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.

Images

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

Further Reading

‘Women in Jainism’
Nalini Balbir
Religion and Women
edited by Arvind Sharma
McGill Studies in the History of Religions series
State University of New York Press; Albany, New York, USA; 1993

Full details

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

Honour, Nurture and Festivity: Aspects of Female Religiosity amongst Jain Women in Jaipur
Josephine Reynell
PhD dissertation submitted to University of Cambridge in 1985

Full details

Glossary

Alms

Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.

Brāhmaṇa

A member of the highest caste in Hinduism, the priests or brahmins. 'Brahminical' means 'of or like brahmins'.

Dharma

Duty, religious codes or principles, the religious law. Jains think in terms of dharma or underlying order in the universe.

Related to this, the term is also used for the true nature of an object or living entity. For example, the dharma of:

  • fire is to burn
  • water is to produce a cooling effect.

The 15th Jina of the present age is called Dharmanātha or Lord Dharma. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the vajra – diamond thunderbolt. There is no historical evidence of his existence.

Hariṇaigameṣin

Antelope-faced commander-in-chief of the god Śakra, who transfers the embryo of Mahāvīra from the womb of the brahmin Devānandā to that of the kṣatriya Queen Triśalā.

Hindu

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.

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.

Jina

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.

Mahāvīra

The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.

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.

Naraka

Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology.

Revatī

A leading female follower of Mahāvīra. She is known for having offered medicine to him when his life was endangered because of his enemy Gośāla.

Rite

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.

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.

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.

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