Maha-vira (literally "the great hero"), also called Vira and Vardhamalna, is the twenty-fourth or last Jina, or deified saint, of the Jainas (q.v.), described as of a golden complexion, and having a lion for his symbol. His legendary history is given in the Kalpa-Sutru (q.v.) and the Mahaviram-Charitra. According to these, Mahavira's birth occurred at a period infinitely remote; it was as Nayasara, the head man of a village, that he first appeared in the country of Vijaya, subject to Satrumardana. He was next born as Marichi, the grandson of the first Jaina saint Rishabha; he then came to the world of Brahmic, was reborn as a worldly-minded Brahmana, and after several other births-each being separated from the other by an interval passed in one of the Jaina heavens, and each period of life extending to many hundreds of thousands of years — he quitted the state of a deity to obtain immortality as a saint, and was incarnate towards the close of the fourth age (now past), when seventy-five years and eight and a half months of it remained. After he was thirty years of age he renounced worldly pursuits, and departed, amid the applause of gods and men, to practice austerities. Finally, he became an Arhat or Jina; and at the age of seventy-two years, the period of his liberation having arrived, "he resigned his breath," and his body was burned by Indra and other deities, who erected a splendid monument on the spot, and then returned to their respective heavens. At what period these events occurred is not stated, but, judging from some of the circumstances narrated, the last Jina expired about five hundred years before the Christian sera. Other authorities make the date of this event about a century and a half earlier.
The works above referred to state, with considerable detail, the conversions worked by Mahavira. Among the pupils were Indrabhuti (also called Gautama, and for this reason, but erroneously, considered as the same with the founder of the Buddhist religion), Agnibhuti, Vayubhuti — all three sons of Vasubhuti, a Braihmana of the Gotama tribe, and others. These converts to Jaina principles are mostly made in the same manner:
each comes to the saint prepared to overwhelm him with shame, when he salutes them mildly, and, as the Jainas hold, solves their metaphysical or religious doubts. Thus Indrabhuti doubts whether there be a living principle or not; Vayubhuti doubts if life be not body; Mandita has not made up his mind on the subjects of bondage and liberation; Aehalabhratri is skeptical as to the distinction between vice and virtue, and so on. Mahavira removes all their difficulties, and, by teaching them the Jaina truth, converts them to the doctrine of his sect. For a summary account of the life of this saint, see H. T. Colelbroke's Miscellaneous Essays, 2:213 sq.; H. H. Wilson's Works, 1:291 sq.