Article: Sulasā

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Along with Revatī, Sulasā is named as joint leader of Jain lay women under the Jina Mahāvīra in the fifth-century Kalpa-sutra.

Sulasā is one of the 16 satīs – soḷ satī – and is included in the longer satī lists as well. Sulasā is the best known of the satīs who remain lay women their whole lives. The story of her life forms part of most collections of satī narratives.

Sulasā is named in the Āvaśyaka-sūtra and the earliest version of her story appears in Jinadāsa's Āvaśyaka-cūrnī. Her story is widely included in collections of sermons and retold in contemporary sermons.

The tale of Sulasā highlights tensions between Jain views of spiritual self-determination and the ideals of women as protectors of the family. The story lays particular emphasis on the ultimate importance of reaching liberation through one's own spiritual efforts.

Story of Sulasā

In this detail from a manuscript painting Śvetāmbara monks receive alms from lay people. This manuscript of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, a major text outlining the rules of monastic life, dates back to the 16th century

Giving alms to Śvetāmbara monks
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sulasā and her husband, Nāga, could not have children. One day Nāga told Sulasā about his fears that he would die without a son and thus his soul would be bound for hell.

Sulasā gave him a lecture on Jain dharma. She reminded him of the teaching that one's own virtuous acts are the only way to prevent a rebirth in hell and that having sons to perform one's funeral, as in Hindu belief, makes no difference.

When Nāga remained unconvinced, Sulasā suggested that he take a second wife. He told her that he could not because he had vowed to have only one wife. Then Sulasā said that they should just be good Jains.

One day the god Hariṇaigameṣin came to Sulasā's house posing as a Jain monk on his alms rounds, and after seeing her religious dedication he offered her a boon. Sulasā asked for a son for her husband.

Sulasā conceived thirty-two sons, but she was told that they would all die on the same day. When they grew up they were guards for King Írenik and, as foretold, they all died in battle.

Nāga was desolate but Sulasā told him that he should simply focus on liberation.

Sulasā rededicated herself to religion and was later singled out by Mahāvīra as the ideal lay woman.

Sulasā later died and went to heaven. She will be reborn as the 15th Jina, Nirmama-swāmī, in the next ascending cycle of time.

References in Jain writings

The story of Sulasā has been popular since its first appearance in early Jain texts. Collected as part of the stories detailing the virtuous lives of the satī, Sulasā's exemplary life has also appeared in sermons and anthologies of Jain moral tales.

The Kalpa-sūtra names Sulasā as one of the leaders of Jain lay women under Mahāvīra. The other leader is Revatī.

The name of Sulasā appears in the Āvaśyaka-sūtra. The Āvaśyaka-cūrnī of Jinadāsa contains the earliest telling of Sulasā's story.

A variant appears in the Antakṛddaśaḥ. Here Sulasā is the wife of the merchant Nāga and is fated to only have still-births. She worships Hariṇaigameṣin, who exchanges six of the sons of Devāī, wife of Vāsudeva, for Sulasā's still-born children. Later Sulasā's six sons become monks under the Jina Mahāvīra. This variant is not reproduced widely.

The story of Sulasā is included in medieval narrative collections such as Śubhaśila-gaṇi's 15th-century Bharateśvar Bāhubalī Vṛttiḥ and in Jain universal history narrative collections like the 12th-century work Trī-ṣaṣṭi-śalāka-puruṣa-caritram by Hemacandra.

Sulasā's story appears in the popular 18th-century collection of sermons, the Upadeśaprasāda, as an example of the futility of brahminical rites. Her example is frequently found in sermon collections and is also often used in contemporary sermons.

Related Manuscripts

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