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Article: Ambikā or Kuṣmāṇḍinī

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.

Name

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.

Roles

Marble statue of Ambikā or Kūṣmāṇḍinī. Her divine vehicle of a lion is at the bottom, along with two boys, who are her sons. As goddess of motherhood and fertility, she is one of the most popular Jain deities among both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras.

Standing figure of Ambikā
Image by British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum

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.

In addition Ambikā is the presiding deity of the Kharatara-gaccha. This Śvetāmbara monastic lineage is most numerous in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Appearance

The divine attributes of the goddess Ambikā are clearly visible in this 8th-century sandstone figure. Beneath a mango tree, Ambikā sits on her divine vehicle of a lion and holds a bunch of mangoes. The child sitting on her knee underlines her connection w

Ambikā and attributes
Image by Daderot © public domain

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:

  • may have more than two arms or hands
  • has a vehicle – vāhana
  • demonstrates attributes by holding various objects
  • may exhibit hand-gestures that symbolise a concept or attitude – mudrās.

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).

However, Śvetāmbara and Digambara Jains view her appearance differently.

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.

Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra VIII.9.384

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.

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