Mahavira was one of the great teachers in ancient India and the person to whom Jainism as a vigorous and coherent movement is attributed. Jainism is considered the oldest religion in India still being practiced today. Although Hinduism and Islam has overtaken Jainism in the population of followers,Jains are the inheritors of an unbroken, exceptionally brilliant tradition which has influenced the cultural, spiritual, and artistic life of India for many centuries.

Mahavira was a contemporary of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and is believed to have lived from 549-477 BC. Born into a princely, warrior clan, he abandoned his household at age 30 to lead the life of a wandering ascetic and thinker. His search was aimed at releasing oneself from material bonds that attach us to the physical world, finding the true, spiritual nature of life and breaking the cycle of samsara, or rebirth. Parallels can be drawn between the philosophies of Mahavira and Buddha in this regard but their actual teachings differed significantly.

Buddha preached a philosophy known as the "middle way." It urged followers to lead a life neither overly indulgent nor overly ascetic and stressed that meditation is the key to enlightenment and liberation from samsara. Mahavira acknowledged meditation as a meaningful discipline but preached the path of "making a fjord," a method of testing austerities as a means to liberation.

In the complex system of Jain cosmology, Mahavira is considered the 24th and last of the Avasarpani current era (believed to last over 100 trillion years). Tirthankara are beings who succeeded in freeing themselves from samsara and dedicated their lives to helping others follow them to liberation. Mahavira was given the title of Jina, meaning 'conqueror' – one who has conquered worldly enemies such as attachment, jealousy and greed.

Some viewers of Jain and Buddhist art may be confused by the similarities found between depictions of Mahavira and Buddha. Oftentimes they are both sitting cross-legged with their hands positioned in a mudra known as dhyana, the posture of meditation and 'perfect balance.' However Mahavira can be distinguished by the srivatsa on his chest, an ancient and auspicious symbol that looks like the endless knot. In contrast to a robed Buddha, Mahavira is also depicted without any clothes, testament to his liberation from all earthly desires.

Although there are only around 8 million Jains today in a country of over a billion people, Jain art, especially the temples, are among the most exquisite in all of India. Like jeweled crowns they grace the tops of panoramic hills, constructed from stone and marble. On the inside, almost every surface from nooks and crannies to the ceilings, are chiseled with amazingly intricate carvings of religious motifs, gods and goddesses and images of Mahavira and the other tirthankara.