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Vardhamana, as Mahavira was called in the world, was born into the ksatriya class. His parents were a woman named Trisala and King Siddhartha. According to some traditions, they adhered to the doctrine of non-violence preached by a famous ascetic named Parshva who had died two hundred years earlier. (Parshva, or Parsvanatha, is regarded in Jain tradition as the twenty-third Savior-Tirthankar, who lived 250 years before Mahavira. Vardhamana, like his contemporary Siddhartha Gautama, spent his youth in accordance with the rules of his class; he married (according to the Shwetambara), but at the age of thirty he abandoned the world in search of higher meaning. For more than twelve years he, like other Indian wandering sages (sadhu) or sannyasin, wandered the plain of the Ganges, fasting, meditating, and humbly enduring the hardships of life in the forest and the suffering inflicted upon him by men and beasts. By these exploits he earned the name of Mahavira, that is, "Great Hero," and finally attained a state of perfect separation from all evil karma; this state is called kevala. Having attained this state of bliss and omniscience, Mahavira became the twenty-fourth Tirthankara of Jainism, the last great teacher of this tradition to date. (The word "Tirthankara" means "he who creates the crossing," that is, "he who points the way to liberation. Because of his achievements, Mahavira was given the title Jina, that is, "Winner," which is why the religion itself became known as Jainism.
According to the Acaranga-Sutra, the oldest Jain text from the 4th or 5th century BC, Mahavira affirmed that not only plants and animals are alive, but also the elements (earth, water, fire, and air) and that the key to spiritual perfection is to do no harm to any form of life. After renouncing worldly bonds, Mahavira took strict vows, including regular fasts and periods of total silence, without breaking them under any circumstances. For example, there is an account of how he responded with silence to the questions of a certain cowherd who, in anger, thrust sharp sedge leaves into Mahavira's ears. Mahavira suffered a great deal at the hands of those who did not understand him: he was beaten with sticks, wounded, and smeared with mud. He did not eat or drink for weeks. Finally one day, sitting in the sun in the lotus position, Mahavira attained supreme knowledge and epiphany by attaining the state of kevala.