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.

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.

Images

  • Ṛṣabha becomes a monk This detail from a Śvetāmbara manuscript illustration shows the first Jina Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha plucking out his hair in the ritual of keśa-loca. This rite is part of the ceremony of renunciation – dīkṣā – in which a Jain begins life as a wandering monk or nun. This key moment in a Jina's life is watched by the king of the gods, Śakra.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Lay women This detail from a manuscript painting shows four lay women listening to a sermon. Adorned with earrings and necklaces, the brightly dressed women raise their hands in gestures of homage. The fourfold community – saṇgha – is made up of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • Worship of Ṛṣabha In golden colours, this manuscript painting shows Ṛṣabha being worshipped. The first of the 24 Jinas, Ṛṣabha takes the lotus position of meditation. His jewels and ornate headdress show he is a spiritual king, a status underscored by the elephants, parasol and pedestal, standard symbols of royalty in Indian art. Figures sit or stand around him in attitudes of worship.. Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Further Reading

Triṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra: Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons
Hemacandra
translated by Helen M. Johnson
Gaekwad's Oriental series; volume 1
Oriental Institute; Baroda, Gujarat, India; 1931

Full details

Heroic Wives: Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood
M. Whitney Kelting
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2009

Full details

‘Thinking Collectively About Jain Satīs’
M. Whitney Kelting
Doctrines and Dialogues: Studies in Jaina History and Culture
edited by Peter Flügel
Advances in Jaina Studies series; volume 1
Routledge Curzon Press; London; 2006

Full details

The Image of the Hero in Jainism: Rsabha, Bharata and Bahubali in the Adipurana of Jinasena
George Ralph Strohl
PhD dissertation submitted to University of Chicago in 1984

Full details

Glossary

Āyambil

Grain or pulses cooked in water with salt, eaten once a day as part of dietary restrictions, especially among Śvetāmbaras.

Bāhubali

One of the hundred sons of the first Jina Ṛṣabha, Bāhubali is one of the most revered Jain saints. After fighting with his half-brother Bharata, he renounced the world and finally conquered his pride to reach enlightenment. He is always shown in the kāyotsarga pose in art and immense freestanding statues of him are a feature of southern India.

Bharata

One of the Lands of Action or Karma-bhūmi in the first continent, Jambū-dvīpa, in the Middle World where humans live. Bharata is also the name of the eldest son of the first Jina, Ṛṣabha, who succeeded his father as king.

Cakravartin

Sanskrit for 'universal monarch'. There are 12 in the continent of Bharata in each progressive and regressive half-cyle of time. They have 9 treasures and 14 jewels they can use to conquer their enemies and become 'universal monarchs'. The cakravartin form one of the five groups of '63 illustrious men' in Jain mythology.

Digambara

'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. 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.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Kevala-jñāna

Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Nun

A woman who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, nuns perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Ordination

The act of being appointed as a member of the clergy of a religion. It is a formal ceremony that consecrates a believer into the holder of a religious office.

Preach

To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:

  • remind hearers of religious principles and rules
  • encourage piety
  • persuade non-believers of the correctness of the preacher's religious beliefs.

Renunciation

Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.

Ṛṣabha

First Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the ox or bull. There is little historical evidence of his existence. Jains believe that he established many social institutions, such as marriage and the caste system, and introduce crafts and agriculture to the people.

Sāgāra

Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.

Saint

Someone who is declared by a religious organisation or by popular acclaim to be of outstanding goodness and spiritual purity, usually some time after his or her death. The person's holiness is often believed to have been demonstrated in the performance of miracles. Saints are frequently held up as examples for followers of a religious faith.

Satī

'Virtuous woman', who is worshipped for her admirable qualities. Satīs demonstrate religious devotion and loyalty to husbands and family, especially in difficult times. Some satīs renounce to become nuns while others remain householders. There are many satīs but there is a group of Sol Satī or 16 satī who are particularly venerated by Śvetāmbara Jains.

Sect

An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.

Sermon

A speech on a religious topic, usually delivered by a member of the clergy. Frequently a sermon has a moral lesson or is based on a sacred text.

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.

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