Parshvanatha is said in Jain texts to have been born in Benares (Varanasi, India), renounced the worldly life and founded an ascetic community. He is credited with starting the tradition of "fourfold restraint" for monks – don't kill, don't steal, don't lie and don't own property. Svetambara texts, such as section 2.15 of Acaranga Sutra, state that Mahavira's parents were followers of Parshvanatha, linking Mahavira to a pre-existing theology and as a reformer of pre-existing Jain mendicant tradition. Mahavira expanded the scope of Parshvanatha's first four restraints, with his ideas on Ahimsa (non-violence) and added the fifth monastic vow of celibacy in the practice of asceticism. Parshvanatha, in contrast, according to them, had not required celibacy, and had allowed the wearing of simple outer garments by monks. The differences between the ideas of Parshvanatha and Mahavira, have been one of the many historic foundations behind the disputes between the two major Jain sub-traditions – Svetambaras and Digambaras. The Digambara sect disagrees with the Svetambara interpretations, and they reject the theory of difference in Parshvanatha and Mahavira's teachings.
Parshvanatha's popularity among Jains is widespread, according to Paul Dundas – a professor of Sanskrit known for his publications on Jainism. Parshva is popularly seen as a ford-maker who removes obstacles and has the capacity to save. Parshvanatha died on Mount Sammeta (Madhuban, Jharkhand) along the River Ganges basin, a place that has been an important pilgrimage site for all sub-traditions within Jainism.
Parshvanatha is generally accepted as a historical figure. According to Dundas, the Jain texts such as the section 31 of Isibhasiyam, provide circumstantial evidence that he was a real person in ancient India. Historians such as H. Jacobi have accepted him as a historical figure, because his Chaturyama Dharma (four vows) is mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures.
Despite the accepted historicity, some parts of historical claims such as the link between him and Mahavira, whether Mahavira renounced within the ascetic tradition previously started by Parshvanatha, and other biographical details have led to varying scholarly conclusions. He is claimed in Jain texts to have been 13.5 feet tall.
His biography is legendary, with Jain texts stating that he preceded Mahavira by about 250 years and that he lived one hundred years. Mahavira is placed between c. 599 – c. 527 BC in the Jain tradition, and accordingly Parshva is placed by Jains between c. 872 – c. 772 BC. According to Dundas, outside of the Jain tradition, historians date the Mahavira as about contemporaneous with the Buddha in the 5th-century BC, and accordingly the historical Parshva, based on the c. 250-year gap, is placed in 8th or 7th century BC.