Celebrating Lord Mahavir's Teachings of Compassion and Peace in Jainism

04/16/2011 01:07 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2011

Mahavir Jayanti is one of the most important holidays for Jains around the world. It celebrates the birthday of Lord Mahavir, the 24th and last Thirthankar of Jainism.

The 24 Thirthankars were great prophets who delivered the message of spirituality and liberation. Having conquered all human vices, they serve as mentors to those seeking spiritual and moral guidance on the path to enlightenment. As the last Thirthankar, Lord Mahavir revitalized the Jain order as it is today and is one of the most important figures of Jainism.

Born in the sixth century B.C.E. as Vardhaman to King Siddhartha and Queen Trisala in Bihar, India, Lord Mahavir grew up as a Kshatriya ("warrior") prince in an affluent kingdom. As a young boy, however, he began to distance himself from the material world and his virtuous nature earned him the name Mahavir -- maha meaning "great" and vir meaning courageous.

At the age of 30, he renounced the world, giving up his kingdom, luxuries of the palace, his family and all other material possessions. He became an ascetic, living in the forests, wandering across India, meditating and practicing a life of complete honesty and compassion. After achieving enlightenment, Lord Mahavir shared his knowledge and teachings to show others the path to spiritual liberation.

So why do we celebrate the birthday of someone who passed away more than 2600 years ago?

I'll admit, growing up in a religion that teaches non-materialism as one of its foremost principles, celebrating birthdays seems counterintuitive, especially as most of us are used to commemorating them. Mahavir Jayanti, however, is not quite like the birthdays we may be familiar with. This occasion not only celebrates the birth of a great prophet, whose teachings form the fundamentals of Jainism, it also reminds us to apply those philosophies to our lives.

Instead of balloons and streamers, Jain temples are adorned with flags to mark the auspicious occasion. Instead of wearing that special birthday outfit, the idol of Lord Mahavir is given a ceremonial bath known as the abhishek, symbolizing purity of mind and body. Instead of giving birthday presents and cards, followers make offerings of milk, rice, fruits, incense, and sweets. Instead of partying with clowns and music, Jains parade statues of Lord Mahavir around the streets of India in a grand procession. And instead of handing out goody bags, donations are made to charities and food and knowledge are shared through meals and lectures.

Though these celebrations can be lavish, ultimately Mahavir Jayanti is a day to remember the teachings of Lord Mahavir. His guiding was simple and practical; he spoke of introspection, positive and rational thinking, and consideration for all living beings.

Lord Mahavir believed that there are no external enemies, only those inside us such as anger, greed, pride, and hate. In order to win over these vices an individual must focus within, without losing sight of external events. Statues of Lord Mahavir always depict him in a meditative pose with his eyes partially open. His form reminds us to strike a fair balance between introspection and consciousness.

As we celebrate his birthday, we must remember to honor Lord Mahavir by applying his philosophies and teachings to our lives. His messages of nonviolence and honesty speak of universal compassion and peace. Only by focusing on conquering our inner enemies will we be able to solve the problems around us and give true meaning to Mahavir Jayanti.