Article: Brāhmī and Sundarī

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

References in Jain writings

In golden colours, this manuscript painting shows Ṛṣabha. The first of the 24 Jinas, Ṛṣabha takes the lotus position of meditation. His jewels and headdress show he is a spiritual king, stressed by royal symbols, such as the elephant and parasol.

Worship of Ṛṣabha
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The account of the sisters Brāhmī and Sundarī is set within the larger tale of the conflict between their brothers – the universal ruler Bharata and the great saint Bāhubali. Best known from the Ādipurāṇa, the sisters' story has been widely repeated in collections of didactic narratives, however briefly. This tradition is still upheld today.

The story is often used as a clear example of how someone who greatly wishes to become an ascetic should be allowed to follow this desire. Although popular for centuries, it has not been expanded much from the plot recounted above.

The tale of Brāhmī and Sundarī is commonly known among both Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains. There are some small differences in the accounts favoured by the two sects.

Brāhmī and Sundarī in the 'Ādipurāṇa'

The main source of the tale for Digambara Jains is the Ādipurāṇa, which tells the biography of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, the first Jina of this era.

The story of Bharata and Bāhubali is a central narrative of Jinasena's ninth-century Ādipurāṇa. As the most widely venerated text within the Digambara sect, this is therefore the most significant telling of the story of Brāhmī and Sundarī.

Other written sources

The tale of Brāhmī and Sundarī has often been included in collections of stories and these anthologies remain widespread in the present day.

The story is included in Pampa's tenth-century Ādipurāṇa in Kannada. Within the Śvetāmbara tradition, Brahmī and Sundarī are named in the fifth-century Kalpa-sūtra as the leaders of the nuns under Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. These two satīs are also named in the Āvaśyaka-bhāṣya and Vinay-vijaya's Kalpa-vṛttiḥ. The story is also given in the Āvaśyaka-cūrnī.

In the Āvaśyaka-niryukti there is a variant of the story that is not widespread. In this account Bharata wishes to marry his half-sister Sundarī and for this reason will not give her permission to renounce. Sundarī refuses to marry him and ultimately she renounces.

The story of Brāhmī and Sundarī forms a major part of Śvetāmbara medieval narrative collections. Examples include the first book of the 12th-century Trī-ṣaṣṭi-śalāka-puruṣa-caritra by Hemacandra, Śubhaśila-gaṇi's 15th-century Bharateśvar Bāhubalī Vṛttiḥ and the later popular texts based on them.

In the present day the story of Brāhmī and Sundarī is usually part of comprehensive collections of Jain sati narratives, but it is not published separately. The story remains a widely known but not highly elaborated tale.

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