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Image: Mahāvīra undergoes trials

Title: Mahāvīra undergoes trials

Wellcome Trust Library
Gamma 453
Date of creation:
Folio number:
62 verso
Total number of folios:
Place of creation:
western India
Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit
watercolour on paper
Wellcome Library, London
JAINpedia Copyright Information


The caption in the top-left corner says: śrīVīra upasarga 21 – '21. Lord Mahāvīra's trials'.

The number 21 probably refers to the number of this illustration in the sequence of paintings in the manuscript, although it is a little surprising that such numbers are not mentioned in other illustrations. The manuscript lacks folios 27 to 55 so it does not correspond to the count now. The number could also refer to the number of attacks Mahāvīra goes through, but 21 does not seem to be a standard number for this.

Mahāvīra is the central figure in this painting and stands up straight, without any movement. This is the ascetic posture of meditation known as kāyotsarga, which makes one resemble a statue. He does so in spite of all that surrounds him, which indicates the trials – upasargas – he must pass through to advance spiritually.

At the upper right corner, a lady is shown. She represents the temptations of physical pleasures. The intentions of the man in the upper left corner are not clear.

Mahāvīra is surrounded by animals that are all aggressive, whether they are real or semi-fantastic. There are two black snakes winding up his body, resting their heads on his shoulders. Kinds of lions are shown biting him. Birds are poised to peck him with their beaks. The flower-like shapes near his ears are likely to be poisonous insects ready to sting or bite.

The text beside the picture is how the Kalpa-sūtra briefly describes the hardships Mahāvīra had to endure before reaching omniscience. The later textual tradition, however, and the painterly tradition have developed this theme into several episodes.

Other visual elements

The bottom of the right margin contains the number 62. This is the folio number, in a square with two blue lines as an ornamental motif.

The original paper is slightly damaged. But, as with many Kalpa-sūtra manuscripts, there is a clear intention to make the manuscript a valuable and remarkable object in itself. This aim is signalled by the:

  • coloured background for the text
  • gold ink instead of the standard black ink
  • decorated border with blue floral motifs
  • three diamonds filled with gold ink, with arrow-like blue lines and surrounding blue border as ornamental motifs.

The three diamonds along the central horizontal plane are symbolic reminders of the way in which manuscripts were bound when they were on palm leaf. Strings through holes in the paper were used to thread together the loose folios so the reader could turn them over easily. The diamonds are in the places where the holes would once have been.


All of the Jinas undergo a series of trials – upasargas – to confirm their

The Kalpa-sūtra is the most frequently illustrated Jain text of the Śvetāmbara sect. It is read and recited by monks in the Śvetāmbara festival of Paryuṣaṇ, which takes place in August to September each year.

The first part of the Kalpa-sūtra deals with the lives of the Jinas, especially Mahāvīra, Pārśva, Nemi and Ṛṣabha. It features almost identical stories of their births, lives as princes, renunciation, enlightenment and final emancipation. The second part – Sthavirāvali – is a praise of the early teachers of Jainism. The third part – Sāmācārī – deals with particular monastic rules to be followed during the rainy season.


Lines 1 to 2 of the text beside the picture say:

[For slightly more than 12 years, Śramaṇa Bhagavān Mahāvīra constantly desisted from care of the body, and neglected it. During this period, when any hardship came,] he bore it in all respects, forgave it, endured it, went beyond it, [whether caused by gods, men or animals, whether tempting or] adverse.


Lines 1 to 2 of the text beside the picture say:

1. [samaṇe bhagavaṃ Mahāvīre sāiregāiṃ duvālasa vāsāiṃ niccaṃ vosaṭṭha-kāe ciyatta-dehe, je kei uvasaggā uppajjaṃti taṃ jahā: divvā vā māṇussā vā tirikkha-joṇiyā vā aṇulomā vā pa]ḍilomā vā, te uppanne sammaṃ sahai khamai titi
2. kkhai ahiyāsei.


Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation . A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world , but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
'Absence of concern for the body'. This commonly refers to a standing or sitting posture of deep meditation. In the standing position the eyes are concentrated on the tip of the nose and the arms hang loosely by the body. The individual remains unaffected by whatever happens around him.
Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge , where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.
An eight-day festival in August / September, which is the most important event of the religious calendar for Śvetāmbara lay Jains. They fast, read, spend time with monks and meditate. The last day is the occasion for public repentance. Reading the Kalpa-sūtra and sponsoring new manuscripts or editions of this canonical book are associated with this festival.
A term used in ancient scriptures for a non-Hindu mendicant, namely Jain or Buddhist.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
Attack or test, especially those posed by disguised gods or bad people to the Jinas before they became omniscient to check whether they could properly meet the demands of asceticism.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land. Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
Rainy season
The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.
A single sheet of paper or parchment with a front and a back side. Manuscripts and books are written or printed on both sides of sheets of paper. A manuscript page is one side of a sheet of paper, parchment or other material. The recto page is the top side of a sheet of paper and the verso is the underside.

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