Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting
Rājīmatī, also known as Rājul in medieval and contemporary contexts, is one of the 16 satīs, or soḷ satī, and included in every satī list. Rājīmatī's story is the most widely told satī narrative probably because of its pivotal significance in the tale of the renunciation of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi. As with the tales of other sol satī, Rājīmatī's story contains examples of renunciation, faithfulness, modesty, chastity and religious devotion that are believed to be especially powerful for women. It therefore provides a model of female virtues.
The earliest version of Rājīmatī's tale dates back to the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra and has been a very popular subject for Jain narratives, poetry and hymns to the present day.
The early accounts of Rājīmatī's story celebrate compassion and renunciation while denigrating the body, particularly the female body. Later versions shift the focus of the story to centre on her love for Nemi. In these, Rājīmatī's story becomes more clearly linked to rituals associated with happy marriages while also serving as a model for female renunciation.
Rājīmatī and Rathanemi in the cave
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Rājīmatī's tale was originally found within the narrative of the life of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi. The different Jain sects largely agree upon core incidents of the story but the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects differ on the course of events after Nemi leaves his bride. The tale has probably been adapted partly to support conflicting views on the religious position of women in the two sects.
Prince Nemi had wanted to become an ascetic from an early age. After much cajoling, however, the Jina-to-be Nemi was engaged to Princess Rājīmatī, the daughter of King Ugrasen. When Nemi's wedding procession arrived at Rājīmatī's home on the day of their wedding, her mother blessed him at the threshold of the door.
But when Nemi heard the crying of the animals that were to be killed for the wedding feast he felt deep compassion for them and disgust for the world. He decided to renounce the life of the householder at once. He turned around and left his bride standing at the threshold of her house.
Rājīmatī lamented her fate but, when it was clear that Nemi would not be returning, she decided to follow Nemi to Girnār and renounce with him.
In Śvetāmbara versions, after announcing her intention to renounce, Rājīmatī travels to Mount Girnār to join Nemi. On the mountain she is caught in the rain and ducks into a cave to dry off. She removes her clothing to let it dry. The monk Rathanemi, who is also Nemi's elder brother, sees her. He approaches Rājīmatī begging her to have an affair with him and then become a nun after they have enjoyed all the worldly pleasures of this rare human birth. Rājīmatī does not accept Rathanemi's proposal but instead gives him a sermon about the vileness of her own body, comparing herself to vomit. Rathanemi remembers his vows and is transformed into an ideal monk. Rājīmatī renounces the world and becomes a nun.
Finally, according to Śvetāmbara versions Rājīmatī and Nemi achieved liberation at their deaths on the same day and were, in a sense, reunited.
In Digambara versions, Rājīmatī does not become a nun but is still recognised as a satī. Likewise, she and Nemi die on the same day and Nemi achieves omniscience and liberation while Rājīmatī is born again as a male god in heaven.
Rājīmatī's story appears as early as the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, which dates back hundreds of years, and has been retold many times in medieval and modern Jain tales, poems and hymns. Over the centuries the focus of the tale has changed. It is still a significant story of inspirational renunciation but has also become strongly associated with love, fidelity and marriage. As with the tales of the other 16 satīs – soḷ satī – the themes are believed to be particularly important for women.
This telling is the key source for the basic story. Later versions of the Rājīmatī story by monks are clearly influenced by this early and authoritative account.
By the medieval period, Rājīmatī's love for Neminātha or Lord Nemi becomes central to the story, linking the Jain and Hindu genres of love poetry. In medieval phāgus – four-month rainy-season poems – and bārahmāsa – twelve-month poems – Rājīmatī waits four months or twelve months for Nemi to return before resigning herself to renunciation.
The oldest known phāgus and viraha bārahmāsās – four and twelve-month poems of separation – are Jain works dedicated to the story of Nemi and Rājīmatī. One of the two oldest phāgus, Rājaśekhara-sūri's 14th-century Neminātha-phāgu was dedicated to Rājīmatī's laments after her rejection. The oldest bārahmāsā is Dharma-sūri's 13th-century Bārah navaū and the oldest viraha bārahmāsa is Vinayacandra-sūri's 14th-century Rājal Bārahmāsā.
Most of these Jain bārahmāsā poems retell the story of Nemi's renunciation on his wedding day and the suffering of his jilted fiancée. The phāgu and bārahmāsā poetic forms describe each month in turn, linking the natural environment and seasons with the emotions of the protagonist. Bārahmāsā poems sometimes describe the religious or agricultural year or form a narrative epic lasting a year, but Jain versions focus instead on the suffering of the separated lover and the trials of chastity. In these medieval tellings the Rathanemi episode is not the central scene. Instead, Rājīmatī's renunciation is presented as the perfect example of not abandoning love. Rathanemi gives up the world of marriage yet stays true to her husband, although in a different way from traditional notions of marital faithfulness.
The most significant later telling is Devcand’s 18th-century text, Nemanāth Saloko. This text is recited publicly at temple celebrations on the day of Nemi and Rājīmatī's unfinished wedding and that of Nemi's renunciation.
The story of Nemi and Rājīmatī has been the subject of a multitude of hymns including sajjhāys and stavans. In particular, the genre of veil songs – cunḍaḍī gīt – is almost exclusively dedicated to the story of Rājīmatī. These hymns are performed in temples dedicated to Nemi and on days associated with Nemi’s life but these hymns are also part of the standard repertoire of devotional hymns known to devout Jains. The veil songs are popular at night-singing sessions, especially those led by Marwari Jains, whether or not there is any connection between the performance and Nemi.
In more recent times, many versions of the story have been told in novels and comic books and on audio recordings, such as audio cassettes.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.
Either avoiding sexual activity outside marriage or being totally celibate. Chaste can also mean a pure state of mind or innocent, modest action.
Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.
The terms stavan, stavana, stava, stotra and stuti are all used for a prayer, song, chant or hymn to a Jina, a god or any other holy figure. Religious songs are always hymns of praise in Jainism. These devotional songs may be performed during daily rites or on special occasions, such as completion of a fast or a wedding. The hymns may be performed:
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
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.
The 22nd Jina of the present age, also called Ariṣṭanemi. His symbolic colour is blue or black and his emblem the conch. There is no historical evidence of his existence.
The Jains hold that Nemi is the cousin of the Hindu god Kṛṣna. The tale of his renunciation and jilting of his fiancée Princess Rājīmati are famous among the Jains.
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.
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.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
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.
'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.
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.
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.
'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.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.
Bodleian Library. Prakrit c.1. Unknown author. 1465 CE
Victoria and Albert Museum. IS 2-1972. Unknown author. Circa 1450