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Browsing: Kalpa-sūtra (Or. 11921)

Image: Mahāvīra undergoes trials

Title: Mahāvīra undergoes trials

Source:
The British Library Board
Shelfmark:
Or. 11921
Author:
unknown
Date of creation:
1488
Folio number:
36 verso
Total number of folios:
75
Place of creation:
western India
Language:
Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit in Devanāgarī script
Medium:
opaque watercolour on paper with gold
Size:
28.5 x 11.5 cms
Copyright:
CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
Image copyright: Creative Commons Public Domain

Description

A large male figure stands in the ideal ascetic posture of kāyotsarga – 'rejection of the body'. Dressed as a Śvetāmbara monk, he wears a lot of jewellery and a kind of tilaka on the forehead.

The kāyotsarga pose of the central figure of the monk indicates that he is so deep in meditation he is indifferent to his surroundings. He wears a garment that represents the white of the Śvetāmbara monastic robe with dots. This convention is balanced by his jewellery and tilaka, which are slightly unusual. However, in the Śvetāmbara tradition Jina images are mostly ornamented.

This painting depicts the spiritual strength and physical endurance of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra.

Mahāvīra stands straight, without any movement or concern for his body, even though fierce lions jump at him and two men introduce spikes into his ears as a torture.

After renouncing worldly life and taking initiation as a monk, Mahāvīra had to face various attacks – the upasarga of the caption in the top right corner. But he “bore them, forgave them, endured them, went beyond them”,  never departing from ascetic behaviour. This lasted for 12 years until he gained omniscience.

The long protruding eye is a typical feature of Western Indian painting. Its origin is unclear.

Other visual elements

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 shape and style of the script, which is close to calligraphy
  • the red background of the painting
  • the profusion of gold in the paintings
  • the thick red borders
  • the three diamonds filled with gold ink and surrounded by blue ornamental motifs.

The three diamonds along the central horizontal plane are symbolic reminders of the way in which manuscripts were bound at one time. Strings through three 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.

Script

The elaborate script used for the main text is the Jaina Devanāgarī script, in a form which recalls calligraphy. It is used for writing numerous Indian languages, here for Prakrit.

There are a few notable features of this script:

  • it is an old type in the way the sounds e and o are notated when used with a consonant, known as pṛṣṭhamātrā script
  • the red vertical lines within the text divide the long sentences into smaller parts, but are not necessarily punctuation marks.

In this particular folio there are occasional rings above the main line of writing. These notate the nasalised vowels and are used instead of simple dots. There are examples above the first line.

Background

The 24 Jinas are always represented in a very stylised way. A Jina is always shown in meditation, either standing or sitting, like here. Among the Śvetāmbaras, the Jina is thought of as a spiritual king and is often depicted with ornaments and pictured seated on a throne.

The Kalpa-sūtra is the most frequently illustrated Jain text of the Śvetāmbara sect. It is read and recited by monks in the 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 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.

Glossary

Dhyāna
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.
Jain
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
Jina
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.
Kāla
Time. One of the five insentient non-material substances that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, called jīvastikaya.
Kalpa-sūtra
The Book of Ritual attributed to Bhadrabāhu. It has three sections:
  1. 'Jina-caritra' – 'Lives of the Jinas'
  2. 'Sthavirāvalī' – 'String of Elders'
  3. 'Sāmācārī' – 'Right Monastic Conduct'.
A significant sacred text for Śvetāmbara Jains, the Kalpa-sūtra has a central role in the annual Paryuṣaṇ festival.
Kāyotsarga
'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.
Kevala-jñāna
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.
Śvetāmbara
'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.
Upasarga
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.
Mahāvīra
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.
Ascetic
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.
Idol
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
Monk
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.
Renunciation
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
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.
Prākrit
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
Jaina Devanāgarī
The distinctive version of the Devanāgarī script found in Jain manuscripts.
Tilaka
A mark worn on the forehead and other parts of the body for religious reasons. It symbolises the third eye, which is associated with spiritual enlightement and meditation. Historically, only deities, priests, ascetics and worshippers wore tilakas. It is usually a paste or powder made of sandalwood, ashes, coloured powder (kumkum) or clay and may be applied in various lines, dots and U shapes.
Nasalisation
A term in phonetics that describes how a consonant or vowel is pronounced while releasing a little air through the nose but not the mouth. Similar to the Spanish tilde, examples in English are M, N and the NI sound in ‘onion’.
Folio
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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