Article: Candanbālā

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Candanbālā, also known as Candanā, was the head nun under Mahāvīra and is one of the 16 satīs – soḷ satī. Her story is especially well known because she appears at a key moment in Mahavira's progress to becoming a Jina. For both Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains, Candanbālā is one of the many Jain satīs whose lives are examples of the ideal path for women. She also demonstrates virtues that should be imitated by both men and women. Her story features the quintessential gift to the worthy recipient – supatra dāna – offering food, clothes and medicine to a Jain mendicant as alms.

Among Śvetāmbaras, Candanbālā's story is re-enacted as part of the fast-breaking ritual associated with the Candanbālā Fast. The three-day fast is completed when the faster feeds a Jain mendicant before breaking her own fast. In addition to reducing karma, the Candanbālā Fast is believed to improve the faster's beauty and marriage prospects.

Story of Candanbālā

Princess Vasumatī is born in the city of Campa. When Campa is sacked in a war, a camel trader grabs the princess and her mother, who dies immediately. He offers Vasumatī as a slave in the market, where a Jain merchant named Dhana sees Vasumatī and realises that she must be a kidnapped princess. He buys her and decides to raise her as his own daughter until her family finds her. He and his family call her 'Candanbālā', which means 'Hair like Sandalwood', because of her beauty.

Candanbālā is punished for her beauty

As Candanbālā grows more beautiful, the merchant's wife, Mulā, becomes jealous of her. She orders the servants to shave off Candanbālā's hair, bind her with chains and lock her in a distant corner of the house. For three days, whenever the merchant asks after Candanbālā, his wife lies to him that she is outside or asleep.

When Dhana finally convinces the servants to tell him where Candanbālā is, he finds her shaven-headed and chained, with tears in her eyes. She has not eaten or drunk for three days. He searches for something for her to eat but there is only a winnowing basket full of lentils. Candanbālā vows that she will eat only after first giving food to a guest.

Mahāvīra seeks alms

This detail of a painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows a monk about to receive his daily alms. Even though he wears white robes like a Śvetāmbara monk, the mendicant is making the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect

Giving alms to a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

At this very moment the 24th Jina Mahāvīra comes seeking alms. He has been fasting for five months and 25 days, awaiting a suitable donor. He has vowed to accept food only from a princess who is now a slave, standing on the threshold with her head shaved, dressed in white, crying while sorting lentils in a winnowing basket.

Candanbālā stands in the doorway of her room with the winnowing basket full of lentils and calls to Mahāvīra that he should take alms. He refuses because she is not crying. She begins to weep. Because Candanbālā then meets all the conditions of his vow, he returns to take alms.

At the fulfilment of Mahāvīra's vow, the gods shower them both with gold, Candanbālā's chains break off, her long beautiful hair miraculously returns and she is known instantly to be Princess Vasumatī.

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