Mahavir Jayanti marks the birth of Vardhaman Mahavir, the 24th and last tirthankar. Vardhaman Mahavir reorganised Jainism which was prevailing in India since the time of first tirthankar Rishabhadeva, also known as Adinath.
The festival is celebrated on the 13th day of the bright fortnight of Chaitra (March/April).
According to Jain philosophy, all tirthankars were ordinary human beings but they attained a state of perfection or enlightenment through meditation and self realisation to such an extent that the Jains started treating them as Gods.
Lord Mahavir was born at Kundagram village in Vaishali district of Bihar into the royal family of King Siddharth and Queen Trishala. After his birth, the wealth, prosperity and influence of the family increased. So his parents named him Vardhaman, the increaser of prosperity. Queen Trishala is believed to have had seen many dreams before the birth of Mahavir. Astrologers interpreting these dreams stated that the child would be either an emperor or a tirthankar.
The two sects of Jains, Digambar (Sky clad) and Shvetambar (White clad) are divided on the year of Lord Mahavir'sbirth. According to Digambaras, Lord Mahavir was born in 615 BC whereas Shvetambaras say, he was born in 599 BC.
At the age of thirty, Mahavir renounced the world, adopted the lifestyle in harmony with nature and remained engaged in meditation. He spent the next twelve years in deep silence and meditation to conquer his desires, feelings and attachments. At the age of 42, he realised perfect perception, perfect knowledge, perfect power and total bliss. This realisation is known as Keval-jnan or perfect enlightenment.
Lord Mahavir vehemently opposed ritualism, false beliefs and idol worship. He taught the people that save their souls from the contamination of matter by living a life of extreme asceticism and by practising non-violence towards all living beings.
Mahavir initiated a simple five-fold path for his followers, called mahavatras. These vows were the renunciation of killing; of speaking untruths; of greed; of sexual pleasure and of all attachments to living and non-living beings.
Lord Mahavir'sbirth anniversary is celebrated throughout the country. Pilgrims congregate the ancient Jain shrines at Girnar and Palitana in Gujarat and at Mahavirji in Rajasthan. At Vaishali his birth place, a grand festival known as Vaishali Mahotsava is held. Mahavir Jayanti is also celebrated at the Parasnath temple in Kolkata and at Pawapuri in Bihar.
On this occasion the idol of Mahavir is given a ceremonial bath called the abhishek and carried in a procession accompanied by bhajan singers and tableau depicting scenes from the life of Mahavir. Fast is observed by devotees and Jain scriptures are read. Most Jains donate money, clothes and grains to the poor.