Article: Supārśva

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Supārśvanātha or Lord Supārśva is the seventh 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.

Supārśva is not an historical figure. He is not singled out for individual biographies in the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures. Treated like most of the other Jinas, he is provided only with basic biographical information. This information is fairly standardised and remains identical throughout later sources except for occasional variations, or confusions, in numbers.

The meaning of his name is literally ‘having beautiful flanks’, which has positive connotations because it refers to the physical perfection of a Jina. The name Supārśva is connected with that of the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva. Indeed, these two Jinas have a number of features in common, specifically their:

  • name
  • place of birth
  • association with snakes.

Thus Supārśva appears as ‘a double of Pārśva’ (Bruhn 1969: 220).

There are minor differences between the accounts and descriptions of this Jina among the two main Jain sects. According to Śvetāmbara biographies, Supārśva married princesses and governed the earth as a king before leaving worldly life for monastic initiation. According to the sect of the Digambaras, none of the Jinas assumed the responsibilities of a householder or king before becoming monks.

Basic information

This manuscript painting depicts a Jina meditating. Though hard to identify, he is probably Supārśvanatha or Lord Supārśva, the seventh Jina. The statue's jewellery, ornate headdress and open eyes indicate it is Śvetāmbara.

A Jina meditating, probably Supārśva
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Each Jina has standard biographical information found in various sources. Among the earliest Śvetāmbara canonical sources that provide biodata of the 24 Jinas is the final section of the fourth Aṅga, the Samavāyānga-sūtra and the Āvaśyaka-niryukti. Among the earliest of the Digambara sources is a cosmological work, the Tiloya-paṇṇatti.

The standard Digambara biography of Supārśvanātha or Lord Supārśva is found on pages 39 to 44 of the 1968 edition of Guṇabhadra's Uttarapurāṇa in Sanskrit and Hindi. The standard Śvetāmbara biography is on pages 303 to 313 in volume II of Johnson's English translation of Hemacandra's work, Tri-ṣaṣṭi-śalākāpuruṣa-caritra.

The biographical data can be categorised in a standard manner, and includes numbers, which are significant in wider Indian culture. These standard details can also be used to identify individual Jinas in art, since they are usually depicted as stereotyped figures. Pictures or statues of Jinas present them in either the lotus position or the kāyotsarga pose. Both of these imply deep meditation.

Parents

The important feature of a Jina’s father is that he is a king, from the kṣatriyacaste.

A Jina’s mother has an important role because she gives birth to a future Jina, and in practice a Jina is often called ‘the son of X’. Another reason for her importance is that the names given to the various Jinas are said to originate either in pregnancy-whims or in a dream their mothers had, at least in Śvetāmbara sources. This dream is specific, and adds to the traditional auspicious dreams that foretell the birth of a child who will become a Jina.

In the case of Supārśvanātha or Lord Supārśva, Śvetāmbara sources state that this name was given to him for a reason connected with the time of his mother’s pregnancy. Hemacandra relates that his father gave the baby this name because his mother was ‘beautiful-sided’ – su-pārśvā – while he was in her womb (Johnson’s translation of Hemacandra, Triṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-carita, volume II, page 307). In doing this, he follows the traditional explanation provided earlier in the Āvaśyaka-niryukti, a Prakrit scripture which gives explanations for each of the 24 Jinas’ names.

Parents of Supārśva

Mother

Father

Pṛthvī – Śvetāmbara
Pṛthivīṣeṇā – Digambara

Pratiṣṭha or Supratiṣṭha

Places

Of the five auspicious events that mark a Jina’s life – kalyāṇakas – four take place on earth and are associated with a specific village or town in the sources. Archaeological evidence often helps to identify the old names with modern places. Even when it is lacking, there is a tendency to carry out this identification process. Associating auspicious events with certain locations makes these places sacred to Jains, so that they are potential or actual pilgrimage places and temple sites.

Places associated with Supārśva

Last incarnation and birthplace

Initiation and omniscience

Emancipation

Vārāṇasī

Vārāṇasī, Sahasrāmravana

Mount Sammeta

The traditional association of Supārśvanātha or Lord Supārśva with Vārāṇasī – modern Banaras – in Uttar Pradesh, is recorded, for instance, in the Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa, a 14th-century work on sacred places by the Śvetāmbara monk Jinaprabha-sūri. It is also the birthplace of the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva.

The exact place where Supārśva was born is supposed to be ‘Bhadaini Muhallah’, a part of Banaras situated near the bank of the Ganges and known as the ‘Jain ghat’. It is located at about 1.5 kilometres from Bhelupura.

Today, the site is a place of worship for both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras, who have each installed a different image of the seventh Jina in their respective temples. The Śvetāmbaras' idol is white and is 68 centimetres tall while that of the Digambaras is black and 46 centimetres tall.

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