Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī is one of the most popular Jain goddesses among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras alike. She is the yakṣī or female attendant deity of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi, but has long been a figure of worship in her own right. As a śāsana-devatā – ‘deity of the teaching’ – she is believed to help protect and spread the message of her Jina. The yakṣa Gomedha is Nemi's male attendant, but has not developed a similar independent status.
As a goddess, Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī is a soul subject to the cycle of birth and can intervene in human affairs, unlike Jinas, who are liberated, perfect souls, completely detached from everyday human experience. Lay Jains worship gods partly to request help with worldly matters, ranging from issues of health and fertility, and passing examinations to business success. By the tenth century several of the śāsana-devatās had developed into independent gods at the centre of their own cults. This may be because of their connections with the major Jinas, links with a prominent pilgrimage centre or various stories of their powers.
Śvetāmbaras know her as Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī while Digambaras call this goddess Kūṣmāṇḍinī. Each sect gives her different attributes, but she is usually presented in art accompanied by a child or two. This underlines her association with motherhood and children, and Jains might worship her when they want to have children.
The numerous temples and images dedicated to Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī throughout India demonstrate her popularity. However, she has especially close connections with Gujarat, stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism, and Shravana Belgola in Karnataka, one of the principal pilgrimage sites for Digambara Jains. Since she is the focus of worship in her own right, she also has hymns and mantras composed for her.
In Sanskrit and north Indian languages the name Ambikā means ‘Mummy’ or ‘Little Mother’. This goddess is closely associated with motherhood and children in legends as well as in her iconography. The name Kūṣmāṇḍinī etymologically means ‘the one associated with a kūṣmāṇḍa’, which is a kind of pumpkin. It is to be noted that a synonym of this, Kūṣṃāṇḍī, is a name of the goddess Durgā in the Hindu tradition. This has led to the assumption that the Jain goddess Ambikā is a borrowed form of Durgā, but this is not accurate.
Rather, Ambikā is connected with a yakṣī named Bahuputrikā – ‘one with many daughters’ – who is said to have been worshipped in old times in Magadha, in eastern India. In Tamil Nadu, Ambikā is also known under the name Dharma-devī – ‘Goddess of the Doctrine’ – which underlines her association with the Jinas.
A powerful deity, Ambikā has several roles. In some respects she can be thought of as the model goddess for the yakṣīs, as the earliest surviving references to these attendant goddesses name her as the sole yakṣī. Her association with the Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi clearly links her to a function as mother of children and also promotes Jainism as the true religion. One of her most prominent aspects is as protective deity, in particular of children. Kūṣmāṇḍinī is also the guardian divinity of certain holy places, especially Shravana Belgola, the Digambara pilgrimage centre. She demonstrates her appeal to both main Jain sects in her associations with Mount Girnar in Gujarat and is also the presiding deity of a Śvetāmbara sect.
Together with Sarvānubhūti, Ambikā forms the earliest pair of yakṣa and yakṣī in the Jain tradition. These two divinities seem to have provided the model for other yakṣa and yakṣī pairings. The oldest reference to Ambikā in art and literature dates back to the middle of the sixth century CE.
The legend of how Ambikā became the female attendant of the 23rd Jina Nemi does not have a Jain setting, yet is meant to show the final superiority of Jainism over Brahmanism. In the Śvetāmbara tradition, Ambikā is a wife and the mother of two children in Gujarat, with the story clearly set in Saurāṣṭra. Her husband throws her out of the house because she gives food to a Jain monk that had been meant for Hindu Brahmins. She goes to the forest with the children and they sit under a withered mango tree. Miraculously, this mango tree provides fruit and a nearby dried-up lake fills with water so they can survive. When Ambikā's repentant husband comes to look for them, she misunderstands his intentions and escapes him by jumping in a well with her sons. She is reborn as the yakṣī to Nemi and her husband is reborn as a lion, her vehicle – vāhana – on which Indian deities ride.
The authoritative example for this story is the 14th-century Ambikā-devī-kalpa. It is found in Jinaprabha-sūri's Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa, which describes pilgrimage places and Jain beings worthy of worship.
Well-known stories show how Ambikā plays a part in rescuing or aiding devotees. As with other yakṣīs, this help may be extended not only to commoners but also to monarchs. In such cases, therefore, Ambikā acts as the protective deity to a state. For example, it is said that she helped King Kumārapāla accede to the throne in 12th-century Gujarat.
She is also believed to have had a decisive contribution ‘in deciding a dispute between the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras as to who had authority over the holy place of Girnar’ (Cort 1987: 249) in Gujarat.
Both yakṣas and yakṣīs are considered part of the entourage of the Jina image, technically known as parikara. Like all of the attendant deities, Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī has certain features that help to identify her and indicate her powers. These are described in, for example, texts on the iconography of the Jina, which outline the appearance of the Jina's attendants.
Being presented as a deity implies that Ambikā has special characteristics linked to the depiction of gods in art. This means she:
Both the principal Jain sects associate Ambikā with motherhood and give her a lion as her divine mount or vehicle. This indicates her possible connection with Ambājī, a popular Hindu goddess in Gujarat (Cort 1987: 248).
Ambikā is identifiable in Śvetāmbara art from the presence of one child on her hip with the other by her side, or accompanied by one child only. The lion vehicle is also often there, as well as a mango tree or bunch of mangoes. Other features have changed in the course of time but common characteristics in Śvetāmbara depictions of Ambikā include the noose and goad. Such weapon-like attributes characterise several yakṣīs and are meant to show that they are powerful beings. Their presence has been interpreted as a sign of the Śakti cult, which was widespread in India, especially between the tenth and 13th centuries.
