Article: Bāhubali

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Though not a Jina, Bāhubali is worshipped as a great saint, especially among Digambaras. He has been considered on a par with the Jinas from at least the seventh to eighth centuries, underlined by his representation in art. He transcends all categories.

The story of Bāhubali emphasises the lifelong battle between worldly affairs and passions, and the spiritual values that need to be mastered to reach liberation. A familiar tale to Jains, key episodes have often been illustrated, especially Bāhubali’s year-long meditation.

His fame increased from the tenth century onwards, once a colossal statue was erected on one of the two sacred hills of Shravana Belgola in Karnataka. This distinctive freestanding figure led to many imitations at other shrines, all which attract pilgrims and sightseers. Worship of Bāhubali tends to focus on the spectacular head-anointing rites of these statues but his inspirational life story holds meaning for many contemporary Jains.

Different names

Since the tenth century, the huge statue of Bāhubali at Shravana Belgola has attracted countless pilgrims. Nearly 18 metres in height, Bāhubali, also known as Gommaṭa or Gommaṭeśvara, takes the kāyotsarga meditation posture

Colossus of Bāhubali
Image by Ashok 666 – Ashok Prabhakaran © CC BY-SA 2.0

Meaning ‘strong with his arms’ in Sanskrit, the name Bāhubali underlines the heroic nature of the character, referring to one episode in his life. Two other names – Dorbali and Bhujabali – have the same meaning.

The names Manmatha or Kāma-deva are also sometimes given to Bāhubali. Normally referring to the god of love, they are meant to emphasise his beauty.

In Karnataka, a popular designation used from the 12th century onwards is Gommaṭa and its variant forms. The meaning and origins of this name have been much debated but no agreement has been reached. The name Gommaṭeśvara – 'Lord of Gommaṭa' – is given to the colossal statue standing on the top of Vindhya-giri at Shravana Belgola. It is said to refer to Cāmuṇḍarāya, the general-minister who caused the statue to be erected, who was also known as Gommaṭa.

Origins

Bāhubali is a legendary saint of the Jains. He cannot be placed in any category of Jain Universal History because he is neither a Jina nor a universal monarch and nor does he belong to any other group.

However, he is associated with two prominent figures in these first two types because he is:

  • one of the hundred sons of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, the first Jina of this era
  • the younger half-brother of Bharata, the first universal monarch of this era of time.

Ṛṣabha had two wives, Sumangalā and Sunandā. Sumangalā had Bharata while Sunandā gave birth to Bāhubali. The dispute between half-brothers over who inherits their father’s throne is a motif behind many conflicts described in Indian epics. The story of Bharata and Bāhubali is a Jain expression of this clash.

Literary sources

The life of Bāhubali is told in numerous literary works written in all the languages Jains have used, including Prakrit, Sanskrit, Kannada and Hindi. Whether epics or devotional poems dedicated to him alone, or as part of the tales of his father or half-brother, these stories glorify him and contribute to the growth of his legend. In particular, Bāhubali can be considered a hero of Karnatakan literature, whose life became a subject for prominent writers in the Kannada language (see Settar 1981).

The earliest elaborate account of Bāhubali’s life is found in Jinasena’s Ādi-purāṇa, written in Sanskrit in the ninth century in South India (see pages 208 to 244 of Strohl's 1990 English translation). This is a seminal work, which subsequent writers from Karnataka used as the main source for their Jain epics.

Karnatakan epics describing the life of Bāhubali

Title

Author

Date

ĀdipurāṇaLegend of the first Jina

Pampa

tenth century

Triṣaṣṭi-lakṣaṇa-mahā-purāṇaGreat Epic of the 63 Illustrious Men

Cāvuṇḍarāya

tenth century

Pūrva-purāṇaEpic of the Early Times

Hastimalla

13th century

Bharateśa-vibhavaPower of Lord Bharata

Ratnakaravarṇi

16th century

Hymns and poems on the life of Bāhubali are too numerous to list. The most remarkable ones are:

  • Gommaṭa-stutiHymn to Gommaṭa – by Boppaṇa-Paṇḍita in 1180
  • Bāhubali-cariteStory of Bāhubali – by Doḍḍayya in 1550.

A third category of works dealing with Bāhubali are those linked with sacred places or specific images that are erected. These arise from the tenth century onwards.

Although Bāhubali is of outstanding importance for Digambaras, he should not be seen as sectarian property. He belongs to the common heritage of the Jains. Śvetāmbara sources also narrate his life, especially those detailing Jain Universal History. A representative of this trend is Hemacandra’s epic, the Triṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritraLives of the 63 Illustrious Men – where Bāhubali’s career is depicted in the section on his father, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha.

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