Article: Deities

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Vidyā-devīs

The intricately carved dome of the Lūṇa Vasahi at Mount Abu in Rajasthan. Dedicated to the 22nd Jina, Nemi, the temple was built by Tejaḥpāla in 1232 CE. The marble ceiling features the 16 vidyā-devīs – goddesses of magical knowledge – in a circle.

Ceiling of Lūṇa Vasahi
Image by olderock1 – Rakhee © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Sanskrit word vidyā and its Prakrit counterpart vijjā refer to magic powers which can be obtained through meditation and ascetic practice. Of feminine gender, the term vidyā-devīs came to be used rather early only for 16 goddesses who personify individual magical qualities. The vidyā-devīs are said to live on the slopes of Mount Vaitāḍhya, in the middle world of the Jain universe.

The presence of vidyās is evidenced especially in two early Prakrit works which are likely to date back to the first six or seven centuries of the Common Era:

  • Vimala-sūri’s Pauma-cariya
  • Vasudeva-hiṇḍī.

The Pauma-cariya is a Jain version of the Rāmāyaṇa epic poem, which was composed in Sanskrit. It lists the 16 classes of vidyās and explains their origins. The people who possess the vidyās are called vidyā-dharas and their kings are called Nami and Vinami. They gained their powers as the result of their worship of the first Jina, R̥ṣabhanātha or Lord R̥ṣabha. In this version of the Rāmāyaṇa, the monkeys – vānaras – and demons – rākṣasas – belong to lineages of vidyā-dharas.

The Vasudeva-hiṇḍī is a story work where the acquisition of vidyās plays an important role in the hero’s progress.

The notion of vidyās gradually develops into individual goddesses. They are then fixed as a group of 16, which is first available in Digambara sources, then later adopted in Śvetāmbara sources as well.

The individual vidyā-devīs vary but the best-known list is given in the table.

Sixteen vidyā-devīs

Number

Name

Approximate English meaning

Appearance

1

Rohiṇī

she makes the seed of merit ‘grow’ up

four-armed, six-armed, eight-armed, multi-armed forms

2

Prajñapti

she has wide knowledge and helps in shape changing

two, four or multiple arms

3

Vajra-śr̥ṅkhalā

after her main attribute of a strong chain

  • two, four, six or multiple arms
  • a lotus is her vehicle

4

Vajrāṅkuśā

after her attributes of the thunderbolt and goad

  • two, four or multiple arms
  • an elephant is her vehicle

5

Apraticakrā or Jambunadā

  • also a yakṣī
  • characterised by the disc – cakra

6

Puruṣadattā

origin of name unclear

two, four or multiple arms

7

Kālī

after her dark complexion

two, four or multiple arms

8

Mahā-kālī

‘very dark’

  • four or multiple arms
  • a man is her vehicle
  • a bell is her symbol

9

Gaurī

‘of light complexion’

  • two, four or multiple arms
  • crocodile is her vehicle
  • lotus as her symbol

10

Gāndhārī

no convincing explanation

two, four or multiple arms

11

Mahājvālā or Jvālāmālinī

  • also a yakṣī
  • associated with flames
  • two, four, eight or multiple arms

12

Mānavī

name unclear

  • two, four or multiple arms
  • tree is her symbol

13

Vairoṭī or Vairoṭyā

for the removal of enmity, connected with snakes

two, four or multiple arms

14

Acyuptā, Acchuptā, Acyutā

cannot be defiled by sins

  • two, four or multiple arms
  • a man is her vehicle

15

Mānasī

‘born from the mind’

four arms

16

Mahā-mānasī

no convincing explanation of her name

four or multiple arms

Śvetāmbara and Digambara ritual or iconographic texts provide details about their iconography (Bhattacharya 1974: 124–132). However, representations of the individual vidyā-devīs are not common, especially among Digambaras.

