Article: Deities

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Śakra and other indras

The Sanskrit word indra is used as a noun for the king of a group of gods. Śvetāmbaras admit a total of 64 indras (Shah 1984).

Kings and gods in the upper world

Classes of gods

Number of groups

Number of indras



2 indras for each group = 20



2 indras for each group = 16



2 indras for each group = 16


distributed over the 12 heavens

12 indras

These divinities live in the upper world of the Jain universe, in the kalpas or heavens. The most famous is Śakra, the lord of the gods who reside in the Saudharma, the lowest of the 12 kalpas in the upper world.

Śakra intervenes at key points in the lives of the Jinas, as shown in both the Kalpa-sūtra text and miniature paintings in manuscripts of the work. He is usually portrayed sitting on a lion throne in his court, depicted with four arms and holding a thunderbolt – vajra. His vehicle is the elephant Airāvata. JAINpedia provides numerous examples of digitised manuscripts with illustrations of Śakra, with notable examples including:

The story of the previous birth of his mount Airāvata is also illustrated.

Figures of Śakra's commander-in-chief Hariṇaigameṣin may be replacements of vidyā-devīs – goddesses of magical knowledge – in sculpture, like here in the Mahāvīra temple at Kumbharia, Gujarat.

Another indra of importance is Īśāna, lord of the second kalpa, the Aiśāna.

The indras are described among classes of gods in cosmological manuscripts, with details of their attributes, identifying animals and so on. They are commonly carved on temple walls and painted on paper manuscripts or cloth paintings of the yantra type.


A manuscript painting of Hariṇaigameṣin taking the embryo from Devānandā's womb. King of the gods, Lord Śakra has ordered him to move the embryo of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. A Jina cannot be born into the brahmin caste, but must have a kṣatriya mother

Hariṇaigameṣin removes the embryo
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

This deity is mainly known among Śvetāmbaras, as the god who performs the embryo transfer of the 24th Jina, Mahāvira, and he is thus associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

As Śvetāmbara Jains narrate in the Kalpa-sūtra text, Hariṇaigameṣin is the commander-in-chief of Śakra. The divine king orders Hariṇaigameṣin to transfer Mahāvira’s embryo from the womb of the Brahmin lady Devānandā to that of Queen Triśalā.

Hariṇaigameṣin is familiar to Śvetāmbaras from his depiction in manuscript paintings of the scripture called the Kalpa-sūtra. Some examples on JAINpedia are:

His name means 'antelope-headed' and the standard representation of Hariṇaigameṣin is of a male figure with the head of an antelope, ram or goat. The oldest image comes from the early site of Mathurā, in Uttar Pradesh.

Hariṇaigameṣin seems to have been regarded as a god who can grant the boon of pregnancy and he is worshipped to this effect. The Jain version of the story of Kr̥ṣṇa found in the Antagaḍa-dasāo, the eighth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures, shows how the childless woman Sulasā worshipped him. She had an image made of Hariṇaigameṣin, to which she performed rites every day, and revered him. In compassion for her, Hariṇaigameṣin caused her to become pregnant. When it happened that her children were born dead, the god carried them to Devakī and brought her living children to Sulasā for her to care for instead (Barnett 1907: 67).


Śvetāmbara figure of the deity Sarasvatī. The goddess of speech and knowledge, Sarasvatī is very popular among Hindus as well as Jains. This colourful statue sits on a lotus, holding her lute – vīṇā – with her divine vehicle of a swan beside her.

Image by hedonia – Ruchi © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jains call the goddess of speech and knowledge Sarasvatī, which is also her name among Hindus. She is also known as:

  • Śruta-devatā – ‘the divinity of learning’
  • Śruta-devī – ‘goddess of knowledge’
  • Vāg-īśvarī – ‘the goddess of speech’
  • Śāradā.

Sarasvatī lives in the lower levels of the upper world of the Jain universe, where gods and goddesses live. She is very popular and is honoured by writers in particular. In addition, worship of Sarasvatī is one of the key parts of the annual festivals of knowledge.

Sarasvatī's antiquity in the Jain tradition is supported by references in early texts, including some of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures.

Numerous statues of Sarasvatī are available. The oldest is a headless image dated 132 CE from the Kankāli Tila site at Mathurā, in modern Uttar Pradesh. One of the most famous Sarasvatī images is the marble figure in Rajasthan, dating from the 12th century and known as ‘Bikaner or Pallu Sarasvatī', which is kept in the National Museum, New Delhi.

The main identifying characteristics of Sarasvatī in iconography are:

  • her divine vehicle – vāhana – of a swan or peacock, the latter mainly in Digambara sources
  • attributes of a manuscript or book, and a lotus
  • the presence of a lute – vīṇā.

Painted images of Sarasvatī are often found in manuscripts. Writers who wish for a well-received work frequently pay homage to Sarasvatī in her capacity as the goddess of speech at the beginning or end of their manuscripts.

Several of the manuscripts digitised on JAINpedia show instances of this, such as:

Sarasvatī is worshipped especially at the yearly Jain festivals connected with knowledge and teaching:

The Tantric mode of worship characteristic of the worship of yakṣīs such as Padmāvatī and Jvālāmālinī can also be used to honour Sarasvatī. Rituals implying meditation on mantras and yantras, and propitiatory rites are described in kalpa texts such as Malliṣeṇa-sūri’s Sarasvatī-mantra-kalpa and Bappabhaṭṭi’s Sarasvatī-kalpa (Nawab 1937/1996: 151–166 and Jhavery 1944: 316–320). The mantra hrīṃ-kāra is particularly connected with Sarasvatī.

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