06/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Birthday Lessons From Lord Mahavir

Birthdays are always a day of celebration - an excuse to eat good food, buy expensive things, and gorge on cake - even if it's not your own birthday. This past Sunday marked Mahavir Jayanti, the birthday of Lord Mahavir, the 24th and last Tirthankar of Jainism.

Growing up in Greenville, SC, even in our small 20-family Jain community, we never missed an opportunity to celebrate Lord Mahavir's birthday. Every year we threw him a large "party," full of singing, dancing, and good food, much like any other birthday celebration. The festivities began in the afternoon, generally with some sort of religious ritual, followed by a children's cultural program, and best of all, a delicious dinner and dessert. Caught up in all of the revelry and excitement though, I never took a moment to think about the true purpose of the day.

Birthdays aren't just an excuse for celebration, but a day to take a step back, reflect on the past, and plan for the future. Mahavir Jayanti is about remembering the life and teachings of Lord Mahavir and finding ways to apply them to our own lives.


So this year, I am finally making up for lost time and beginning this process of reflection. Unfortunately, after 21 years of missing it, it's quite difficult to jump headfirst into the nitty-gritty details of advanced karma theory, so we'll start with the basics.

Here are two lessons from the core of Lord Mahavir's teachings that we can all learn from, and who knows, perhaps even find room to apply them in our lives.

One, "Ahimsa Paramo Dharam - Nonviolence is the ultimate faith": When I was three, on my first day of preschool, my mother told me that in Jainism nonviolence means being a vegetarian. It does, but nonviolence extends beyond that into all aspects of our lives. Lord Mahavir teaches us that nonviolence is a process that starts within. It is a means to cleanse ourselves through compassion and simplicity, without hurting any living being through mind, speech, or action.

The story goes that after Lord Mahavir renounced the world and traveled ancient India as an ascetic, he faced incredible hardships and opposition. Villagers threw stones at him, mistaking him for a vagabond, while others pierced his ears with thorns. All of this, however, he sustained without even the slightest reaction. Despite the numerous adversities he faced, Lord Mahavir demonstrated that, with inner conviction, even the most harrowing experiences can be met with a smiling face.

While we may not all have the mental capacity to follow Lord Mahavir's example in its entirety, the philosophy of ahimsa (nonviolence) is a very real concept that we all, and the world, can benefit from. It is a conscious, vibrant choice that echoes a constant awareness of every decision an individual takes.

Whether you choose to eat meat or not, we can all apply this philosophy to our lives, however small we choose to start. Remember that creepy crawling spider you found in the corner of your kitchen? How about capturing it and letting it go outside rather than smushing it? Or how about recycling your water bottle? Going green is in fashion this season.

Two, "Anekantavada - Multiplicity of views": Every year at Mahavir Jayanti, almost without fail, one of the children would tell the story of the three blind men and the elephant. In the story, the blind men are asked to determine what an elephant looks like by touching different parts of the animal's body. The blind man who feels the leg says that the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the elephant's ear claims that the animal is a large fan; and the one who feels the tail describes the elephant as a rope.

The moral of the story is simple, but one we often forget: there are multiple ways of looking at the same thing, and with each of our limited perspectives it is difficult to claim that our view represents the absolute truth.

The Sanskrit word anekantavada literally means a "doctrine of non-exclusivity or multiple viewpoints." It is recognition of the relativity of truth in this world, and teaches us to respect each other's beliefs and accept them as individually valid. In a diverse, globalized world, nothing could be more important.

Lord Mahavir would have never asked for a birthday gift. Or even a celebration. He gave rather than took, and like always, this year Mahavir has given us some very valuable lessons. His teachings speak of compassion, acceptance, peace, and simplicity. Speaking on the occasion of Mahavir Jayanti, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh duly noted that "Lord Mahavir's profound message remains a beacon of hope in today's world."

This year, for the first time, I'm going to give Lord Mahavir a birthday gift. It's not big (I'll admit, I put it together at the last moment), but it's better than nothing - it's a commitment to better apply these two lessons in my own life. I'll think twice before reacting when upset. The next time I argue with a friend or sibling, I'll remember to consider their perspective. And, for once in my life, I'll be fashionable and go green.

Happy Birthday, Lord Mahavir!