Even so, there are some well-known carvings of the 16 vidyā-devīs as a group. The most famous ones are the group sculptures adorning:

  • the ceiling of the dome in the main hall of the Vimala Vasahi, probably dating back to 1088 CE, when the original temple was constructed, which presents them standing with four arms each
  • a corridor ceiling in front of cell number 41 of the Vimala Vasahi, showing them with six arms each
  • the ceiling of the Lūṇa Vasahi at Mount Abu in Rajasthan, built by Tejaḥpāla in 1232 CE
  • the outer wall of the shrine of the Kharatara Vasahi, also at Mount Abu, dating back to the 16th century, which displays a set of seated images and another of standing goddesses
  • the domed ceiling of the temple at Ranakpur, in Rajasthan.

There are also possibly two vidyā-devīs and other goddesses in the Mahāvīra temple at Kumbharia,in Gujarat.

Vidyā-devīs are also occasionally represented in manuscripts, especially on palm leaf, usually with four arms (Shah 1947).

Dik-kumārīs

The paintings on this manuscript page feature the central continent of Jambū-dvīpa and the three peaks of Mount Meru. Jambū-dvīpa is the first continent of the Two and A Half Continents that make up the only areas human beings can live in the three worlds

Mount Meru, Jambū-dvīpa and Lavaṇa-samudra
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The ‘Princesses of the Directions’ – dik-kumārīs – live on the different summits of Mount Meru and Rucaka-dvīpa in the middle world of the Jain universe. They act as attendants to the mother of a Jina, and have a very specific role in the ceremonies performed in honour of a newborn Jina.

They are listed and described in Śvetāmbara canonical works such as the Jambūdvīpa-prajñapti and the Kalpa-sūtra. Some Digambara texts also give the same role to dik-kumārīs.

There are 56 dik-kumārīs, distributed into two categories of 32 and 24. There are eight deities for the four quarters of the Rucaka mountains, who are known from Jain and Buddhist sources (Alsdorf). Śvetāmbara texts also detail 24 additional goddesses, but disagree over where they live and come from.

Hemacandra's version (Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacarita, Johnson’s translation, volume I: 105–107) has become the standard Śvetāmbara list, and states there are:

  • eight dik-kumārīs living in the lower world
  • eight living in the upper world
  • eight living on the eastern Rucaka mountains, on the Rucaka continent
  • eight living on the southern Rucaka mountains
  • eight living on the western Rucaka mountains
  • eight living on the northern Rucaka mountains
  • four living on the Rucaka mountains at the intermediate points of the compass
  • four living on the Rucaka continent.

Dik-kumārīs are occasionally shown in Kalpa-sūtra miniature paintings depicting the Jinas’ birth celebrations. It is uncertain whether a set of female figures shown in two circular rows at the Vimala Vasahi temple on Mount Abu in Rajasthan represent this group of deities (northern Paṭṭaśālā, bhāva number 37 in front of cell number 47; Shah 1982: 281). They carry pitchers, fly-whisks and so on, which may be associated with religious ceremonies.

Goddesses of the lakes

These are six goddesses who live on islands in the middle of the six lakes – hrada – located on the six ranges of mountains which divide the Jambū-dvīpa in the middle world. They are personifications of feminine concepts.

Goddesses of the lakes

Name of goddess

Lake

Mountain range

Śrī – ‘prosperity’

Padma

Himavant

Hrī – ‘sense of shame’

Mahāpadma

Mahā-himavant

Dhṛti – ‘patience’

Tigiñcha

Niṣadha

Kīrti – ‘glory’

Kesarī

Nīla

Buddhi – ‘intelligence’

Mahāpuṇḍarīka

Rukmin

Lakṣmī – ‘prosperity’

Puṇḍarīka

Śikharin

They are often called mahā-devīs – ‘great goddesses’ – and their names are often mentioned in Tantric modes of worship and other contexts. Representations are rare or difficult to identify.

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Related Manuscripts

  • Homage to Sarasvatī

    Homage to Sarasvatī

    British Library. Or. 13806. Hemacandra and Śrīvalla-bhagaṇi. Perhaps 15th century

  • Paper cover

    Paper cover

    British Library. Or. 13959. Unknown author. 1639

Related Manuscript Images

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