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The Birth Anniversary of the 24th and the last Tirthankara of the Jains, Vardhman Mahavir, the founder of Jainism, is celebrated by the Jain community every year in March or April.  According to the Gregorian calendar this year Mahavir Jayanti falls on 4th April 2012.

Born a prince in 599 BC, Mahavir renounced worldly life at the age of 30 and undertook austere penance until he achieved realisation. He was perceived as a reformer who vehemently opposed the ritualism and false beliefs.

He was born on the thirteenth day of the rising moon of Chaitra. His exact age remains a matter of dispute as the Jain community has not reached a consensus as to the year he was born. The Digambar School of Jainism believes that Mahavira was born in 615 BC while Svetambara Jains traditionally believe that he was born in 599 BC.

Birth Legend:
Mahavira was born into royalty as the son of King Siddhartha (king of Kaundinyapura on the outskirts of Vaishali near Patna in Bihar) and Priyakarani or popularly Queen Trishala Devi - who were deeply permeated with the philosophy of Jainism preached by Parswanatha, the 23rd Teerthankara. During pregnancy, Trishala was believed to have had a number of auspicious dreams, all signifying the coming of a great leader. The exact number of dreams differs according to the school of Jainism; Svetambaras generally believe that the actual number is fourteen while Digambaras claim sixteen instead. Regardless, the astrologers that interpreted these dreams claimed that the child would become either an Emperor or a Tirthankar. It is said that when Trishala finally gave birth to Mahavira, the god-king Indra bathed the newborn himself with celestial milk, a ritual essentially marking him as a Tirthankar.

Mahavira left his mortal coils at the age of 71 on the Deepavali day. But the lamp of peace which he lit continues to glow through the myriad lights of the Festival of Lights.

Even as a boy, Mahavira came to be associated with many episodes of absolute fearlessness which earned him the name `Mahavira'. He grew up as a prince, excelling in physical prowess and intellectual acumen. Prince Vardhamana became extremely penitent and resolved to give up everything worldly. He gave up attachment to his parents, friends and relatives. Distributing all his wealth among the poor, he went to the forest and became a monk. Mahavir practised rigorous austerities for more than twelve years including fasts that lasted many days. He calmly bore not only the rigors of nature but the torments from the ignorant and mischievous among his own countrymen also. He meditated on the pure nature of the Soul. Mahavir lived a life of absolute truthfulness, a life of perfect honesty and a life of absolute chastity. He finally became self-illumined. But not content with his own personal salvation, he chose to become a great human redeemer.

Mahavira taught that people can save their souls from the contamination of matter by living a life of extreme asceticism and by practising non-violence towards all living creatures. This advocacy of non-violence encouraged his followers – both monastic and lay - to become strong advocates of vegetarianism. Mahavira's followers were aided in their quest for salvation by the five mahavatars. Attributed to Mahavira, these great vows were the renunciation of (i) killing, ii) speaking untruths, iii) greed, iv) sexual pleasure, and v) all attachments to living beings and non-living things. They are also advised to donate money, clothes and grain to the poor.

Mahavira's injunctions for the monks and nuns were however very exacting. Abstinence from every kind of physical comfort and material possession and absolute dedication to the highest ethical and spiritual discipline were enforced. Even to this day, nearly 2600 years after the passing away of that great Master, this pure and upright tradition of the monks has been maintained. Thousands of white clad Sanyasins and Sanyasinis and also nude monks move on foot from place to place throughout the length and breadth of the country, carrying Mahavira's gospel of peace, non-injury and brotherhood among people.

The Jains are divided into many sects of whom the main ones are Digambaras and Shvetambaras with the latter again divided into Deravasis and Sthanakvasis. While the Deravasis visit the temples and worship the statue of Mahavir, the Sthanakvasis emphasise the internalisation of the faith. Mahavir himself was against idol worship.

On Mahavir Jayanthi, Jain temples are decorated with flags. In the morning the idol of Mahavira is given a ceremonial bath called the 'abhisheka'. It is then placed in a cradle and carried in a procession around the neighbourhood. The devotees will make offerings of milk, rice, fruit, incense, lamps and water to the people in procession. Some sections of the community even participate in a grand procession. During the day, many Jains engage in some sort of charitable act in the name of Mahavira while others go on pilgrimages to holy places to meditate, offer prayers and worship Teerthankars. Lectures are typically held in temples to preach the path of virtue as defined by Jain doctrine. Donations are collected in order to promote charitable missions like saving cows from slaughter or helping to feed poor people. Ancient Jain temples across India typically see an extremely high volume of practitioners come to pay their respects and join in the celebrations.

Mahavir Jayanti is also celebrated during the 8 day holy period of Paryushan. During this period, pre-defined readings are carried out from a holi scripture - Kalpa Sutra that contains biographies of Jain Tirthankars. Biography of Mahavir Swami, particularly His birth, is read on the day of Mahavir Jayanti.

The Mahavir Jayanthi celebration in Gujarat and Rajasthan, the ancient shrines at Girnar and Palitana; in Calcutta, the Parasnath temple; and at Pawapuri in Bihar holds a special significance

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