The standard description by the 12th-century author Hemacandra states:
A Kuṣmāṇḍī, named Ambikā, originating in the congregation [of Lord Nemi], gold color, with a lion for a vehicle, holding in two right hands a bunch of mangoes and a noose; and in her two left hands a boy and a goad, became the Lord’s messenger-deity.
Johnson’s translation, volume 5, page 273
Jinaprabha-sūri’s 14th-century piece on Ambikā says the same.
As a deity, Ambikā is often portrayed with more than two arms, ranging from four or eight to many arms. The only surviving figures of Ambikā that date from up to the end of the ninth century take the two-armed form, then evidence of the multi-armed form goes on increasing. Among Digambaras, however, Kūṣmāṇḍinī is presented with two arms. The sects also give her varying divine attributes, which she holds in her hands. Thus the number of attributes and arms are connected when she is represented in art.
One of the hundred sons of the first Jina Ṛṣabha, Bāhubali is one of the most revered Jain saints. After fighting with his half-brother Bharata, he renounced the world and finally conquered his pride to reach enlightenment. He is always shown in the kāyotsarga pose in art and immense freestanding statues of him are a feature of southern India.
Sankrit term meaning 'pontiff'. This title is given to a type of Digambara clergy who are not mendicants. Instead of practising the 'wandering life' – vihāra – of Jain monks and nuns, a bhaṭṭāraka stays in one place, living in a kind of monastery called a maṭha. There are several bhaṭṭārakas in south India, who lead the local Jain community.
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.
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
A gathering of believers that has come together to perform group acts of worship.
A ritual in which an item or place is declared to be holy. A person may also consecrate a specific time or activity or be consecrated, which means becoming dedicated to a religious purpose.
Religious activity centred around a deity or saintly figure. Religious rituals are performed regularly to the god or goddess, who may be represented in images or relics or found in natural features such as springs and trees. Shrines and temples are frequently built at the site of a cult and pilgrims arrive to worship the deity.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.
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.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. 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.
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
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:
Conventions or rules governing how images, symbols and the placement of elements and figures are used in art to represent ideas and convey meaning. Also the term for the academic study of such artistic conventions.
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
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.
(1261–1333) Kharatara-gaccha monk famous for writing Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa – Guidebook to Various Pilgrimage Places. He also visited the court of the Delhi Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq.
State in south-west India.
Subsect of the Śvetāmbaras, chiefly found in Rajasthan and Mumbai and established in the 11th century.
Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.
A sacred sound, syllable, word or phrase that is believed to produce spiritual change if recited correctly. A mantra can be recited aloud or silently, and is often repeated. Mantras are closely associated with religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Jainism. The chief Jain mantra is the Namaskāra-mantra, which is recited daily, while another mantra very popular in Indian culture generally is Auṃ.
Taken from the Sanskrit term for the dwelling of an ascetic, the term maṭha is nowadays often rendered as mutt in English. Associated with Digambara Jains, maṭhas are complexes of buildings centred on a temple and are similar to a Christian monastery. They usually comprise a manuscript library, mendicant dwelling-hall and pilgrim facilities, such as a refectory and dormitory. A maṭha is the seat of a bhaṭṭāraka, a clerical leader. Most maṭhas are in southern India.
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.
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 journey to a place of religious significance. Some religions encourage pilgrimage as ways to advance spiritual progress and deepen the faith of those who make the trip – pilgrims.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
A religious communication offered by a believer to a god or object of worship. It may:
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:
The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.
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.
Cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth caused by karma binding to the soul as a result of activities. Only by destroying all karma can this perpetual cycle finish in mokṣa – liberation. The karma gained in life affects the next life, and even future lives, for example:
The most sacred area of a temple, church or religious building, often where the image of a deity is housed and worshipped. An outdoor space that is associated with a deity may also be considered a sanctuary.
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
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 small structure holding an image or relics, which may be within a temple or building designed for worship. A shrine may be a portable object. Worshippers pray and make offerings at a shrine, which is often considered sacred because of associations with a deity or event in the life of a holy person.
'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.
Jain Tantric worship aims to control other people or counter evil influences. Tantric rituals try to placate the aggressive side of a deity's nature, encouraging the divinity to behave benevolently. If not worshipped correctly, the vengeful deity may cause harm. The devotee invokes the deity under his or her various names, places images of the deity on yantras – mystical diagrams – and meditates, repeating mantras.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
The vehicle of a Hindu god or goddess. Usually an animal, the vāhana fulfils one or more roles and may:
The vāhana may also have its own divine powers or be worshipped in its own right.
The male attendant of a Jina, one of the pair of guardian or protector gods for each Jina. The śāsana-devatā protect his teachings – śāsana – and can appease evil powers. The yakṣa and yakṣī's closeness to the Jina and their divine powers mean they are popular subjects of worship.
The female attendant of a Jina, also called yakṣinī. One of the pair of guardian or protector gods for each Jina. The śāsana-devatā protect his teachings – śāsana – and can appease evil powers. The yakṣa and yakṣī's closeness to the Jina and their divine powers mean they are popular subjects of worship.
Sanskrit for 'instrument' or 'machine', a yantra is a mystical diagram used in religious rituals. Yantras are typically formed of symmetrical, concentric circles and may also have the diagram of a lotus in the middle of numerous squares. Containing the names of the Jinas and sacred mantras, such as oṃ, yantras are meditation aids.