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Browsing: Sāmudrika-śāstra (Add. 26,461)

Image: Palm of the hand

Title: Palm of the hand

Source:
The British Library Board
Shelfmark:
Add. 26,461
Author:
unknown
Date of creation:
1676
Folio number:
230 recto in the original; 93 recto in modern European hand
Total number of folios:
1 illustrated page (5th text)
Place of creation:
Gujarat, western India
Language:
Sanskrit and Gujarati
Medium:
paper
Size:
13 x 23.5 cm
Copyright:
CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
Image copyright: Creative Commons Public Domain

Description

This left-hand palm, probably of a woman, is a beautiful large painting of golden colour on a dark blue background. Designs of leaves and flowers beside the palm form a sophisticated decoration.

The design of the hand is very precise, with the joints of each of the five fingers clearly marked and the main lines of the palm indicating three distinct areas. The groups of three small vertical lines on the fingers are signs that are recorded and interpreted in specialised treatises, depending on their location and number. For instance, small vertical lines on the middle part of the forefinger may denote many children while on the bottom part they may mean a happy disposition (Dale 1895: numbers 36 and 37).

The concentric circles on the fingertips are formed by the pores of the skins. They also have a meaning. For example, they are one of the most important signs indicating financial success (Dale 1895: number 48).

Symbols on the hand

The objects or animals depicted on the hand with golden and grey ink ‘are principally formed by the smaller lines running with the pores of the skin. Great care must therefore be taken in determining these forms, because very much depends on their position’ (Dale 1895: 28). They are recognised by specialists of palmistry and all have an impact on the man’s or woman’s happiness, prosperity and fame. For example, a fish at the root of the hand signifies great success in the world and many children (Dale 1895: 31). Symbols on the mounts, at the base of the four fingers, have their own meaning as well.

On the thumb the second element from the top looks like a bed beneath a canopy. This could symbolise the mother of a future Jina when she sees the auspicious dreams, as other elements depicted on the hand coincide with some of them, such as the elephant, bull and ship. Some of the other symbols belong to the category of the aṣṭa-maṅgalaeight auspicious symbols – such as the svastika, mirror and pair of fish. The presence of a small sanctuary housing an image of a Jina at the bottom of the fourth finger is noteworthy.

The three bracelets also have purpose and meaning in this context because they refer to health, wealth and happiness.

In short, illustrations such as this one are a meaningful visual text. In other words, reading the palm is discovering the life and character of its possessor.

Many of the animals or objects in the hand are auspicious or royal symbols in Indian culture.

Background

This palm of a left hand is an illustration in an anonymous Sāmudrika-śāstra in Sanskrit verses, along with a Gujarati paraphrase. The Sāmudrika-śāstra is in a manuscript containing 17 different texts, mainly Jain hymns. The first part of the Sāmudrika-śāstra work, in 155 verses, relates to men while the second relates to women, taking 123 verses. The main Sanskrit text is known from other manuscripts in India as well as in England and seems to have been fairly widespread.

In 1733 of the Vikrama era (1676 CE) a Jain scribe copied this manuscript, which is clear from the initial homage to Mahāvīra, namely śrī-Vītarāgāya namaḥ. It was meant for a certain Hīracaṃda, who is likely to have been a Jain as well, given the name of his caste, which is Usa = Ukeśa = Oswal.

Auspicious signs and prediction

In Indian culture body parts and facial features display significant marks and signs that can be interpreted. These signs are called lakṣaṇas. For instance, there are 32 ‘auspicious signs’ characteristic of the bodies of both the 24th Jina Mahāvīra and the Buddha, which are known in parallel lists. The science of body-signs is known as sāmudrika-śāstra – ‘treatise on [body-parts] which have marks’. Among these body-parts, the hand – hasta – plays an important role. The Sanskrit term hasta sāmudrika śāstra describes palm-reading or palmistry in Sanskrit texts, and is also used in many modern Indian languages.

The main features of the mudrika-śāstras are that:

  • body parts or structures are described by their likeness to animals – such as elephants, bulls, lions, monkeys, fish or tortoises – or objects, such as conches or umbrellas
  • the existence of a given mark is interpreted in terms of future happiness or unhappiness, richness or poverty, health or disease and so on.

In the Indian context, the interpretation of body and face signs is mainly used to help select:

  • leaders, such as kings and religious teachers
  • marriage partners.

Numerous treatises describe people, particularly women, in this way. People are thus classified into different types according to their physical characteristics. Both stories and reality show that, along with other factors, such knowledge of women’s bodily and facial marks plays a large part in their selection as brides.

Indian culture has a rich heritage of knowledge in the field of foretelling the future. Divining future events can be based on signs from a variety of external objects, such as clouds, clothes, flags and animals. Such signs are discussed in one of the most famous and earliest treatises on this subject, the Br̥hat-Saṃhitā by the Hindu Varāhamihira, written in the sixth century CE in Sanskrit.

According to early scriptures, the average Jain mendicant is forbidden to use techniques to predict the future. Nevertheless, Jain monks have authored several treatises dealing with various types of prophecy and have contributed in large part to the transmission of this field of knowledge in western India.

Glossary

Aṣṭa-maṅgala
The 'eight auspicious symbols', which are often depicted and worshipped. Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras have different lists but all of the symbols are believed to bring good luck. They can be found in many places, including rituals, temples, manuscripts, houses and on clothing.
Common Era
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
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.
Pūjā
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.
Śāstra
Scripture, book, treatise.
Vikrama-saṃvat
Often abbreviated, Vikrama-saṃvat is the calendar associated with Emperor Vikramāditya. It begins in about 56 BCE so the equivalent date in the Common Era can be calculated by subtracting 57 or 56. Based on Hindu traditions, it is a lunar calendar often used in contemporary India.
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.
Buddha
Title meaning ‘Enlightened One’ in Sanskrit and Pali. It is most frequently used for Siddhārtha Gautama, whose teachings form the basis of the Buddhist faith. He lived about 563 to 483 BCE in the north-eastern area of the Indian subcontinent, around the same time and in the same area as Mahāvīra, the last of the 24 Jinas. His life story is similar to that of the Jinas in certain ways, such as:
  • his mother had significant dreams on the night of conception
  • he was born a prince into a kṣatriya family
  • as an adult he renounced his wealthy, pleasurable life to seek the meaning of life through asceticism.
After six years he reached enlightenment while meditating and from then on was known as Buddha – 'Awakened One' or 'Enlightened One'.
Hindu
Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.
Idol
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
Sanctuary
The most sacred area of a temple, church or religious building, often where the image of a deity is housed and worshipped. An outdoor space that is associated with a deity may also be considered a sanctuary.
Sanskrit
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
Gujarati
The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.
Auspicious
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future. 
Scribe
Someone who copies manuscripts for a living. Scribes are common in societies where literacy is rare. In the past, however, scribes could not always read and write fluently.
Caste
Hindu society is traditionally divided into numerous jātis or classes, which are usually grouped into the four varṇas – often called 'castes' – of:
  • Brāhmaṇa – priest
  • Kṣatriya – warrior
  • Vaśya – merchant or farmer
  • Śūdra – labourer.
Relating to ritual purity, castes are hereditary and probably based on occupation. Members of different castes performed particular socio-economic roles and did not mix or eat the same food. People outside the caste system were usually looked down upon.

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