Article: Pārśva

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva is the 23rd of the 24 Jinas of the present cycle of time.

The word Jina means 'victor' in Sanskrit. A Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma through practising extreme asceticism and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A Jina is also called a Tīrthaṃkara or 'ford-maker' in Sanskrit – that is, one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience.

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Story and images

This 11th-century image shows the 23rd Jina Lord Pārśva meditating. He is sheltered by characteristic snakehoods, under the triple canopy of royalty. Attendants either side fan him with fly-whisks while below sit his yakṣa Dharaṇendra and yakṣī Padmāvatī.

Lord Pārśva and attendants
Image by British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum

There is some historical evidence of the existence of Pārśva, mainly in Buddhist texts. He probably lived from around 950 to 850 BCE, which is around a century later than his traditional dates. He is credited with founding the fourfold community of lay men, lay women, monks and nuns and with setting out four vows for devout Jains to take.

Tradition holds that he was born in Kāśī and achieved liberation on Mount Sammeta, also known as Pārasnātha Hill.

Pārśva’s symbolic colour is green and his emblem is a snake.

Like all Jinas, Pārśva has a pair of spiritual attendants, often shown in art. His yakṣa is Pārśva to the sect of the Digambaras and Pārśva or Dharaṇendra to Śvetāmbaras. His yakṣī is Padmāvatī, who is also a powerful goddess in her own right.

Pārśva and snakes

This detail from a manuscript painting shows Prince Pārśva freeing a snake trapped in a burning log. Pārśva becomes aware of the snake and its predicament through his clairvoyant powers and cuts open the wood to free the panicked animal.

Pārśva frees the snake
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Artwork of the Jinas normally has no obvious identifying marks except for representations of Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva. He is usually shown with a snake headdress, which highlights his close association with snakes – nāgas. Snakes appear several times in the life story of Pārśva, the only example of an animal featuring in the history of any of the 24 Jinas. He is also often pictured with green skin.

In the 12th century the Śvetāmbara monk Hemacandra tells the story of how the 23rd Jina became for ever associated with snakes.

One day, [Prince] Pārśva is in his palace and sees crowds of people hurrying along with flowers. On asking why, he is told that they are going to worship the ascetic Kamaṭha, who has recently come to town. He decides to go too.

[Thanks to his advanced spirituality, which gives him great knowledge,] Pārśva knows that a snake is hiding inside one of the logs being added to one of the fires. He orders a servant to take out this piece of wood and to split it carefully. A large snake slithers out, half-burnt but alive.

Pārśva has the namaskāra-mantra recited for the snake. Absorbed in pure meditation, the serpent looks at Pārśva with its eyes moist with compassion. The power of the namaskāra-mantra and the sight of Pārśva causes the snake to be reborn as a Nāga-king, Dharaṇendra.

Images

  • Lord Pārśva and attendants This 11th-century image shows one of the most popular Jinas, the 23rd Jina Lord Pārśva, in meditation. He sits on a lotus throne beneath a shelter of characteristic snakehoods, which is in turn under the triple canopy of royalty. Attendants either side fan him with fly-whisks while below them sit his yakṣa Dharaṇendra and his yakṣī Padmāvatī.. Image by British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum
  • Pārśva frees the snake This detail from a manuscript painting shows Prince Pārśva freeing a snake trapped in a burning log. Pārśva becomes aware of the snake and its predicament through his clairvoyant powers and cuts open the wood to free the panicked animal. This depiction of a famous episode shows the prince twice, pictured with symbols of royalty, such as the elephant, rich clothing and jewellery. In some versions of the story, the snake is reborn as Dharanendra, king of snakes, and becomes the yakṣa or male spiritual attendant of the Jina Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Further Reading

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details

Glossary

Buddhist

A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:

  • Theravāda – 'the Teaching of the Elders' in Pali – is older and is found chiefly in Sri Lanka and continental South East Asia
  • Māhayana – 'Great Vehicle' in Sanskrit – is the larger sect and is followed mainly in East Asia and the Himalayan nations.

Both sects are practised in India.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

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.

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.

Jñāna

'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:

  • mind-based and sensory knowledge – mati-jñāna
  • scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna
  • extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna
  • knowledge of others’ minds or telepathy – manaḥparyaya-jñāna
  • omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna.

With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.

Kamaṭha

A Hindu ascetic associated with the life of the 23rd Jina, Pārśva. Sometimes described as a heretic in Jain sources, Kamaṭha practises the penance of the 'five fires'.

Mokṣa

The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.

Namaskāra-mantra

Sanskrit for 'homage formula', the Namaskāra-mantra is the fundamental religious formula of the Jains. A daily prayer always recited in the original Prākrit, it pays homage to the supreme beings or five types of holy being:

  1. arhat - enlightened teacher
  2. siddha - liberated soul
  3. ācārya - mendicant leader
  4. upādhyāya - preceptor or teacher
  5. sādhu - mendicant

Note that chanting the mantra is not praying for something, material or otherwise. Also known as the Pañca-namaskāra-mantra or 'Fivefold Homage mantra', it is also called the Navakāra-mantra or Navkār-mantra in modern Indian languages.

Śrāvaka

'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay man, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The feminine form is śrāvikā.

Śrāvikā

'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay woman, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The masculine form is śrāvakā.

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.

Yakṣa

The male attendant of a Jina, one of the pair of guardian or protector gods for each Jina. The śāsana-devatā protect his teachings – śāsana – and can appease evil powers. The yakṣa and yakṣī's closeness to the Jina and their divine powers mean they are popular subjects of worship.

Yakṣī

The female attendant of a Jina, also called yakṣinī. One of the pair of guardian or protector gods for each Jina. The śāsana-devatā protect his teachings – śāsana – and can appease evil powers. The yakṣa and yakṣī's closeness to the Jina and their divine powers mean they are popular subjects of worship.

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