Article: Brāhmī and Sundarī

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Brāhmī and Sundarī are a pair of Jain satīs best known as the daughters of the first Jina, Ṛṣhabanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. They are numbered among the 16 satīs or soḷ satī and are in every Jain satī list even though their story is brief. As virtuous women who are role models for Jain women, satīs are characterised by their religious devotion and, often, marital fidelity and patient acceptance of suffering.

The story of Brāhmī and Sundarī was first given in the Ādipurāṇa of Jinasena, which tells the story of the life of the first Jina. A longstanding favourite among both Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains, the story has frequently been part of collections of tales intended to offer moral examples.

The tale of Brāhmī and Sundarī is usually retold as an example of the acute desire for renunciation and the perils of denying someone the chance to become an ascetic.

Story of Brāhmī and Sundarī

This detail from a Śvetāmbara manuscript shows the first Jina Ṛṣabha plucking out his hair in the ritual of keśa-loca. Part of the renunciation ceremony, dīkṣā marks the start of mendicant life. Śakra, king of the gods, watches this auspicious event.

Ṛṣabha becomes a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha had two wives, who each had a set of twins. The first, Sumangala, had a son, Bharata, and a daughter, Brāhmī. The second wife is called Sunanda by Śvetāmbara Jains and Sudana in Digambara sources. She had a son, Bāhubali, and a daughter, Sundarī.

Ṛṣabha renounced the householder life and became an ascetic, preaching the way to reach liberation. When Ṛṣabha gave his first sermon, hundreds of his sons and grandsons took ordination at his hand.

First nun and first lay woman

This detail from a manuscript shows four lay women listening to a sermon. Adorned with earrings and necklaces, the brightly dressed women raise their hands in homage. The fourfold community – saṇgha – is made up of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.

Lay women
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

When Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha became a mendicant, his elder son Bharata took over as head of the family. This meant that Brāhmī needed his permission to renounce and he gave this to her. Then Brāhmī took initiation from her father and became the first nun.

Sundarī asked her brother Bāhubali if she could renounce and he granted her permission. Because Bāhubali was a monk, he told Sundarī that she needed to ask Bharata for permission as he was now the head of the family. Bharata refused her request. Sundarī obeyed him and became the first Jain lay woman.

Renunciation in the heart

After many years away, Bharata returned and saw that Sundarī was very gaunt. He was told that she eaten only dry food – āyambil – since she had been denied ordination. Seeing that she had renounced already in her heart, Bharata gave her permission to renounce.

Sundarī rushed to Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha and joyfully took ordination.

Brāhmī and Sundarī were the joint leaders of the order of nuns under Ṛṣabha. When they died, both of them either attained enlightenment in Śvetāmbara sources or were reborn as gods according to the Digambaras.

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Related Manuscripts

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    British Library. Or. 2105 ms. C. Bhadrabāhu. 1449

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    Paper manuscript cover

    Also known as Śvetāmbara Jain Rāmāyaṇa. Beta 1689. Wellcome Trust Library. Hemacandra. 1601

Related Manuscript Images

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