The suttas say that Mahāvīra died at Pāvā. Jain texts also say he dies at Pāvā. Case closed!
I’m sorry, have you met me? Not so fast!
Most sources will tell you that Jain tradition places Pāvā in Magadha near Nalanda. And indeed that is where modern Jains go to honor Mahāvīra.
The suttas, on the other hand, place Pāvā in the Mallian country, i.e. north of the Ganges, about 150 kms or 4 day’s walk from Pawapuri.
It’s here that things start to get complicated, so buckle up or bail out! Also, I only have inadequate sources, so if anyone can help out with better sources I’d be grateful. Please bear this in mind throughout, this may well all be wrong!
In Malla. Except they don’t. The well-known Pāvā is in Malla, and is securely located along a journey in multiple passages. But when speaking of Mahāvīra’s death, they don’t actually specify that it is that Pāvā. Now the obvious inference is that it is the Mallian Pāvā, but it’s not actually stated. There is therefore no explicit contradiction if we assume it was in Magadha.
In Magadha. Except they don’t. The source typically cited here, when anyone gets more accurate than just “Jain tradition”, is the Kalpa sutra. I haven’t been able to locate an original text for this online, but the translation is here.
The Jain accounts are terribly interested in specifying the astrological conjunctions, but rather less interested in saying where anything happened. The only clarifying detail I can find is this:
In that night in which the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra died, &c. (all down to) freed from all pains, the eighteen confederate kings of Kāśī and Kośala, the nine Mallakis and nine Licchavis, on the day of new moon, instituted an illumination on the Poṣadha,
Here we have mention of the ruling clans who celebrated Mahāvīra’s passing. Notably, it includes the Mallas, a minor republic, while omitting Magadha. Surely this indicates that for this text, Pāvā is more likely in Malla than Magadha.
This text names a local king as Hastipāla, but this doesn’t help as he is not mentioned elsewhere.
A much later text, Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra, says he went to Apāpa (on this below), without specifying the location. The only detail I can find is that afterwards his disciple went to Rajagaha, but that’s hardly decisive (the Buddha’s disciples also went to Rājagaha after his passing).
There must be some Jain sources that locate Pāvā in Magadha, but I can’t find them. Maybe it is a modern tradition?
The name is a bit of a mystery, and I’m not sure there is an explanation for it. Probably it’s dialectical.
In Pali it is always called Pāvā. The Jain texts are in a variety of languages which rather confuses the situation. Often it is cited as Pāpā. Which is inconvenient as pāpa means “evil”. This is probably why some texts then cite it as Apāpā, “non-evil”.
To further muddy the waters, in the most distinctive Jain language, Ardhamagadhi, “evil” is spelled pāva. So in Buddhism, evil is pāpa and the place is pāvā, while in Jainism, evil is pāva and the place is pāpā.
Confused yet? We’re just getting started!
Normally in a case like this we should obviously defer to the Jain tradition. The passing of their great teacher is a matter dear to their hearts, whereas to Buddhists it is not.
But in this case, the Buddhist sources are much earlier, maybe a thousand years earlier. There are earlier Jain texts, but so far as I know they say nothing of this. And even a passing glance at the relevant Jain texts shows they are far more concerned with astrology and miracles than with historical accuracy. Compared with them, the Mahaparinibbanasutta is a dry litany of journalistic facts. And as we have seen, there is no actual location for the Jain Pāvā anyway.
So in this case there is good reason to trust the Buddhist account over the Jain.
The suttas know of a place called “Pāvārika’s mango grove”, which is outside of Nalanda. In both MN 56 and SN 42.8 this is the location for a discussion concerning Jains; Mahāvīra stayed nearby.
Is it possible that Pāvārika is the Jain Pāvā?
Pāvārika is said in the commentary to the the name of a wealthy local man who owned the mango grove. Note, however, that the word means “quilter”, someone who manufactured and traded in blankets and suchlike.
Now, it is a common practice that villages have a primary economic activity, after which the village is named. Thus when we see names like Hatthigāma (elephant village) or Ambagāma (mango village) we need no special pleading to assume these were villages of elephant trainers and mango growers respectively. And it’s likely that Pāvārika follows the same pattern, being a village of blanket weavers. This, of course, does not contradict the assumption that it was named for a wealthy merchant, since it would be normal that the wealthiest villager would be the one who trades in their goods.
Thus “Pāvārika’s mango grove” is probably “the mango grove of the (head of the) blanket-weavers”.
The root term is pāvāra, (“blanket”), and it is easy to see that the ending could be left off, a normal feature of dialectical change in Indian names.
If we are on the right track, then, the Pāvā in Magadha is none other than the village associated with “Pāvārika’s mango grove”, which was a haunt of the Jains.
We are now left in the rather awkward position that there is contemporary evidence for “Pāvā” in Magadha in Buddhist texts, while Jain texts suggest it was in Malla.
Well I am for a start. Are the Buddhist texts conflating “Pāvārika’s mango grove” with “Pāvā”, thus implicitly locating Mahāvīra’s death in Magadha? And meanwhile the Jain texts are implicitly locating it in Malla?
Or did later Jains confuse “Pāvārika’s mango grove” with the by-then forgotten town of Pāvā?