Article: Padmāvatī

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The yakṣī or female attendant deity of the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, is Padmāvatī. As a śāsana-devatā – ‘deity of the teaching’ – she is believed to help protect and spread the message of her Jina. Padmāvatī is one of the most important Jain goddesses among both Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras and is worshipped all over India. She is the focus of individual worship partly because of her associations with wealth.

As a goddess, Padmāvatī 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.

Padmāvatī is assigned different attributes and divine vehicles by the two main sects of Jainism. However, among both she is frequently linked to the snake, the emblem of her Jina, Pārśva. Padmāvatī is particularly significant among Jains in Karnataka, especially the Digambara centres of Hombuja or Humcha and Shravana Belgola.

Roles

Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva sits in the lotus pose commonly used for Jinas. Above his head five serpent heads fan out while his half-snake attendant gods stand either side. The yakṣas hold fly-whisks, which, along with his jewellery, underline his status.t

Pārśva attended by yakṣa and yakṣī
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0

Padmāvatī is the yakṣī of the Jina Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva. She is linked to wealth and snakes, and can cure snakebites, which happen quite frequently in India. Although Padmāvatī's origins are unclear, she was probably originally a local clan deity.

Padmāvatī's male counterpart, the yakṣa, is known as Dharaṇendra to Śvetāmbaras and Pārśva or Mātanga to Digambaras. With a snake as his emblem, the 23rd Jina is closely associated with snakes and is usually depicted with a hood of snake-heads. The snakes refer to Pārśva's relationship with his yakṣa, whom Śvetāmbara Jains believe is the reincarnation of the snake Dharaṇendra. Before he became a monk, Prince Pārśva saved the snake from death and, later, Dharaṇendra sheltered the meditating ascetic from torrential rainfall. However, whereas the yakṣa’s association with the Jina is well rooted in tradition, this is not the case with Padmāvatī.

Instead, Padmāvatī's identity as Pārśva's yakṣī is the result of various interactions and influences. It is believed that her connection with the 23rd Jina is rather late, as it is not seen in art before the tenth century. She may have replaced the earlier snake-goddess Vairoṭyā, who is the 13th of the 16 vidyā-devīs. But this is unclear.

Padmāvatī has connections with snakes, being credited with the ability to cure snakebites, which may be one of the reasons she became associated with Pārśva. She is also a goddess of wealth, which is another connection with this Jina.

She is likely to have been originally a clan deity – kula-devī – who was integrated into the Jain system of values. Inscriptions from Karnatak show that members of local ruling families in the medieval period often stated that they were devotees of Padmāvatī (Cort 1987: 243).

Appearance

Contemporary Śvetāmbara image of Padmāvatī. The yakṣī – female attendant deity – of the 23rd Jina, Lord Pārśva, Padmāvatī is connected with snakes and wealth. She is one of the most important goddesses among both Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects.

Śvetāmbara image of Padmāvatī
Image by hedonia – Ruchi © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Both yakṣas and yakṣīs are considered part of the entourage of the Jina image, technically known as parikara. Like all of the attendant deities, Padmāvatī 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 Padmāvatī 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.

However, it is quite common to see goddesses such as Padmāvatī, who have also developed into independent deities, as large images with a miniature Jina depicted above their heads.

Padmāvatī's divine vehicle varies according to the two main Jain sects. The Śvetāmbaras consider her vehicle to be either the snake or cockerel and depict her with four hands, holding a lotus, noose, fruit and goad. Here is how the 12th-century author Hemacandra describes her:

The goddess Padmāvatī, with a kurkuṭa-serpent for a vehicle, gold colored, carrying a lotus and a noose in her right hands, a fruit and a goad in her left hands, became the second messenger-deity of Lord Pārśva.

Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacarita IX.3. 363–365

Johnson’s translation, volume 5, page 403

Digambara images show various attributes depending on the number of hands. For instance, a four-armed Padmāvatī from Deogarh in Uttar Pradesh makes the gesture of giving a boon – varada-mudrā – and holds a noose, lotus and shield (Tiwari and Sinha 2011/112). Additional attributes would be a lotus, jug, goad, manuscript, staff, fruit, bow and so on. There is no full standardisation in this matter.

An image of Padmāvatī is a common sight in niches located in the entrance hall of a large number of temples. She is often seen clothed in colourful silks, mainly red or golden. Silk is a precious, costly material and red silk, often with golden threads, is traditional bridal attire at Indian weddings. These garments underline her connection with wealth.

Stories

Sculpture of Padmāvatī on a temple column at Tirupannamur, Tamil Nadu. The goddess Padmāvatī is immediately identifiable from the characteristic snakehoods above her head. A powerful and popular deity, she is especially favoured in south India.

Small figure of Padmāvatī
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

There are numerous instances in stories where Padmāvatī provides help or rescue for people in need. In these tales she aids ordinary people as well as religious or political leaders, especially among Digambaras.

Dated 1129 CE, the Shravana Belgola inscription number 77 reports that Padmāvatī helped the Jain teacher Pātrakesari defeat his opponents (Cort 1987: 245).

In a collection of stories from the 13th century it is narrated how a king wants to protect his city from the approaching Muslim army. He asks the help of a Digambara monk who he knew had obtained a boon from Padmāvatī. Instructed by the monk, the king worships the goddess during the night:

The Digambara that very night began a sacrifice before Padmāvatī in the presence of the king. Then Padmāvatī, brought there by his perfect power of attracting spirits, appeared within the garland of flame in the sacrificial pit, and said that she had forbidden the approach of the [Muslims].

Merutunga, Prabandha-cintāmaṇi

Tawney 1982 reprint, page 185

The outcome in this tale is unsuccessful because the deity the monk worshipped was not actually Padmāvatī but a foreign deity in disguise.

Another story tells how Padmāvatī played a major role in the foundation of the Śāntara dynasty of Karnatak (Cort 1987: 245). First she assists the founder of the dynasty, Jinadatta, to triumph over his threatening father. The goddess helps Jinadatta escape his father and then, when he is pursued, she creates the illusion that he leads a greater army than that of his father. Jinadatta's father and his army turn back and Jinadatta flees the kingdom. Next Padmāvatī ‘told the penniless Jinadatta to touch an iron bar to the vulva of her image, whereupon the bar turned into the gold he needed to found a city’. But later on she disappears in anger because she finds out that Jinadatta has given her a fake pearl. Of the two pearls Jinadatta discovers, he offers the goddess the fake and presents the real one to his wife.

These two stories demonstrate how unpredictable the goddess can be. Such accounts emphasise the nature of deities as beings caught in the world of rebirths and prone to passionskaṣāyas – or desires. As Zydenbos remarks (1994: 143), with Padmāvatī ‘there is always a mystery that is never completely solved and gives a twist to the course of the story’.

In other circumstances, Padmāvatī is said to have appeared to the 12th-century Digambara monk Śrīdhara. She approved his proposal of establishing an image of a Jina, despite the opposition of his disciple (Guérinot 1926: 54–55). This story occurs in the context of the birth of the Śvetāmbara monastic lineage known as the Pūrṇimā-gaccha.

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