Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting
Subhadrā is named in the Kalpa-sūtra as the leader of the lay women under the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. She is described as a virtuous woman – satī – in the Āvaśyaka-sūtra and her story first appears in Jinadāsa's Āvaśyaka-cūrnī. Subhadrā is one of the 16 satīs, or soḷ satī. She is included in the longer satī lists and her story is told in nearly all satī collections.
The tale of Subradha illustrates the rewards of remaining loyal to Jain beliefs even when under pressure to give them up.
Subhadrā was born into a good Jain family, daughter of the king's minister in Campa. In some versions her father is a merchant named Jinadatta. Subhadrā was very devout and her father wanted to marry her to a religious Jain of a good family.
One day a young Buddhist man named Buddhadās visited Campa, saw Subhadrā and fell in love. Buddhadās found out that Subhadrā's family was looking for a good Jain husband for her, so he changed his name to Jinadās and pretended to be a Jain. He stayed with some Jain monks after claiming to have taken a vow to live temporarily like a monk. Jinadās-Buddhadās met Subhadrā's father and lied to him about all the Jain vows he had taken. Subhadrā's father was fooled and decided to marry Subhadrā to Jinadās-Buddhadās.
Woman prepares to make auspicious symbols
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0
In all the excitement of her new life, Subhadrā did not immediately realise that her in-laws were not Jains. One morning, Subhadrā went to worship at the Jain temple. When she returned, her mother-in-law told her that her new family were not Jains but Buddhists, and that from now on Subhadrā must only worship at Buddhist temples. Subhadrā defied her, continuing to worship at the Jain temple and pay homage to Jain mendicants.
One day a Jain monk who had been fasting for a full month came for alms to break his fast. The monk was in pain because of a piece of straw caught in his eye. Subhadrā wanted to help him, so she removed the straw from his eye with her tongue. Her red forehead mark stuck to the monk's forehead as she did this.
When Subhadrā’s mother-in-law saw the red mark on the monk's forehead she said to Jinadās-Buddhadās: "Look, son! What kind of wife acts like this? She is shameless and that monk is filled with lust."
Thus the mother-in-law stirred up trouble. Jinadās-Buddhadās believed that Subhadrā was disgraceful and beyond any hope of redemption.
Subhadrā did not know what to do so she vowed to stay in motionless meditation – kāyotsarga – until her name was cleared.
While she was deep in meditation, the guardian goddess who protects Jains came to her and said, "Hey, daughter, tomorrow morning your disgrace will be banished. I will speak as a voice from the sky. Do exactly what I say."
Then the goddess left her.
The next morning no one could open the gates to the city. The king asked for any ideas when out of the sky came a voice, saying: "O King! Do not worry. Once a true woman – satī strī – draws water from this well with a sieve on a weak cotton thread and throws the water at the gates, then they will open."
After the king heard this he called for all true women to come and try to open the gate. Many tried but none could keep water in the sieve. Everyone began to worry.
Subhadrā told her mother-in-law that she would open the gate.
Her mother-in-law became very angry and cried, "O sinful woman! In just one act, you have already shamed our family! What more do you want?"
Subhadrā humbly said, "I will ask the goddess. If she says yes, I shall open the gate."
Just then a voice came from the sky: "Go and open that gate!"
Having heard this, Subhadrā went through the crowds of thousands of men and women. She drew water from the well with a sieve on a weak cotton thread and threw it on the gates. Three of the gates unlocked miraculously, but the fourth was still shut fast.
The goddess appeared and announced to the crowd, "I will only open the last gate when a true woman comes before me."
Subhadrā bowed before the goddess and the gate opened. Everyone saw the miracle.
Then her mother-in-law asked for Subhadrā's forgiveness and her husband's family converted to Jainism.
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.
A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:
Both sects are practised in India.
Formally recognised leaders within a religion. The clergy often perform rituals, lead worship and instruct believers in religious principles. Lay men and women usually complete formal study before being initiated into the clergy. Clerics are active among lay believers, often living in society. They may have specific roles or ranks and may progress through a hierarchy to become top leaders of the religious organisation.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.
Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:
A religious title for a monk in charge of a small group of mendicants, who live and travel together. A gaṇinī is a nun who leads a group of female mendicants.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
'Absence of concern for the body'. This commonly refers to a standing or sitting posture of deep meditation. In the standing position the eyes are concentrated on the tip of the nose and the arms hang loosely by the body. The individual remains unaffected by whatever happens around him.
An extraordinary event that cannot be explained by natural causes or human effort and therefore is believed to be caused by divine or supernatural powers.
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.
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
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.
The guardian goddess who protects Jains. She is usually unnamed, though sometimes seemingly random Jain goddess names are attached to her. She plays an active role in some Jain religious stories, such as the tale of Subhadrā.
'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.
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.
'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.
A Western academic term used for the largely medieval texts that hold the Jain legendary history of the world. Recounting the life stories of the '63 Great or Illustrious Men', the writings are intended to provide role-models for later Jains. The main texts of Jain Universal History are the:
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.