. Priyadarshini is upset with her father for prioritizing his role as a teacher. She misses having her father around. Yashoda wants her daughter to appreciate that Mahavira has a role to play in the universe, and he is committed towards that. She does not resent his ascetic life. She is not putting up with her husband’s decision. She understands it, and respects it completely.

In the introduction to this book, Bhandari writes, “Mahavir, the sixth century BCE philosopher, brings a rich perspective to life that has tremendous potential to help us understand ourselves. Without any divine intervention, purely by the internal light of his dry but accurate understanding of life...Mahavir transcended the limitations of his senses...Understanding his perspective, developed in searing conditions of self-examination, will benefit everyone beyond the four million Jains who follow him today.”

I enjoyed putting myself in Priyadarshini’s shoes. I could feel her pain. If I were in her place, I too might have felt that anger and that frustration with my father. I might have blamed him, regarded him as a selfish person, and wondered why everyone thinks of him as impeccable. My response is perhaps a measure of the author’s success in terms of characterisation. Priyardarshini’s reflections, he notes, are “purely fictitious” but I think they give us a pretty good understanding of how conflicts arise in families when someone pursues a different path.

Kindness with Mahavira (2022) 

Mahavir Jayanti 2022 Four books to ponder upon emphasising on Mahaviras principal of ahimsa

Kindness with Mahavira by Chitwan Mittal and Sarita Saraf

This children’s book, written by Chitwan Mittal and Sarita Saraf, throws the spotlight on kindness as a value that readers can learn from the life choices that Mahavira made. It does not concern itself too much with biographical details. The authors are keen on conveying the essence of his teachings, which are relevant and meaningful even after centuries have passed.

His exhortations to human beings are condensed in a simple lesson: “Be kind to all! Humungous or little or really, really small!” The authors really get to the heart of the matter for the little ones that they are writing for. They write, for example, “Did you know there are some folks who sweep the path on which they walk? “We shan’t hurt even ants,” they say, “They too have a right of way.” This writing style is bound to inspire curiosity in their minds.

Published by Adidev Press, this book has some beautiful illustrations by Debasmita Dasgupta. I particularly liked the ones where children are shown taking care of other beings. One is feeding fish, while another is playing with a lamb. There is a child giving the mother a shoulder massage because the woman is tired from working on her laptop all day. Another child waters the plants; yet another helps an old man walking all alone with a wooden stick.

The book ends by equating heroism with learning to be kind. This seems to be a really powerful message, especially for children who encounter bullying on the playground, during the lunch break, on school buses, and even in the home from parents, siblings and other elders. Asserting power over others becomes the default aspiration. I hope this book can counter the harsh messages in their surroundings, and make kindness the cooler alternative.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist, commentator, and book reviewer.

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