Article: Deities

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The Jains do not believe in gods or a god as creators of the world. The status of gods and goddesses among Jain followers is disputed. Some Jains do not worship deities but many Jains pay homage to gods and goddesses as mediators between the perfected souls of the Jinas and the imperfect world of human experience. Divine figures are very common in Jain temples and are frequently at the centre of religious rituals.

The focus of worship among Jains is the 24 Jinas. Believers respect and worship the Jinas, who are teachers and sources of the doctrine. The Jinas are fully liberated beings who have escaped the world of rebirths. They are perfect souls, who cannot, therefore, interact in any way with followers of the Jain religion. As unsurpassable models or ideals, they are beyond all possible requests coming from humans. They are thus totally different from gods, to whom worshippers pray to get various benefits.

The Jinas have reached the summit of the Jain universe – the siddha-śilā – and do not belong to any of the realms of the three worlds. In these kingdoms, however, lives a wide range of deities who are integrated into the system of Jain values to different extents. Living in allocated places in the Jain universe, the pantheon of Jain deities comprises various groups and some key individual figures. The divinities may have various roles and may be associated with concepts such as knowledge and worldly matters such as childbirth and wealth. Lesser gods are also worshipped in Jainism, who may be local divinities or sets of deities who represent or personify certain features or ideas.

Many of the major deities are known under the same names or different names in other Indian religious traditions. For example, Śrī or Lakṣmī is a major goddess for Hindus as well as Jains. Their Jain names may be identical to or in differing forms from those found in other Indian faiths. This does not necessarily mean that Jainism has 'borrowed' them. The origins of Jain gods and goddesses are complex and have to be specially investigated.

Although they may be members of groups of deities, some Jain divinities have personalities as individual figures and are worshipped as such. Associations with wealth or childbirth, for example, partly account for their popularity and they may be the focus of special religious rites.

Other Jain gods and goddesses are worshipped primarily as groups. There may not be much substantial difference among the individual members although each usually has divine attributes and a divine vehicle.

Evidence of the deities' presence in iconography around images of the Jinas or as independent figures is growing, with investigations being carried out in regions which had previously been neglected, such as Bihar and Bengal or Tamil Nadu. In addition, recent examinations of sculptures, such as Mevissen, show that groups of deities, such as the guardians of directions – dik-pālas – and the nine planets – nava-grahas – are more common than scholars had so far thought.

Some gods are local deities connected with specific places, who may be worshipped only by people from that area. However, some have gained broader popularity in recent decades, such as Nākoḍā Bhairava, whose appeal has spread far and wide from his original home in Rajasthan.

All these deities may be part of Tantric modes of worship, where they are invoked and their statues or paintings placed on diagrams – yantras – for meditation (Jhavery 1944: 331, etc.).

Contested status

Lay people in Melbourne, Australia, perform the ābhiṣeka – 'anointing ceremony' – of a small figure of the goddess Padmāvatī. The worshippers have covered their noses and mouths so they do not accidentally pollute the statue.

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

The sources of the Jain doctrine are the Jinas and the long route to liberation is an individual path. Gods and goddesses are part of the world of rebirths and are not self-controlled, instead demonstrating passions – kaṣāyas – as do human beings. Thus occasional voices deny that they have anything to do with the protection of Jain teaching and refuse their integration into the Jain system of values (Sethi n.d.). They consider them to be ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ deities, whose worship, if any, should be kept separate from ceremonies focused on the Jinas. Many image-worshipping Jains, however, pray to divinities as part of the general practice of their faith.

There have been heated debates within and between monastic orders in the Śvetāmbara sect as to whether the cults of these deities are justified in scripture. The issue includes whether hymns to the ‘deities of knowledge’ – śruta-devatās – and ‘guardian deities’ – kṣetra-devatās – should be part of the pratikramaṇa – the repentance ritual (Balbir 2003: 271–273).

For example, the Tapā-gaccha and the Kharatara-gaccha refer to the scriptural tradition, which, they say, teaches such worship and gives high credit to these deities. They quote examples of great monks whom deities helped. They assert that worshipping gods and goddesses helps to destroy the karma that keeps souls trapped in the cycle of birth, provided there is auspicious meditation. These sects consider these deities protect and help the teaching, deserve proper worship and are compatible with religious duties.

In the 13th century a new monastic order separated from the Pūrṇimā-gaccha after disagreements over the status of Jain deities. The new group took the name Tristutika-gaccha – ‘the three-hymned monastic order’ – or Āgama-gaccha – ‘the Scripture monastic order’ – because they rejected three homage formulas to Jain deities. Though they accepted the concept of praying to divinities, they held that 'right believers' should not accept such formulas. This subject still needs scholarly investigation.

Mendicants and deities

Nākoḍā Bhairava in the Prakrit Bharati in Jaipur, Rajasthan, decorated with flower offerings. Nākoḍā Bhairava is a guardian deity in the Śvetāmbara temple in Nākoḍā. He is very popular and replicas of the original statue are found in India and beyond.

Figure of Nākoḍā Bhairava
Image by Knut Aukland © Knut Aukland

Śvetāmbara writings often link monks and nuns with deities in positive ways. Present-day mendicants are frequently active in promoting the worship of gods among lay followers, which is intended to complement worship of the Jinas, not to replace it.

There are several episodes which show that great Jain teachers – ācāryas – could play the role of māntrikas – knowers and practitioners of Tantric modes of worship – and could write Tantric works connected with Jain deities. Stories show that kings could call upon such teachers for help or rescue, asking them to use their powers in matters relating to the state or political power. Several teachers of the Kharatara-gaccha, an important Śvetāmbara monastic order found mostly in Rajasthan, are well known for their capacities in this area. Revered for having such abilities, they are known as the Dādā-gurus.

In modern times there is evidence that leading Jain mendicants are the primary movers in revivals or creations of cults to deities among local lay communities. These efforts are meant to deter Jain followers from worshipping non-Jain deities and to associate the quest for liberation with ways to satisfy worldly needs within the context of Jainism. Such instances are the cults of:

As part of contemporary worship, Jain deities are also popular among the diaspora.

Deities and the Jain universe

All the deities that make up the various groups of the Jain pantheon are supposed to live in one of the three worlds of the Jain universe, namely the:

This is one way to group them (Jain and Fischer 1978). But there are also some categories that cut across this system, such as the dik-kumārīs.

Moreover, clan or family deities – kula-devatās – who are generally recognised and quite widespread, are not part of the Jain pantheon because they are local divinities who are not allocated places in the Jain universe.

Groups of deities in the Jain universe

Part of the Jain universe

Group

Lower world

  • yakṣas and yakṣīs
  • dik-pālas
  • nava-grahas, who are part of the planetary gods – the Jyotiṣkas

Middle world

  • vidyā-devīs, who are connected to vidyā-dharas
  • dik-kumārīs
  • goddesses of the lakes

Upper world – lower levels

  • Śakra with Hariṇaigameṣin and other indras
  • Sarasvatī
  • Lakṣmī
  • Kṣetra-pālas
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